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Porta Venezia: a cool neighbourhood in Milan

Time Out Worldwide came out with an interesting feature on the 40 coolest neighbourhoods in the world. These are places that, in the authors’ words, “represent the greatest cities on earth” at their best, with their most inclusive and innovative traits. Milan’s own Porta Venezia district was placed at n. 35, the only Italian neighbourhood to be included. While not going into great depth, the text managed to convey some of the district’s characteristics, such as its huge number of bars and restaurants, its LGBTQ+ allure, its quaint shops.

It is a fact that Porta Venezia has been in the spotlight in recent times. In the past few years it has been rediscovered as a diverse, multicultural and engaging area with lots of dining options and shopping opportunities. Some striking Art Nouveau buildings are must-sees for all well-informed Milan visitors, while Corso Buenos Aires, possibly Europe’s longest shopping street, bisects the quarter in two parts and admits to a large park and a number of attractive museums and exhibition venues.

What has really boosted Porta Venezia’s reputation though is its prized status as Italy’s only true gay quarter. The underground station declares as much with its rainbow finish, as it leads up to a maze of lively streets where bars and opportunities abound. Patrons will crowd the streets chatting and sipping aperitivi, starting from the late afternoon, while the place really livens up at night, with noise, music and lots of excitement. In a bizarre way, the LGBT+ crowd shares these streets with a thriving East African community that has its own bars, restaurants and rituals and is just as characteristic of the area. The place is indeed very welcoming, and any casual visitor will enjoy the easy-going atmosphere and appreciate the good food and drinks.

The area has now become a low-speed zone; carriageways have been reduced in width in order to allow for additional outside room for restaurants, and some spots have been completely pedestrianized. Bike lanes easily provide access to the area, which was becoming more lively and colourful by the day. Nightlife would reign supreme, were it not for the restrictions brought about by Covid-19. Yet, to those with a knowledge of Milan’s history, these developments appear quite amazing.

At the centre of a tiny square at the heart of the neighbourhood stands a small church, San Carlo al Lazzaretto. Its very name is a reminder of a tragic past, as a lazzaretto was a hospital for plague victims. The church once stood at the centre of a vast walled structure – encompassing what is now the most animated part of Porta Venezia – where those afflicted by the plague would be accommodated until their death or eventual recovery. They would attend mass from a distance lying on their pallets, in a very early and somber form of social distancing.

Alessandro Manzoni, Italy’s foremost novelist, hauntingly describes the 1630 Great Plague of Milan in his celebrated masterpiece, The Betrothed: the disease ravaged the city and almost half the population died, many in the Lazzaretto. Today’s cheerful bars literally stand on top of the buried dead of long ago, and one cannot but think about it from time to time, although such sobering thoughts rarely occur when dining out and having fun.

And yet such a horrible past is somehow good news as well, as it helps us to understand that in the long run things change, improve - and pandemics end. Milan started introducing quarantine measures for the sick way back in the fourteenth century with the Black Plague, well ahead of the times, and has since faced with determination diseases and wars – always doing its very best to overcome hard times. It has now been hit by the world pandemic, but once again, it has stood up to the challenge, and is introducing innovative measures to change for the better the way people live. Pedestrian areas and bike lanes in Porta Venezia are one of many examples of the trend towards a greener and healthier life.

One has only to think that right where untold suffering once took place, people now enjoy themselves and laugh in front of a drink, making the most of their evening out. At least they did, before the restrictions in place closed venues and prevented gatherings. But knowing what the place has been through before, it is impossible not to predict that Porta Venezia will very soon be back in its full shine, welcoming locals and visitors to its crowded and happy streets.