By William Wolf

COMFORT AND CULTURE IN MILAN  Send This Review to a Friend

Since Milan was the first city I visited on my first journey to Italy, nostalgia hovered over my recent trip. As a student I scrounged a room at a university dorm. This time, traveling with my wife, I opted for luxury. For that you can't beat the historic Hotel Principe di Savoia, conveniently located at the Piazza della Repubblica. From that base we could explore some of what Milan has to offer today, and what would a Milan stop be without a repeat homage to Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper"?

First, a word about the 75-year-old hotel, which has a long history of the famous having stayed there, including such past luminaries as Ingrid Bergman, Rudolph Nureyev, Charlie Chaplin, Josephine Baker, Maria Callas and the Duke of Windsor. In the business world of changing hotel ownership the Principe di Savoia was bought from Starwood as of July, 2003, and became part of the renowned Dorchester Group, which includes the prestigious Dorchester in London, the Meurice and the Plaza Athenée in Paris and the Beverly Hills in Los Angeles. Having previously stayed in all but the Meurice, I was particularly curious about the Principe di Savoia.

The hotel is an impressive looking recessed old-world building with a circular driveway, and the air-conditioned lobby was particularly welcome during the summer's heat wave. The rooms, also comfortably air-conditioned, are well appointed, with large bathrooms, good window light and the amenities one expects to find in such a well-run hotel. The décor is splendid and there was handsome wood paneling in the corner room that we occupied. Dining in an attractive courtyard is a feature.

There is a pool with a Jacuzzi and a well-equipped exercise room, and women can take advantage of the hotel's beauty center. There is also a business center, which enabled daily checking of e-mail. The classy bar area is impressive as well, with painted glass ceilings graced by a large chandelier, wood and glass paneling, comfortable furniture, plants and a large well-stocked fish tank, home of a variety of colorful specimens, with, according to one bartender, each fish known by name. The hotel staff is especially friendly, and chief concierge Mario Gambron and others manning the concierge desk were eager to please, providing restaurant reservations and informed guidance to help get about town. The housekeeping staff was also on its toes.

The hotel's piece de resistance, in which you are not likely to stay--we didn’t either-- is the incredible, palatial Presidential Suite. Sarah Jane Battersby of Guest Relations, a charming, knowledgeable executive, took us on a tour of the hotel that included a stop to view the suite's spacious, multi-bedroom living quarters, which includes its own swimming pool and much of the latest electronic equipment. As for the general price structure of rooms at the Principe di Savoia, this is a hotel for clients who want luxury and can afford it. At the time of our stay we were told that future rates were being worked out by the new ownership.

Over late afternoon cocktails in the bar (its specialty is a wide variety of martinis), Paolo Guarneri, General Manager of the Principe di Savoia, said that the takeover by the Dorchester Group bode well for the hotel's future. He was enthusiastic about the association with the other jewels in the group and saw an advantage in the Principe di Savoia benefiting by drawing clients who have enjoyed staying at those hotels and who expect similar luxury and amenities. He mentioned that during the last fashion show period, there were many guests from such magazines as Elle and the Conde Nast publications.

One of our first forays was to the Church of St. Mary of Grace (Santa Maria delle Grazie) to see Da Vinci's restored "The Last Supper." The experience is still breathtaking and one stands in awe of one of the greatest of art treasures. But there are other cultural musts in the city, which some of our acquaintances tend to denigrate. "Why Milan?" we were asked. "It's like visiting Pittsburgh," someone said. Never having visited Pittsburgh, I couldn't relate to that slight, and as a matter of fact, I understand that Pittsburgh is interesting.

We also visited the Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology, which was fascinating because it contained many drawings, plans and models of his designs and concepts that revealed his incredible scientific versatility. The exhibition demonstrates anew how brilliant and how far ahead of his time he was. We made sure to visit the impressive Castello Sforzesco, once the seat of the Dukes of Milan, and apart from its normal assortment of treasures and art work, we were fascinated by an exhibit of menus collected from notable events of state in Europe and elsewhere, many quite elaborate. There were also menus from ocean liners. It was amusing to see what was served and note the culinary trends.

Il Duomo, Milan's famous cathedral was closed for renovation--we had been inside previously-- but we still enjoyed walking in the large square in front of the impressive edifice and observe the parade of tourists. Milan's opera house La Scala was also being renovated. However, outside one could stand and read about its fabled history on a series of panels spanning the years and providing information on the opera stars who performed there, those whose works were premiered and those who conducted.

The walk from our hotel toward the Duomo took us through Milan's chic shopping district. Remember--this is the city where fashion shows are held for fashion industry people and fashion writers from around the world. Italian designers, for men and for women, are especially gifted. Prices can be expensive, but whether buying or window shopping, surveying the various designer shops is an enjoyable part of a Milan trip.

So is eating. Every restaurant we visited was pleasing, whether we wandered in off the street at Ristorante Don Lisander, Via Manzoni 12/a, where we ate in a courtyard and which turned out to be a popular spot, or whether we were sent by a concierge to such places as Ristorante Al Girarrosto, Corso Venezia 31 and Ristorante da Ilia, Via Lecco 1. Many restaurants were closed for vacation, but enough remained to provide a choice.

Before leaving New York, we had booked a car for the next part of our trip--a journey to Verona--from Kemwel (now affiliated with Europcar), an agency we had always found reliable whether renting or leasing. We prepaid for an air-conditioned, automatic, four-door, full trunk car but not one in the luxury class. For a small extra charge we arranged to have it delivered to our hotel. Behold, because the only category available that day was in the luxury class, a driver pulled up with a brand new Mercedes. Armed with specific directions from the concierge on how to wend our way out of Milan toward the right autostrada, off we went toward Verona, later to return at the end of our trip for another night in Milan before dropping off the car at Malpensa airport and flying home.


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