Luxury hotels are like super-people. The more revered they become the more they have to keep up to date. Look at Gina Lollobrigida, still going strong at 86 – she is brand ambassador for Pagani, named for auto designer Horacio Pagani, son of a baker back in Argentina. Bet La Lollo spends a lot of time, and money, maintaining her eternal beauty. Just like a venerable hotel. Take Villa San Michele in Fiesole, on the hills above, and 15 minutes’ drive from, Florence. It dates back to a 15th century Franciscan monastery, opened as a hotel in 1950 and was bought by Orient-Express in 1982. Every year it titivates. Additions this year include a kids’ club, in the deconsecrated chapel, up 41 stone steps from one of the terraces. Children love it, for its equipment and for such adventures as treasure hunts in the woods behind the hotel – and they may even be taken on a scooter tour of downtown, says the gal.
This year has also seen the creation of a superb new suite. The two former freestanding Limonaia suites, one above the other, have been joined by a new staircase, and a garden walk-through enables another suite to be added. Nearly ever day this summer the entire three-suite-suite was taken, and for long periods at once. You get 2,900 sq ft total, with a 2,500 sq ft private garden with has a brand-new ten-foot plunge pool. Look over your manicured hedges, slightly down to the main hotel building, and far far down to Florence and its massive football stadium, current home of ACF Fiorentina (though its owner, Diego Della Valle, the one who takes time off from running Tod’s to renovate the Colosseum in Rome, plans a new sports city a few miles away). No names mentioned, but one of the world’s best entertainers was a Limonaia enthusiast last month.
The terraced gardens of Villa San Michele look more beautiful than ever, with white petunias and red geraniums and a host of other blooms. Round the main pool, on the top outdoor terrace, people seem to laze all day, on beige loungers. There is honestly no need to leave, for hours and hours. The poolside café has an antipasto buffet at lunch and, some nights, it is barbecue and pizza, just right for kids of any age, even that of La Lollo. I am reminded of a comment from another diva, Sophia Loren – ‘all you see is thanks to spaghetti’. We lunch on the terrace of the main restaurant, which is offering a ‘600-year taglioni recipe’, stone-milled spelt with spit-roasted pork. It is too hot for that, I go for one of the capreses, whole burrata with baby tomatoes rather than mozzarella with big tomatoes.
Afterwards, Giulio Gentile, truly one of the best raconteurs in the entire world of luxury travel, guides a quick tour of some of the interior treasures. The wall fresco of The Last Supper, by Nicodemo Ferrucci, is dated 1602. Which is Judas, he asks? There are two clues to show it is the figure in green, in the right-hand of the three panels. He is holding a purse (for the silver) and only he has no halo. In the hotel’s main lobby, the concierge, Maurizio Ammazzini, is brilliantly drawing a map for my onward journey. He is working with the map upside down and he appears to be talking at, as well as to, me at the same time.
What a lobby this is – no wonder first-timers are amazed. He tells about the morning cooking classes, about chocolate classes with Andrea Bianchini, about visiting a Panzano butcher, Dario Cecchini, who runs the Officina della Bistecca tasting restaurant. Perhaps Maurizio Ammazzini gets inspiration from the centuries-old frescoes to the right of his desk (there are also a few antique confessionals around in case anyone has need of repentance). The only thing I want to repent is lack of time to stick around this place – and with its shuttles every 15 minutes down to the city, you need not feel cut-off.
Although, says Giulio, himself a Florentine, this is such heaven up here why would anyone want to leave? Perhaps tonight it could be dinner for two on the Belvedere, a terrace with that view. Get a violinist, too, to add even more atmosphere. Marco Novella, a Milanese with more than an ear for languages, says that when the invitation came to run this 46-room luxury hotel, he did not hesitate for one second (Girlahead says that when a GM describes his place as pretty heavenly, you know it must be).