Go With the Flo: The grandest of Florence’s country piles
A report published earlier this year spells it out – the luxury experiences market is now worth an eye watering $980bn (luxury experiences being defined as cars, art, home, tech, dining, hotels, travel, spas, yachting, etc). Compare that to the personal luxury goods market, worth only $390bn. There are many demographic reasons for this, but we can maybe hypothesise that in a world that’s changing very quickly, people with the cash resource want to capture precious moments that stay in the memory, not in a deposit box, garage or wardrobe.
Having cottoned on to this fact over 20 years ago, Small Luxury Hotels of the World now has an unrivalled portfolio of some of the world’s finest small luxury independent hotels. With over 520 properties in more than 70 countries, ‘from cutting-edge design hotels to palatial 17th century mansions, city centre sanctuaries to remote private islands, historic country houses to idyllic resorts’ – the brand act as a pool of custom and resource.
So to add to my own collection of precious memories, SLH jet me off to Italy for a brisk degustation of their Florentine offering. Even this is elevated above the standard ‘6am at Stansted Easyjet Penance Experience’. There can be no more soothing words to the hardened air traveller than ‘flies direct from City Airport’. Now British Airways has launched a direct route to Florence, four times a week. Take off at 11am? Now they’re just spoiling us.
What myself and my party encounter are four perfectly-judged but tonally different properties where nuances count for much. First stop: Hotel Lungarno, sat on the south bank of the River Arno, two loafer strides away from the famed Ponte Vecchio bridge, a sumptuous marriage of European plushness and American levels of service. Another example of the move into the luxury experience from goods, the hotel was founded by the family of famed shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo. A museum and temple to the Hollywood fashion giant sits facing the terrace across the river and is a must for anyone who wants to (metaphorically) walk in the shoes of Greta Garbo, Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn.
Designed by Florentine architect Michele Bönan, and clothed in sumptuous blues and creams, the property maintains a precious art collection of modernist masterpieces, with works by Picasso and Cocteau lining its corridors. Borgo San Jacopo, the restaurant of chef Beatrice Segoni, provides incredibly elegant cooking with Tuscan earthiness – highlights were a sublime grilled quail with Florentine egg on spinach and plump ricotta ravioli kissing a red pepper puree, dotted with piquant salsa verde.
An evening spent digesting as the lights twinkle and dance on the water is capped by a night in their one-off suite – the 13h century Marsili tower, complete with four-poster bed and tapestries. Opulent and evocative, I awake in a Medici kinda mood. Luckily, this doesn’t mean having anyone killed or exiled. Certainly not before breakfast.
After a lightning tour of the Renaissance treasures of the Uffizi – yes, I DID get in some Botticelli – we decamp to a highly elevated version of a charming little guesthouse.
JK Place sits on the east side of the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, a mere five-minute stroll away from the architectural wonders of the Duomo. With only 20 bedrooms, this incredibly peaceful retreat is more like a sophisticated home than a hotel, with working fireplaces, antiques and collectables that make you feel privileged to be the house guests of an incredibly tasteful and cultured family. Chinese prints, large print black and white photographs and furniture and lamps from the 50s and 60s fit perfectly with the muted, décor of soft greys and stone. Service is quiet and impeccable.
A morning is spent exploring intricate streets and wide-screen piazzas. One place that is a must, after the Uffizi and Accademia di Bella Art, which houses Michaelangelo’s now infirm David, is the Palazzo Strozzi. After taking in the delights of post- Raphael mannerists Pontormo and Rosso, it’s a treat to head back for homemade cakes in the cosy sitting room. In the evening, we eat exceptionally great versions of mama’s Tuscan classics, chat Italian politics with urbane GM, Claudio Meli and enjoy drinks on the roof terrace, nestling amongst the city’s terracotta roofs, before descending like Dante to the basement for one very last cocktail in their almost Kubrickian ‘Pink Room’. This is no inferno, disco or otherwise.
Next day, we drive south west through the city walls and out into the rolling countryside, along the banks of River Greve towards Chianti country and Val di Pesa. Niccolo Machiavelli was exiled here after the return of the Medici to Florentine power in 1512.
