ONCE YOU SETTLE IN TO THIS QUIET, SUBLIMELY APPOINTED HOTEL OUTSIDE FLORENCE – A FORMER MEDICI VILLA ON THE RIVER ARNO – YOU’LL BE TEMPTED TO SKIP THE CITY AND ITS TOURIST HORDES ALTOGETHER.
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