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A blog about Belgian culture in London. A blog about the arts in London, Brussels and Milan, from a Belgian point of view.

Posts from the Milan Category

This is the second part of my description of “Brumidon”. If this sentence leaves you flabbergasted, you may need to read this and this.

As always, the “things” I would first and foremost import are actually people, and they are my friends. After them, these are the typically Italian “things” and ideas/values that would definitely be part of my ideal country.

The weather
Yes, right, this is a bit obvious. But how lovely it was for 5 years to enjoy agreeable springs and autumns, winters with some sun (as opposed to an everlasting grey sky), and hot, hot summers. I really liked Milan’s weather, its real winter making you enjoy the other seasons properly. Milan is also famous for its super thick fog, particularly present in late autumn, especially in the outskirts. I love it for the air of mystery it lends to the city, I love it despite the potential safety risks it creates on the road.

Milan, Piazza del Duomo

Milan, Piazza del Duomo (© iStockphoto:Thinkstock)

The elegance
Elegance in Milan is nearly effortless, it is above all “native”, in that it comes naturally. On sunny days, during lunch breaks in central Milan, I would sometimes sit outside on the steps of the nearby ballet shoes shop, and watch passers-by. It was a stream of beautifully crafted high heel shoes, suits made of the finest wool in the most flattering colours, all perfectly designed, all perfectly coordinated.

Elegance does not stop at fashion: design is also everywhere in Milan. This was true not only during Design Week: a random waiting room may have seats from Kartell, and Alessi house accessories are almost the norm.

Italy may be criticised for having an obsession for “la bella figura”, for favouring form over substance. I don’t care, this struck a big chord with my fascination for beautiful things.

The history, the artistic heritage
Middle Age town centres, roman churches, Renaissance palaces: they seem to be round every corner in Italy. With regard to historical and artistic heritage, I do think that France and Italy reign supreme over Europe. I know I am exposing myself to abuse here, from the rest of Europe, as well from the Italians (who think they are better than the French) and the French (who think they are better than the Italians).

Esselunga
Simply the best supermarket in the world. Good prices, first quality stuff and a fantastic “catalogo premi” (literally, “prizes catalogue”). Compared to it, the rewards you get with Nectar points are just lame. Where else would you get Bouroullec brothers-designed pieces of furniture? A large part of my home consisted of objects and pieces of furniture acquired through Esselunga’s card loyalty scheme.
Every time I go back to Milan, I go on a pilgrimage to Esselunga and stock up on pasta, pasta sauce, wine, salame and… deodorant.

Milan, Castello Sforzesco

Milan, Castello Sforzesco (Picture by Fabio Messina for http://www.visitamilano.it)

Being two hours away from the Ligurian seaside, two hours away from Mont Blanc and one hour away from Lake Como
It is sort of difficult to beat that. Not that I went every weekend (as some Milanese do).

Aperitivo
Ask any expat in Northern Italy what they like most about their new home and they will most probably say: the aperitivo. “Aperitivo” was invented in Milan and is this fabulous concept whereby you get a free all-you-can-eat buffet of light food and canapés to accompany your glass of wine/beer/cocktail, at almost every bar of the city, between 6pm and 9pm.

Some food
These are the Italian specialities I would like to see on my plate/in my glass: panna cotta, San Daniele ham, cachi, chiacchiere, the cappuccino from Il Marchesino (with bits of meringue on top), bruschette, spaetzle from Alto Adige, ice cream (the only one really deserving the name), cheeses, cheeses, cheeses (ooh the brigante, ooh the pecorino, ooh the asiago) and wine wine wine (ooh the Gewürztraminer, ooh the Valpolicella, oooh the Vin Santo). And also: olives all’ascolana from Le Marche, bicerin from Torino, passatelli from Emilia-Romagna.

Milan, Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele

Milan, Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele (Picture Provincia di Milano for http://www.visitamilano.it)

Exactly one year ago, I bought a one-way ticket to London. I am therefore technically celebrating my first anniversary in London today, and this will be a post with which art and being Belgian have little to do, or perhaps a lot. It is an unusual post in that it will be quite personal.

I was born in a small town (a village) in the suburbs of Brussels, from parents who have lived in that very town their whole life and only speak French.

Perhaps in reaction to my family, I decided I would learn languages – I currently know 5 of them -, and that I wanted to live abroad, to make things more exciting, and to a certain extent, more challenging (“Pourquoi faire simple quand on peut faire compliqué?” somehow seems to be a motto of mine).

Now aged 30, I consider myself “fluent” in three places, by which I mean that I not only speak the local language, but that I also know their traditions, and the values each of theses cherish. I have devised a personal “proof of fluency” test: being able to swear back in the street at someone who insults you (in the unlikely event of this happening) and being able to use the local public transport systems confidently (as in: knowing if you need to press the door button in order for the tube doors to open). Currently, I pass this test in three cities: Brussels, Milan and London.

I have lived in other places, including Edinburgh (as an exchange student) and Strasbourg (as an intern at the Council of Europe), but these stays have been too short for me to have really absorbed the local “essence”.

My cats, Tosca and Mirza (= The Prettiest)

My cats, Tosca and Mirza (= The Prettiest)

(I didn’t really know which picture to choose to illustrate this post (pictures of me on the web are a no-go), so I have opted for a photo of my cats – both of whom have flown to cats’ heaven now, sadly. I think they’re the prettiest.)

What about art, in all this? I moved to Milan for love (how banal), but ended up finding a job I was passionate about, at an opera house “making history since 1778”. And if I decided to leave everything for London, it was mainly for the art that this city has to offer. The National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert have a lot to answer for, in my case…

I would like to stress that I choose to mainly speak about cities, rather countries. This is because I know that I would have gained very different experiences if I had lived 5 years in Naples instead of Milan. Ditto with London: just as New York is not the US, London does not equal England or the UK – it is sui generis.

