/ 1 of 1
It was love at first sight when Sandra Howard set foot in the Italian city - so much so, it played a major role in her debut novel
My love affair with Milan began on a visit for a political rally. Now you may feel rightly sceptical about accolades from anyone geekish enough to go for that reason, but I was there as an accompanying spouse. The Italian political party, Forza Italia, had invited along my husband Michael [former leader of the Conservative party] as a guest speaker. The rally, in Milan’s great football stadium, was in fact entertaining with rowdy delegates and pert reps decked out in red neckties and short skirts. And after a brief attendance, we had the whole weekend to explore Milan.
It is a fabulous city. So quickly did I fall in love that, with my first novel swimming in my head, I knew the lovers of the story would have to come to Milan for an illicit tryst.
They would stay where we did, at the Gallia hotel, with its perfect Art Deco façade and solid charm. It fronts on to the piazza Duca d’Aosta, a handsome square in the heart of Milan, and had tall potted palms in the marble foyer and an elderly pianist playing As Time Goes By. Our room had an oval ceiling painting of cherubs and clouds.
Planning a fictional revisiting was like viewing paintings through the eyes of an expert gallery guide; Milan became more brightly illuminated, I saw all its fine detail, its hidden gems.
As we set out to explore the city, my spirits were high. My husband had sprung the surprise of tickets for La Scala that night, having, in a mad rush of extravagance, secretly procured them from a ticket tout.
Our first stop was to be the Duomo – only it became the second since we had decided to walk and accidentally strayed into dangerous territory: we’d happened on the golden quadrilateral, four famous streets of illustrious designer-label boutiques with price tags to bring shivers to the spine.
All the great fashion names were there: Versace, Krizia, Missoni, Moschino. And Armani has since opened a megastore. Milan is the high altar of fashion. Lingering in the Via Montenapoleone could leave a bank balance very forlorn.
On the principle of ‘just looking’ we ventured into an accessories shop. A charming signora draped my shoulders with a gossamer blue scarf and enthused, ‘It’s divine on your wife!’ I imagined my lovers on their illicit weekend, exchanging wry wistful smiles.
We escaped almost unscathed and arrived at the Duomo, whose beauty lifted us to the skies – almost as high as the golden Madunina (little Madonna) the statue on top of the cathedral’s dauntingly tall spire and the symbol of Milan. The Duomo stands proud in its magnificent square. It is vast with the largest collection of marble statues in the world and yet it had a lyrical delicacy, too.
From the Duomo we went to Sforza Castle. It had become Francesco Sforza’s ducal residence in 1450 and was beautifully preserved, set in lovely grounds, and with a fine art collection – most famously containing Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà, the sculpture he was working on when he died.
As we were leaving, however, disaster struck. Some children had jostled my husband and when they ran off he discovered the La Scala tickets had vanished from his pocket.
Then walking back, and by an extraordinary quirk, he just chanced to see the tout who had sold him the tickets – a small wiry man who was shocked at our tale. ‘I am Milanese,’ he said, ‘I feel shame this should happen to you in my city.’ He took us to the La Scala’s box office to explain our plight, but to no avail. No reissuing of tickets without a police notification we were firmly told. ‘Come, I take you to the police station,’ he declared.
There he filled forms, haggled with cops – turning occasionally to raise his eyes to heaven – and rushed us back to the theatre where he slapped down the police form in triumph. Later, ensconced in rather bad seats, high up in the gilded tiers of balconies we toasted a golden-hearted ticket tout – not something many could say, I’m sure!
Milan has sensational paintings and sculpture. We saw Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, at Santa Maria delle Grazie, Botticellis and Tiepolos at the Poldi Pezzoli museum; we longed for more time.
Our great restaurant find was La Milanese, run by Guiseppe and Antonella Villa and in business more than 70 years. It was medium priced with fine traditional Italian food and packed with locals, as its name implies.
On Sunday, just before our departure, the rally regrouped in the Cathedral Square. Loudspeakers boomed. It was an enjoyable spectacle, even without understanding a word, even on a cold late-February afternoon.
Then, suddenly, Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma began echoing round the square; after this emotional climax Milan’s place in my heart was secured for evermore.
Ursula’s Story by Sandra Howard (£12.99, Simon & Schuster) is out now. BA flies to Milan from London Heathrow and City Airport. Visit ba.com