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Tue 2 Oct 2007 04:00 AM

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Life in the fast lane

There are many ways to watch a Formula One race, but not everyone gets to do it in style. James Bennett flies to Milan's Monza Grand Prix to sample the F1 high life.

There are many ways to watch a Formula One race, but not everyone gets to do it in style. James Bennett flies to Milan's Monza Grand Prix to sample the F1 high life.

Fashion, football and the fastest cars in the world, can you think of anything better than that triple combo of delights to draw you into visiting a city?

Well, if that's the action you're after there is only one city to travel to from the Gulf this year.

History begins with the ‘F1Xperience’ and you really get a sense of how technology has changed the pace and image of the sport.

UAE national airline Etihad has recently opened its 45th new route in three years flying to Milan three times a week from the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi - and it is already planning to go daily in 2008. I travelled business class to Milan on Etihad's inaugural flight. Armed with an exclusive Paddock Gold Pass to the Monza Grand Prix and several reservations to dine at the city's best restaurants we entered the airport on the 2am flight to Milan. Five hours and 45 minutes later we arrived on time at Malpensa airport, fully rested on the airline's award winning flatbed and itching to explore the city before one of the most famous races in motorsport.

Malpensa is Milan's second airport and a 20 to 30 minute taxi ride along the outskirts of the city to the centre. The first thing you notice after stepping out of the airport is the freshness of the air compared to a summer spent in the Gulf.

With an average temperature of 25 degrees Celsius in the first half of September conditions are ideal whether you are in Milan for business, a sporting occasion or two, or simply a stroll around the shops.

The trip from the airport to the centre of town is fairly uneventful with the majority of Milan's industrial sector based around the city's motorway system. It is well known as a business destination and no wonder. The amount of light and large-scale industry going on is impressive.

Once in the city there are a number of beautiful landmarks to visit including the capital's most famous cathedral, the Duomo di Milano, Italy's second largest church, the world's second largest gothic church (after the Cathedral in Seville) which holds the world's largest collection of marble and features a striking golden Madonna statue on top of its spire - la Madunina (little Madonna), the symbol of Milan. If you are only on a short trip to Milan, take time to see Milan's Teatro alla Scala, the city's opera house and the Castello Sforzesco where I attended an incredibly lavish US$1m party hosted by the Abu Dhabi government's investment arm, Mubadalla - a stunning setting for any party or launch event, or for a stroll around the castle's ancient 14th century walls.

The following day the time had arrived to head off to the Monza Grand Prix, home to the Italian Grand Prix since 1922.

We set off in a limo from outside the Sheraton Diana Majestic hotel at 9am and already the traffic was complete chaos. What the driver had failed to remember was that France and Italy had played a crucial European Championship qualifier the night before, the first game since the now infamous Zinadine Zidane headbutt at last year's World Cup. "It's always like this, this is Italy," he struggled to say in English. The chaos was typically Italian, chaotic but friendly with everyone heading in the same direction to stare at the closest thing you can get to a jet fighter on four wheels.

Business etiquetteBeing the fashion capital of the world, dress and overall appearance are very important so look sharp.

Never refuse an offer of a coffee or a glass of wine. Ask your contacts about their children, spouses, pets, recent holidays and the like. Person-to-person contact goes a long way in Italy.

An evening drink in one of Milan's many bars is sometimes preferred to a leisurely business lunch in this work-oriented city.

It is important to maintain your bella figura - the Italian expression for showing your best face. This can refer to appearance, but can also mean the ability to get out of a difficult situation with style. Charm, grace and humour are very important at all times.

When meeting someone in a formal situation, it is polite to simply state your full name and then shake hands.

It is acceptable to be five to ten minutes late for an appointment in Milan but call ahead.

Topping off a meal with a frothy cappuccino would be unthinkable to an Italian. Ask for an espresso instead.

Not everyone had a Paddock Pass though. Once I arrived at the forest-enclosed track I was ushered into the Paddock Club marquee. Scan your gold pass across the specially placed electronic machines and you're in. On your left the history begins with the ‘F1Xperience', a whole host of steering wheels, tyres and old and new F1 cars on display you really get a sense of how technology has changed the pace and image of the sport. Next door you can even sit in one of two F1 simulators and take on a series of virtual opponents. Trust me, it's harder than it looks. If you get the chance, make sure you stop off at the Paddock Bar, grab a glass of champagne and soak up some of the atmosphere before the big race.

I then followed my hosts to the Spyker racing team corporate area - a snaking corridor of corporate hospitality from the likes of Ferrari, McClaren, Bridgestone, Williams, Red Bull and Toyota. You've never seen anything like it. It looks like there is more food and drink on offer here than in the whole of Milan's pasta bistros put together.

