Around the world at the Milan Expo

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By Cathy Rose A. Garcia

THERE WAS just one reason why I wanted to go to Milan this summer — the world’s fair, called Expo Milano, is being held in the Italian city for the first time since 1906.

With the theme “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” the Milan Expo is described as a “platform for the exchange of ideas and shared solutions on theme of food, stimulating each country’s creativity and promoting innovation for a sustainable future.” There are 145 countries participating in the six-month event, which ends on Oct. 31.

Although the Philippines didn’t have a pavilion this year, I still wanted to see what all the fuss about the world’s fair was all about.

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So on a hot summer day in late June, I hopped on a subway train to Rho Fiera, the city’s newest station built just for the Expo. There were ticket booths outside the station where I quickly bought a one-day ticket for €39.

Wearing my most comfortable sandals and lots of sunblock, I was prepared to spend the whole day at the Expo (it opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 11 p.m.). But once I got to the site, I realized I would probably barely even cover the Expo’s main attractions.

The Expo, located on a 110-hectare property, is simply overwhelming. The layout is patterned after the structure of ancient Roman cities, with the country pavilions lined up along a 1.5-kilometer thoroughfare.

There are 52 country pavilions designed by top architectural firms, nine food clusters such as cocoa and chocolate, rice, coffee, and spices. And that’s not even counting themed areas such as the Future Food District and Biodiversity Park, as well as various corporate pavilions.

I made a beeline for one of the most popular pavilions, Brazil, which meant long lines. I spent 40 minutes waiting to enter, but at least there was free Wi-Fi which helped make the wait bearable.

Brazil’s pavilion, designed by Sao Paolo-based architect Arthur Casas, gave visitors a chance to walk on the huge metallic net suspended over a garden of plants and flowers indigenous to Brazil.

Everyone seemed so excited to be taking selfies while standing on the net that it was easy to overlook the exhibits showcasing Brazilian technology in agriculture.

Another popular exhibit was Colombia, where I stood in line for another 30 minutes. There was a guided tour inside the pavilion, where there were cool multimedia displays about Colombia’s diverse attractions. Even though it was basically an advertisement for Colombian tourism, I have to give it an A for effort because after watching the catchy music video at the end of the tour, Colombia is now part of my list of places I want to visit.

Faced with the prospect of an hour-long wait to enter Japan’s pavilion, I decided to skip any pavilion that required me to queue up for more than 10 minutes. This meant missing out on some “must-see” pavilions like Kazakhstan, United Arab Emirates, South Korea, China and Switzerland. In fact, Switzerland’s pavilion was so popular you had to get advance tickets just to enter.

On a side note, seeing how people flocked to the Malaysian and Thai pavilions made me feel sad the Philippines was not involved in the Expo. It would have been a good opportunity to show off the Philippines’ best practices in agriculture, as well as top tourist spots to the European market.

There’s a lot to see at the Expo, and some pavilions can be appreciated even without entering, like the United Kingdom’s striking metal beehive, and United Arab Emirates’ wadis.

Another striking sight is the Russian pavilion, which has a cantilever over the main entrance. Visitors can see their reflection on the stainless steel cantilever, making it another perfect spot for selfies.

Built from a stack of wooden apple crates, the Polish pavilion is one of the eye-catching structures at the Expo. At the top of the pavilion, there’s a secret garden full of apple trees.

A few hours at the Expo and I got the feeling some of the pavilions were all about promoting tourism first, and tackling the issues such as food security and climate change, second.

Who wouldn’t want to visit Poland or Morocco after seeing flashy multimedia displays showing their stunning sights? Plus there’s a lot of free food samples — vodka from Russia, sweets from Lithuania, and hazelnuts from Turkey.

Even corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola and Lindt were giving away free soda and chocolates.

Food is everywhere at the Expo. Every pavilion had a restaurant or food stall offering the country’s specialties.

At the Belgian pavilion, people snacked on Belgian fries (not French, they said) and Belgian beer. Slovenia’s restaurant offered Karst and Prlekia sandwiches, a Turkish stall sold doner kebabs, while Argentina showcased its beef and wine.

The Dutch pavilion brought food trucks all the way from the Netherlands for a taste of the country’s street food. I found its “weed burger” to be quite intriguing, but it turned out to be made of seaweed.

Several popular Italian gelaterias were also found at the Expo. I grabbed a cup with two scoops of gelato, cioccolato fondante and straticella al cioccolato Cuba, from Pernigotti — considered one of the oldest gelaterias, having been established in Novi Ligure, Piedmont in 1860.

The Expo also featured many Italian restaurants and chefs, which gives non-Italian tourists a chance to sample some really good Italian food in just one place. One can get a full-course meal by a Michelin-starred chef at the Identita Golose pavilion, while Eataly featured restaurants serving specialties from Italy’s different regions.

At one corner of the Expo, I found the “Future Food District” which offered a glimpse into how people may be shopping in supermarkets a few years from now.

A customer can go inside a supermarket, touch a product and everything they want to know about the product is displayed on a screen. There’s even a robot which can pack your fresh fruit for you.

By the end of the day, my feet were killing me, and I lost track of how many country pavilions I visited. Unfortunately, I also lost much of the Expo’s message, perhaps amid all the noise and gimmicks of countries trying to outdo each other with the best and biggest pavilions.