The West

George Clooney in The Monuments Men.

My Italian friend, he says . . . "Iffa Roma, she like-a Syder-ney . . . Milano, she-a like Melbourne. She hassa style, la moda (the fashion), the shopping . . . Aaaah."

And, of course, he's-a corretto.

Rome might be Italy's heart but Milan provides its pulse. Somehow infused with a permanent air of Renaissance, it combines a sense of cultural history and grounding with the sparkling flush of forward thinking.

The shops themselves have this style - they are artworks, in a modern sense. Inside, fashion springs from catwalks to clothing rails sometimes in weeks.

And there are some of the best of them in the so-called "Rectangle of Gold" - Quadrilatero d'Oro.

One street, Via Montenapoleone, has Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren, Versace, Valentino, Alberta Ferretti, Christian Dior. Via Manzoni has Armani and Paul Smith. Via della Spiga has Prada accessories and Roberto Cavalli.

And there are bargains, too, around the city - end-of-season sell-offs and the many outlet stores, where the astuto locals shop for cut-price catwalk fashions. A good starting point is the outlet stores around Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.

There are great hotels. The building which is now the Four Seasons was built in the 15th century as a convent and has a surrounding colonnaded cloister.

There is the Armani Hotel Milano and Il Sole di Ranco.

And then, at the smaller end of the scale, the likes of Antica Locanda Leonardo - built in the 19th century, with its courtyard, balconies and garden.

In all of these are the sense of Milan's creativity and poise; its art and style.

And then, of course, there is the actual art of Milan and, of all that, Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper.

It is a completely dramatic spectacle, taking up a whole wall of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The figures are life-size, the drama palpable. The walls of the painting's room seem to recede from the wall of the church itself, with every line focused on Jesus Christ, at its centre, soon to be crucified.

It is an enormously popular attraction and visitors are well advised to book tickets well ahead of a visit. (And, of course, to visit Milan's main art gallery, Pinacoteca di Brera.)

Da Vinci lived in Milan for 20 years from 1482, and composer Giuseppe Verdi lived here too. His first opera to be successfully performed at Milan's Scala Theatre was Oberto Conte di San Bonifacio in 1839.

Verdi lived in The Grand Hotel and died there in 1901, to be buried in the Home of Musicians, which he founded.

Today, George Clooney is all but a local and, earlier this year, took fellow actor Matt Damon to see The Last Supper.

Fittingly, they were there for the world premiere of his movie The Monuments Men.

The film, which Clooney wrote, produced and directed, tells the story of an Allied group saving art and culturally important items from destruction by German forces in World War II.

And so, where better for its premiere than Milan?

Clooney's home in Italy is in the village of Laglio, on Lake Como, less than an hour's drive from the centre of Milan. Among his favourite restaurants in the city is Spazio Pontaccio (often just called Il Pontaccio).

But visitors can eat inexpensively and mix with locals at the likes of Giannino L'angolo d'Abruzzo, Les Folies, El Brellin and Luini.

And there, in Luini, around the corner form the Duomo Luini, they are serving deep-fried calzone - panzerotti - just as they have for 150 years.

"Fantastico . . ." says my Italian friend. "No. Stupendo."

The West Australian

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