The day trip to Milan had been… odd. After getting yelled at in the neighborhood fabric store, my girl friend and I had visited the exotically grand Duomo for a while. It is in the center of Milan and even its exalted structure was draped with huge, big-city advertising banners where construction on the cathedral was intense. One got the impression that it was still being “finished” hundreds of years into the project, or its remodel was dwarfing any homeowner’s worst nightmare. Either way, from our perspective at ground level, even its phenomenal size was overshadowed by the multi-story department buildings encircling it.
We had wandered a few side streets near central Milan and I had been disappointed. I was expecting something more overtly high-fashion. In reality, the city seemed like any other drab, socialist European city that I’d seen the likes of in countless movies. The constant November rain probably did not help. Maybe that was also the reason no one walking on the streets was smiling or friendly. Plus, there were several middle-aged women scattered begging, sitting on the inner edge of the wide, outdoor mall sidewalks, looking very dejected. And nearly everyone was wearing black.
Our internet research had shown a few shops listed as “chocolate shops” in Milan, but we couldn’t find any near where we were. After having such difficulty finding the fabric store, and fighting a recurring sense that someone was periodically blind-folding us and spinning us around, venturing further that day seemed daunting. Instead, we opted for lunch at a cafe with a TripAdvisor sticker on the window, then headed as best we could back toward the train station, trying to find our niche in the crowd of apparent locals surging along the covered walkway under the grey buildings.
When a gelato shop appeared in our view, we decided to take advantage. We were the only customers in an immaculate, picture perfect establishment run by a gentleman of Indian descent. He was very happy to see us, and told us a little about his coming to live in Italy three years prior. The gelato was superb, and he watched our faces with satisfaction as we took our first licks.
The commute back to our hotel was using the same public transportation we had used to get there. It was unremarkably diverting for first-timers, but would obviously get tedious with repetition. The train, in particular, seemed quite slow; but at least it wasn’t a bus. I really don’t like public buses in any city I have tried them in. (click on any photo to enlarge)
There was not much to see on the train. I don’t know if it was our choice of seating or if we really were in tunnels most of the time. However, we passed time talking about spending the next day looking for a chocolate shop in Monza. A few stops into our ride, a woman took the seat directly facing us. She was about 35 years old, dressed in comfortable working mom looking attire. She kept her brown eyes politely semi-averted, but her countenance was open and friendly. After listening to us for a while, she spoke to us in excellent English, which we had not found to be the norm.
It didn’t take us long to ask her if she knew of any chocolate shops in Monza, where she had said she lived. At first, her puckered brow and doubtful eyes gave us little hope. Then, she brightened and told us of one that she liked, doing her best to give us directions like someone does who is familiar with an area and no need of street names does.
The following morning, we asked the hotel concierge two things:
- Could he help us understand the directions we had been given? and
- Did he know of any chocolate shops in Monza?
You would have thought we had asked if there were any Hawaiian beaches nearby, but he wasn’t so rude as to be openly incredulous. He exuded the air of a knowledgeable and patient butler, who possibly understood less English than he was letting on. With a look of indulgence and a quizzical expression, he informed us, no, there were not any chocolate shops.
He did give us slightly improved directions to the chocolate shop we were looking for. I still don’t think we took the most direct route. Say what you will about the injury to the landscape done by commercial signs, I have a whole new appreciation for how useful they are. Or would have been in this case.
The chocolate shop was randomly located on a street that seemed to be mostly middle-class apartment buildings. There were a couple of small parks and a suburban grocery store in the vicinity, but also some deserted looking places and graffiti. Again, we were the only customers, and the owner was delighted to see us. There were the typical glass cases, but there were only a few chocolates in them. The walls were lined with boxes labeled that they contained chocolates, and there was a lot of wine. The highlight of the shop was his hardened, sugar paste figurines. These cartoon-like miniatures were his pride and joy. They were darling and full of personality, but still tasteless. In his limited, one word long English sentences, in conjunction with my companion’s Spanish and limited Italian, he explained that most customers bought them for decorations. We also succumbed to their charms, and he boxed some up for safe travel in my carry-on luggage.
As for the chocolate, the signs and his descriptions indicated that most had strong alcoholic flavors. I purchased a couple of the milder sounding ones, but when I tried them later, found the added flavors destroyed my enjoyment of the chocolate. I actually threw remnants of them away.
There was more window shopping to do in central Monza, though. It had that quaint, updated, local downtown feel to it, even if it also lacked helpful street signs. And the layout was erratic enough to confuse the most well-trained maze rat. But with no pressing schedule and everything within walking distance from the hotel, it was akin to being lost at Disneyland with sufficient funds to keep it interesting.
We thought we had seen one store-front with the word “coco” in it the previous night. We had been hovering under umbrellas in the driving rain while looking for dinner in the barely lit streets. We had been disoriented then and we were disoriented again, so imagine our joy when we found it again and discovered that even in Italian “coco” had to do with chocolate! It was the first of several amazing shops we stumbled onto. What we learned was that while Monza did not have distinctly “chocolate shops,” it did have many shops with chocolate.
A couple of hours later, we felt we had confirmed that any shop or cafe that advertised pastries or coffee or gelato was very likely to also have an impressive variety of delicious chocolates. Frequently, locals in all manner of work attire were in these magazine worthy shops, getting coffee and chatting with the staff like old friends. Even though we thought we looked pretty much like everyone else, they also seemed to know we were foreigners before we had even spoken. Maybe the fact that we never knew quite where were were had become permanently stamped on our faces?
Most of the people working in the shops with chocolate were friendly, though. Only in one shop did they treat us like we may have snuck up out of the ghetto. And they were going to charge extra for us to sit down and eat the couple of chocolates we had just purchased. The next shop made up for it by treating us like we were long-lost royal cousins. It was well into dusk by the time we were done with all our taste testing, which included exquisite chocolate cakes and hot chocolate. It was a good thing that the dinner restaurants wouldn’t open until 7:30 PM, and we could get in some more walking before then.
That was all about 4 months ago. The friend that I was shopping with that day has gone back to live in Monza, Italy for a year, due to her husband’s employment. She recently sent me a photo with a message telling me about a weekend long chocolate fair in downtown Monza! There were rows of temporary, open air booths set up. It sounds like another visit to Monza in March some year is something I need to look into. Just to do more thorough research.