The view from the corporate box, however, is something else. You have to pinch yourself to realise just how lucky you are to be standing on one of the most exclusive spots in the sporting world. With the infamous diehard ‘tifoso', fans in English, who drape the stand in a sea of red and a gigantic Ferrari flag just before the green lights start the race, any sports fan is in dreamland.

Before the race take advantage of the Club's privileges. Go on one of three available pit lane walks at either 8am (probably too early for some of Milan's party animals), 10.55am or the one I chose at 12.30pm to see the crew and mechanics preparing for 90 minutes of thrilling action. Every precise detail is checked and double checked, engines tested and computer aided technology precisely monitored. Make sure you ask one of the manufacturers if you can have your picture taken in the pits in front of your favoutite car, a great souvenir to show your friends when you get back.

Then stroll back at your own leisure to the corporate hospitality area to enjoy more pre-race build-up and one of the highlights of the trip, meeting the stars behind the wheel. I shook hands and wished Ferrari's Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen the best of luck, while I had the chance to act like a teenager for five minutes and got Spyker's Adrien Sutil and Sakon Yamamoto to autograph my Spyker laptop bag. Overlooking the Ferrari and McClaren pit lanes with a direct view onto the fastest straight in the entire race, the 350kmph start/finish line, I stood there for a good three hours virtually without moving a muscle. The race passed by in a flash and the day was over but the memories will last forever.

If fast cars and Formula One are not your thing, Milan has much to offer those wanting to enjoy the city at a different pace.

Because so many Italian cities are drenched in tourist attractions, Milan is often dismissed as an industrial, polluted and fashion-obsessed northern city-a commercial shell, while the country's soul resides elsewhere. But the Milanese will tell you otherwise. To them Milan is Italy's over-achieving "second city", the financial heart of western Europe's poorest-performing economy, and a seat of power for thousands of years.

Though renowned for its fashion industry, Milan is also home to most of Italy's manufacturing: chemicals, textiles, cars, electronics and aircraft all have strong bases here. Many media, publishing and advertising companies have set up their headquarters in Milan as has, more recently, the high-tech sector. Almost all of Italy's largest private companies, including Pirelli and Fininvest, are here, and the city's stock exchange-the largest in Italy-is supported by a sizeable financial-services sector.

Nestled in the wide Lombardy valley of northern Italy, just south of the Swiss Alps, Milan's wealth and power has a great deal to do with its location, which, as a border region, is both commercially accessible and physically vulnerable. The city owes its commercial prominence to this location in Italy's richest region. Close to the country's European neighbours, the city lies at the heart of an extensive road and rail network and is served by two airports, Malpensa and Linate.

Where to stay?

Sheraton Diana Majestic, Milan

Situated in the heart of Europe's fashion capital, the Sheraton Diana Majestic Milan benefits from the numerous traditional Italian eateries. It is just a 15 minute walk from Milan's prized shopping district which is home to celebrity favourite brands such as Prada, Versace and Gucci.

Four Seasons Milano

Often considered Milan's top five-star deluxe hotel, the Four Seasons lies just off Via Montenapoleone, the city's most celebrated shopping boulevard. Equipped with spacious deluxe rooms, with "superior" status rooms if absolute quiet is a necessity, as well as two restaurants, a bar, gym, business centre and 24-hour room service, nothing is left out of this first class service.

GrandHotel etDe Milan

Intimately luxurious, the Grand Hotel et De Milan balances family management with refined service in an 1863 building. The hotel is perfectly positioned between La Scala (3 blocks away) and Via Montenapoleone. Rich marble bathrooms, king-size beds, heavy curtains, chipped stone floors, elegant upholstered furnishings, and muted skylight domes all ensure ultimate luxury.

Given Milan's surrounding lakes, fertile land and trade-friendly position, it is hardly surprising that Romans, Huns, Goths, Byzantines, Franks, Austrians and Spaniards all fought over the territory. The city has been laid to waste at least four times, and been rebuilt on countless occasions.

Italy itself boasts one of the world's most advanced industrial economies. It is a major market serving a population of more than 57 million people. Italian firms are active throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, including the emerging markets in central and eastern Europe.

Following the reforms started in the early Nineties, the Italian business environment has become more investment-friendly. The privatisation drive, the reform of public administration, the Euro changeover, the reorganisation of the banking system and the setting up of a more streamlined business incentive system have all contributed to improve the country's overall competitiveness.

The Italian labour market is undergoing a process of change and renovation that is making the job market more flexible. The traditional upsides of the Italian labour market include; low cost of labour, high productivity, rising employment with 1.5 million new jobs created since 1995, more women at work and generous tax benefits with 70,000 new jobs created in 2001 thanks to tax credits.

Steeped in history Milan has plenty of sightseeing opportunities for those wanting to enjoy the city at their leisure.

