VIVA MILANO! PART 4 - R & R - OUT & ABOUT
Life in Milan in the late 60s was not all toil. They say all work and no play make Giulia a dull signorina. Not much chance of that. The arrival of a Londoner amongst well brought up office girls was a bit of a novelty, and I had no lack of companions to show me the Milanese ropes. In fact, as R & R goes, there was not a lot of the first, but loads of the second, depending on your idea of Relaxation – perhaps it should be Recreation!
There were many shopping trips, doing the rounds of the fantastic department stores and designer boutiques for which Milan was famous. It was gratifying to note that English fashion was very much in evidence, and English music was played on the radio all the time.
My first sighting of the fabulous shopping ‘gallerie’ took my breath away. The high ornate glass ceilings shed fabulous light on the black and white tiled floors below, and the occasional sight of members of the famous carabinieri added even more glamour and colour to shopping trips; their plumed helmets and tight breeches and jackets reminiscent of another age. In fact, the visits to this part of town were more window shopping expeditions than anything else, as the prices were sky-high, and you could get clothes and other items – especially leather goods – of the same quality but at much more reasonable cost in the less fashionable parts of town. The area was near the Duomo, the Milanese cathedral, sited on a huge white-paved square surrounded by the little lanes leading to the gallerie with its large department stores and small elegant boutiques. I looked round the Duomo once or twice, but mostly we sat drinking coffee at one of the pavement cafes.
But my leisure days were not all shopping. I had always been interested in history, so made sure that I got to see all that Milan had to offer. My old school friend Ann was working as an au-pair for a noble Italian family very near to Milan’s most famous historic building, the Castello Sforzesco, the ancient seat of the Dukes of Milan. This was and is still very well kept as a museum and also partly used as municipal offices. The gardens were lovely (and free!) so on the few occasions I managed to meet up with Ann – she didn’t have much time off – we explored this lovely building, even paying for a guided tour, which she had never had before. All very interesting.
Another outing with Ann involved taking the 3 children of the Marchesa to the large municipal park, which was like something out of the French impressionist paintings. There were jugglers, puppeteers, acrobats and many other attractions all performing for free in the park, which was always full of people, usually very smartly dressed, doing what I can only describe as ‘promenading’. Very 19th Century and absolutely fascinating.
On one lone outing, I took myself over to a very run-down looking quarter of town, with the aim of visiting the church of ’Santa Maria delle Grazie’, where the famous mural ‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo da Vinci and frescos and other works of art by old masters could be seen. It was not an easy job to get there, in an area full of narrow streets and old buildings; but with the aid of instructions supplied by my new friend the elderly Count, grandfather to my friend’s charges, I eventually arrived in front of a huge but very grotty looking basilica on a fairly main road.
I approached the front of the building, and followed the arrows round to the side, which I was surprised to find was covered by a modern glass entrance and walkway, where I had to pay an entrance fee, and was given a very state-of-the-art tape recorder and headphones, such as I have seen much more recently in the Roman Spa in Bath. In spite of the fact that my Italian had improved leaps and bounds since I had arrived in Italy, I am a little ashamed to say I chose the English language headset, as I didn’t want to miss anything. It was quite comforting actually to listen to the commentary given by someone with a very BBC Home Service accent!
I thoroughly enjoyed this experience; the hushed and reverential atmosphere of the monumental church, with the faint sound of several tapes buzzing away in different languages, and the sheer grandeur of the artwork created a wonderful ambience. I felt that I was in the presence of greatness on more than one level, and drank in as much as I could of the masterpiece, which even then was in a fairly perilous state of decomposition. I am glad to know that strenuous efforts are still being made to preserve this masterpiece, which is surely one of the most uplifting creations of mankind.
I eventually left the building feeling calmed and at peace. My soul having been attended to, I turned my attention to my bodily needs, and went off to seek coffee and a little shop recommended to me by the Count, where I could purchase hand-made leather items at a reasonable price. The former was located very easily, and, following further directions obtained from the proprietor (I seem to have developed a definite affinity to Signors who ran coffee shops), I located the purveyor of leather. This was a really tiny shop, more like a booth, very dark and so small it could only accommodate one or at best two customers at a time.
Never had I seen so many handbags in such a small space! All colours, all styles and sizes – it was a veritable Alladin’s cave. The interesting smell of leather enveloped me as I entered. The proprietor was most helpful, and after a little bartering (as instructed by the afore-mentioned Count), I left with a beautiful navy blue handbag for myself and several purses and bookmarks to give as gifts, all of a quality I could never have afforded back home. That shop made a more lasting impression on me than any of the fine establishments in the arcades in central Milan; and when recently I had to clear out my childhood home, I came across that very bag, a bit battered and very well-worn, but still with a hint of that special aroma.
