The Villa San Michele, a former 15th century Franciscan monastery, is nestled in the lush hills of historic Fiesole, just a 15-minute drive from the heart of Florence. Guests can experience the most astonishing panorama of the city away from the tourist viewing points such as Piazza Michaelangelo, whist sipping a cocktail on a terrace attributed to the same artist’s fair hand, as is the hotel’s panna cotta-colour façade. Few hotels can boast of being as exclusive, open to guests just 6 months of the year, with a dedicated team remaining throughout the winter in order to maintain and prepare the hotel for the warmer months. The Villa is something of a legend to the Florentines and you’d struggle to find a local who doesn’t beam with joy when you mention it.
Just breathing in the extraordinarily fragrant air is intoxicating and something I can vividly recall now, as I compose this on a rainy day in London. Spending a few days at the Villa after sightseeing in Florence re-energises even the most dedicated lover of Renaissance art and allows one to simply admire the breathtaking architecture of Brunelleschi’s Duomo at a God-like distance. If you do want to venture into the city centre during your stay, the Villa’s shuttle service ensures guests have everything at their fingertips.
Despite being informed that the hotel was full to capacity during our stay, with many of the 46 rooms located in the terraced Italian garden in cave-like fashion, it never feels anything other than blissfully quiet. Whether you visit for a romantic break or just to recharge, there’s an unmistakeable serenity here that does feel almost spiritual. Purchased by the Orient Express group (now rebranded as Belmond) in 1982, unlike many historic buildings that have been turned over to the sophisticated traveller, the experience of Villa San Michele is entirely sympathetic to the property’s origins. Nor are the public rooms in any way opulent, with wooden refectory tables that go hand in hand with frescoes, including the The Last Supper dating from 1642 attributed to Niccodemo Ferucci. The restrained furnishings and terracotta tiled floors only add to the feeling of journeying back in time.
Not only was the town of Fiesole mentioned in Giovanni Boccaccio’s masterpiece The Decameron, it was the home of early Renaissance artist Fra Angelico during the 15th century, where he was a member of the Dominican community, ‘Fra’ being the title used for a friar. But much there is to explore, including Angelico’s Fiesole Altarpiece at the Convent of San Domenico and the nearby Roman amphitheatre, I suspect most guests will find it extremely difficult to tear themselves away from the peaceful confines of the Villa. Besides, surely there’s enough history here for anyone? The elaborate Michaelangelo Suite is the largest room in the original building and stretches the entire length of the façade. Formerly the monastery library, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte decided to make it his base in Florence on dissolving the monastic orders in 1808, and with staggering views that also offered strategic benefits, I can quite understand why.
Donning mustard robes after taking a bath, could anything be more empyrean than relaxing on the intimate terrace of your Garden Suite and enjoying an aperitif whilst surveying the art capital of the world at sunset? Whether you spend your days learning the art of Tuscan cuisine at the cookery school or catching a few rays by the outdoor swimming pool, perched on the third tier of the terrace with unmatched views of the Arno Valley, a break here wouldn’t be complete without dining in La Loggia restaurant. A venue that is so like stepping into a travel photograph it understandably attracts lovers proposing and honeymooners, for the romance of the grand arched terrace come nightfall has no equal. As Boccaccio observed, “Heaven would indeed be heaven if lovers were there permitted as much enjoyment as they had experienced on earth.”