Heads over heels

Themed walk­ing tours in Mi­lan and Florence

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - JANE SANDI­LANDS

STEP OUT IN STYLE: We meet Raf­faella at the Ar­mani Cafe, in the heart of the Quadri­latero, the Golden Square of Mi­lan’s fash­ion em­pire. She is our guide for Alto Moda, a pri­vate tour from Con­text Travel of Mi­lan’s high-fash­ion dis­trict.

Raf­faella has a life­time of ex­pe­ri­ence with var­i­ous fash­ion houses, so with her we can look closely and ask ques­tions. Who knew that as well as cool and el­e­gant fash­ion for women and men, there are Ar­mani choco­lates, stamped with a distinc­tive A? And Ar­mani flow­ers, sim­plic­ity per­son­i­fied in a hand­ful of white freesias and striped grey-green leaves.

Raf­faella takes us back through re­cent his­tory as we walk the Quadri­latero, much of which was for­merly a monastery. In the early 1950s, Italy ex­ported its fash­ion, es­pe­cially leather, but busi­ness­man Gio­vanni Ge­orgini changed that. In 1951, with Florence as the cat­walk, he or­gan­ised suc­cess­ful shows for in­ter­na­tional buy­ers.

A part­ner­ship be­tween Florence and Turin — home of the fab­ric in­dus­try — de­vel­oped, ready-to-wear col­lec­tions were born and, to es­tab­lish sizes, mea­sure­ments of 25 women from the north, mid­dle and south of Italy were taken. The decades from the 70s were spanned by the so­called Three Gs: Gianni Ver­sace, Gior­gio Ar­mani and Gian­franco Ferre. Around then the fash­ion cap­i­tal of Italy moved to Mi­lan, the de­signs sim­pler and more prac­ti­cal, and the home of the fash­ion me­dia.

We pass an el­e­gant court­yard, its floor in­tri­cately pat­terned, and Raf­faella says, “The Ro­mans — they did it.” At Dolce & Gab­bana, there is al­ways a lace dress in the col­lec­tion, “to hon­our the women of Si­cily, Domenico Dolce’s birth­place”. Here, too, are flat sneaker-like shoes, with ex­trav­a­gant flow­ers on their tops and un­der­foot.

On to Gucci, which be­gan al­most 100 years ago with high-end leather goods. In the dis­play case is a show­stop­ping pair of ze­bra-print high-heel shoes, with black goat’s hair tails cas­cad­ing down the backs. Then to Prada (its sig­na­ture hand­bag is a “must have’’ in Mi­lan) and a visit to the Prada Foun­da­tion.

We take cof­fee and a pas­try at Pas­tic­ce­ria March­esi, dat­ing from 1824 and now owned by Prada, and, as we leave, pass a news­stand. Smil­ing enig­mat­i­cally from a glossy magazine is Cate Blanchett. “Ah, Cate Blanchett,” Raf­faella says, eyes lifted heav­en­wards, “she wears Ar­mani Prive per­fume. She is a god­dess.”

MARVEL­LOUS MICHELAN­GELO: In Florence, with two friends, we take the Michelan­gelo Might walk­ing tour, of­fered by Freya’s Florence. We meet at the Medici Chapel, where Sashia, our guide, stops at the first statue. This is Anna Maria Luisa de Medici (1667-1743) and it is she, Sashia says, to whom we owe our grat­i­tude. Why? A great art pa­tron, and the last of the line of the House of Medici, al­most 200 years af­ter Michelan­gelo’s death, Anna Maria be­queathed the fam­ily’s daz­zling col­lec­tion to the Tus­can state on the con­di­tion noth­ing be re­moved.

Among the trea­sures in the chapel are the tombs of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, with the sculp­tures of Dusk and Dawn, and his brother, Gi­u­liano di Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Ne­mours, with Michelan­gelo’s fig­ures of Night and Day. We hear ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries of power, wealth, sta­tion, city states, dou­ble deal­ing and black sheep of the fam­ily, and of 20th-cen­tury dis­cov­er­ies that cast even more light on the Medi­cis.

But it is David I am wait­ing to see and we ar­rive at Gal­le­ria dell’Ac­cademia in late af­ter­noon when the crowds have thinned. The story of David is that, at 26, Michelan­gelo was brought in to work on a chal­leng­ing block of Car­rara mar­ble bought by an­other sculp­tor and des­tined by the pow­er­ful Guild of Wool Mer­chants for the roof of Florence’s Cathe­dral as a sym­bol of the city’s free­dom.

