Explosions of art, culture and history in three gorgeous Italian destinations less than two hours apart by car.
In my deluded mind, a trip to Milan was an opportunity to sip Negronis by a sun-baked pool, admiring the city’s style and hot, swaggering men.
A relentless two-day rain storm changed that plan slightly.
An umbrella was firmly in the hand, rather than in the cocktails, but Italian talent was duly ogled and the Milanese remain admirably chic, even when it’s quite nippy and pouring it down.
God and the gays
We were in the city for the Quiiky Untold History tour. This wasn’t a guided peek into Donatella’s plastic surgeons or Berlusconi’s favourite escort agencies. This was a journey into an ancient past when alchemy, art, design and religion fused to made Italy a cultural ruler.
But before delving into the mysteries and wonders of 15th-century art, we plunged into Milanese nightlife.
Lecco Milano is a hip, mixed bar offering food, DJs and a range of cocktails, including one tipple worryingly called GinHB. We also played bingo at L’Elephante while drinking a killer cocktail called the Bin Laden. I don’t remember how I got home.
Myths and masterpieces
The Untold History tour, which focuses on the queer aspects of art history commenced at Castello Sforzesco (or Sforza Castle), built by the Duke of Milan in 1450. It’s survived a slew of wars and today houses a number of the city’s art collections and museums.
A jaunt to the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie gave us a thrilling gawp at Da Vinci’s Last Supper, one of the most important art works in existence.
One cannot underestimate the power of being in the presence of such an iconic masterpiece, nor the joy of having a great guide to dazzle you with observations and anecdotes. It was no surprise to learn that Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown got it all wrong.
After the eye-popping and brain-tickling sights of Milan, we headed to Bardolino [above] on the eastern shore of Lake Garda in Veneto.
The town is a picturesque resort offering rustic charm, a soothing vista and a calming lack of nightlife.
We stayed at the Aqualux Hotel Spa & Suite [below], a contemporary palace of pools, saunas and treatment rooms.
The food was gorgeous and my poolside room was a slick delight.
My favourite experience in Bardolino was a visit to the Cavaion Veronese cellar of the Cesari vineyard. It was fascinating to learn how the grapes are harvested, stored and turned into my favourite liquid.
Even better, I was gulping down the fine produce while nibbling on Monte Veronese cheese and Prosciutto di Parma. It was a gastronomic orgasm.
Unlucky in love
A day trip to Verona proved rich in history and a visual delight. The city’s a Unesco World Heritage Site, having been a Roman trade centre since the 3rd century BC.
It boasts a 2000-year-old arena, a stunning riverside setting and is famously the backdrop for the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s theatrical ode to doomed love is a major magnet for tourists and teenage dreamers.
One can ponder the balcony and courtyard said to have inspired our William’s tale of feuding families and adolescent codependence. Unfortunately, it’s an architectural fiction and a scene of frenzied selfie action and chaotic milling. The Bard’s fuelled pebbled yard has all the romance of shopping for haemorrhoid cream on a Saturday afternoon in Superdrug.
The art highlight was a visit to Castelvecchio [above], the principal military structure of the Scaliger dynasty that ruled Verona in the Middle Ages. The Gothic fort houses a museum packed with a largely Romanesque collection that’s heavy on depictions of Jesus and utterly engrossing.
Horse meat fresco
We had a superb lunch at Osteria Sottoriva, the oldest eatery on the medieval arcade that runs along the bank of the Adige river. As it serves polpette di cavallo (horse meatballs) and trippa alla parmigiana (braised tripe) it’s unlikely to delight vegetarians, but for authentic regional cuisine, this is a Veronese superstar.
While pleasingly cheap, it’s no place for a quick snack. A sign cockily warns diners of servizio lente. However, when you’re downing carafes of wine, alongside decaying frescoes on a back street in Verona, who cares if lunch takes a few hours?
Hunt the homo
Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo are two of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance and their queerness is often overlooked. While it was fascinating to ponder the homoerotic subtexts in their work, the art itself tends to dominate the experience – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
As such, a highlight of the trip was the Rondanini Pietà [above] the last sculpture Michelangelo worked on before his death in 1564, housed with the Castello Sforzesco in Milan.
Gay pride was thin on the ground in the Middle Ages and so evidence of gay life is limited and prone to conjecture. This Quiiky Untold History tour made the best of slim evidence and would be a blessing for those who’re time-poor and too idle to study guide books.
It’s standard practice that a jaunt abroad leaves me fatter and further wizened by wine, but this trip also left me plump with arty facts and the sweet nutrition of aesthetic pleasure. Lo amavo!
For more information about the Quiiky Untold History tour, visit the official website by clicking here.
Images: Quiiky, Wikipedia, Pixabay