The Brera District

As we got used to our odd apartment in Milan, we discovered were living in one of the most historic, bohemian sections of of the city, called Brera, after our street name. (The word 'brera' comes from 'brayda,' an old Lombardy derivative of the Latin 'praedium,' meaning a cleared land expanse. At one time, the area was outside of Milan's city walls and kept open for military purposes. The root is the same as 'broad.' Cool, no?)

Brera kept its status as the old part of Milan. Its coffee houses and bars were very popular between the world wars and the area was a literary and artistic nexus in the post-WWII years, affectionately known as the Montmartre of Milan. More gentrified now, it's still a creative hub, full of interesting boutiques, food stores, galleries, bars and restaurants. Near the Pinocoteca Brera (across from our building) and its art academy, stores still sell painting supplies, nestled among higher-end home furnishing showrooms and ancient churches on narrow, winding streets. Like many European cities, Milan grew over the centuries in concentric circles, so being in one of the oldest parts of town meant we were within easy walks of major sites and monuments such as the medieval Castello Sforza, the Duomo, the Galleria, even the designer atelier-shopping area.

Via Brera is mostly pedestrian-only. A row of small restaurants on our part of the street were lively every night, especially on weekends. Warm weather meant every place had outdoor seating. Maitre d's stationed themselves in front of the patios, luring walking and biking patrons in with patter and pointing out menu items better than the places next door--trying to stay out of the food and bike traffic on the narrow street. We so enjoyed Brera 29, a few steps from our building that we came back several times. Sergio the maitre d always made us feel welcome, as did our favorite waiter, Dorian, who claimed to be from Ireland (though we had our doubts). Jan took photos and put a review of the place on social media. Sergio thanked us the next day, though he admitted a colleague from the restaurant next door had to show him where to find the review on his phone--Sergio is quite the charmer, but is very old school!

Amazingly, the Pinacoteca di Brera was steps away from our apartment. We saved a day to visit this late Baroque building built by Jesuits over the remains of a 14th C monastery and turned into a school. In the late 1700s, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria turned the complex into several cultural institutions including an observatory, library, botanic garden, and fine arts academy. It now houses a collection sent from all parts of Lombardy, the province Milan is in, and elsewhere -- from the 1300s to the 20th C. There are lots of altarpieces, of course, but also works by Piero della Francesca, Bellini, Canaletto, Raphael, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Modigliani, and Mantegna's famous masterpiece of foreshortening. Plus late sculptures, including of Napoleon, in the stately courtyard and stairwells. There's a section showing a restoration in progress. The botanical garden in back is quite extensive. All this was kitty corner from our building and a casual pizza restaurant.

The Brera district had some lovely churches you suddenly came upon after wandering down narrow, boutique- and cafe-filled side streets. We loved the one with the neo-classical sculpture in front of it.

If you go past the museum a few blocks you're at La Scala. Then you can cross to the square across the street dedicated to Leonardo. Hang a right and you're in the famous Galleria dedicated to King Victor Emmanuel II.

Through the Galleria is the Duomo, begun in the late 1300s, and worked on for centuries, so the huge white-marbled, Italian Gothic cathedral seems like the world's largest wedding cake rising from its enormous square. We went there our first day -- I couldn't wait to see Jan's reaction. (I had been there once before, an overnight to change planes. Only did two things then -- saw the Duomo at night and had a plate of risotto.) This time we entered the cathedral during Mass and heard the men and boys choir, seeing them at a distance and through a haze of incense. Then we took an elevator part way and had to climb the rest to get to the rooftop with its steep paths above and through the Gothic pinnacles and statuary. Unfortunately, we were not alone. Folks of all ages up there. At least, no dogs!

We were hot and tired after the Duomo and wandered around the perimeter of the piazza trying to decide on where to get a bite. Avoiding sushi and pizza, we collapsed at a touristy place. Turned out they had some great casual choices. In fact, I ate the best salad I had in Italy there. You usually only get bottles of average vinegar and oil, plus salt and pepper. This place set before me not only a lovely pile of fresh greens and tomato wedges but also great olive oil and a spray bottle of good balsamic that prevented the usual wilted overdressed greens. So simple, but so good. You just never know.