The scooters may have changed. The lifestyle hasn't

Nowhere is the Lambretta more at home than in Milan. Jon Winter pays a visit to a museum celebrating 50 years of quintessential Italian style
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Think scooter, think Lambretta, think mods cruising the seafront on a blustery bank holiday weekend. In the minds of most Britons, that's been the enduring image associated with this particular mode of two-wheeled transport. But over the past 12 months scooters have been enjoying something of a renaissance in Britain with a new breed of machines and, perhaps more significantly, a new identity. Out has gone the association with that peculiarly British cult, and in has come a fusion of style and pragmatism that's more Milan than Margate. Fifty years after the first Lambretta rolled off the production line, I headed for Milan to sample a slice of this quintesentially Italian lifestyle and explore the home of the Lambretta on a scooter.

Finding a suitable set of wheels on arrival was easy. Scooter hire is listed at the back of a handy guidebook, Milano - where, when, how, available free from tourist information centres. Unfortunately, it's not possible to rent a Lambretta, but within half an hour of making a phone call I was sitting astride the modern equivalent contemplating the jostling tangle of traffic that is Milan's morning rush-hour. Suddenly the romance of just scooting around the city on two wheels seemed quite distant.

The key was not to be hesitant I told myself as I opened the throttle and headed for the city centre. Apply that old Italian cliche, and do as the locals do, ride confidently and decisively. It proved an effective strategy and I arrived in the Piazza Del Duomo in one piece.

There were one or two alarming moments, but the only real worry for the two-wheeled tourist, other than a lack of road sense, were the trams. Rail and road mix uneasily in Milan, and the sight of a huge bulk of straining metal sliding inexorably towards you at a junction is more than a little unsettling.

Dominating the heart of the city is Milan's magnificent Duomo. It is every bit as impressive as you would expect for a cathedral that first began to take shape in 1386 and wasn't really completely finished until the last of its five extraordinarily detailed bronze doors was fitted in 1965. Despite being the undisputed focus for both visitors and locals, this incredible structure remains one of the few places where you can escape the constant bustle of Milan's streets, either by vanishing into the half-lit interior or escaping above the city onto the roof.

Aside from this national treasure, Milan has its fair share of cultural and historical "must sees", most of which are clustered within a short spin of the Duomo. Top on this list is Leonardo Da Vinci's "Last Supper", which after 500 years and a Second World War bomb still survives on the refectory wall at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Other notable distractions include the Civica Galleria d'Arte Moderne, the Castello Sforzesco and Pinacoteca di Brera, an exhausting collection of mainly Renaissance artwork, although worth the effort if only to see Mantegna's "Dead Christ".

Milan's other main attraction is its reputation as the style capital of the world. According to Milano - Where, When, How there are some 88 shops specialising in modern design and, excluding the myriad of run-of- the-mill clothes shops, over 100 exclusive fashion outlets from Armani to Yves St Laurent. The shopping possibilities here are almost limitless, but you'll need a similarly infinite credit zone to really enjoy a spree in the streets known as the Quadrilatero where all the big names are situated. I left it to the Japanese and stuck to window shopping.

Also well worth a browse is the Museo del Design Italiano, which houses a permanent display celebrating 50 years of Italian style. Most of the exhibits are exceptional examples of everyday items and not surprisingly, you will find the Lambretta here representing Italy's pinnacles of automotive form and function along with its rival the Vespa and, curiously, the Fiat Panda.

It felt great to be on two wheels in Milan and after a quick lunch Milan- style - standing at the counter of a paninotece with a 60-second espresso and a lingua di pizza - I spent the rest of the day zipping through the streets with no real itinerary, just enjoying the activity for its own sake. Travelling by scooter really opens up the city, giving you the freedom to explore beyond the limits of the pedestrian tourist.

