In Milan, KALPANA SUNDER turns culture tourist, window shopper and people-watcher

Milan is a city that oozes style! This is the fashion-capital of Italy where the mantra seems to be ‘If you have it, flaunt it!' Milan does have an ample dose of culture, and after a typical Milanese breakfast of a cappuccino, a brioche (their version of a croissant) and a fresh juice, we venture out to sample just that.

Milan's main streets radiate out of the spectacular pinkish-white Gothic cathedral or the Duomo as the Italians call it. At first glance, this amazing building looks like craggy stalagmites and sweet confectionary all rolled into one!

They say that work on the Duomo started in 1386 and went on for nearly 600 years! It is the second largest church in the world (the largest is St Peter's in Rome) and has the tomb of Giacomo Medici. The gruesome statue of St. Bartolomeo is depicted here, holding his own skin as he was flayed alive! There is an elevator to the roof of the Duomo, for a bird's eye view of the city and we are told that on a clear day (when the notorious Milanese smog is not clouding your vision) you can get a panoramic view of the surrounding areas, and even the Alps.

This gargantuan edifice has intricately-carved statues, marble spires, gargoyles, flying buttresses and a marvellous square around it with a million pigeons. We walk ahead to the towering, spectacular, late 19th Century shopping mall, the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle named after the first king of united Italy.

This seems to be the nerve centre of the city, teeming with life. The great octagonal glass dome, the multi-hued floor mosaics with the signs of the zodiac have us entranced. There are completely over-the-top high-end designer shops such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada, and we enjoy an overpriced coffee at one of the stylish restaurants here! We walk past the La Scala opera house to Via Montenapoleone, a bustling ultra-chic street lined with more luxury boutiques!

Window shopping is purgatory for me and I look with acquisitive eyes at fabulous fakes of the same bags and shoes on a side street. We have heard that many Milanese pick up their clothes at giant discount outlets.

Leonardo's masterpiece

The next morning, we are at Santa Maria Delle Grazie, the church which has Leonardo's masterpiece ‘The Last Supper' tucked on its walls. Leonardo has painted this on the back wall of the dining hall at the Dominican Convent. He was experimenting with a new style of tempera, where he used egg yolk and dry paint (instead of wet), which was a complete disaster. Whole pieces of paint started falling off the walls and the humidity here led to further deterioration.

This version of the “Last Supper” is famous because he has chosen an unusual way to portray the scene — with the disciples protesting! We hear from our guide that this refectory has been used as a stable, been flooded, and even bombed during the Second World War but the masterpiece has always been saved from destruction!

There have been a number of attempts to restore the painting and many critics claim that precious little has survived of the original masterpiece. We, however, enjoy the painting, the tricks with perspective played by Leonardo, the window behind Jesus which looks like a halo and the repetition of the number three in the groupings of people!

We take an endearingly aged and rattling tram to Castello Sforzesco, a 14th Century castle that has collections of Egyptian antiquities and Michelangelo's unfinished Rondanini Pieta — believed to be his last work. This is a story-book castle complete with a moat, a draw-bridge, a secret crypt, battlements and two huge courtyards. The furniture museum here traces the development of the Italian furniture from the middle ages. Milan has an impressive transport infrastructure, making travel between the shopping districts and its other attractions a lark. Sightseeing done, we sit in an alfresco café with a melon gelato in hand and indulge in that favourite Italian pastime of people-watching. Many people say that there is nothing to do in Milan except shop, eat and drink. I don't have a problem with that!