During the day, he tended the vineyards of Sangiovese grapes still used to make a fine Chianti Classico that bears his name. The Duomo, only a mere seven miles away, visible in the haze would no doubt taunt him. In the evening, he would clean the dirt off himself, put on his old robes of state and sit down to write in his spartan stone office. Amongst the plays and satires was, of course, that primer for cunning and devious politicians everywhere, The Prince. Just across the toiled fields, lies the handsome 15th Century pile that his uncle built, Villa Mangiacane. This is our next destination.
Renovated by new Zimbabwean owners, some 15 years ago, this place is more than princely. It is majestic. It has all the features the modern luxury traveller would require – two outside pools, a small vineyard and winemaking operation (the “Chiantigiano” – style Riserva is delicious), a spa and interior pool and incredibly fine dining. Sublime iterations of Pappa di Pomodoro, semolina-based pici pasta with duck ragu and an incredibly rich and dense osso bucco let you know you’re in exactly the right spot for the Tuscan motherlode. In the main house, under layers of paint, they discovered original wedding frescos dating back 400 years. The terrace view comprises of Florence itself nestling in the distance, framed by rolling cypress groves and undulating hills – a perfect Da Vincian backdrop for any modern-day nuptials. All these elements contribute to one of those perfect marriages of moment and place. Authentic and of the ages. The bedrooms, however, leave the script behind.
The top terrace suites each feature a mezzanine bed in the double height rooms and opulent interiors that chime with the setting. However, across the other 21 suites, the modern, the chic, the ethnic and down right surreal all collide to create almost dream-like fantasies. A Royal suite slathered in marble and onyx features original features from India, rococo fixtures and the largest bed I’ve ever bounced on. This eclecticism is something out of a fashion shoot – which manager and willowy hostess with the most, Silvia Piazzini, keenly points out is something that happens regularly here. Whether this level of glam is entirely simpatico with the Villa’s origins, the contrast between heritage and shine is diverting.
Last stop, before our return trip home, is a grand late-Renaissance country pile. Built in the 16th century, in the Barberino di Mugello, just north of Florence, Villa Le Maschere Resort has evolved over the centuries from a family seat to the lavish property that sits in 35 acres of the reconstituted Romantic Park, containing the Bilancino Lake, cypress and sequoia trees. There is also an Italian-styled garden, two swimming pools and a health and beauty centre. With 65 rooms and it’s own grand private chapel, Villa le Maschere also creates a stylistic mash-up of original frescos and stucco detailing from it’s inception with highly modern interior elements. A grand location for a wedding or just a weekend break. A health and beauty centre has been developed in the ancient basements of the Villa. Sothys, the notable French Cosmetic line are responsible for the all products used here. The open jacuzzi extends out to a terrace overlooking the park. It’s a great spot for some bubbles of your own. Rooms range from the intimate, with a stripped back palatial air, to the highly dynamic Le Maschere Penthouse decked out in Constructivist black, white and red – providing unusual angles and stunning views.
After another four course lunch courtesy of Fabio Danza and paired with yet more subtle and well-kept Chianti Classico (I’m not complaining) it’s back off to the Airport some 20 minutes away and a BA sandwich. Which when you’ve been as well looked after as what I had, is about all you could eat too. Small Luxury Hotels of the World certainly know how to keep your eyes, sense of beauty and tummy occupied. With partners of this calibre, they will no doubt keep expanding. I know I did. ●
For more information contact Small Luxury Hotels of the World™ (SLH): www.slh.com
Doubles at Hotel Lungarno in Florence with SLH start from £208 per night room only. Doubles at Villa Mangiacane with SLH start from £249 per night including breakfast. Doubles at JK Place Firenze with SLH start from £279 per night including breakfast. Doubles at Villa Le Maschere with SLH start from £157 per night including breakfast.
Lower rates may be available through Small Luxury Hotels of the World™ (SLH) for restricted and shorter periods of time.
Flights: British Airways now flies from London City to Florence with fares starting from £77 one way. Price includes two pieces of hand baggage, on-board food and drinks and choice of seating 24 hours in advance. For more information or to book, visit www.ba.com.