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