Recently I have caught myself dreaming about living in a sort of ideal place, which would include the best of my three cities. Mainly it’s the various friends that I would like to “bundle” (although I have many more friends, in many more countries).

In addition to them, there are a few things, and a few ideas and values, which I would import from Brussels, Milan and London into my “ideal country”. I tried to fit all of these into one post, but it proved too long and I have decided to split this into three posts, one for each of the coming days. So: à demain/a domani!

In Milan there is a house I fell in love with: the Villa Necchi Campiglio, which belongs to the FAI. Truth is, it’s the kind of house I dream of living in, perhaps in a slightly more contemporary version. As with most dreams, it will probably never happen, so I have to make do with visiting it.

I think I have seen it a total of 7 times, often bringing family and friends. I have also recommended it on Twitter and Facebook, so apologies if you’ve been following me online for a while and think I am repeating myself. But that’s the thing with love, isn’t it: you bore others to death with the object of your affection…

Villa Necchi Campiglio (Photo © Giorgio Majno)

Villa Necchi Campiglio (Photo © Giorgio Majno)

Built between 1932 and 1935 in rationalist style by Milanese architect Piero Portaluppi, Villa Necchi Campiglio is a sumptuous residence with generously proportioned interiors and stunning public rooms. It was bequeathed to the FAI by the Necchi Campiglio family, who left it to the association in exactly the state it was when they inhabited it.

Located in very central Milan, where real estate prices reach the stars, the property boasts a large garden, a swimming pool (which was already heated in the 30s) and a tennis court. But it’s the interiors that really make my heart beat faster.

Veranda, Villa Necchi Campiglio (Photo © Giorgio Majno)

Veranda, Villa Necchi Campiglio (Photo © Giorgio Majno)

If you want to get a better idea of the house, you could watch Io sono l’amore (“I am love”), Luca Guadagnino’s utterly beautiful 2009 film, starring Tilda Swinton. It immerses you in the world of upper class Milan, and is a feast for the eyes. It follows the “adventures” of the Recchi family, who lives in, yes you guessed it, Villa Necchi Campiglio.

Tilda Swinton learnt Italian for the role, and is not doing too badly linguistically in the film. I can’t resist telling you I know the language coach who trained her (a pretty lame claim to fame, I know). That language coach is actually Russian, which comes in quite handy as Tilda is supposed to be a Russian who moved to Milan because of/thanks to her Italian husband.

The gorgeous costumes are by Jil Sander (when Belgian designer Raf Simons was still at the helm) and Fendi. The house, the clothes, the good food: everything in that movie breathes elegance.

Hall, Villa Necchi Campiglio (Photo © Giorgio Majno)

Hall, Villa Necchi Campiglio (Photo © Giorgio Majno)

If this post has enticed you to visit Villa Necchi (it should, that was the whole point of it), here is some practical information. The house is open from Wednesday to Sunday and entry costs 8€. Fear not for my wallet though: I may have visited it 7 times, but entry was for free, because I was a member of FAI. Buy a year-long membership from 39€, and visit all their properties and those of the National Trust for free (heritage galore!).

The house can only be visited through guided tours, which last around 1 hour and are usually conducted in Italian. If you are a small group, you can sometimes convince the guide to do the tour in English (a group of very persuasive friends of mine from Vienna managed to do so). Should your charms fail to operate (my Viennese friends were very charming), there are audioguides in English…

This is the first in a series of articles on the FAI, the “National Trust of Italy”. If you live in the UK, you are most probably familiar with the National Trust, and you’re perhaps even a member of this brilliant organisation. This is what they do:

We protect historic houses, gardens, mills, coastline, forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, nature reserves, villages and pubs. Then we open them up for ever, for everyone.

Quite cool, isn’t it? Very high on my “to-visit-list” of National Trust properties is Red House (1860), the only house commissioned, created and lived in by William Morris, one of the founders of the Arts & Crafts movement.

Red House - William Morris - National Trust

Red House – William Morris – National Trust

This blog post, however, is more about the National Trust’s Italian equivalent, the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), which was established in 1975 following the model of the British National Trust. The aim of this “Italian Environment Fund” is to protect elements of Italy’s physical heritage which might otherwise be lost.

My absolute favourite FAI property, and I have written about it before – in fact, I suspect I am boring some people with it – is the Villa Necchi Campiglio, a jewel of an Art Deco house situated in the heart of Milan.

Villa Necchi Campiglio Milano - Pietro Portaluppi - FAI

Villa Necchi Campiglio – Pietro Portaluppi – FAI

Some other cool properties in Lombardy include the Villa Panza in Varese (north of Milan). The villa displays part of the contemporary art (think Dan Flavin, James Turrell, etc) collection of master collector Giuseppe Panza.

Villa Panza Varese

Villa Panza in Varese – FAI

As well as the Villa del Balbianello, on the shores of Lake Como, which you can even hire for your wedding (if you have a *substantial* budget).

Villa del Balbianello, Lake Como

Villa del Balbianello, Lake Como – FAI

A one-year membership to FAI costs only 39€ and gives you unlimited entry to the properties (which turns out to be very useful when, like me, you become obsessed by a particular house and need to visit it several times a year…).

Writing about the National Trust and the FAI has made me realise there is no such organisation in Belgium (and, as far as I know, in France). There the State is in charge of protecting national heritage. Knowing my slightly complicated country, there would probably need to be three of such organisations anyway, one for each region. I wonder why we evolved so differently with regard to heritage preservation. Anyone able to provide an answer to this burning question?