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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan Greg Sheri­dan’s

It is a great thing when your first ex­pe­ri­ence of a city com­pletely de­fies its stereo­type. When I first vis­ited Lon­don I ex­pected it to be for­mal and a bit pompous. In fact, the bit of of­fi­cial Lon­don I met was full of lar­rikins, louts and good-na­tured loud­mouths, just like home.

Not long af­ter, I went to Wash­ing­ton, where I ex­pected the in­for­mal egal­i­tar­i­an­ism for which the US is famed. In­stead I found my­self at a ho­tel that was cheap, pa­tro­n­ised mostly by African-Amer­i­cans, with Beethoven play­ing in the back­ground at break­fast, and a crisp Wash­ing­ton Post wait­ing for me in daz­zling sun­shine by the pi­ano each morn­ing.

As I got to know US for­eign pol­icy fig­ures, I found that they did em­body that char­ac­ter­is­tic Amer­i­can warmth and wel­come for a stranger, but none­the­less were very for­mal and even a bit prissy, putting their jack­ets on if you en­tered their of­fice a sec­ond be­fore they were ready. And no rough lan­guage like the Lon­don louts.

Hav­ing trav­elled mostly in Asia, the US and the Mid­dle East in my pro­fes­sional life, I am only now be­gin­ning to take the mea­sure of Euro­pean cities. I spent some time in Italy this year and in one way the coun­try did live up to its stereo­type. These are among the friendli­est peo­ple you could meet. Rome and Florence pre­sented more or less ac­cord­ing to ex­pec­ta­tions but Genoa, which I vis­ited be­fore the ter­ri­ble bridge col­lapse, seemed spec­tac­u­larly beau­ti­ful, with all its grand ar­chi­tec­ture, ac­cess to the breath­tak­ing coast, but not dom­i­nated so much by tourists. Still, there were enough tourists. Wait­ing at Genoa sta­tion for a train to Milan, I started chat­ting to a bloke who turned out to be from Cairns and was de­voted to Johnathan Thurston and the North Queens­land Cowboys. Thirty min­utes of in­tense rugby league con­ver­sa­tion is a tonic for the soul on a long trip.

I had thought of Milan, if I thought of it at all, as a cen­tre of fash­ion and, to some ex­tent, in­dus­try. North­ern Italy, the re­gion of Lom­bardy, is much richer than south­ern Italy, es­pe­cially Si­cily, and is some­times thought of as a south­ern ex­ten­sion of Ger­many but with bet­ter cafes, pasta and more fun. But, truly, Milan de­fied my stereo­types. The ho­tel at first lived up to ex­pec­ta­tions. The Straf is chic, min­i­mal­ist, con­tem­po­rary, com­fort­able, in­for­mal but with a know­ing eye. Its break­fast buf­fet is healthy rather than lav­ish, the peo­ple char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally friendly but a con­trast to the of­ten overly heavy for­mal­ity of big ho­tels in grand old build­ings.

Its big ad­van­tage was that it was about 39 steps from the main town square and there, tow­er­ing over ev­ery­thing, was Duomo di Mi­lano cathe­dral, Italy’s big­gest church, which took half a mil­len­nium to build, and looks it. I had thought of cathe­drals in re­la­tion to Rome and Florence, but not of one dom­i­nat­ing Milan.

It turns out Milan also claims to be the city of Leonardo da Vinci. Of course the great Re­nais­sance polymath didn’t come from Milan but he spent much of his life there and many of his most fa­mous works re­side in Milan. Walk­ing in Milan is bet­ter than in Rome be­cause the streets are wider and the traf­fic a bit more ra­tio­nal.

Fif­teen min­utes from the cathe­dral is the even more mas­sive Sforza Cas­tle, with some of its rooms fres­coed by Leonardo. Your head pos­i­tively swims read­ing how many dif­fer­ent kings and princes, from how many dif­fer­ent coun­tries, oc­cu­pied and ruled this fort. North- ern Italy was more in­te­grated into cen­tral Euro­pean his­tory and its con­flicts just by virtue of its lo­ca­tion.

The pol­i­tics and cul­ture of Italy are so mul­ti­lay­ered, so in­fin­itely com­plex. You could eas­ily spend a hun­dred life­times in their study and only scratch the sur­face. And it’s amaz­ing how young we are when we first have to make de­ci­sions about in­tel­lec­tual roads we won’t walk down, be­cause there just isn’t time.

The only real dis­ap­point­ment in trav­el­ling in Italy is that few ho­tels have English lan­guage TV. So at night I set up the lap­top and watched My Three Sons and The Many Loves of Do­bie Gil­lis. There are some stereo­types that never fail. And never dis­ap­point. ac­com­mo­da­tion in Milan was sub­sidised by Milan Tourism. Q&A: Is Chris­tian­ity still rel­e­vant? Hear Greg Sheri­dan talk about his new book. Syd­ney | Thurs 8 Nov | $25

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