Friday, 18 April 2014

The highlight of Milan Design Week?

We'd heard that Design Week 2014  would be a big event, especially in the Zona Tortona district, which is close to where we live.  But it was bigger and more exciting than we'd expected!
It's hard to describe just how uplifting we found the week.  It felt a little like the buzz that happened in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics. People were out everywhere day and night enjoying the free displays, exhibitions and performances.
The exhibitions ranged from small-scale one or two person enterprises, like these young jewellery designers pedalling their creations around the streets, ...

to grand displays of modern designer furniture, cars, lights, fashion, homewares - anything and everything was on display, and that was just in our neighbourhood.
I thought it would be impossible to select just one highlight from all the interesting, beautiful, weird and colourful exhibitions that we visited over the week UNTIL..
we saw people milling around an unusual glass box.
It was part of the "Temporary Design Museum" on via Tortona, where we had just spent the morning.  We were on our way out, feeling a little weary and hungry, when my ever inquisitive husband said, "Let's just see what that's all about".  
Reluctantly I followed him to what appeared to be a reception desk.  San Pellegrino, the bottled water company, was hosting lunch and they'd just received a cancellation. 
Would we like to join the next group for aperitivo and lunch?  
That would be a free lunch, with free aperitivo and four courses cooked by Davide Oldane, one of Italy's most famous chefs.  Would we ever!
We learned how difficult it is to book a table at Davide Oldane's Michelin-starred restaurant from our delightful dining companions, Rodolfo and Caterina. So we savoured every mouthful and told Davide so when he stopped by to say "Ciao". 
No such thing as a free lunch? Well there is at Milan Design Week.

Buona Pasqua! 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Love Lago di Como

The hardest thing about writing this blogpost was selecting the photos.  So prepare to be swamped with photos of  lago di Como, more specifically, Villa del Balbianello.
On my first visit to Lake Como back in July 2013, this spectacular palazzo had me crazily snapping photos as we swept by on the ferry. Situated on its own little peninsular, surrounded by terraced gardens, Villa del Balbianello captured my imagination. I wondered, who lives there now? 

Perhaps it is the residence of a certain famous Hollywood caffeine addict, or the holiday home of an old noble Milanese family, or maybe it is the most recent purchase in a Russian oligarch's European property portfolio. 

Actually it's none of those.  Villa del Balbianello is one of many historic houses open to the public through the management of the Fondo Ambiete Italiano (FAI), an organisation similar to the National Trust. The Villa has a fascinating history, as we discovered when we visited on a day trip from Milan.

We'd been waiting for the spring opening of Villa del Balbianello, so under bright blue skies and with temperatures predicted in the early 20s, we caught the 9.55am train from Milan to Como and then jumped on the fast ferry to Lenno (details HERE).  By 11.30am we were strolling round the lake to the Villa.  (Click HERE for the Villa ticket prices and opening hours.)

Villa del Balbianello was built by Cardinal Durini in the 1700s on the site of a small Franciscan church and monastery. The Cardinal acquired the site for his personal use as a haven where he could relax and pursue his interests in literature and music.  He built an open loggia connecting two living areas, one his personal library and the other, a music room.  

The Villa changed hands many times over the centuries until the last owner, Guido Monzino, a prominent Milanese businessman, acquired it in 1974. During a guided tour of the property we learned a little more about Signore Manzoni, as our guide Daniella recounted anecdotes about his fame as an artic explorer and mountain climber. He spent four years, and hundreds of billions of lira, completely restoring Villa Balbianello to accommodate his extensive collection of art, including rare 18th century paintings on glass, as well as memorabilia from his expeditions to the North Pole and Mount Everest. Signore Manzoni led the first Italian expedition to successfully climb Mt Everest, but he couldn't make it to the summit due to a life-long passion for cigars and cigarettes. This was the one obstacle he could never conquer.  The tour of the house was fascinating as it remains exactly as it was the final time Guido Manzoni visited, even down to the last pack of cigarettes still resting neatly on his desk. 

According to our guide, Signore Manzoni was a playboy who never married and left no heirs.  He willed the entire property, and a separate trust fund, to the FAI so that the people of Italy, as well as visitors from around the world, could enjoy this fabulous house and magnificent gardens.
It was the perfect time of year to admire the beautiful terraced gardens.  This two hundred year old tree is one of two on the property, both of which are clipped once a year by gardeners who climb up through the canopy to prune it from on top.  Each tree takes a week to sculpt.

To return to Lenno we chose the longer walk over the hills behind the Villa. It took less than an hour and was a lovely walk to end our visit. We only wished that we'd bought a picnic as there were plenty of picnic tables with sensational views of the lake.
After lunch in Lenno, and a gelato (a fairly ordinary gelato!) we caught the ferry across the lake to Varenna and returned to Milan by train.
It seems that the more we visit lago di Como, the more we love it.  We are showing our credentials as 'stranieri' by admitting this love of Lake Como. The Milanese prefer the ocean, especially the Ligurian coast. 

Allora, fino prossima volta...

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Fete season in Milan

It was glorious spring weather on Saturday so we decided to visit the Brera, the oldest neighbourhood in Milan. Many guidebooks claim that the Brera is filled with great restaurants, outdoor bars, small galleries and quirky fashion shops.  With all of this happening you'd think it would be buzzing, but when I've been in the past it's been pretty quiet, and frankly, a bit dull and empty. Well I think I've been to the Brera at the wrong time.
On Saturday it was humming with the Milanese window shopping, enjoying the outdoor restaurants and meeting friends at the local church fete.
And  what a fete!
Floralia is a festival hosted by the parishioners of San Marco church. They run it twice a year to raise funds to support the homeless people of their community and to provide a venue for other charities to sell their wares.
There were the usual 'white elephant' stalls, although we were more taken with the antique artworks on the walls.
And they were doing brisk business at the Milanese equivalent of the sausage sizzle.  A fresh prosciutto and gorgonzola roll, or a dip of walnuts, honey and gorgonzola? This is Milan, where the local cheese, gorgonzola, features prominently, even at a fete stall. 
And there were some cool fashions for sale as you'd expect in this fashion capital, but there was no time to stop. For Stefano a fete, is a fete, is a fete! Keep walking.
Florialia is really about the plants and flowers.  Although most people in Milan live in apartments, we've noticed that as soon as the weather begins to change the balconies fill with window boxes of ivy, baskets of colour and even potted olive and lemon trees. 
 We had a little spring fever ourselves and bought another pot of ivy for our balcony. We'll come back in autumn, even if it's just to have lunch!
Ci vediamo prossima volta.  Benvenuto primavera!