"You're English, aren't you?" Always a worrying thing for someone to say to you when you haven't even opened your mouth yet. I didn't think we were that conspicuous in the first class carriage of the Paris to Milan train, to be honest. This was easily the best of the rail deals we'd managed to negotiate in our two weeks in Europe: with a super-duper-mega-Apex ticket courtesy of Voyages SNCF, we were able to travel first class for seven hours for a ludicrously cheap fifty Euros each. First class doesn't really give you much more than a slightly bigger seat and at-seat service (it was the attendant who worked out our nationality just by looking at us), but for a small price they'll bring you a perfectly acceptable breakfast and lunch. When you're spending the hours between 8am and 3pm on the same train, that's very welcome.
We take the Metro across to the Duomo, and virtually the moment we reach ground level we're accosted by a hawker. "Hi! You're German, aren't you?" Screw you, pal.
Just off the Piazza del Duomo - almost close enough to hear the assembled Bayern Munich fans cheerfully chanting "Milan, Milan, vafanculo" as they gathered there for the big match - is our hotel for this leg of the tour, Straf (so called because of its Via San Rafaelle address, anglicised and abbreviated). Yes, it's another designer's wet dream: but with a very different feel to that of the Kube in Paris. Whereas Kube was shiny and modern, Straf goes for a more industrial and weathered approach, all discoloured metal and distressed concrete. You'd imagine that would get oppressive very quickly, but it doesn't: and part of the reason for that is that the design takes in all the practical aspects of what's required in a hotel room, rather than just making it look nice. Case in point: the Kube had wireless internet access in all rooms, because wireless is hip and trendy right now. But in practice the signal was extraordinarily weak, meaning you had to run around the room with your laptop chasing the hotspots, bringing back memories of trying to get Radio Luxembourg on my tranny as a kid. Straf doesn't bother with wireless: they give you a big red ethernet cable coming out of your desk, and you just plug it into your laptop and go.
Most things in Straf (possibly even most things in Milan?) are like that: they look nice, but they work well too, a combination you don't always find in boutique hotels. The door to your room shuts flush into the wall without a protruding handle, but they've left a small recess in it to allow you to hang a Do Not Disturb sign without it falling off. (Yes, the Dylan in Amsterdam, I'm looking at you.) The hotel bar is a proper working bar that opens out onto the street, and is happy to take money off anyone rather than just residents. The bathroom (see photo above) has a splendid shower, and its metal floor is something you get used to surprisingly quickly. All this plus comfy beds, a wide-ranging continental breakfast and friendly, English-speaking staff make Straf a modern Italian design classic. Okay, there was that unmarked cord switch in the shower that turned out to be a panic alarm, but apart from that...
Speaking of Italian design classics, Straf is of course just a stone's throw away from a more traditional one. The Duomo looks impressive enough in photos, but the sheer scale of the cathedral is something you can only really appreciate first hand. You can easily write off an entire morning in here, starting off by wandering round the inside looking at the magnificent stained glass windows, and trying not to get in the way of the actual praying punters. In the basement is a small crypt and - surprisingly - a video installation by Mark Wallinger, Via Dolorosa, featuring scenes from Zefferelli's Jesus Of Nazareth partly obscured by a large black filter. (One of those concepts that works better in the telling than in the execution, I think: though it amuses me that as we're spending part of this holiday watching films with large portions of dialogue we can't understand, why not watch them with large portions of the image covered up as well?) And then for a few Euros more you can take the lift to the roof, allowing you to see the glorious marble work close up as well as taking in a glorious view of the whole of Milan (including that astonishing skeleton sculpture you can see in the picture, which is only there for the month of April).
Admittedly, part of that view is obscured by large school parties on the morning we see it, and the same applies later the same day when we visit the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnica. Milan's science museum has all the interactive exhibits and push-button delights you could hope for, but if you're visiting midweek they're reserved for school parties: grownups don't get to play with them until the weekend. Despite that, there's a lot to enjoy here. The centrepiece is a large exhibit on the work of Leonardo da Vinci, showing reproductions of his invention sketches and models of the finished products. Out the back there's a large area dedicated to rail, air and water transport, featuring a full-size decommissioned submarine. And there are odd little wings of the museum that can be easily missed, covering the history of telecommunications, printing, robotics and the like. It's funny how old-fashioned the telecommunications display feels now: as we move into a totally digital realm, the interactive displays will be a lot less interesting, denying you the thrill of pressing a telegraph key on one side of a room and seeing a light flash on the other side.