Once a royal palace, a fortress and a military barracks, Castello Sforzesco, Piazza Castello is a good place to start your sightseeing tour. Built by the Viscontis and occupied by Frenchmen, Spaniards and Austrians, this 15th century Renaissance castle has had a troubled history - including the explosion in 1521 of its main tower, the Filarete - yet it still looks prouder than ever. The new look comes partly from the large fountain, echoing the castle's form, which now graces the main entrance. Michelangelo's unfinished and rather moving "Pietà Rondanini" is on view as well as works by Mantegna and Lippi, and frescos thought to be by Leonardo da Vinci, who was appointed engineer and painter to the Sforza Court in 1483. Two newly-restored rooms, the Sala Castellana and the Sala del Tesoro, display the castle's collection of furniture.

A visit to the Sant' Ambrogio, Piazza is also recommended, especially if you're interested in Milan's religious history.

When older Milanese call themselves Ambrosiani, they are referring to their patron saint, Ambrogio. Sometimes known as "the reluctant bishop", Ambrogio, governor of Milan in 374, became bishop by popular demand rather than personal choice. But once ordained, the former lawyer threw himself into a life of poverty, during the course of which he converted St Augustine. His feast day is still celebrated on December 7th.

The saint's ghoulish remains are still on display, next to those of the Christian martyrs Gervasius and Protasius, in the crypt of Sant'Ambrogio. Otherwise, simply enjoy what is unquestionably Milan's most beautiful church, with mosaics from the 4th-9th centuries and a beautifully carved golden altar.

24:00 hours in Milan

Morning:Have breakfast in one of the elegant coffee shops inside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele then enjoy shopping in Via Montenapoleone, the city's best shopping boulevard.

Afternoon:Dedicate your afternoon to art: first stop we suggest the Cenacolo Vinciano that Leonardo painted in the refectory in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Corso Magenta. After admiring this masterpiece, go on the Pinacoteca di Brera.

Evening:For a real taste of the unique atmosphere of the Milan Dolce Vita you will have to go to the Navigli area. Then top off your night at one of MIlan's many clubs and bars.

Striking a very different note, grim placards just outside the medieval walls describe the different kinds of torture that took place in a sunken pit here and in nearby Piazza della Vetra. Torture by suspension, the gallows and "breaking with the wheel" drew crowds of gleeful onlookers from the Middle Ages right up to the start of the 18th century.

Nowadays for evening entertainment Milan offers world-class opera and classical music, as well as interesting bars serving post-work ‘aperitivi'.

On a flying visit, try to spend an evening in the Naviglio or canal area (south-west of the centre), which is bisected by pretty waterways and dotted with cafés and jazz bars.

For a quieter evening, the restaurants and bars along the cobbled streets of the Brera district, a short walk north of the Duomo, are a good choice.

Milan's famous opera house, Teatro alla Scala, re-opened in 2004 after a three-year, $78 million renovation. The backstage has been overhauled, and new stage machinery and a fly-tower installed. The auditorium features new parquet floors and seats equipped with subtitle screens.

Often celebrated as the home of high fashion, Milan's uber-classy offerings do not stop with its shopping opportunities, as a visit to its many bars and clubs will tell you.

Bar Martini Dolce & Gabbana in Corso Venezia is hidden away from the main street, but a quick stroll through Dolce & Gabbana's menswear store will bring you out on to sophisticated bar, in a courtyard at the rear. The place has a 1950s feel, with slick black columns and sofas offset by a giant red-and-crystal chandelier by Venini. Come here for a quick lunch, or for cocktails-mostly made with Martini, of course. The bar is open from 10am to 9.30pm.

H-Club inside the Sheraton Diana Majestic in Viale Piave is frequented by model-types and advertising executives who flock to this hotel bar for aperitifs in one of the most attractive gardens in Milan. There's also a spacious indoor bar and lounge, with frequently-changing decor.

Situated in Via Ascanio Sforza in the heart of the Navigili quarter, Scimmie, translated as ‘monkeys', is a classic jazz joint, with live music playing most nights. In the adjoining restaurant you can see, but not hear the musicians.

Self-styled "intellectual" bar, Le Trottoir a la Darsena, has moved from the Brera district to the inside of a large former customs building at the end of Corso di Porta Ticinese in the canal area. Come here for excellent cocktails, soulful music, and a slightly older crowd.

How to get there

Emirates airlines

Flights daily direct from Dubai - Milan with approximate flight time of six hours.
Flights daily direct from Milan - Dubai with approximate flight time of six hours.
Business Class fare - US$3,052 per adult return fare.
First Class - US$3,963 per adult return fare.

Alitalia Airways

Flights three times a week from Dubai - Milan with approximate flight time of six hours.
Flights three times a week from Milan - Dubai with approximate flight time of six hours.
Business Class fare - US$2,600 per adult return fare.

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