During our first few months in Vietnam, we rented an apartment in Hanoi that didn’t go so well. It was simultaneously the best and worst of locations and you can read about that in a story I did for The Independent. By contrast, an experience living like locals in Milan, Italy, couldn’t have been better. It was bellissimo!
One of the projects that kept us in Hanoi was updating a guidebook we wrote on Milan and the Italian lakes. More recently, I provided photos of the Navigli for a story Lara was writing on our favourite neighbourhood in the much-misunderstood city of Milan. It has inspired some musings about our first experience living like locals in Milan some years ago.
The first few times we visited Milan we stayed in hotels. In 1999 it was as flashpackers in a snug room in a central 2-star. A couple of years later it was in a substantially larger room in one of those sleek design hotels. Then, during research for a Lonely Planet book, we spent a few weeks in a mid-range hotel, vowing never to do it again. When we were offered another Milan guidebook commissioned by a different publisher and needed to stay in the city for a longer period, we knew where we wanted to stay.
We’d so enjoyed a couple of weeks we spent one summer in a palazzo apartment in Venice that we had already decided that whenever we could we would settle into a place for a while, whether it was for a holiday or work. If it was work, rather than do the classic travel writer thing and parachute in for a few days to research and return home to write, we decided we’d stay for the write-up period too.
Staying in an apartment in the Navigli neighbourhood on that trip was the first time we settled into a place as professional writers rather than for a holiday. Needless to say, we loved the experience so much that ‘settling in’ became one of our goals in working as travel writers – wherever and whenever we could we would rent an apartment and stay for the duration of the work, from research through to submission, giving us longer to get under the skin of the place.
Our Milan apartment was on an upper floor of a grand old building, with French doors and a sliver of a balcony overlooking one of the busiest bridges over the Naviglio Grand canal, giving us a birds-eye view of the street action. Being more of a night-time neighbourhood (just like the one we stayed at in Hanoi recently), we loved leaving the French doors open and sitting in front of our view with glasses of wine as the sun went down so we could take in the atmosphere as it built up on the streets below.
We worked hard and fast, as we knew that in a couple of hours we could be out on the streets, enjoying a delicious antipasto plate or a hearty risotto with brilliant Northern Italian wines. Sometimes we tried to finish writing early so we could make it out for aperitivo hour. Although after we realised how big aperitivo had become in Milan, we suggested a new section for the book, to give us a good excuse to finish early to ‘test out’ the aperitivo bars.
We fell into habits. We knew when the best time was to visit certain restaurants or even when to wait to skip the lines that were usually outside the artisanal gelato bar up the street. We bought delicious, fresh, local handmade pastas to cook at home, chunky blocks of beautiful Parmigiano Reggiano, and paper-thin slices of bresaola to pair with local rocket and fine olive oil, and a different bottle of wine – or two – to try every day. For two months.
We ate at humble little locals-only enotecas and trattorias in the neighbourhood that were well off the tourist radar that we hesitated to write about because they were already hard to get a table at. We said “buon giorno!” to our neighbours and practiced our poor conversational Italian as we caught the lift together.
We shopped at the same supermarket every day and the same market every weekend. We bought wine and cheese or cold cuts from the same friendly guy at the local deli every day. We took pride in how our shopping vocabulary was improving so much every week that by the end of our stay the shopkeepers had stopped correcting us and were smiling with satisfaction, taking pride in their own role in successfully teaching the foreigners some Italian.
The more people we met and the better we got to know them, the more they would share tips to local places to eat and drink, sharing favourite off-the-beaten-track spots they probably wouldn’t divulge to travellers. Some places we tried that we resisted the temptation to include in the book still haven’t been written about in travel guides or those “In Milan, A Renaissance!”-type stories you see every few years in newspaper travel sections. Without much effort we were living like locals in Milan.
We’ve recently noticed there has been something of a backlash in the blogosphere and travel media about local travel and the idea of living like locals when you travel, with comments like “why would you want to go overseas to do what you can do at home?” and “you can never really live like locals so what’s the point?”
And that’s fine. It will make booking apartments like the one we rented in the Navigli a whole lot easier. Local travel isn’t for everyone. We all like to travel differently. We’re not interested in jumping off bridges or parachuting out of planes.
Admittedly there have been some clearly inane local travel ideas floating around that are worthy of mocking, such as booking a local to party with. But if travellers want to go back to staying in hotels (and we do love a fine luxury hotel or stylish boutique joint), then that’s fine too.
For us, however, renting apartments so we can engage with locals, and watch the ebb and flow of everyday life in a place, will always be our preferred mode of travel.
That’s why every afternoon when I head out for some magic hour photography here in Hoi An, I keep taking iPhone photos of houses to rent.
Where to stay If you want to rent a Milan apartment with views like those above, we like Only Apartments. The Navigli neighbourhood – on the Naviglio Grande canal – is an easy 30-minute stroll from the historic centre. It only really sees tourists (in small numbers) venturing there far for aperitivo, pasta or gelato after dark or for the antique markets on the weekend. You can also get there easily by tram and taxi.
What to read See Lara’s piece Staying in Italy: the Secrets to Enjoying Long Summer Holidays in The Guardian. We’ve also written a handful of guidebooks on Milan, the Italian Lakes and Northern Italy, including Italian Lakes and Milan, Milan with Lakes Como and Maggiore, and Verona and Lake Garda published by Footprint.