Recently revamped for 2015’s Expo, Milan was the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci over 500 years ago, and is a cool vibrant city with plenty to see. Nearby Monza has the famous Formula One circuit in the grounds of the 17th century Royal Palace and Cremona is famous for Stradivari, the renowned violin maker. Rupert Parker gets to hear one of his masterpieces
An excellent introduction to Milan is to climb up to the roof of the cathedral and explore its terraces. Wandering amongst the 135 spires and statues, you can really appreciate the unique architecture of the building and of course the views are fantastic. The best time to go is late in the day when the Candoglia marble reflects the hues of the evening light.
Dropping back down to street level, don virtual reality glasses for the You Are Leo tour which takes you back to late 15th century Milan. An art historian fills in the background details and you follow Leonardo’s footsteps from his workshop in Corte Vecchia to Santa Maria delle Grazie where he painted the Last Supper. Don’t get too distracted by time travel, however, as it makes you fair game for pickpockets.
Afterwards, wander round the chic stores that occupy the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and take a glass of Prosecco in the famous Savini Caffé and enjoy the aperitivo snacks. Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin and other celebrities have all been guests here over the years. These days you’re more likely to rub shoulders with Chinese tourists carrying their bags of recently acquired designer gear.
15km away from Milan, Monza is of course home to the famous Formula 1 track but was an important destination during the Hapsburg reign. In the 18th century the Empress Maria Theresa built a royal palace, the Villa Reale, as a summer residence for her son Ferdinand. During Napoleon’s time it was home to his Viceroy of Italy and then in 1861, with the reunification of Italy, was taken over by the Savoy family. Unfortunately the assignation of King Umberto 1 in 1900 tragically ended their stay and it lay derelict for years.
Its copious grounds, however, became the location for the world’s third motor sports circuit, opened after Brooklands and Indianapolis in 1922. A new high-speed track was built in 1955, running 4.25km, with reinforced concrete replacing the original earth banking. Unfortunately a number of accidents meant a redesign to include extra safety measures but the Italian Grand prix is still held here every year. You can take a guided tour which gets you round the track, but the best way of seeing it is on a bicycle – they open it every evening for keen cyclists to train.
Around 100 km south-east of Milan is the charming medieval city of Cremona. There’s a long history of music here with the 12th century cathedral a focus for activity in the late middle ages. As a result, by the 16th century, it became renowned as a centre for instrument making, in particular, violins. Those of the Amati and Rugeri families, and later the products of the Guarneri and Stradivari shops were particularly prized. There’s a wonderful museum which has historic specimens on display and a theatre where you get to hear them played.
Cremona is still renowned for producing high-quality instruments and in 2012 the “Traditional violin craftsmanship in Cremona” gained UNESCO status. You can visit the workshop of Stefano Conia who moved here from his native Hungary to study at the violin making school in 1968. He’s passionate about his instruments, inspired by classical violin makers and his son is also following in his footsteps. If you’re interested in buying, the Consortium of Violin Makers in the town centre has instruments for sale, although you’ll need big pockets. You can also see the house where Stradivarius lived and there are statues scatted throughout the town.
Cremona is not really on the tourist map yet it’s a pleasant place to wander. The Piazza del Comune, the medieval square, is dominated by Cremona Cathedral and its octagonal adjacent baptistery. The bell tower, the Torrazzo, at 112.7 metres, it is the third tallest brickwork bell tower in the world, and you’ll need lots of stamina to get to the top. It has no lift, unlike the cathedral in Milan, and the last sections are not for those who suffer from vertigo.
Taverna Moriggi, in Milan, serves excellent local dishes including risotto.
The Savini Caffè, in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, is great for an aperitivo.
The Hotel de la Ville makes a luxurious base in Monza and also has an excellent restaurant.
The Saint Georges Premier is in the centre of the palace park, near the Circuit, and serves regional specialities.
The Hotel delle Arti Design is in the centre of Cremona.
Osteria La Sosta has good Cremona dishes.