Writer Nell Casey takes a satisfying solo trip to fashionable Milan and the enchanting, jet-setting paradise, Lake Como. She finds the perfect fit. Read the full article here and in the current issue of QUEST Magazine.
Walking into the Armani Hotel Milano feels a bit like walking into the mind of the celebrated fashion designer. This 95-room hotel is as minimal and sleek as one of Giorgio Armani’s iconic suits—and as elegantly determined as I imagine the man himself to be. The whole setting conspires to make you feel as if you’ve been airlifted out of life, that busy and rumpled otherworld. In this spare new realm made up of monochromatic tones of grey and cream and black, there isn’t a single detail that hasn’t been integrated into the clean line of the hotel.
I spent 24 hours in Milan—happily mixing the glamorous bustle of the city with the restrained luxury of the hotel—before heading off to the Italian (and George Clooney’s) summer retreat of choice: Lake Como. For my short stay in Milan, I wanted to experience a blend of the high style and refined culture this northern city is known for—along the way, however, I also happened upon some of the lesser-known perks, such as an evening stroll through the verdant Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli with women cheerily biking in heels and plain-clothed businessmen out for their passeggiata, leaving me with a more wholesome impression of this city known for its industry.
Armani Hotel Milano is located on Via Manzoni, which, fittingly, is part of the haute fashion district. Simply by walking out the door, one encounters the cosmopolitan style that is expected of Milan. The hotel itself is part of a sprawling complex presided over by the ever-present Armani, including his showrooms, his home and flower shops and Nobu Armani, the sophisticated Japanese restaurant chain that the designer opened along with celebrity chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa in 2000. (Armani, himself, also lives nearby.) Venture just a few steps further along Via Manzoni and you’ll come across Via Montenapoleone, another mecca of fashion lined with Prada, Cartier, Pucci and Gucci.
After exploring a bit—and feeling famished from the strenuous exercise of shopping—I hit one last style outpost: the Brian & Barry Building. This boutique department store—Milan’s style equivalent to Barneys New York, but with restaurants such as Eataly added to the mix—opened just last March. The industrial looking complex, largely comprised of glass and steel, also boasts Asola | Cucina Sartoriale, a modern restaurant perched on the top floors of the building with an amazing view over the rooftops of the city. This is where I settled in for an exquisite meal that included gamberi crudi as well as calamari alla griglia.
After having spent the first half of the day seeking extreme fashion, it felt reassuring to travel back in time for the afternoon with a visit to the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan’s historic art museum.
This former monastery, also the home of the Brera Academy, a venerated art school, displays Italian paintings spanning several centuries, many of them considered masterpieces. One of these is the 15th century “Christo Morto” also known as “Lamentation Over the Dead Christ,” by Andrea Mantegna, which is dramatically presented solo and under a spotlight. The painting offered a very striking image at the time—and remains so today; this is a portrait of the corpse of Christ lying supine on a bed, a single hole punctured in each of his hands and feet. There are also paintings by Piero della Francesca, Tintoretto and Caravaggio, to name only a few of the other masters on display. (However, to see Milan’s most famous painting—Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” at the Santa Maria delle Grazie church—tickets must be booked at least two months in advance of your visit.)
After a thoroughly enjoyable visit to the Brea, I walked through another leafy splendor—Parco Sempione, Milan’s biggest historical park. At the edge of Sempione is Castello Sforzesco, a restored castle with the original moat from the medieval town surrounding it and several courtyards within bordered by charming gardens. This is also where I found the Museo d’Arte Antica, which offers a glimpse of Michaelangelo’s last sculpture—an unfinished yet poignant statue of Mary and Jesus—as the great artist died while working on it. Conveniently, there is a well-trafficked walkway that ushers crowds out of the castle and leads toward Milan’s iconic Duomo, a formidable Gothic structure that cannot be missed: it’s the fifth-largest cathedral in the world.
In the evening, I made my way to the delightful Mimmo Milano for dinner. This heavenly candle-lit space—pristinely white with antique books lining the shelves—allows larger groups to sit at long elegant dining tables or smaller parties, like me, to sit in a cozy armchair by the fireplace. The cuisine hails from regions throughout Italy—Sicily, Puglia and Tuscany, among them—all of it amazing.
As engaging as I found Milan to be, I was relieved to have the pressure lifted a bit as I zipped further north with a car and driver the next morning. Within the hour, we were coasting alongside the glistening water of Lake Como—headed toward another way of life altogether.
Upon arriving at Grand Hotel Tremezzo, I knew it was going to be difficult to leave—ever. This truly grand hotel majestically looks out over the lake, its orange awnings charmingly beckoning from a distance.
The property is a world unto itself with several restaurants—ranging from informal to very formal—two outdoor pools (one of which floats upon Lake Como itself), a spa, a clay tennis court, hiking paths and a 20,000 square-meter park with magnolias, tulips and hydrangeas, as well as a “dis-moi oui” corner devoted to the legions of hopefuls who bring their beloveds here to pop the question.
As much effort as it took to pry myself away from this paradise, I was grateful for having done so once I encountered the water up close. As I sat waiting for a boat to ferry me across to Villa del Balbianello, thinking about the fairytale-like enchantment of the lake, a swan appeared, floating tranquilly by on the water, as if to prove my point. Once I arrived at Balbianello, an incredible estate built in the 1700s that now hosts curious tourists eager to glimpse how the well-heeled Europeans of yesteryear spent their lavish summers. (Here, too, was where Star Wars: Episode 2—Attack of the Clones and the 2006 James Bond remake Casino Royale were shot.) Another inspiring villa that deserves an afternoon is Villa Carlotta. Right next door to the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, the Villa’s extraordinary botanical garden alone, with its 500 types of plants and flowers, is worth the price of admission.
My next boat ride allowed me a panoramic view of the surrounding towns lining this thirty-mile lake and made a stop at nearby Bellagio. This charming town is comprised of a series of steep cobblestone streets lined with shops—and shoppers—many of them selling the silk for which the Como region is known. Pierangelo Masciadri’s wonderful store, selling his personally designed silk ties, scarves and purses, has been popular among visitors ever since Bill Clinton wore a Masciadri-designed tie in 1992. (Bill Gates, George W. Bush and Sandra Day O’Connor— wearing one his ‘scarf-ponchos’— soon followed suit.) Once I’d seen the sights of Como, I did what people do best here: I lounged. By night, however, I discovered an excellent variety of restaurants. On the first evening, I found the delicious and refreshingly informal Pizzeria Balognett owned by a lovely husband-and-wife team. I sat outside on their terrace—near the vegetable garden from which they get their ingredients—with vines and wild flowers twisting up the side. And, on my last night, I took myself out to Al Veluu, a romantic restaurant where it seemed everyone was on their honeymoon but me—although I was having a love affair of my own with the view from the outdoor terrace where I was seated. So as couples all around me tapped their glasses of Prosecco in a toast to their forever promise of love, I lifted my own glass to the green mountains and blue water spread before me in its own forever promise of tranquility.
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