Confident after a day scooting round the sights, I headed out of the city the following morning to meet Italy's number one Lambretta enthusiast. Vittori Tester bought his first Lambretta in the 1970s and hasn't looked back since. Today he runs a scooter restoration business and a small museum dedicated to the Lambretta from his home in Rodano, 25kms east of Milan. Visitors who make the effort to reach this quiet little village, especially those who arrive on two wheels, are treated like a guest with Vittori keen to show you around his collection himself and unravel the story of the Lambretta.

Although it is acknowledged today as a classic example of Italian design, the Lambretta has its roots in the distinctly unstylish world of seamless steel tubing. This had been the lucrative product manufactured by its eventual creator, Ferdinando Innocenti, until Milan took a hammering during the Second World War and his factory was reduced to rubble.

When the war ended, Italy, like many countries, needed a cheap, reliable method of transportation to get the country moving again. Innocenti, with the manpower and the machinery, engineered a little scooter with three gears, seven-inch wheels and a steel frame and named it after the Lambrate area of Milan.

The squat little Model A was an immediate success and during the years to follow, as it metamorphosed into the familiar stylish shape associated with the name, the Lambretta sold millions worldwide until 1972 when Innocenti saw the future on four wheels rather than two.

Production restarted some years later when the machinery was sold to India, and although Lambretta continued to enjoy considerable success, the Indian-built machines didn't have the same appeal as the original Innocenti machines.

Pride of place in Vittorio's comprehensive collection is the second-ever Model A acquired from the Innocenti family along with a wealth of fascinating collectibles salvaged from the factory which now adorn the walls of the museum. Of these, the more interesting exhibits are all the original posters and advertisements showing how Lambretta's sales pitch changed over the years. In one of the first brochures, the Lambretta is shown as both people and goods carrier in pictures that make it look more like a piece of agricultural equipment. A decade later, the strategy couldn't have been more contrasting as Lambretta recruited Jayne Mansfield to pose on a gold-plated TV175 (now in Vittorio's museum). From then on the emphasis shifted to lifestyle, with advertisements featuring young, stylish, outgoing men and women smiling and waving as they zip along under slogans such as "Join the jet-set on a Lambretta".

Back on the streets of Milan, I headed into the city centre, parked among a crowd of young Milanese at the Piazza San Babila and sat watching modern- day Milan as it whizzed past on a scooter. Vibrant young city types seemed to favour the racy machines with names such as Hacker and Stealth, chic tanned women with shades and shopping bags rode more elegant scooters that matched their designer outfits, and besuited businessmen motored past on plush, top-of-the-range cruisers. The scooters may have changed, but in Milan the lifestyle hasn't.

Try as I might to transpose this appealing way of life onto the streets of Britain's cities, somehow I couldn't make it fit. At the end of the day, it's not what you do, but how you do it.

Milan fact file

Getting there

Air UK (0990 074074) fly three times a day from Stansted with fares starting at pounds 129, excluding tax, if you travel midweek (Monday to Thursday) and stay at least one Saturday night. Weekend flights (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) start at pounds 149, excluding tax. British Airways and Alitalia have a number of daily flights from Heathrow. STA Travel (0171 3616161) are currently offering fares, excluding tax, of pounds 194 midweek and pounds 207 at weekends with BA, and pounds 182 midweek and pounds 195 at weekends with Alitalia.

Scooter hire

Vehicle rental in Italy is notoriously expensive and you can expect to pay around 150,000 Lire (pounds 55) for 2 days hire of a 50cc automatic scooter. Companies are listed in the yellow pages (Pagine Gialle) or ask at the Tourist Information Centre (APT) for a copy of their free guide book "Milano - where, when, how" which carries details for Bianco Blu, 0348 2211701 (mobile).

Accommodation

Finding somewhere to stay in Milan can be a stumbling block for visitors arriving without a reservation. All the guide books strongly recommend you book ahead. Jon Winter stayed at Milan's youth hostel which is the exception to this rule being both cheap, 23,000 Lire (pounds 8.50) for bed and breakfast, and large enough to accommodate most visitors who turn up without a reservation.

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