What do you take to wear on a two-day trip to Milan? Black, obviously: arriving at Malpensa airport, we encounter a sleek army of northern Italians, milling about, talking, embracing and looking stylish. Apart from the odd Missoni stripe and Marni floral, they’re dressed in black. At least we’ll blend in – don’t you hate looking like a tourist?
The Gray looks glossy, with a solid, mirrored rectangle as an awning. On our left as we enter is a small cocktail lounge, boudoirish, with velvet banquettes. We’re greeted by the friendly black-clad staff in a reception area replete with a giant fuchsia-upholstered swing and, without too much messing about, we’re taken up to our room for the unveiling.
Blimey. It’s perfect. The white walls are broken up with two-tone wood veneer. The ivory silk curtains are button-operated, as is the lighting. The first thing we notice, as we play with the curtains twice, is the scene outside. The Gray is precisely central, with the Duomo at the end of the street, La Scala and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele round the corner, and all the fun bits of town – Via Montenapoleone, La Brera, Porta Ticinese – a walk away. So we’re perfectly positioned for playtime.
After the view, the bathroom: there’s a huge, round Jacuzzi bath with a TV, and if you haven’t got time for the tub (you’ll need 20 minutes to fill it), there’s the option of a big shower room, all marble, wood and glass. Back in the bedroom, we look around to see what other buttons are worth pressing. The stereo has the Kill Bill Vol 1 soundtrack sitting next to it. As the dulcet tones of Nancy Sinatra ring out, we survey the plasma TV, DVD player and fully stocked mini-bar. Finally, the bed. The inner sanctum of our weekend. It’s vast, with a seven-foot leather bedhead, Egyptian cotton bedlinen and duckdown pillows. You could say we’re up and running. I can’t see myself leaving this room for the next two days.
No such luck. Not even time to check out the stripping housewives on Italian TV. Maybe later, I am promised; we have a supper reservation in the hotel restaurant, Le Noir, so we just have time to splash about in the rock-star bath. Interesting. Let’s hope Le Noir will be half as good. With the name, we imagine it might be a little pretentious, which isn’t the case. It could have been a Quentin Tarantino set in a past life: it’s a black box with opium-den lighting, and black velvet chairs round tables sporting squares of grass (the green, growing stuff). As in reception, with its Alice in Wonderland does Dallas swing seat, the feel is two parts opulence, one part humour. There are spoons and forks hanging from the light fittings: strange, but it looks bold and quirky rather than contrived. The staff are dressed in black. So are we.
The menu takes a firm Italian stance: we kick off with a Barolo, octopus carpaccio and lobster spaghetti. It was all excellent, as was the service – as was the second bottle of Barolo. Waking up the next day, we both feel like a million lira, ie: the price of a second-hand Vespa, and probably both look it. How can wine be legal? With a bathroom like this one, though, surely we can sort out our hangovers. Within an hour, we’re out on the streets of Milan, having power-showered ourselves better, breakfasted in the hotel and dressed again in his ’n’ hers black. The hotel is superbly positioned for a couple of hours of culture at the cathedral.
The Piazza del Duomo is basically Trafalgar Square with no Nelson’s Column, just loads of pigeons and conspicuous, non-black-wearing tourists. The Duomo, on the other hand, is truly breathtaking: a vast gothicky pile with spires and flying buttresses, which towers over the piazza. It has to be seen. There is a steep winding staircase leading to the rooftop, where the 360-degree view gives our newcomers’ eyes a sense of Milan’s topography. We walk among the stone saints freely, ponder the merits of bringing a picnic, as some others have done, and take the lift down. We decide not to explore inside, but instead join the throngs of shoppers worshipping at the temples of Via Montenapoleone, Milan’s premier shopping thoroughfare, and the surrounding stylish streets. Prada, Gucci, Hermès, Louis Vuitton – retail doesn’t get more serious or spend-spend-spend than this.
We cross back past the Duomo and stop at Zucca, just inside Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a great place for a Campari and soda. It’s weird: Milan is full of men buying shoes for the women in their life. Sitting next to us is a couple who must have done just that. Hmmm – he’s in his fifties and she can’t be older than 25. Father and daughter? Husband and wife? Or a forbidden liaison – there are at least two shoe boxes visible at their feet. I suppose we’ll never know…
After the cosy contemporary of Le Noir, we decide to go traditional for our last evening. There’s an incredible array of choice in Milan; they love the ‘next big thing’ thing. At Il Coriandolo, the decor is very simple, unlike the food, which is sophisticated and delicious. One thing overshadows the menu, though. Believe it or not, the man we saw earlier near the Duomo, entertaining a very young lady, walks into the restaurant with his companion. But this time, she belongs to his own age group, and is obviously his wife. Her shoes are great. They sit next to us, and he recognises us. He glances over at us again and again, shifting in his seat. I can’t bring myself to wink. Maybe he thought I was a private investigator. He’ll never know.
We’ve had a funny, free-flowing, easy time in Milan. The Gray is a sexy, intimate-opulent place to hang out, and the city is fantastic for eating and shopping (and drinking). It’s a great escape from all the nonsense we put up with at home. Final thoughts: it’s a small world, but I wouldn’t like to paint it. Don’t cheat on your wife. Oh, and keep buying shoes for the one you love. It certainly works for the Italians. Finally, I believe they’re about to bring in a law that bans people from public places if they’re not smoking.