In­stalled in­stead in 1504 out­doors in the Pi­azza della Sig­no­ria, David re­mained there un­til 1873 when the sculp­ture came to the Ac­cademia. Sashia pep­pers us with in­for­ma­tion and with ques­tions, but we need time to ab­sorb what is be­fore us — the power, the youth and beauty, those veins, the still­ness.

I think of Stend­hal syn­drome, a real or imag­ined con­di­tion coined by the 19th-cen­tury French writer and ex­pe­ri­enced by he and other vis­i­tors to Florence, over­come by the beauty of the Re­nais­sance, re­sult­ing in dizzi­ness, faint­ing and rapid heart­beat. I can well be­lieve it.

Sashia tells us of vis­i­tors who see David and can think of noth­ing to say. “So they ask me the name of the tree that sup­ports his leg.” Or, un­aware of the David and Go­liath story, an­other will ask if he is just out of the shower, towel over his shoul­der. None of it mat­ters, re­ally, she shrugs. Nei­ther does the avalanche of David-in­spired mer­chan­dise in the Ac­cademia gift shop, not even the small wooden repli­cas of Pinoc­chio, though I do won­der. The Ac­cademia is clos­ing and on leav­ing, I hang back, alone, for just one more look.

IN PER­FECT TASTE: Set­ting the pace for our Tus­can Taste­buds tour, also with Freya’s Florence, guide Sil­via whirls across Pi­azza Santa Maria Novella on her push­bike, dark curls bounc­ing. She ties up her bike and five of us head to San Lorenzo Mer­cato Cen­trale, the great food mar­ket of Florence. On the way we call at Pas­tic­ce­ria Sieni, a Floren­tine in­sti­tu­tion since 1909, to take cof­fee and try Sil­via’s rec­om­men­da­tion of torta della nonna. By 11am, the mar­ket is buzzing. At the tripe and boiled meat stall, Sil­via or­ders sand­wiches for us to share later.

Built be­tween 1870 and 1874, the Mer­cato is a grand build­ing of arches, log­gias and high ceil­ings de­signed by Giuseppe Men­goni, also re­spon­si­ble for the beau­ti­ful Gal­le­ria Vit­to­rio Emanuele II in Mi­lan.

We pass gleam­ing chillis hang­ing in huge bunches, fat gar­lic ropes twined al­lur­ingly around poles, swathes of fen­nel. We see the best of Floren­tine meats, in­clud­ing the fa­mous T-bone, and Sil­via ex­plains the price dif­fer­ences and also gives a quick recipe, should we want to cook it at home. We ex­am­ine la­bels on chick­ens and taste un­salted Tus­can bread, the recipe dat­ing to Ro­man times. It’s truf­fle sea­son and we try truf­fles, truf­fle oils, truf­fle pate and truf­fle honey.

Then it’s time to go back for our tripe and boiled meat sand­wiches. We sit and Sil­via brings them over. “I had them cut into tiny pieces,” she says, “so you can all have a taste.” A sign nearby reads (in Ital­ian): “Eat boiled meat, have bet­ter sex.” Nat­u­rally, a wit in our group asks how quickly it works. Next, we take on the pre­cious bal­sam­ics, boxed in tiny, heavy bot­tles with red wax seals, pre­sented like the rarest vin­tages of wine. We taste, again and again.

Can we tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween one just 12 years old and an­other 25 years old? There are long si­lences as we lit­er­ally sip Ital­ian his­tory, re­spect­ing the tra­di­tions, the time, the ex­per­tise.

From the fre­netic pace at the start, we are now calm and ready for lunch. Sil­via takes us to Enoteca Alessi, near the Duomo, where over a glass of Chi­anti Clas­sico, we share an­tipasto, a gen­er­ous spread of sausage, veg­eta­bles, olives, beans and Tus­can bread. She soon leaves us and we stay for an hour or so, de­vour­ing the Ital­ian ex­pe­ri­ence.

• con­text­travel.com • freyas­flo­rence.com

Clock­wise from top: Michelan­gelo’s statue David; shop­pers in Mi­lan’s Quadri­latero; a counter at Pas­tic­ce­ria March­esi; a pro­duce stall at the San Lorenzo Mer­cato Cen­trale

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