I was both shocked and irritated when my secretary told me that the Park Hyatt, the Bulgari and the Four Seasons were either unavailable or wanted over €700 per night for my forthcoming trip. The meetings for the day would be impossible to reschedule and doing a day trip would be torturously tiring, not mention defeat the purpose of visiting Milan, which is, of course, to have a fun night out on the town. A quick bit of internet research revealed that (i) it was Milan Fashion Week hence the hotel situation and (ii) for a more reasonable sum, I could get a room at the Gray, a small boutique hotel in the shadow of the Duomo. Problem solved.
Most of the flights to Milan were all sold out as well so I felt quite fortunate to get a flight to Linate airport. The main airport serving Milan is Malpensa, which should never have been named Milan Malpensa given that it is nowhere near Milan but rather, in a city called Malpensa which is in the same region of Italy as Milan.
Milan is the European city that, to me, is the most similar to Chennai. You may think that is a preposterous statement but like my hometown, there are normally only one or two places where the ‘in’ crowd hangs out, much like the Leather Bar was for the past half decade and Chipstead will be for the next half. Walk into one of the places (which wont be where the tourists hang out !) and it becomes immediately obvious that everyone knows everyone else. Unless you are with a local, you will immediately feel like an outsider and attract funny stares from the rest of the crowd, almost like you have crashed a private party (much like when an outsider shows up at a Chennai bar!). Before midnight, the bar will empty and the crown will move to a house party (again, you need to know a local socialite to nab an invite) from where you will emerge only when the sun rises the following morning, much like we do every Saturday night where our ilk find themselves on the various well known Beach Houses of ECR.
I checked into the Gray and found myself in a funky room decorated with red raw silk upholstery, a bed that hung from the ceiling and a bathroom that felt like it belonged in the cabin of a spaceship. Opposite the Gray is the Straff Hotel bar, where I have spent many an evening enjoying Aperitivo, the Italian answer to the Anglo-saxon tradition of Happy Hour – during Aperitivo hours, you pay for your drinks from the bar and help yourself to the finger food available from the buffet. Unless you have a real appetite, this can easily replace dinner, especially at places like the Straff, where the Buffet is particularly good. To accommodate the crowd during fashion week, this establishment had somehow managed to close the street to traffic, place cushions on the road and had turned the entire area into a street party! Great ambiance but I would have probably looked like a creep had I decided to hang out alone so I walked past to the Piazza del Duomo, which on this evening was utterly recognizable.
In the shadow of the Duomo, right in the middle of the square, was an absolutely humongous stage with a catwalk down the middle. One side looked onto the square in full view of the public. The other side was what appeared to be reserved seating. The entire square seemed to be wired up with a sound system that was controlled by a strange looking, but particularly good DJ, who was dishing out brilliant music. The young and beautiful people of Milano were gathering by the thousand to witness the fashion show, by Fanfare Le Snob that would soon begin. The atmosphere was brilliantly charged by the lighting the music and the backdrops on the Duomo and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. I had tried, and failed, to secure a ticket to one of the fashion shows but this event, titled Milano Loves Fashion, was simply awesome. As the show start time got closer, I could see the whos who of the fashion world (I assume they were the who’s who based on the attitude and the somewhat impractical clothing they wore) be guided to their assigned seats by burly looking ushers. This was simply awesome – no invite, no ticket needed, no filtering of crowd and yet everyone around me was so impeccably dressed, and perfectly behaved that it felt like you were at party with an exclusive event. I have never, in my many years of travel, experienced anything like this.
I could have stood there for hours, soaking up the light, sound and ambiance but the buzzing phone in my pocket was a call from a Milanese friend, who had seen my update from Facebook and figuring that I might be interested, secured an invite for me to a party. It didn’t take much convincing me to get me to go and I spent the next several hours at a secluded, but brilliantly decorated farmhouse outside Milan in the company of some of the most beautiful people in the world.
Waking up for my first meeting at 9am the following morning was a Herculean task but after a strong espresso at the La Scala Opera house (that turns into a very chi-chi pre-show wine bar in the evening), I was ready to go and ploughed through my 3 back-to-back meetings. Lunch, the highlight of the trip, was at Ristorante Cracco, a 2 Michelin starred restaurant. Having planned the meal in advance, we had Chef Carlo Craccco make us a custom 6-course tasting menu with paired wines. I have eaten at some of the best known restaurants in the world and it does not get very much better than this. Innovative but still utterly satisfying without an overdose of the foams and other flourishes that make some fine dining meals particularly irritating. If you are ever in Milano, this is the one experience that you should not miss.
Originally published in Frappe