The Dreamers.

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Hotel STRAF, Milan

Sitting in the noble shadows of Milan’s Duomo, Hotel STRAF rebels against the pomp and glamour of the standard four-star hotel, instead opting for minimalist industrial chic and a generally breezy attitude. The miscellany of textured surfaces throughout the 64-room dwelling has your fingertips itching to touch everything in sight, while warm earthy tones help to evade the imposing chill of the Milanese winter. The dwelling of choice for many of the fashion set when they are in town, Hotel STRAF – a member of Design Hotels – is the perfect Milanese pied-à-terre.

I’m overcome with the strange sensation that I’m standing in the middle of a life-sized snow globe. Snowflakes flutter about in the evening air in a graceful aerial waltz. In the centre of Piazza del Duomo is an immaculate Christmas tree, standing at least six metres tall, trimmed with all the gilded trappings. The fairy lights nestled within its branches shine like fireflies, lighting up the tree as the centrepiece of Milan’s eminent plaza.

The imposing beauty of the Duomo looms in front of me, its intricate stained-glass windows glowing from within as if the light is coming from its very soul. Regardless of religious inclinations, it’s difficult not to be mesmerised by the sheer majesty of the building and the sense of spirituality it emanates. It’s confounding to fathom how someone ever imagined such a structure, let alone built it. Its intricate spires remind me of the conical sandcastles I used to
make as a child by dribbling wet sand in a heap. Or perhaps the remnants of a candle, the wax of which has melted ever so intricately into ornate patterns. If your gaze lingers for a moment, obscure details slowly begin to reveal themselves. Grim gargoyles watch stoically over the goings on in the plaza below, snow resting on their strapping, sinewy shoulders.

But my destination this evening is not the building that acts as the throbbing religious heart of Milan, but rather a tiny edifice by comparison, huddled in a narrow side street within the Duomo’s shadows. Quite inconspicuous compared to many of the city’s more extravagant hotels, Hotel STRAF provides an aesthetic asylum from the onslaught of tourist kitsch that dominates the surrounds of the Duomo.

The embracing ochre tones of the lobby offer instant reprieve from the icy clutches of the wintery night beyond the hotel’s doors. And the greeting at the front desk is equally as warm and – somewhat surprisingly for a boutique hotel in the centre of Milan – devoid of pretention. The design motif of the hotel is of a distinctly industrial persuasion. Brushed metal and cement, slate-like floors, eye-catching artworks and irresistibly tactile surfaces make a wander through the petite dwelling an exercise in growing curiosity.

My personal abode sits on the fifth floor, behind a sturdy black door. Inside, the main wall is adorned with something akin to paint-spattered scaffolding – a nice change from the mundane achromatic walls often signature to minimalist interior design. The rest of the room adheres to a black-and-white palette, though soothingly so. It’s also expertly wired for mood lighting, with nary a fluorescent bulb in sight. Thoughtfully, the jet-black bathroom is offset by an ample arrangement of mirrors, meaning you’ll never have to vie with your significant
other for time in front of the looking glass.

The coffee the next morning at breakfast is, unsurprisingly, exquisite, and fuels me for a day exploring the inner urban arteries of Milan. A few hours of aimless drifting amongst the snow-clad laneways of the area surrounding the hotel eventually leads me to Via Montenapoleone, one of Milan’s most illustrious shopping stretches. Unless your hip-pocket is well endowed, activities along this elegant street are usually limited to people watching and window shopping, but it’s also home to Milanese gourmet institution, Cova. Once the meeting place for the fashion, literary and film glitterati of Milan, Cova is one of the city’s oldest and most revered cafes and patisseries,still drawing in throngs of coffee lovers and sweet tooths.

In traditional Italian style, orders are taken at a tiny counter at the entrance to the cafe. A cluster of well-heeled espresso acolytes is banked up in front of the bar, waiting somewhat impatiently for their coffee fix. When I finally elbow my way to the front, I hand my docket to one of the bow-tied grey-haired gents behind the bar, timidly ordering in my sparse Italian. ‘Che cosa?’ he barks at me to speak up. Avoiding the taboo of ordering a cappuccino after midday in Italy, I’ve ordered a marocchino, which – judging from the barista’s face – seems only mildly more acceptable. I smile sweetly in defiance and take my turn standing at the bar, sipping on my coffee. But soon feeling the glare of the espresso-deprived patrons behind me, I return to the icy chill outside and begin my stroll home, daydreaming of the cosy warmth that awaits me.