Home to Chianti, fabulous art and inspiring architecture, Tuscany also boasts some lovely places to stay. JO FOLEY describes the hotels and villas that every visitor should know about .
Tuscany almost became a cliché when it was christened Chiantishire and was adopted by the best of Britain’s chattering classes. But it takes more than a few of London’s finest commentators to have an impact on some of the most beautiful countryside in Europe, perfect medieval towns, Siena and San Gimignano, and that Renaissance gem, Florence. Not to mention the moated elegance of Lucca, the beaches south of Viareggio and the wine-growing centres of Montalcino and Montepulciano.
In the midst of such joys there are tiny villages and hamlets, exquisite villas, farms and castles to stay in and any number of wonderful hotels including the Villa San Michele. Set on the hills of Fiesole, 15 minutes from the centre of Florence, this former monastery based on a sketch by Michaelangelo is one of the best-known, most beautiful hotels in Italy, full of antiques and religious artefacts including paintings by Lippi, a fresco of the Last Supper. The views of Florence are spectacular, and a cold drink on the terrace after visiting the sights is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Indeed the VSM takes all the hard work out of sightseeing with a courtesy bus to and from the Duomo every 30 minutes, and a concierge who will pre-book tickets to all the major galleries and exhibitions, meaning no queuing and no waiting. The problem with Florence is that there is so much to see – it has 30% of Italy’s great treasures, plus fabulous shops with leather goods, beautiful marbled paper and jewellery on the Ponte Vecchio, and the huge market at San Lorenzo. Not to mention the churches of Santa Croce and San Lorenzo – the former houses the tombs of Galileo, Michaelangelo and Machiavelli, while the latter leads to the Medici family mausoleum. Add to all this the former church of San Marco, now a museum awash with Fra Angelicos. The trick is to do a little at a time and then retire to a café or restaurant to relax and refresh.
And then there is Siena with its glorious centre – don’t be tempted to take a car, parking is impossible (indeed the same can be said for Florence) and try to avoid the weeks of the Palio, the renowned horse race, on 2 July and 16 August – you will see more on your TV. Be sure though to visit the Palazzo Pubblico, the medieval town hall with Lorenzetti’s powerful Allegory of Good and Bad Government. Lucca is a charming walled town with an elegant air and fine Romanesque churches; it is also the birthplace of Boccherini and Puccini. Most people visit en route to the coast or combine it with a visit to Torre del Lago where the annual Puccini festival takes place. Head south to the hills for such glorious hill villages as Montalcino and Montepulciano, and of course the medieval masterpiece of San Gimigniano. This Tuscan town of towers and campanile has earned it the nickname of the Italian Manhattan and in spite of the crowds of visitors and constant daytrippers it never loses its charm.
In Florence, apart from the Villa San Michele at Fiesole, there is the Gallery Hotel Art a few yards from the Ponte Vecchio. An hour from town is the exquisite Villa Fontelunga en route to Arezzo. This has nine individually designed rooms and should you get the urge you can take the whole lot over for a private holiday, complete with staff.Nearer Siena opt for the serenity of Certosa di Maggiano, a former 14th- century monastery a couple of miles outside the city. It has 18 rooms, an olive grove and a heli-pad to its name. A 30-minute drive from Siena is the Relais la Suvera, which began life as a medieval castle with its own Papal villa. The villa still boasts the best rooms and suites. Serious wine enthusiasts may choose the Borgo san Felice in the heart of Chianti, part of a medieval hamlet that is now a large wine-producing estate barely an hour from Florence. The hotel has its own enoteca where you can taste and purchase the wines. Currently there are 14 wines produced on the estate, as well as a grappa and a vin santo.
Overlooking San Gimignano is the former convent of La Collegiata. Spoil yourself and book the master suite on the top two floors of the 12th-century tower – these enjoy 360? views of the countryside and the area’s largest Jacuzzi. At Porto Ercole, with its own beach, is the Hotel Pellicano, for decades the favourite watering hole of the rich, the royal and the jet set. It began life as a simple hostelry owned and run by a former manager to Cary Grant, which gave it its first introduction to Hollywood. The stars have been flocking to it ever since.
