Sharing the sweet tastes of Milan

Milan, Italy
Nelson George, BlackAtlas Travel Expert-at-Large

All of Southern Europe goes on vacation in August, a very practical thing to do since air conditioning isn’t nearly as universal as in the States. Milan, one of the world’s fashion capitals, is particularly hard hit, as designers, craftspeople and models all head for the beach or the mountains.

So my time in Milan wasn’t as rock & roll as it would have been if I’d even come just a month later, say…mid-September when the fashion world gears up for major shows in New York, Paris and Milan. Yet despite the fact that part of the city resembled a ghost town during my visit, Milan still offered many juicy glimpses of its charms. In fact, I actually had two of those accidentally magical travel experiences in Milan, which involved gyrating women and “anguria.” More on all that in a bit.

For anyone looking for good food and a real European dining experience, La Brera is the place to go in Milan. La Brera is a series of connected streets filled with cafes and shops. Jamaica (32 Via Brera/www.jamaicabar.it), which had been highly recommended to me, was closed for August, but I still had amazing piazza across from there at the New Art Cafe. [Via Brera, 23, 20121 Milano (MI), Italy +39 02 72080518] The crowd was very adult, laid back and mostly couples.

By day La Brera was more crowded. There was actually a celebration of the area’s 200th birthday underway, so there was a long line to worship at an ornate local church. Several vendors sold paintings. A few were creating on the spot. These weren’t the cheesy celebrity pix you’d find in Times Square or Piccadilly Square, but artful landscapes created by stylish women in high heel shoes.

Had very well made lasagna for lunch at the Orient Express, which despite its kitschy train motif, had a very solid Italian menu. The Maître d’ at most of the La Brera spots double as servers, so working on your “excusi” to get their attention is good idea.

Gelato, the Italian version of ice cream, which is made sans eggs, is sold at a very elegant shop in La Brera in a complicated mix of flavors, all of them in Italian so be prepared for a lot of pointing before you get your order filled. But on a hot August day gelato is a dream.

For anyone who loves great architecture and spirituality Duomo Di Milano must be seen. Truth is this cathedral is hard to miss in Milan, since it is the city’s identifying image much as the Statue of Liberty is to New York. The Duomo dominates a large square (Piazza del Duomo) bordered by large an large electronic billboard and the Galleria, a large outdoor mall constructed out of several restored Renaissance era buildings.

In the Duomo Plaza you’ll get your first major sighting of the African community in Milan. You’ll see brothers hawking various items, from tee shirts to guide books. But you’ll also see families coming in and out of the Duomo after prayers and sight seeing, and then heading over to the Galleria to shop.

Probably the sexiest area for dining in Milan is Naviglio Grande Canal area, stuffed with restaurants, gelato spots and Mom & Pop retailers. It looks great, day and night, and despite the heat was teeming with life. My dining suggestion when you come to Milan is just stroll around Naviglio until a place catches your eye. Be warned, however, that in summer the canal’s relatively still water attracts mosquitoes.

GET TO KNOW MILAN WITH BLACK ATLAS’ NELSON GEORGE
[youtubevid http://youtube.com/watch?v=2Y8d-AIGgc0&color1=0xb1b1b1&color2=0xcfcfcf&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&fs=1]

Because it was August Milan’s usually vibrant, fashion forward party scene was pretty quiet. In season spots to run by include the Colonial Fashion Café (12 Via Edmomdo de Amicis), the jazz club Le Scimmie (Via Cardinale Ascanio Sforza 49) and one of the world’s most famous opera houses, La Scala (Via Filodrammatici 2). But a too peaceful trip to Milan turned magical on a blazing hot Sunday afternoon.

For all of August Milan was having a Latino Americando festival, celebrating the Latin Diasporas’ music and culture. Everyone from Gloria Estefan to Enrique Iglesias was performing in town. Sunday’s at the Sforza Castle or Castello Sforzesco, a huge, imposing reddish stone fortress in Milan’s center, free events are held, which bring out entire families. Kids, and quite a few adults, jump in a massive fountain in front of the castle fully dressed.

As I passed the fountain I could hear music the distance. I walked through an enormous courtyard that was at the center of castle, a vast space right out of an epic like Lord of the Rings, and through another wide space on the castle grounds, through to a park where I was transported to South America.

Bands and dancers from Peru, Mexico and, most spectacularly, from Brazil were warming up before throngs of Milanese. Not only did this sight affirm, again, the multi-cultural nature of 21st century Europe, but was one hell of a party. I saw an adorable little brown girl dancing and asked where her parents were. Turned out her Pops was a master drummer with one of the Brazilian samba schools at the event. He didn’t speak much English, but I was able to find out he was from Senegal, had been in Milan eight years, and made his living as a musician. I wanted to talk more but a procession started and there was drumming to be done.

If there’s anything more beautiful than Brazilian samba dancers swaying and shaking through their way through a castle in full Carnival costumes, it’s to hear these same women speak to you (albeit all too briefly) in an exotic combination of Italian and Portuguese. The whole event was hip swinging cultural mash up that moved from the castle grounds onto the sleepy streets of Milan.

Once the Brazilians had left the castle grounds, reality hit me. It was 90 degrees, I had danced and sweated bullets, and the idea of jumping in the fountain was becoming very appealing. I asked my driver, an affable Roberto Benigni look-a-like named Alberto, where I could get some watermelon.

What? No, I wasn’t trying to fulfill a cultural stereotype. Watermelon aka anguria is grown all over this part of Italy. I’d spotted some around town and was anxious to get a taste. Alberto’s face lit up. “I know a place,” he said in halting English. He drove me far from the city center to a public housing project at Piazza Po, a place not in a tourist books. We drove up to a sidewalk restaurant with picnic tables and an awning that protected diners from the sun. A large green sign read ‘Anguria.’

Several tables of Milanese folk – grandparents, parents, and kids – were noshing on juicy looking anguria. The locals checked me out, not sure what to make of me. Clearly not too many black anguria eaters came out this way. Alberto, some friends with me, and myself were all happily eating anguria under the August sun when I leaned down and slurped up some of the juice from my plate.

An old Italian man laughed. So did I. So did Alberto and my companions. Suddenly the ice broke. The old man’s daughter suddenly wanted a picture with me. So did her son. Some were all taking pictures and laughing. The owner motioned me to look at an object that was covered in a large cloth. The owner pulled it back to reveal the biggest damn anguria/watermelon I’d ever seen! It had to be four feet long and nearly two feet high. Through Alberto, the owner told me this massive melon was gonna be cut that night as part of a special holiday celebration that the whole area was invited to.

Sad to say I missed the cutting of the giant anguria, but I loved the unexpected fellowship in that most unlikely place. Much like the singing I’d experienced at a restaurant in Rome, I’d bonded with a group of Italians in a warm, convivial manner.

I may have missed the fashion crowd, but between the Brazilian dancers and the anguria lovers, I got a sweet taste of Milan’s people.

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