Other outings with my friend Anna Minguzzi (who I had met in France two years previously), included a visit to La Scala, unfortunately just to look around. Had I been there a month previously, I may have been able to see performances by no less than Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Alas, that will have to remain one of the many ‘if onlys’ that everyone has in their lives; However, the guided tour was amazing, and so many sparklingly beautiful chandeliers to admire – me now being an expert! We also visited several museums, and my personal favourite, being a lifelong fan of graveyards, the ‘Cimiterio Monumentale’, where there were the most splendid and vast monuments to various rich and famous people. Some of these mausoleums were big enough to comfortably house several families, and all startlingly white, surrounded by an equally pristine wall. It seemed to me they cared more for accommodating their illustrious dead than most of their ordinary living inhabitants. I suppose ‘twas ever thus.
There were several other outings and meals out with other friends, including Milena, a fellow inmate of the YWCA where I was staying. She was part Yugoslav, and introduced me to her friend Aegidio, who was in Milan working for a while. He was rather shy, but encouraged by my friend, he asked me out that night, and took me to my very first Pizzeria. Now this was not a pizzeria such as we know these days, which have no tables and rows of motor scooters outside for delivery purposes; Oh no, this was a veritable modern pizza palace, all glass and chrome, situated on two floors with sweeping open staircases and escalators in between floors. We sat on the first level, looking down over the tables on the ground floor. I have no idea at this distance of time what sort of pizza we had, but it was delicious and accompanied by garlic bread and olives in fragrant oil. Delicious.
After the meal, we spent a couple of hours in a nightclub, lots of dancing and chat (as best we could manage in a language which neither of us could claim as our Mother tongue) and a few drinks. Very pleasant. When, at about 1 a.m., I said I ought to be getting home, he led the way to his car, and drove me back to my digs. I thought a little goodnight kiss was in order, and administered same. Blushing bright pink, he asked if I would like to go out with him the next day, as he was thinking of driving up to Lake Como. Well, he was kind, courteous, passably good looking and had a car. What could a girl do? We agreed that I should be ready at about 8 a.m., and off he went.
The next day dawned hot and bright. When I descended the staircase at the appointed time, he was already waiting for me, leaning against his car smoking a very aromatic cigarette. He bade me good morning, and off we went. The drive took quite a while as I remember, taking us through some exquisitely pretty countryside, and stopping at the occasional café for refreshment.
The Lago di Como was beautiful. An immense expanse of sparkling water, bobbing with little boats and large cruisers, on the decks of which we could see the beautiful people of the day sipping their drinks, and no doubt enjoying all sorts of other pleasures invisible from that distance. The lake itself was ringed with huge villas, all surrounded by colourful gardens and patios; masses of beautiful bouganvilleas flowed over the stone walls amidst abundant greenery, with clouds of star jasmine providing contrasts of pure white between the pinks, reds and crimsons of the exotic flowers. We sat down at a lakeside café and ordered cool beers. Sitting there with the sun on my face, the cool water lapping the stones on the shore, and the heady perfume of the jasmine permeating the warm air, I felt it was too good to be true.
And indeed it was. Drinks finished, Aegidio hauled me out of my seat and led me down to a wooden jetty. Money exchanged hands and a small rowing boat came to rest in front of me. I must have contained my utter horror quite well, for my companion seemed to notice nothing amiss, and helped me gallantly into the boat. Taking the oars in his admirably strong arms, he had soon rowed us out into the middle of the lake. We sat there, surrounded by water. I was so petrified I couldn’t speak.
In spite of being born under the sign of Pisces, I have always had a deep-seated and insurmountable fear of water. No amount of swearing oaths on Bibles could ever make me believe that I could go into deep water and not drown. Indeed, when at school, I claimed amnesty on the grounds of the time of the month every Wednesday for two years when my class went swimming, and became very adept at writing my Mother’s signature on excuse notes. It’s a wonder I wasn’t committed to hospital for further investigation of my condition, or didn’t end up in clink for forgery. Now, here I was, in the middle of one of the biggest lakes in Europe, in one of the smallest boats on the planet it seemed to me. I was completely rigid with fear. I smiled through clenched teeth and politely declined the offer to have a go at rowing. My friend eventually got fed-up with my silence and rowed back to shore, where I soon became my usual smiling (if now rather pale) self.
The rest of the day was happy enough, and we eventually arrived back at base at a disgustingly late hour, considering I had to work the next day. I rescued my diamond engagement ring from my locked drawer and put it back on the appropriate finger ready for morning. There were several other outings with Aegidio, all very pleasant and gentlemanly. So gentlemanly in fact that I was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me. Or him. Still, it was a mutually pleasing relationship which ended when he had to go away for work a couple of weeks later. I never saw nor heard from him again.