The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - STORY DAVID MEAGHER

Vis­it­ing Florence can be an en­durance. In the warmer months tourists clog the city’s nar­row streets, they in­vade the many pi­az­zas en masse, swarm on mu­se­ums such as the Uf­fizi Gallery and over­whelm the Ponte Vec­chio If your aim is to visit Florence to ad­mire the beauty and grandeur of the birth­place of the Re­nais­sance then be pre­pared to wait in line and get oc­ca­sion­ally poked in the eye with an­other tourist’s selfie stick.

Florence shares some­thing with that other Ital­ian city favoured by tourists, Venice: it’s beautiful, but af­ter a few hours you need a respite and start to look for an es­cape. The best way to see Florence is to do it the way Grand Tourists would and stay not in the cen­tre of the city but some­where in the green belt that sur­rounds it.

Sit­u­ated just 8km east of Florence on the banks of the river Arno is Villa La Massa, a for­mer Medici villa that has been trans­formed into a lux­ury ho­tel. It takes just 20 min­utes by taxi or the ho­tel’s shut­tle ser­vice to get from the ho­tel to the Ponte Vec­chio in Florence (de­part­ing from the ho­tel hourly be­tween 9am-noon and 3pm-7pm). Af­ter a busy day wan­der­ing the city’s mu­se­ums and gal­leries it feels like you have ar­rived at a coun­try re­treat. It just 20 min­utes by car but seems worlds away: in­stead of the sound of traf­fic and hordes of tourists, there’s the gen­tle bur­ble of the Arno and end­less bird­song.

The villa dates back al­most 500 years to when Santi Lan­dini, a mem­ber of an aris­to­cratic Floren­tine fam­ily, built a sum­mer house here. The Lan­dini fam­ily owned the house un­til 1788 when it was sold to Car­di­nal Gio­vanni Rin­uc­cini. The villa changed hands sev­eral times over the fol­low­ing decades – and un­der­went many mod­i­fi­ca­tions and im­prove­ments, such as the ad­di­tion of four tow­ers at the cor­ners of the main build­ing – un­til it was fi­nally ac­quired by a mem­ber of the Sears depart­ment store fam­ily in 1953. It was then that the prop­erty started life as a lux­ury ho­tel. Gre­gory Peck, Win­ston Churchill, Bar­bara Hut­ton, El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor and Richard Bur­ton were just a few of the ho­tel’s guests in its first hey­day. David Bowie and Iman took over the en­tire prop­erty for their wed­ding in 1992.

In 1998 the own­ers of the Villa D’Este on Lake Como bought the prop­erty and be­gan a ma­jor re­fur­bish­ment and restora­tion to cre­ate a sis­ter ho­tel to the Villa D’Este. Villa La Massa feels like stay­ing a a friend’s Tus­can villa rather than a five-star ho­tel. The ho­tel is rel­a­tively small and has just 37 rooms, most of which are suites. There are three ac­com­mo­da­tion build­ings on the es­tate with most of the rooms in the main Villa No­bile. A restau­rant as well as guest ac­com­mo­da­tions oc­cu­pies the old mill build­ing, Il Mulino, which dates from the 15th cen­tury, and then there is the smaller villa, Il Villino, which houses the more pri­vate suite ac­com­mo­da­tion.

In the Villa No­bile most rooms fea­ture four-poster beds with Re­nais­sance-style canopies in a pal­ette of warm colours and are made up with linen sheets. The mar­ble bath­rooms are spa­cious and many have nat­u­ral light. The rooms in this villa have spec­tac­u­lar views of the Tus­can hills and the Arno. In the smaller villa, which is in front of the main villa on the banks of the river, the style is lighter and more con­tem­po­rary. The rooms in this villa all have river­side views.

The three vil­las sit on a 9ha site of for­mal gar­dens in­clud­ing a walk­ing and jog­ging track, an ex­er­cise area and heated swim­ming pool. The ho­tel has as­so­ci­a­tions with sev­eral nearby golf cour­ses avail­able for an ad­di­tional charge. There’s also an im­pres­sive iris gar­den, the iris be­ing the floral sym­bol of Florence. To cel­e­brate the abun­dance of them on the Villa La Massa es­tate the ho­tel com­mis­sioned the more than 400-year-old Of­fic­ina Pro­fumo-Far­ma­ceu­tica di Santa Maria Novella to cre­ate an iris-in­spired fra­grance ex­clu­sively for the ho­tel. The spa, sit­u­ated in the main villa, also uses prod­ucts from Santa Maria Novella.

Villa La Massa also uses Santa Maria Novella’s liqueurs in its bars, and their award-win­ning bar­man Fed­erico Martinetto will be more than happy to mix you one of his unique cre­ations in the jew­el­box-like Medicean bar af­ter a hard day’s sight­see­ing. The Il Ver­roc­chio restau­rant in the mill build­ing has a river­side terrace for an al fresco meal and much of the pro­duce on of­fer comes from the ho­tel’s own kitchen gar­den, and the olive oil from the es­tate’s own trees.

While the guest rooms at Villa La Massa are spa­cious and many have their own sit­ting ar­eas, you will find your­self loung­ing in the li­brary of the main villa, or on the so­fas in the main atrium, or in the gar­den (one of Fed­erico’s cock­tails is only a call away). The re­laxed am­bi­ence here is what makes Villa La Massa feel like a pri­vate home rather than a ho­tel. You may even find your­self for­go­ing sight­see­ing in Florence for a day in favour of kick­ing back at the ho­tel. Villa La Massa is a mem­ber of Lead­ing Ho­tels of the World. To book: lhw.com

From above, the Villa No­bile, the main build­ing of Villa La Massa; the Villino with its beds of irises; a ju­nior suite with four­poster bed; the lobby; the terrace of the Ver­roc­chio restau­rant; bar­man Fed­erico Martinetto; and the swim­ming pool

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