Heads over heels
Themed walking tours in Milan and Florence
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