Milan plays Chicago to Rome's Washington, DC. Like America's capital, Rome is a pile of white marble buildings full of squabbling politicians. Milan is all muscular skyscrapers and business. Its colder, grayer climate is better suited to knocking back a quick espresso than a three-hour limoncello-marinated lunch.
Italy's second city is a double-shot of activity, racing in spike heels and Gucci loafers toward the next big thing. No time to glance up from the cellphone at the Art Deco buildings or the shimmering modern skyscrapers.
Milan does in fact have an ancient history, having been settled by Celtic tribes before the foundation of the Roman Empire. But the city's penchant for the "do-over" blossomed early. In the 4th Century AD the emperor Constantine moved the capital from Rome to "Mediolanum" to be closer to the ever-more-restive frontier. After the empire's fall, Milan changed hands repeatedly between the Holy Roman Empire, the French, the Spanish, and the Austrian Hapsburgs. Much of the city was bombed to rubble by the Allies during World War II, and immigrants from the less-prosperous south flooded in after the fighting ended. Milan grew prosperous as an industrial power and world center of clothing and furniture design, and the population never looked back.
To visit the city in the days leading up to Fashion Week is to see the Milanese at their best. Always impeccably dressed, the locals whirl past storklike models posing for pictures in front of the Duomo, the city's mountainous cathedral. The high-fashion shops on the nearby streets are a frenzy of nervous activity as retailers race to outdo each other with ever-more-outrageous window displays.
Dress made of fashion design sketches:
A Formula One racecar:
But when it all gets to be too much, the best thing to do is escape up 250 steps (or by elevator if your high-heeled boots aren't meant for stair-climbing) to Duomo's roof where you can wander among the stonework filligree and serene statues and gaze beyond the skyscraper to the distant Alps.
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