Located on the leafy southern bank of the Arno and set inside an historic park overlooking the impressive Boboli Gardens, Villa Cora is a striking white mansion dating from the 1860s, when Florence was the capital of Italy. Originally commissioned by German financier, Baron Oppenheim, who hosted many notable people of the day here including Princess Eugenia, the wife of Napoleon III and Tchaikovsky, the Villa was almost destroyed when Oppenheim, suspecting his wife (for whom the property had been created) of being unfaithful to him, threatened to set fire to it. Thankfully this didn’t happen and the property went on to be opened as a luxury hotel in 1960 and was fully restored in 2010. Today there are few out-of-city-centre rivals in Florence of this ranking save the Belmond Villa San Michele and Il Salviatino.
With Villa Cora having been recommended to us by a lady positively oozing good taste, we were filled with expectancy and arrived on the dot of the check-in time stated on our confirmation, with the intention of making the most of the pool. Informed that our room wasn’t ready however, we were offered a welcome glass of Prosecco and ushered to the fifth floor roof terrace where, although the views of Florence are spectacular, we little suspected that we would be left waiting for over 90 minutes. With no other guests or staff around, it can be a lonely place and either a bell or a telephone for service would be a useful idea if the hotel doesn’t wish to permanently staff this area. There is nothing more depressing than an unattended champagne bar.
Of further disappointment was the receptionist’s announcement that the public rooms, including the exquisite Mirror Room (a smaller version of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles), Le Long Bar and the Cigar Room (the only room in the hotel in which guests are permitted to smoke) were currently sealed off from residents, and would remain so for a further two days due to weddings taking place. Featuring frescoes by famous artists and elaborate gilding, the like of which you’ll only find in a palace, Villa Cora would be a natural honeymoon destination if only the honeymooners felt as appreciated as the brides and grooms getting married here.
My conclusion is that it would be much kinder to guests (although admittedly not as lucrative) to make the hotel exclusive-use only for wedding bookings, as whilst the staff were deeply apologetic it didn’t alter the fact that we were only staying for two nights and therefore would only be able to enjoy the Villa’s opulent halls during breakfast, when the impressive suite becomes the setting of an outstanding continental buffet, with French doors opening onto a terrace bathed in bright morning sunshine.
When we finally made it down to the pool, it was interesting to observe that couples either tended to speak in hushed tones, perhaps due to both the intimacy of the space and the natural tendency to people-watch, and in spite of the hotel’s attempt to create more of a ‘fun’ and relaxed atmosphere by playing on a loop an irritating selection of pop music. Having unknowingly selected sun loungers next to the speakers (which were concealed in a hedge) the volume, whilst not loud, still prevented us from being able to read with any degree of concentration and thus forced us to move to a shadier corner.
Whilst you may assume from the website that the hotel boasts two restaurants, the more formal Il Pasha and the casual Le Bistrot, these are simply alternated between seasons. In the summer months the main dining experience is Le Bistrot, which is located by the pool and is an understandably popular venue for dinner due to the sexy blue lighting come the evening. Executive chef Alessandro Liberatore, who previously worked at Il Salviatino, celebrates classic Italian cuisine without making it unnecessarily over-complicated, but whilst the appetiser of raviolo filled with Caprino goat’s cheese, mint, lime and cucumber cream promised so much, my fillet steak, which I selected from the ‘classics’ menu was accompanied by what looked like thick oven chips and three small pots of Heinz sauces; mustard, mayonnaise and ketchup.
We dined out the next night and this was the first time we had a chance to use Villa Cora’s complimentary shuttle service, which, although extremely helpful if you are wanting to sightsee during the day, is not ideal if you’re wanting to dine at the more European time of 8pm or onwards due to the last pick up time from the centre of Florence being 9.30pm. A taxi costs around 15-20 Euros or the hotel is a 26 minute walk from the Ponte Vecchio.
The hotel has 46 rooms and suites across three buildings and our deluxe room in the main house was wonderfully sumptuous, featuring a four poster bed, rich port-coloured Empress-style drapes, a walk-in wardrobe, separate sitting area and a sumptuous Carrara marble bathroom complete with Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella toiletries. Put it like this, when angels take a bath, this is what they must use, although I’m not sure how much other male guests enjoy smelling of roses. I say other as my chap didn’t seem to mind.
The basement Spa Benessere also offers a wide range of luxurious facials and massages featuring the luxurious Santa Maria Novella products and, although not a particularly large spa, it is a haven of tranquillity thanks to low lighting, candles and trance-like ‘spa music’, with the therapists encouraging guests to use the sauna, steam room and whirlpool bath in order to relax muscles ahead of massage. My therapist, who used Santa Maria Novella’s incredibly silky and fragrant rose massage oil, was brilliant at tailoring the treatment to my needs and the experience unquestionably proved the highlight of my stay.
I wanted (and fully expected) to fall head over heels with Villa Cora, but whilst the property and its magical setting are akin to paradise, the management of the hotel left a lot to be desired during our stay, as it seemed that the staff were unable to cope with the demands of both the bridal parties and hotel guests. Villa Cora had proved an unfaithful lover. Perhaps, had the events not taken place during my stay, the chemistry between us would have been different, but I don’t think deluxe hotels should have off-days. As it is, I would only book again if I was hiring the hotel for my wedding and I don’t think my husband would be too happy about that.
Villa Cora, Viale Macchiavelli, Firenze. For more information and to book visit the website.