Medici palace that became Europe’s most splendid hotel

FOR a couple of London girls, fresh off a Ryanair flight and a battle with striking trains and lengthy bus queues, entering the Four Seasons Florence struck us dumb. We’d walked into a world of Italian royalty, papal splendour and elegance of a type you just can’t find outside of the country of Dante, Leonardo, Michelagelo et al.

Actually, our first encounter with the elite club that is the Four Seasons group began at the airport. Flummoxed by the trains and the sporadic Terravision buses, the hotel came to our rescue with a car for the hour’s drive from Pisa.

Service with a big smile was overshadowed, though, by the majesty of the hotel, a former Medici residence and 15th century Palazzo della Gherardesca, conjoined with a 16th century convent. The building has been home to a Pope, a flock of nuns, executives of Italy’s first railway company, five centuries of Italian nobles and a Viceroy of Egypt. As we walked past the marble sculptures in the vaulted, mosaic-lined, frescoed courtyard, Ryanair seemed not just a long way away, but a different universe.

Never before have I wanted to stroll round a hotel breathing in its relics, but the array of sculpture, frescoes, tapestry, furniture and more were too delicious. Even the business centre is in a chapel the papal family (Cardinal Alessandro de’Medici became Pope Leo XI) worshipped in. Stradano frescos decorate its walls, a stained-glass window lets in light, and meanwhile a pair of Macintosh computers purr away incongruously.

Of course, 15th century frescoes do not a hotel make, and this one is the product of seven painstaking years of restoration. The results are a perfect antique collection that manages to be seriously elegant for a modern audience, yet decadent in an old European style.

Rooms merely continue – and in some cases augment – the splendour of the lobby and deliciously purple Palaggio dining room. Ours was a yellow Junior suite looking out on the glorious garden, with period paintings and a richly embroidered sofa, as well as the largest shower I have ever seen (all marble, of course). But when we were shown the Conventino Presidential suite (alas the Royal Suite was in use; but the Conventino costs upwards of €13,000 per night) we were gobsmacked once again. It was quite literally like being in a wing of a palace-turned-museum. The living room has a frescoed vaulted ceiling and the bedroom features a hand-painted antique wood-panelled ceiling along with more frescoes. There are restored, faded tiles on the floor and ivory jewellery boxes dotted about. It is astonishing to see flat-screen TVs and internet ports in such a setting.

No stay in Italy – or indeed such a hotel – would be complete without a great breakfast and a smashing dinner. As I mentioned, the Palaggio is an affair to remember in itself, with lilac chairs, chequered floors, gracious pale green arches and a stunning chandelier, not to mention a snug wine cellar in an antechamber (this area becomes the breakfast buffet in the morning). Our dinner was arresting from first mouthful to last, from my melting aubergine with half-dried tomatoes with burrata cheese and glazed shallots to the creamy risotto with a piece of pigeon so tender it was like sashimi. And let’s not forget the scarlet-hued baby lamb in a pine nut crust and mint, glazed sweetbreads and black cabbage flan. This was the best of European finery, firmly anchored in the larder of Tuscany. Breakfast, too, overflowed with Tuscan meat, cheese, tomatoes and cakes.

Even for the jaded spa-goer, this one will drop your mouth open. It looks like something between an exclusive Hamptons beach club and Italianate palace (ahem), with marble, modern art and chaise longs that hint at Rococo but maintain something fresher. My Iris Experience (€330) was a two-and-a-quarter hour initiation into the celestial world of the Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, one of the world’s oldest pharmacies. It uses natural ingredients and still follows the traditional recipes of monks from the 13th century. The products used on me numbered just three, but each was dense in aroma and purity: from the floral water used to hydrate my skin, to the wonderfully fragrant iris poweder exfoliant, to the arnica wrap that preceded a massage. Heaven. But then, what else would you expect here? Rooms from €550. To book, go to Ryanair flies daily to Pisa, an hour’s journey away.

We didn’t want crowds, so we steered clear of the Uffizzi and the Duomo (the inside, that is), and headed instead for the Brancacci Chapel. Here, the frescoes in the side chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine are among the most important of the whole Renaissance. Another hidden treasure is the Horne Museum, the Victorian Herbert Percy Horne’s home, filled with artwork by artists including Giotto, Filippo Lippi and Giambologna, as well as furniture and domestic objects from the period (the latter was my favourite – the kitchen utensils are particularly fascinating).

Florence is famous for its stationery, leather and antiques. We got stuck in with the warren of enchanting stationery shops, finally settling on Pineider, the world’s finest. There’s an abundance of marbled and outlined paper in Florence, and enough nibs, quills, and other trinkets to keep you happy for days. Bottega Artigiana del Libro is another lovely boutique; for leather bargains, head to the San Lorenzo Market.

For dinner, Cibrèo Trattoria is the locals’ favourite; Teatro del Sale next door is also iconic. We had terrific apertivi at La Dolce Vita, and desperately wanted to try deli/restaurant Olio & Convivium.