How often do you happen to read, in a travel blog or magazine, an article about a place the writer absolutely hates? A place he dreads, a place the loathes, somewhere he’d rather have a dentist appointment than visit?
Well, I suppose this is not something you’re likely to read often on Conde Nast Traveller, but this is precisely what I’m going to write about. The place’s Milan, placed bang in the middle of the Po valley in Northern Italy. It’s my least favourite place in Italy with the exception of Novara, which happens to be similar to Milan in many aspects by the way.
Anyhow, if you asked me to enumerate the reasons why I don’t like Milan I’d warn you to get a comfy chair and some refreshments, for this would be a lenghty rant. But I decided to keep it short, limiting to a few items: the people, and the way the city itself is kept by its inhabitants and by its rulers.
People. Now, before I start let me be clear. I’m generalising. I’m picking up a selective sample and I’ve rolled it over the entire populace, something that every politically correct person in the world would avoid. But what the hell. The Milanese are, without a shadow of a doubt, a succesful bunch of fellows, proud of showing it; this, by itself, shouldn’t be a bad thing, unless one is a sore loser. But if you couple this boastful, I-am-better-and-busier-and-therefore-more-important-than-you attitude with a horrendously volgar accent, one that stresses vowels to breaking point and using colloquial terms for genitals – especially female’s – as substitutes for conjunctions you’ll have the identikit of a quite annoying populace.
Now, the city. Milan lies far from the mountains, which can be seen only on exceptionally clear days when, by a stroke of luck, the local tourist promotion board happens to be sat on a belvedere with high-powered cameras and lenses. It’s, truth be told, bumped in the middle of the Po Valley, an environment so different from the standard Italian postcard that you might as well think you’ve arrived elsewhere.
If it’s winter, it’ll be foggy. If it’s summer, it’ll be hot and humid, that kind of hot and humid that convinces you of being in Vietnam, milk-white sky and terrifying thunderstorms included. If it’s neither summer nor winter, it’ll rain. This is pretty much the weather for many other places in Northern Italy, but being Milan bang in the middle of it all its negative aspects are exacerbated. And the locals’ habit of covering eveything in concrete and/or tarmac doesn’t help either.
Milan used to be a nicey city, filled with old buildings testimony of an industrious people. They weren’t grand establishment, even though Milan had and has its own share of impressive buildings – the Duomo, the Castle – but they were harmonious. Then the war came and with that Allied bombers who tried to replicate there the feuersturm that worked wonders in Hamburg.
You couldn’t blame them for trying – ’twas a war, you see, and we had started it – so no one did. So, once the killing stopped and an unexpected economic boom arrived, the ever-industrious Milanese began rebuilding their city, eagerly helped by workers arriving from all corners of Southern Italy.
What you normally say in such circumstances, to spur the workforce and dodge the blame, is “We’ll build it better than it used to be!”. Thing is, though, that no one said that in Milan. The citizenry went bananas in a rebuilding frenzy that saw an increadibly ugly city sprouting up from the rubble. Canals, the famous navigli masterminded by Leonardo Da Vinci, were covered up, urban motorways replacing them. Wide, tree-lined roads were reduced to featureless sprawls of concrete and tarmac, lined with ugly tenements that usually ruin Italy’s peripheries but that, in Milan’s case, creep up to the very central Piazza San Babila. A metro system was built, with stations garnished in a repellent combination of black rubber floors, dark brown (or yellow, or lime green, or smurf blue) walls and fluorescent lights. Tarmac became the choice material to be used for the city’s sidewalk, happily melting away in the summer. Many other cities in the Po Valley, from Turin to smaller hamlets in Veneto or Emilia, have now resolved to use what’s called “remote heating” where a central station, usually running on waste or methane, produces heating water and energy. Most of Milan’s block of flats still use petrol-powered boilers.
Milan’s M3 Metro, the least hideous in the network (a new one, M5, has just opened and it’s garnished in a repellent combination of magenta tones)
So, an ugly city inhabited by a largely unpleasant community of primadonnas. It can’t get worse than that, right? Well, indeed it does. I have been to many rather bland cities, architecturally speaking, that are nonetheless intriguing for the way they are kept, and lived, by their inhabitants. Tokyo, Warsaw, Hong Kong, even Vancouver at the end of the day: they might – for whatever reason – lack the beaty of a Montmartre, Trastevere or Gion but they do make amends with their charme. Milan doesn’t. The city has public service props – lampposts, sign posts, power lines, poles – painted in dozens of different colours and shaped in millions of combinations. It’s covered in graffiti and smog stains. Dust’s everywhere and everything has an utilitarian look, kept just to perform a function and nothing else, as if pleasant looks were a dangerous extravagance to be heartily discouraged. Last year the city introduced new trains on the M3 metro line. They painted their interious dark grey and pale yellow. Seriously.
If it’s a wall, it’ll be covered in tags.
And the worst thing is that Milan has stuff. It’s got bucketloads of stuff, for fuck’s sake. I mean, Italy has an incredible heritage and is very good at not advertising it, but Milan is a champion at that. They have the best selection of Leonardian codes around, but they’re mostly kept locked away at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. They have incredible churches, including one said to be hosting the Magi’s embalmed bodies. They have a kick-ass picture gallery. They have one of Michelangelo’s Pieta. They have’s Leonardo’s Last Supper. They have a fuckin’ submarine, a fully-functioning relic of the Cold War, in a museum. Yet no one knows it. The Milanese leave the town in droves as soon as they can, i.e. every weekend or bank holiday God sends, and they make a point in not having been at any of the aforementioned places or attractions.
So, you can imagine my surprise when, upon leaving town – having done my chores, and all-to-eager to be on the airplane home, I decided to walk to Garibaldi station, instead of surrender myself once again to the dystopian ugliness of the Milan metro. I remembered that part of the city as a featureless expanse of grass, adorned by ugly office buildings. I had walked there a good number of years ago and I remember seeing the charred shells of burned cars littering the road.
A long time must’ve passed, though. Because yes, cars were still nonchalantely parked on what was supposed to be a bike path but, besides that, an impressive series of skyscrapers had sprouted from, well, literally nowhere.
Yes, the owber of that Alfa ought to find another parking spot but… look further ahead please.
Built by developer Hines, the Porta Nuova complex is a mixture of offices – used by Unicredit, Google and Samsung amongst the others, high-end apartments, shops and a park which, however, it’s still resembling the Somme in 1916.
What I found incredible in this development is how non-Milanese it is. Everything is thought at in the minutest detail, from benches to pathways to greeneries; everything is well made, built to last and, more important, harmonious. It’d be easy to imagine this development, these skyscrapers, as something completely foreign, alien to the city. But that would be wrong.
I visited the complex at a time when it’s far from being completed, but already it was full of life. The central square, named after architect Gae Aulenti (responsible of many a ugly development in Italy, in my humble opinion) was full of life, as it was the neighbouring shopping mall, completed with young Filipino waltzing away to some Justin Bieber tune (urgh). But, questionable musical taste aside, it really felt like a part of the city and a part to be proud of. The square has been open to the general public for more than a year and none of the plagues that affect Milan – rubbish, graffiti, vandalisation – had showed its ugly head.
Will this experiment bring renovation throughout the entire city? Perhaps not, but it’s undeniable that it’s affecting the neighbourhood. A couple of buildings nearby have aready cladded their facades with newer, nicer looks and the locals have started caring about the places they live in.
Hopefully Porta Nuova’s positive shockwaves will be felt everywhere, City Hall included.