MILAN, Italy — There is an old saying in Milan that goes something like this: "If you don't know how to spend a day, just go to Brera."
More or less in the center of town, between the castle (Castello Sforzesco) and the cathedral (the Duomo), Brera is one of the most charming and relaxing neighborhoods in the city. Within its magical circle are little, shy streets lined with art galleries and elegant shops, quiet lanes housing cozy inns, and restaurants serving delicious homemade desserts. Here one is likely to run into artists, stylists and musicians, or come across a fortuneteller sitting at his or her open-air table, waiting for customers.
The area is often referred to as "Milan's Greenwich Village." But my favorite sobriquet is "the SoHo of Milan," which speaks to the quarter's high concentration of galleries devoted to modern and contemporary art, and a social scene that's reminiscent of the lower west side of Manhattan (south of Houston Street).
At its heart lies the gallery Pinacoteca di Brera and the art school which, since 1800, has attracted and formed generations of painters and other artists. All around, quaint streets are filled with craft shops and coffee bars, some of which have become legendary for the writers and intellectuals who hung out there in the '30s. The city's better-known intellectuals and artists still have their studios here.
As a native Milano, and a writer, I go to Brera often to interview authors or visit galleries for art reviews. But I also like coming here to relax, especially for walks in the late-afternoon light of summer. And last year, when I lived and wrote in New York City, I found that the part of Manhattan around Gramercy Park--SoHo--reminded me of Brera.
On Sundays from April on, those in the know find seats in the open air at Bar Brera (at the corner of Via Brera and Via Fiori Chiari), sip cappuccinos and enjoy the parade of sightseers and preeners. It is like being in a cozy living room with no roof. The hustle and bustle of the larger city is all around, yet distant as (lucky) you pause in a world of art and beauty.
The history of this neighborhood--which lies between Via dell'Orso and Largo Treves, and between Via Mercato and Via Borgonuovo--traces to the 13th Century when some members of the Umiliati, a Lombard brotherhood, began to build cloisters on meadowlands and orchards (or \o7 braida\f7 , from which the name Brera is derived). Today three churches have survived from medieval times on three squares not too distant from one another. They still stand silent and peaceful, their old, red Roman bricks glowing against the sun, while the city has grown up around them over the years.
My favorite is San Simpliciano, the most secret of the three, as it is hidden among residential buildings and facing its theatrical square, Piazza San Simpliciano. To one side, a shop, L'Imballaggio, sells beautifully designed gift wrap and other paper goods.
Via Brera, the neighborhood's main street, is filled mostly with art galleries (some, like Brera 3, facing inner gardens) and exclusive shops for women and teen-age girls, such as those who dress only from the chic shop called Naj Oleari. The residential buildings are in the typical style of the area, a mixture of austerity and elegance, with facades in faded yellow, ocher or brownish red, with gray shutters. They house apartments with steep prices, according to the talkative doorman at No. 8, with its inner yard and private garden.
The street of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher (Cavalieri del Santo Sepolcro) is in some ways a typical example of the surprises of the area. On it resides a cloister that even people living in the area barely know about. It was built in the 16th Century by Benedictine monks and today "is the place where future priests study and pray," according to Don Silvano Macchi. "Therefore visitors are not allowed."
But the cloister--which is nameless--has high walls and a few little windows, and snooping through them at the point where the street pavement rises, you can see the beautiful garden surrounded by the typical arches of the building.
In truth, the real essence of Brera is similarly hidden, off the main streets. It's in the flavor of little yards, little craft shops and old restaurants, an ancient world full of memories and nostalgia. But one has to look in order to find the secret spots.
So abandon for a moment the gloss and glitter of the main street Via Solferino or the posh Via Brera, and take one of the silent cobblestoned lanes such as Via del Carmine. Walking on the round pebbles--still part of the old pavement over which horse carriages traveled--you will see a lovely piazza and a building with typical dormer windows. The building houses La Cesta, a popular restaurant that attracts a colorful crowd about midday. Here you can try the daily menu, called \o7 colazione di lavoro \f7 ("lunch for people who work") a reasonable-for-Brera, fixed-price menu.