It’s the romantic destination you pick when you want to avoid the cliché of Rome, but Florence has just as much history, culture, and amazing food, frankly. However, it can get a bit crowded.
The solution? Stay a little outside the city, where it’s cooler, quieter, and you can have easier access to some of the region’s best vineyards. Well, this is Chianti-shire we’re talking about, after all.
The stay: Stately, 16th century Villa la Massa is just 20 minutes’ drive from the centre of Florence; it comprises four elegant buildings, with 22 acres of pretty parkland and gardens, with an outdoor pool, gym, and a spa named after the Arno river, which flows past the edge of the property. The main residence, the primrose-yellow Villa Nobile, is home to the bulk of the 41 rooms and the spa, while the Il Verrocchio restaurant sits in the terracotta-coloured Il Mulino. I’m staying in the newly renovated Casa Colonica, a former farmhouse which now offers four particularly plush suites, set around a courtyard (perfect for a pre-dinner prosecco).
And they’re magnifico, designed with a hefty dose of Italian flair and finesse by a Florentine firm, they feature polished wood and stone flooring, vast bedrooms, even vaster living areas and bathrooms with views out onto the park. Sofas and tub chairs are upholstered in tweeds or velvets in a range of jewel colours, from amethyst to emerald, contrasting with ziz-zag patterned rugs in lighter tones. Bookcases and tables are scattered with art and architecture tomes, to make you feel all intellectual.
The food: The service may be stylishly old-school (if you’re lucky, the maître d’ will give you his rendition of Volare around the piano after dinner), but the food is a contemporary version of Tuscan classics without going all nouvelle cuisine. Dishes are hearty and flavourful, from handmade pastas (their pici cacio e pepe trumps Padella’s) to mains like stuffed rabbit, or osso bucco with risotto Milanese. Start with a couple of aperitivi at the cosy, scarlet-walled Mediceo bar first; they offer a range of very inventive cocktails made with liquers from one of Florence’s oldest pharmacies, Santa Maria Novelli.
Ask about: Going wine tasting. They can organise visits to local vineyards, such as Castello di Nippozzano, owned by the wine-making Frescobaldi family. Their chiantis have won awards (no wonder they sent some as a gift to Wills and Kate when they got married). You can also go truffle-hunting in the hotel Ferrari, or just zip around the rather lovely countryside in it.
And after that? Well, you can’t miss heading into Florence itself. The hotel has a regular shuttle bus that drops you off by the Ponte Vecchio, then you’re free to gawp at the beautiful Botticellis in the Uffizi, marvel at David’s pert buttocks in the Accademia, puff up the 463 steps to the top of the extraordinary Duomo, or just shop till you drop – Florence specialises in leather goods, chocolate, and, of course, designer labels: Gucci, Ferragamo, and Roberto Cavalli all hail from here.
Florentine fact: Villa La Massa used to belong to the Medicis; yes, those Medicis, who produced popes and bankers, frequently tried to poison each other, and had a TV miniseries made about them.