Villa San Michele, Fiesole.
Tel: +39 055 567 8200
Gallery Hotel Art, Vicolo dell’Oro 5, Florence. Tel: +39 055 27263
Villa Fontelunga, Via Cunicchio, Arezzo. Tel: +39 0575 660 410
Certosa di Maggiano, Strada di Certosa 82, Siena. Tel: +39 0577 288 180
Relais la Suvera, Pievescola. Tel: +39 0577 960 300
Borgo San Felice, Castelnuovo Berardesca. Tel: +39 0577 3964
La Collegiata, Località Strada 27, San Gimignano. Tel: +39 0577 943 201
Hotel Pellicano, Località Sbarcatello, Porto Ercole. Tel: +39 0564 833 801
Villas to Vie For
It is Tuscany’s treasury of villas, farmhouses, monasteries and towers that holidaymakers compete for, booking the same one year after year. Whether you want to be lost in the middle of the countryside or right in the heart of town there is a place for you. Take the apartment le Torri Gemelle or its sister le Torri Salvucci if you really want to be in the middle of everything. Set in two 13th-century towers in the centre of San Gimignano, Gemelle is situated halfway up one of the towers and sleeps up to three people. It has a lift to take you right to the top, to its own private terrace and amazing views across the hills. Next door Salvucci is on 11 different levels, connected by a spiral staircase. It sleeps four, and costs from £545 per person per week. The Villa di Tizzano on the other hand is slap in the middle of the Chianti trails and vineyards, and is owned by a family of winemakers, the Pandolfinis. It sleeps 14 and costs £5,795 a week.
La Verghiera is part of La Capitana Farm, an Italo-American venture between wine producers Frescobaldi and Mondavi. Set on a hill and completely surrounded by Morellino di Scansano vineyards, it sleeps eight and costs from £1,980 a week. Villa Vignamaggio is situated outside Greve in the heart of Chianti country. You stay in rooms or apartments in three different old farmhouses near to the 14th-century villa where Mona Lisa was born. It’s also where Much Ado about Nothing was filmed. It’s not quite a hotel, not quite self-catering but a mixture of both in a working environment, as it is surrounded by 32ha (hectares) of vineyards and 19ha of olive groves. Breakfast is provided, as is a serious Tuscan dinner twice a week. The Torre Chigi in Sovicille is 15 minutes from Siena and is small and perfectly formed. A medieval tower, it sits at the end of a private drive with stunning views across the countryside, its own small swimming pool and a hot tub. It sleeps two and is the ideal romantic hideaway. Prices start from £1,450 excluding travel. On the glorious borders between Tuscany and Umbria you will find Poggio Alto near Montepulciano. Right on the hilltop it has views to die for, it has large grounds and a swimming pool plus a loggia for outdoor living. It will sleep 12 comfortably and there is also a little guest house for two nearby if your numbers increase. Prices start from £2,795, or £3,181 with the guest house. For something grander, Villa Michaela, near Lucca, sleeps 18 and is set in 20ha of olive groves, vineyards and pine forests. It has frescoed ceilings, a floodlit tennis court, a cook, staff and gardener. It is also wildly expensive at £25,200 per week.
Le Torri Gemelle & Salvucci, San Gimignano. Tel: +44 20 8241 5135 (Magic of Italy)
Villa di Tizzano, Chianti and La Vergheria. Tel: +44 20 7436 0426 (Dolce Vita Villas)
Villa Vignamaggio, Greve. Tel: +39 055 854 661. www.vignamaggio.com
Torre Chigi, Anchiano, Sovicille. Tel: +44 20 7272 5469 (Tuscany Now)
Poggio Alto, Le Piazze, Cetona. Tel: +44 20 7272 5469 (Tuscany Now)
Villa Michaela, Lucca. Tel: +44 845 070 0620 (Abercrombie & Kent)
Jo Foley is a freelance travel journalist.
Written by JO FOLEY