Over 140 countries are exhibiting at Expo 2015 in Milan from 1 May to 31 October. Gillian Thomas suggests 10 things to see in and beyond the city in addition to visiting the exhibition itself.
1 The Last Supper
Amongst Milan’s many jewels, the gem in its crown is Leonardo’s masterpiece, The Last Supper. Painted over 600 years ago and recently restored, the mural is in a former monastery refectory next to the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
In delicate muted colours, it shows in remarkable detail Jesus at a long table with his disciples, each clearly saddened on realising that this was to be their last meal together as one of them was about to betray Him. Timed tickets; closed Mondays.
2 Milan Cathedral
Centrepiece of the city, the intricately sculpted facade of the Duomo gleams in the bright Italian sunshine. This unforgettable Gothic masterpiece took over 450 years to complete.
In the shape of a cross, it has five naves, up to 45 metres high, each with flying buttresses and soaring pillars, and is adorned with around 2000 sculptures.
Outside, the roof has 135 spires with a gilded bronze statue of the Madonna on a tower in the centre.
You can take a lift up to roof terraces to see everything at close quarters. There are great views too stretching over the city to the Alps.
It is impossible not to go shopping in Milan – or at the very least to window-shop. The city’s boulevards and arcades are lined with stores and boutiques.
Head for the splendid Galleria Vittorio Emanuele or the long Via Monte Napoleone, part of the ‘Golden Quad’ of streets, to stroll and drool over haute couture and jewellery, but the broad Corso Buenos Aries is the place to look for everyday fashion for both men and women.
Fifty miles east of Milan, the small town of Cremona provides a complete contrast to the busy city, having many quiet cobbled streets and squares. The main Piazza de Doumo where a line of arcades face the white marble cathedral is particularly impressive.
The cathedral has a huge gilded organ with 3000 pipes, one nine metres high, and a huge 16th-century fresco, said to be the world’s largest, which depicts the Crucifixion. The 600-year old red-brick bell tower beside it is the tallest in Europe and offers spectacular views as far as the Alps so is definitely worth the 502-step climb to the top.
5 Food in Cremona
Dotted around the town centre, small cafes and shops sell the many tempting local specialities. The most famous is mostarda, an unusual sweet-savoury sauce which combines crystalized fruits with mustard powder. Another, marubini (filled pasta), comes in both sweet and savoury versions and there are several sorts of salami including cotechino cremonese vaniglia which has a delicate flavour of vanilla.
Also look out for graffioni (fruit tarts) and torrone, a sort of nougat which is said to have been created for the wedding banquet of a local duke in 1441.
6 Violins Galore
Europe’s first stringed instruments, developed from Arabian lutes, were made in Cremona in the 1530s by the Amarti family.
Then Stradivarius set up a workshop in the18th century, making the town famous throughout the world for its violins.
A unique collection of antique ones is on display in the Violin Museum together with drawings by Stradivarius, some of his old tools and a violin he made in 1715 which was bought by the council in 1960 and is now worth thousands of euros.
Students from the local music school can borrow instruments for recitals. (Tickets can be arranged through the tourist office; firstname.lastname@example.org.)
7 See a Violin Made
Violin-making continues in Cremona today. Around 150 makers have workshops there and many of them welcome visitors. I went to see one of them, Stefano Conia, in his small studio, surrounded by his tools and with a row of violins in the making hanging from the ceiling.
He told me he was following in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather. He explained that it takes him about two months to make each instrument using uses spruce from the Dolomites for the back of the instruments, while the front is made of maple from the Balkans.
I asked him how modern violins compare with a Stradivarius. “Antique instruments sound softer than modern ones but they are no less good”, he assured me. You can judge for yourself at the town’s co-operative where instruments can be tried out before you buy one.
8 Mantua (Mantova), a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Fifty miles further east from Milan, Mantua has gained UNESCO status for its collection of well-preserved Renaissance buildings. Many owe their existence to the Gonzaga dukes who were great patrons of the arts during their rule there from the 13th to 16th centuries.
The massive fortress-like Palazzo Ducale which overlooks the town’s central square is the most impressive reminder of those glittering days with its superb frescos and classical sculptures. But most of the Gonzaga treasures inside were dispersed when the town was sacked in 1630, many being snapped up by Charles I.
Verdi upset everyone in the 1840’s with his opera Rigoletto, set in the town, as he depicted the duke as a licentious womaniser.
9 Palazzo Te
Another spacious ducal residence is Palazzo Te, the summer villa and best-known work of the Mannerist painter and architect Giulio Romano. Spread around a large formal garden, it is unfurnished but remarkable for its decoration.
The walls of many of its rooms are covered in paintings and fancy stucco, the most famous being the domed Chamber of the Giants which depicts the legend of their fall with overbearingly colourful trompe l’oeil pictures that merge into one another. On a visit Charles Dickens reputedly disliked them a lot and I was inclined to agree.
10 Lakes Trips
The best way to see Mantua’s famous skyline, a forest of domes and towers, is from a boat. The city centre is surrounded on three sides by water – Lakes Superiore, Mezzo and Inferiore. Short trips are on offer as well as longer cruises along the Po and Mincio rivers going as far as Venice and Lake Garda. The town’s waterside promenades are equally attractive for a stroll or bike ride.
Like the lakes, the wetlands of the Mincio valley park are home to a wide variety of birds. Their banks are fringed with lotus flowers whose delicate white and pink blooms are at their best in July and August.
Milan Expo: www.wonderfulexpo2015.info