Last Thursday, Jenny broke her New Years’ resolution to wean herself from Facebook. It was fortunate that her wean was waning: she learned that schools in Rome were going to be closed the next day because of an impending snowstorm. (We never received a call or email from the school, but did confirm the news on the school’s home page.)

This seemed like a good opportunity for spontaneous travel: Our lovely seventeenth century apartment building just isn’t designed to be cozy at very low temperatures. Nell was eager to visit Milan, so we thought we’d give it a try.

But we had a few hurdles to jump. Jenny was scheduled to fly to Paris on Sunday, so she had to change her departure to Milan. We had to see if train tickets were available on short notice. We needed a hotel. And we had to try and get out of town before the storm hit.

Everything fell pretty easily into place with about twenty minutes of planning. We were finally able to try the new EuroStar—which zips from Rome to Milan in a smooth 2 hours and 58 minutes! And as a winter treat for the children, we limited our search to luxury hotels in Milan that had indoor swimming pools—which turned out to be only three properties.

Lombardia (Lombardy) is one of the wealthiest regions in Italy and Milano (Milan), Italy’s second largest city, is the national trendsetter. All of the major newspapers are located there, as are the publishing houses, the famous opera house La Scala, and– of course– all of the fashion houses and big industry. Whereas Rome has the history and the beauty, Milan is the scene for cosmopolitan politics, research, finance, and style.

It was fun to travel by train at 362 km/h (225 mph), with no stops between Rome and Milan. As we emerged from the train station, we realized how much our impressions of Italy were shaped by our experience in Rome. Milan was just about the opposite in every dimension. Everything was neat and organized; the sidewalks could accommodate more than one person at a time, roads were straight, buildings were high and modern. It felt so. . .easy.

If I arrived in Milan directly from the United States, I would probably be disappointed. The city is a bit gray, the people don’t ooze the same overt warmth towards strangers as in the rest of the country, and it feels and looks like a lot of major international cities. But after living in Rome for so many months, the modernity felt like a welcome respite. And we enjoyed the business-oriented calm,  efficiency, and sophistication.

We scored a last minute reservation on a snowy weekend in off-season at a fabulous hotel, the Principe de Savoia. There was a catch. European hotel rooms tend to be very small, even at upscale properties, making it difficult for a family of four. The hotel would accommodate a maximum of two adults and one child in a room. For a family of four, they require two separate rooms, which would have been prohibitively expensive for us. But we hedged a bet. Our experience in Italy is that being in the company of children under aged 12 is like having your own personal Get Out of Jail Free card. Italians tend to go out of their way for families with children—boarding airplanes, getting seated at restaurants, discounted or free admission to events, etc. Sometimes when I am trying to negotiate something, I will make one of the children come with me as a prop. So we figured that no self-respecting 5 Star hotel in Italy would fail to accommodate children. We booked the room for three and just showed up as four. Sure enough, the gentleman checking us in at the hotel paused and very politely said, “oh, you have two children, there must have been a mistake in our system,” and without further comment upgraded us all to a gorgeous suite. While we were out having lunch, the hotel removed a sofa from the living room and replaced it with two single beds for the children! The hotel was so elegant that as we entered the lobby Eli whispered to me “I think this is the fanciest hotel I’ve ever stayed at in my life.”

Although it was cold, we wandered out to explore the Duomo downtown. The cathedral was built over several hundred years in a number of contrasting styles—Eli found the gothic reminiscent of Notre Dame. We also walked through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, an arcade in the center of the city. The structure has two glass-vaulted arcades intersecting in an octagon covering the street. We were expecting an enclosed “mall” but instead found ourselves on a street covered by an arching glass and cast iron roof. Eli instantly found a soccer store to add to his collection of jerseys and chatted away with the salespeople, who approved of the Milan team he supports (there are 2 rivals) and were intrigued by the Green Bay Packers scarf he was wearing. . .a recent gift from our friend Kristin. They kept saying “what club is that?,” not recognizing it as Euro soccer.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele

Our first dinner was delightful. We ate at a tiny restaurant that specializes in Milanese cooking named after the dairy shop that used to occupy the space. The kids were dawdling en route to dinner until I told them that the restaurant had only six tables and did not take reservations (and they are not open on Saturdays or Sundays, so we had only one shot) . . .then it became a competition to ensure that we scored a seat. Our food was simple and outstanding, the owner, who has been running this restaurant since 1965, kept coming over to check in with us, and the only wines available were from a tap! (La Latteria di Maggi Arturo e Maria, via San Marco, 24).

On Saturday we spent a fabulous morning at the Triennale Design Museum, which had an exhibit about Italian style. The kids did a treasure hunt that the museum provided that included examples of everyday objects by Italian designers—toothbrushes, sofas, lamps, exercise equipment—and also a serving tray that was identical to a wedding gift that we received years ago from an Italian friend! It left us with a good sense of the contemporary aesthetic. Next we went to the Sforzesco Castle. There Nell signed up for an art class and made a fantastic mask for Carnevale, while Eli and I walked through the exhibit of 16th century knight’s armor—it was really interesting.

Dinner Saturday was also a hit. Located in a former place where off-duty railway workers gathered to socialize before heading off to work at the nearby Milano Centrale station, is L’Osteria del Treno (via San Gregorio, 46). The decour is vintage Italian 1940s and the vibe was relaxed and very appealing. Especially great was the tortelli that Nell ordered—a loose, open pasta that was filled with soft cheese, apples, and cinnamon. Jenny had one of their specialties: goose from Mortara served with polenta. And Eli and I had a satisfying dish of cod baked with potato and sweet onion.

On Sunday, Jenny had to leave early for the airport. But the kids and I spent the morning swimming and then had a real treat for lunch. Another place that features classic Milanese cooking, Antica Osteria Cavallini (via Mauro Macchi, 2). Nell said that her lunch was one of the best things she’s eaten in years. It was an open twisted pasta with chopped green beans and potato that was tossed in a pesto made of pounded lilies. It was extremely light and tasted like a field of flowers! Eli had a special hamburger—meat from some region that I didn’t encode—that he liked because the burger was served without a bun and atop a set of cylindrical potatoes. And I – finally!—got to sample an authentic, classic risotto Milanese. A simple rice dish flavored with saffron. It was outstanding, simple, and flavorful.

We rolled ourselves happily to Centrale station only to learn that our train home had been cancelled because of weather. Our ride home gave us an opportunity to sample the regular train service that stops at a few cities along the way– and inspired a potential future visit to Bologna. We loved our time in Milan and were thrilled to have had an unexpected opportunity to spend a weekend there.

–Seth

Riding the sleek EuroStar nonstop to Milan.

The charming owner of Latteria chatting with her guests.

Exploring at the Triennale Design Museum

A sign at the Design Museum (where you can touch, sit on, play with, the objects) reads: "If you respect yourself, you should respect the objects. If you don’t respect yourself, maybe this is not the right place for you."

Mask-Making at the Sforza Castle

A cold day in Milan-- even the fountains stopped flowing