This ornate pink private palazzo was converted to a hotel only a decade ago and marries original Art Nouveau elements and grand lobby and staircase with an imaginative, playful contemporary style that makes you think of fairy tales and enchanted gardens. Rabbits pop up all over the restaurant, painted owls peer from corners, teapots have been turned into lamp stands, and cascades of butterflies tumble down walls. It's quirkier than you might expect from the relatively traditional Relais & Châteaux brand, but with the label's anticipated luxury levels and impressive dining. The hotel provides a Milan stay with character and style in a city where style is almost a religion.
The hotel sits just east of Milan's central core, away from the tourist hordes in the residential Monforte district, which offers a glimpse of local life and some good neighbourhood restaurants. The cathedral is a 20-minute walk, the famous 'Golden Quadrangle' that forms one of the world's poshest shopping districts closer. The tram right outside will haul you to Milan's main train station.
Helpful door and reception staff usher you into the wonderland of Château Monfort, where the lobby delights with wrought iron flowers, leaves erupting on bespoke wallpaper, and chandeliers throwing out glimmering light. The pastel-pretty Mezzanotte Lounge Bar is a showstopper below a glass dome through which you can see the facade of a Capuchin church. Avoid the claustrophobic, clanking European lifts and take the grand staircase to your room for unexpected window glimpses of odd, beautiful corners of the palazzo's facade. Downstairs is a spa with Turkish bath, sauna and saltwater pool as well as 'emotional' showers of aromatic water.
The 77 guestrooms have a variety of themes, most based on operas and ballets, and are notable for mirrored surfaces, quirky highlights (owls, butterflies, dragons) and shimmering, coloured fabrics that provide a dreamlike atmosphere. To go all out, book the Cinderella, Nutcracker or Turandot suites. My deluxe room (number 216), more toned down, is based on a Belle Époque travel theme; the minibar looks like an antique trunk. For a room in an urban European hotel it's a decent size, though twin beds placed in the room's centre, rather than against the walls, make it seem more cramped than it is. There's no stinting on the quality of linens, towels and coffee pods. Thank heavens (given my jetlag) for proper block-out curtains.
Top reason for staying in any Relais & Châteaux property is the food experience, and you're hardly disappointed right from the quality breakfast, served on rose-decorated plates and accompanied by great coffee in a silver pot. Ristorante Rubacuori, bistro style for lunch and à la carte for dinner, features contemporary Italian cuisine that sometimes veers into the unexpected, such as crunchy octopus with broccoli, or ravioli with smoked buffalo. Cella di Bacco offers flights of Tuscan and Venetian wines accompanied by chef's nibbles.
Château Monfort sits in a district of slightly gritty, soot-blackened streets lined by those impressive palazzi, now turned to government offices, that seem to typify Italy. You might check out nearby neoclassical Palazzo Serbelloni, which boasts Milan's largest courtyard. High-street shopping drag Corso Venezia is 10 minutes away, the leafy Public Gardens 15 minutes.
For some, a hotel is just a place to stay, but if you want it to be an experience in itself then this property's quirky, charming aesthetic ensures you're in for a treat, especially if you book a suite. The restaurant provides an equal treat for the tastebuds.
Corso Concordia 1, Milan. Rooms from $320 a night. Phone 1300 121 341, see relaischateaux.com
Maybe it's just the lack of a radio-clock in my guestroom or the fairy-tale atmosphere, but Château Monfort seems to belong to a slower-paced era of lie-ins, lingering breakfasts and no sense of hurry.
This isn't a hotel for lovers of minimalism or those looking for traditional Italian décor. Like many old buildings in Europe, Château Monfort's public areas have a tendency to gloominess unrelieved by the on-trend greyness of many walls.
Brian Johnston was a guest of Relais & Châteaux and Silversea.