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Ever heard of Paris Syndrome? It’s the phenomenon that occurs when tourists visit Paris and discover a city not quite as magical as they expected. Thus, naturally, they plunge into a deep, unshakeable depression. I’m convinced that there ought to be a flip side too; the sensation of arriving in a city to find that it’s exactly as one had hoped, only more so, and inviting in a thoroughly lovely mood. I propose: the Milan syndrome.
Anyone wishing to contract the ailment need only pick a random point in the centre of the old Italian city and wander inwards. The broad, tram-rattled avenues of the outskirts are filled with stilettoed businesswomen, coy street vendors and cigarillo-smoking centenarians. Yet soon, they melt into winding, cobbled streets and shimmering Roman archways. The dove-grey marble walls of the Quadrilatero della Moda and the ornate Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – the world’s oldest shopping mall – give way to small oak boutiques and hidden courtyard restaurants. As if from nowhere, the silver-white stone of the duomo is upon you: all cloud-puncturing pinnacles, inconceivable heights and doting cherubs. Milan should rightly be called the sunglasses capital of the world; the entire city feels as though it’s sat behind a giant, rose-tinted filter.
As with most things worth succumbing to, it helps to have an insider on hand to show you the ropes. Mine was MARTINI, partner of F1 team Williams Martini Racing, and a company that marries two great Milanese obsessions: racing and cocktails. Within hours of touching down on the scalding runway I find myself in a secretive racing hanger outside the city walls, pulling a white Martini helmet over my cheeks in the bucket seat of a vintage Lancia Delta. My chauffeur for the afternoon is the prodigal Valtteri Bottas. The 60 seconds in which he throws me about the track are a blur of searing blue eyes, star-struck adrenaline, and the vague suspicion that I might soon lose my beautiful carafe of Barbera d’Asti all over the track.
This is how the international beau monde spend their afternoons in the lead up to Formula One. In a petrol-perfumed wing of the hanger, I corner David Gandy, the Martini ambassador and autophile who has raced to the city at the first sniff of charred rubber. “Going fast never gets boring,” he tells me. “That adrenaline rush is still the most enjoyable thing in the world.” The man’s like a child at christmas – albeit one with exceptional bone structure and intimidating stubble. “These cars are serious,” he says “They used to have the driver’s blood type printed in large on the side – you’d be surprised how many times that came in handy.”
That evening, at a jet-set drenched Martini party that had sprung up along a length of the Milan canal, Gandy tells me how he’d even let some members of his car collection try out the tricks of his trade. “My restored Porsche 356 is sitting – modelling – in the rotunda down at the RAC club. She’s more famous than me now.”
Later in the week, the high society decants itself to the hills outside the city. Here, in the tiny village of Pessione, lies Martini’s birthplace: a beautiful eighteenth century palazzo flanked by a colossal modern factory. In an ancient cellar below the courtyard, Martini’s expert blenders talk in broken tones about the unique botanicals that give the vermouth its distinctive characteristics, while bow-tied mixologists muddle iced tumblers and smile softly at people’s girlfriends. On a neighbouring hilltop we find the master vintner behind Martini’s range of sparkling wines. With shirt sleeves rolled up, he gestures wildly in his desperation to correctly convey the beauty of the local ambrosia. After four glasses of Asti, the 45-degree slopes of the mountain vineyard seem particularly stupefying.
It’s race day. The leafy suburb of Monza shakes with the symptoms of Milan Syndrome: the shimmering heat of the track; the linen and sunglasses and twenty-something millionaires; the Paddock Club salvers of beef carpaccio and Milanese caprese; the familial warmth of the driving teams; the wild, sobbing Italian fanatics. And then, abruptly, the throaty, piercing thunder of the engine blocks. Cars frantically sprint along the pit wall, all desperate overtakes and sparking exhausts; the grid shifting as the podium erupts with champagne and red smoke.
A mini guide to Milan…
The restaurant to book
Ristorante da Giacomo, a pistachio-green seafood trattoria that specialises in whole cooked fish (freshly caught that morning), laughably big crustaceans, and beautifully huffy waiters.
The tailor to visit
A Caraceni, a dynastic super-boutique dating back to 1946 and spanning four generations.
The hotel to stay at
The Yard Milano, a boutique hotel in every sense of the word. Each room is individually decorated with curios and vintage fixtures that speak of Milan’s opulent past. Prices start from about £150 a night.
The place to splash your cash
Foxtown, an out-of-town fashion outlet complex just across the Swiss border, is the secret behind the locals’ exceptional wardrobes (the centre, they sniff, is only for the tourists – with markups to match). Expect cut-price Gucci, Prada and Versace that’s barely half a season old. A 55-minute shuttle runs daily from the town centre.
The museum to explore
Palazzo Reale is a former royal palace with vast ceilings, spiral staircases and corridors big enough to fit a gun carriage. It plays host to a shifting cast of modern and contemporary art and performances from around the world. At the moment its drawing in the jet set with the largest ever assembly of M. C. Escher’s work, which runs until late January 2017.
The winery to tour
Casa Martini, the home (and still the factory) of the world’s greatest family of vermouths. Its museum holds an exceptional collection of wine apparatus dating back 4,000 years, some of the world’s first ever wine barrels and ample photos of George Clooney at his peak.
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