Victoria DeLeone travels to Milan for Expo 2015 — a present-day World's Fair with an environmentally impactful twist.
MILAN – Most visitors would not describe Milan as a desert. Yet catching sight of the Expo Milano 2015 above the rooftops of the industrial zone, all stretched canvas roofs and modern architecture, I was immediately reminded of an oasis.
The Expo, which launched in May and will run through October 2015, is expected to attract more than 20 million visitors. The theme, Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, examines the issues surrounding the global future of food, like nutrition, hunger, sustainability, and waste.
Universal Exposition, or World's Fair, started in 1851 as a platform to show off the greatest accomplishments of man (it was usually men). It has since morphed into an event held once every five years that highlights innovation and facilitates international partnerships surrounding the theme.
Participating countries either sponsor their own pavilion or participate in Clusters based on crops (like Rice: Abundance and Security; Coffee: The Engine of Ideas; Cereals and Tubers: Old and New Crops) or locations (Islands, Sea, and Food; Agriculture and Nutrition in the Arid Zones). Events include educational exhibits and displays. Many countries include restaurants and snacks to provide a taste of their cultural bounty.
The pavilion structures are as insightful and thoughtful as the educational material held within them, beautiful physical representations of the history and personality of each country. Some incorporate traditional sign elements (peaked arches define the Turkmenistan pavilion), but all are also modern: The only requirement is that the pavilions be as sustainable as possible.
Nestled between the pavilions and clusters are other exhibits, like the Slow Food garden, as well as rest stops and festival-type dining options.
WHAT TO SEE
The Kuwait exhibit is my go-to example of what the Expo can be. It's artistic and entrancing, with light shows, videos, and water formations. The focus is on Kuwaiti climate: desert and sea. The informative and pointed exhibitions describe how traditional foodways have morphed into contemporary foodways, and how as a nation, they plan to advance them responsibly.
The Cereals and Tubers cluster was similarly informational, with a long stretch of raised beds containing different kinds of cereals, with descriptions of growing seasons and uses.
Milan is the home of the international Slow Food movement, which explores and celebrates sustainable and authentic food values. So it's no surprise that their plaza is just great. Three low-slung buildings arranged in a triangle with raised beds in the center highlight heirloom plants varietals. The buildings contain one of the better book and gift shops, a tasting area, and a screening room. Their schedule includes lectures and screenings that explore the philosophy of the movement.
Poland's exhibit doesn't really focus on food. But the entrance to the pavilion takes visitors through a garden enclosed by imperfect mirrors. The result is a surreal stroll through shimmering, insubstantial trees and shrubs and classic sculptures. It's worth a visit, if only for that.
WHAT I WISH I'D SEEN
One could easily spend two or three days wandering the eight-and-a-half kilometers of the Expo. My visit was considerably shorter, so I missed many of the pavilions that would have been worth the wait had I had the time.
The Morocco pavilion was a favorite of everyone I talked to, primarily for the gorgeous garden out back.
The beehive structure of the United Kingdom pavilion caught my eye as an intelligible haze at the end of a long path. Wandering through the flowers and looking out from the delicate hive allows visitors to emphathize with the worker's plight. The message is clear: Save the bees.
The Future Food Co-op attempts to bring all the messages and challenges of the Expo into one building, creating a grocery store experience to fit modern eating needs. Truly and Expo highlight!
Although the focus is on food, the eating options area a bit more limited than one would expect. That said, the restaurants in the France and Spain pavilions are — perhaps unsurprisingly — both hits.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
The Expo is located northest of Milan, in Rho, and is easily accessible by tram, metro, or train.
WHEN TO GO
I went early on a Thursday, and the place was fairly crowded but movable. There were lines to get into the more popular pavilions, like Japan and Kazakhstan. On weekends, I'd expect it gets even more crowded.
Almost the entirety of the Expo is shaded with white canvas, but it's still hot and sweaty in the shade and exhausting in the sun. Dress for that, and for a lot of walking.
Download the Expo Milano app for a detailed map and a comprehensive listing of events, which doesn't seem to be available easily online. (It was a saving grace when I was there.) The Wi-Fi on-site is pretty basic, but it works. Just have a cold drink on hand to sustain you through the slow connection.