The architect and artist behind Hotel Straf is meditating atop a mountain peak in a toga, chewing goji berries and ruminating on his future hotel’s interior design. He fingers his mala beads. ‘Coloured soft furnishings? Pah. Wallpaper? So last season. Carpet, schmarpet. Door knobs? Such bad energy.’ He turns to a gnomish devotee beside him, and intones: ‘My one indulgence shall be: the Wellday massage chair – more knot-kneading than a thousand masseuses, more relaxing than a thousand bubble baths. And – the people – they shall come.’ With that, he levitates.
Now, I can’t verify that Vincenzo de Cotiis actually designed Straf quite like that. But it’s how the minimalist and modern interiors should have been conceived. When Mr Smith and I arrive at the hotel’s secretive, beetle-black entrance, we trip over a smiley man in a hoodie and trainers, who opens the glass door for us. ‘Wow, what polite staff – even off-duty,’ we muse. Turns out he’s wearing the front-desk uniform. We’re in Milan, remember: a hoodie here is as smart as an amorphous garment can be.
Minutes later, our room-inspection routine is underway. Surroundings are surveyed. Soft furnishings: nil. Walls: concrete, putty-coloured. Floor: concrete, putty-coloured. Bed: low, topped with putty-coloured cover. A splodgy black artwork has an acid-yellow lozenge on it: the room’s sole non-putty hit. Soaps have batch numbers. The bathroom is a vision of oxidised brass. (I later discover that showering here is like bathing in a giant tin. And it’s surprisingly sexy.)
Such aesthetic severity does funny things to Mr Smith. I can hear mutterings from our metallic bathroom: ‘What? That’s the tissue dispenser?’ Locating the minibar is tantamount to seeking out the Holy Grail. We stand helplessly before a giant sliding glass door. ‘It must be hidden down a trap-door,’ we conclude. ‘A secret underground passageway that leads to the Duomo perhaps?’ suggests a getting-carried-away Mr Smith (our hotel is steps from the sacred stone behemoth). Thirty minutes later, we reach an anticlimactic conclusion: the glass panel is stuck. With an almighty shove, Mr Smith uncovers a little fridge, stocked with wine and nibbles.
Snacks demolished, and massage chair tested (I’m saving up for one; they’re only $2,795), we venture out. I wasn’t sure I’d like Milan. I’d heard it was industrial, unsightly, even hostile in parts, and I’d read somewhere that if you aren’t wearing Gucci, waiters actually cannot see you. Yet coming here proves like falling in love with a friend’s ex-boyfriend: they’ve warned you against him, but all you can see is his sexy side.
Strolling around, we unwrap Milan bit by bit. Cherry trees in blowsy blossom billow by the cathedral. Friendly and funny waiters feed us delicious pasta. The fashion capital is of course full of shops (and retail is my religion). The sun shines. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II glitters with fripperies, and there are people wearing dandified uniforms. There’s a moment of panic when I realise I’m sans sunglasses (this is akin to going without trousers in Britain). I purchase some. Disaster averted.
We shoot up to the top of the Duomo in a lift. The roof is slanted like a giant Toblerone. A billion feet (roughly) above ground, I make an inconvenient discovery: I suffer from vertigo. We come down again, sharpish. We wander inside the Gothic cathedral and watch a service. A lady sings like an angel, and a shockingly embarrassing thing happens: whenever her voice soars into the silence, rivers of tears run down my face. Worried I might start speaking in tongues, and unable to fight the spiritual tremors, I quickly drag Mr Smith into the secular security of outdoors.
Religious highs give way to fleamarket thrills. At Fiera di Senigallia, in the canal district, hipsters mingle and vintage Prada luggage costs €100. We pretend to be Italian. We are in love. We are also at our most glamorous. For my funeral I want pictures of us in Milan emblazoned across my coffin. I shall pretend this is how I always looked: clad in black cape and skinny jeans, black pumps, Chanel bag, giant sunglasses, and a bouffant up-do that is admired (bizarrely) by an Italian stallholder. (Him, pointing at my head: ‘Thees ees from your miiind?’ Me: ‘Sorry? What?’ Him: ‘Youu cam up with thees look from your miiind?’ Me: ‘Er. Yes.’ Him: ‘I liiiiike. Iz niice!’ Me: ‘Thanks. Goodbye.’)
After obliterating our earnings, it’s time for an utterly futile mission. A minibreak wouldn’t be complete without one fruitless pilgrimage. We trundle around: footsore, thirsty, seeking a phantom restaurant. An hour later, we arrive. It’s closed. We perk up with espressos at Pasticceria Marchesi, followed by Campari and olives at Resentin. Because we’re hungry, we linger. Since landing in Milan, I’ve been dreaming about risotto Milanese. We order big bowls, and tuck in. The saffron lends a flavour I can only describe as mediaeval – try it, you’ll understand.
It’s testament to Straf’s greatness that, amid Milan’s many distractions, we miss our neat-as-a-bento-box boudoir. We hop on an apricot-yellow tram, and 10 minutes later, I’m back in that massage chair, being rubbed robotically, and listening to opera on the TV’s inbuilt stereo. I’m so happy, I start bawling like a baby. (Again.) Mr Smith has no choice but to order a bottle of prosecco.
Our stay in Milan has had the emotional range of a Shakespearean drama: tears, laughter, lust (luggage-induced) and love. I’ve felt my knees wobble with fear, and I’ve cried buckets. It rained. Twice. Despite this, here at Straf Hotel, Mr Smith and I have had a blast. Vincenzo de Cotiis – grazie mille.