Continuing our quest to catch a local movie in each country - a quest that The Belated Birthday Girl fears will be doomed to failure now that I've mentioned it in public - we scan the listings at mymovies.it to see what's playing. The ideal choice would have been Maradona - La Mano de Dios, an actual biopic of the cheating junkie footballer, but sadly it's not on close enough to the centre of town for our purposes. So we end up seeing Liscio, which we gather from a skimmed review in freesheet 24 Minuti should at least have some funny bits and some music. We come out of the Cinema Eliseo 80 minutes later feeling somewhat cheated. Though most of the publicity focusses on Laura Morante in the role of Monica, the film's really all about her whiny teenage son Raul (Umberto Morelli). Monica is a single parent, working her way though an array of unsuitable lovers, trying to keep her career as the singer in a liscio band afloat. Raul takes it upon himself to try and hook her up with his music teacher, while battling with the usual problems of a boy his age.
Claudio Antonini's film is just sentimental tosh, really, and it's worrying to see how it picked up a fair amount of acclaim at last year's Rome Film Festival. Laura Morante's musical numbers are enjoyable enough, but most of the screen time is irritatingly dedicated to Raul being supposedly charming and cute when he's actually being creepy and manipulative. Though, of course, that may just be our perception given the tiny amount of Italian we understand: still, it's worrying when one of the few scenes you understand completely is when Raul has a tantrum and yells "vafanculo" at his mum, given the Oedipal nature of their relationship. (I don't want you to get the impression that that's the only Italian phrase I know, by the way: it just came up a few times during our visit. No, wait, that came out all wrong.)
It's the first time in Italy for both myself and The Belated Birthday Girl, and as fans of the country's cuisine we had a few plans for Milan. One of the basic ones was to grab a proper Italian pizza. The guide books tend to recommend places whose names seem more like old fashioned front window advertisiing rather than brand names - Pizzeria Naturale, Pizzeria Traditionale, and so on. (You have to wonder about the low self-esteem of the restaurant called Pizza OK, which is apparently one of the best in town.) We ended up visiting Pizzeria Naturale for lunch on the way to the science museum, and picked up a pair of very nice pizzas and a half bottle of wine for a couple of dozen Euros. One thing to watch out for generally, however, is that many restaurants have a very small timeslot for their lunch sitting: we finished our pizzas around 2.10pm only to find the place virtually closing down around us.
Another fine Milanese tradition is the aperitivo. Around the canal areas, many bars hold a happy hour between six and nine each evening, when you can pop in for a drink and avail yourself of free bar snacks as you do so. It's thus possible to hop between several different bars and fill up for the evening on just finger food accompaniments to booze. We tried this on a Monday evening, and can only conclude that most of the locals are still recovering from the weekend, as the area around the Naviglio Grande is very quiet. Nevertheless, we get in a couple of drinks and some nibbles at El Brellin and Clams Club, followed up with a coffee at the Mag Cafe, which has a spiffy photographic exhibition on the walls featuring high-speed shots of exploding water balloons.
But at the other extreme, there's Cracco-Peck, which The BBG managed to book us into with just a speculative email. "We're going to the best restaurant in Milan," she squealed at the time. "That's the best restaurant in Milan." And to be honest, it deserves the repetition. It's a two Michelin star affair that manages to smash the record previously held by Megu and River Cafe in New York as The Single Most Expensive Damn Meal I've Ever Had In My Life. It's a room with a smallish number of tables, meaning there's at least one person dedicated to waiting on you for the whole evening. The staff are charming and happy to explain the menu in English (which they had to do for a few people on the night we were there), and even make a few jokes (my waiter insisted that my pigeon had been personally killed by him in the Piazza del Duomo earlier that day).
The wine list is an inch thick, the dishes are exquisite (both my pigeon and The BBG's seabass), female diners are treated like superstars (they get a personal stand for their handbag and a menu with the prices removed), and the little things from the chef that arrive between courses are rather special. The most astonishing one is a palate cleanser that consists of a mango sorbet with a Fisherman's Friend melted over the top of it - a combination that sounds like Heston Blumenthal's worst nightmare, but by God it works. All in all it makes for an astonishing evening out, and I could recommend it to anyone with a few hundred Euros to spare on a meal. Did I mention that I don't actually have a job at the moment? Um.