A Privy Arno-Side Perch


The Villa La Massa hotel in Candeli sits on a bucolic Tuscan property which oozes poetry and provenance. Nestled between Florence and Chianti, the ‘little sister’ of Lake Como’s legendary Villa D’Este was a 16th century Medici mansion in its past life. Centuries later, in 1998, it was acquired by the Northern Italian hotel group.

Perched on the banks of the emblematic Arno river, the Villa La Massa’s modern origin story features late pop and style icon David Bowie and his stunning bride Iman as its proverbial Adam and Eve. In the ’90s, the famous pair held their intimate (68-person) wedding reception at the luxury hotel  — a happy fete which drew the likes of Bono and Yoko Ono.

The Villa La Massa’s appeal to such luminaries is understandable. Although just a 20-minute drive from Florence’s town centre, its gated grounds are refreshingly isolated — a quality that is reinforced by the tranquil, pastoral view from one’s window. Such Tuscan vistas were famously immortalised in the 1985 film A Room With a View, which romanticised nearby Fiesole. Not to be outdone, the Villa la Massa boasts having been the location of director Luigi Comencini’s 1966 film Incompreso.

Villa La Massa lobby

The ‘La Massa’ landscape — rich in olive groves and Cypress trees —is dotted by lemon trees, and begs an easel and an artist’s eye. Inside, the grand hotel retains the classic elegance of an Italian villa with its painstakingly restored columned courtyard lobby (the Medicean Hall) — festooned with Technicolor codes of arms and regal-looking flags. Florentine fabrics and Renaissance ceiling frescoes and tapestries also trumpet the property’s illustrious history.

The sumptuously decorated rooms — 37 in all —  benefit from beautiful bathrooms seemingly straight out of Architectural Digest (complete with bidets, twin sinks and luxe soak tubs), as well as unique dressing room/closet nooks. Three villas house the rooms: the old world Villa Nobile, the more modern Villino (home to the presidential suite), and the Mulino (site of the Il Verrocchio restaurant).

The Medicean pool bar, the hotel’s casual Arno-side dining terrace — with its view of the breathtaking Rufina hills — is one of the Villa la Massa’s most memorable features. It was here that I enjoyed a hearty fresh linguine with rabbit sauce and a beautiful glass of the local Chianti, to the tune of tweeting birds and distant church bells.

Villa La Massa restaurant terrace

If such a beatific alarm clock isn’t enough of a religious experience, the Arno Spa with its vaulted ceilings and stone floors, offers corporeal treatments so relaxing they elicit out-of-body-experiences. Its wet area, the Acqua Spa, consists of a self-navigated aromatherapy shower — complete with a shifting programme of coloured lights — and Turkish bath, dry sauna and Scottish shower (a.k.a. a high-end ice bucket challenge not for the faint at heart or thin-skinned Californians, such as yours truly).

Tempted by its Dionysian name, I booked in a ‘deep tissue with Chianti’ massage — which turned out to be one of the most effective de-stressers I’ve ever experienced. Post-treatment, masseuse Antonella — whose reputation seemed to precede her — intuitively and wisely broke down the specifics of my hectic Londoner life into simple terms, pinpointing problem areas with precision, and giving me her own prescription for rebalancing.

One thing neglected to mention, but which a relaxing Italian sojourn is ill complete without, is a sampling of the local aperol — in my case a spritz. I congregated with a group of European journalists at the Bar Mediceo in the Villa Nobile, with its resident pianist providing a warm and jazzy soundtrack. The hotel further came alive through the Italian art of sparkling and vivacious conversation led by the travel writers — apropos as the hotel was a printing house in a former incarnation.

Villa La Massa Medicean Bar

Scribes and editors from Italy, Holland, Germany, Great Britain and France lifted glasses and seized the day (or in this case, evening), ultimately ending up at a long dining table for an even longer multi-course dinner. The meal — orchestrated by executive chef Andrea Quagliarella —consisted of an exquisite lobster salad with green apple and lemon sauce, sea bass fillet with fresh tomatoes and black olives, and home made tagliolini pasta — along with sommelier-selected white wines to match.

Understated but on-the-spot service added to the flow of the tasteful supper service. Anticipating guests’ every whim, our attentive waiter — noticing my handbag draped over the chair — promptly brought over a footstool and lovingly placed the accessory on it.

Passionate discussions relating to politics and quality of life culminated over rich and smooth coffee and a gorgeous and subtle dessert consisting of small chocolate blocks enhanced by hazelnuts. One of our fellow journo dinner guests, Carlo Ducci, features editor of Italian Vogue and Casa Vogue, spoke with great affection about the Mugello — his home region a few kilometres North of Florence — parts of which are crossed by the Sieve River (one of the primary waterways which flow into the Arno). He and his father run a modest family hotel there: La Felicina.

Villa La Massa Tuscany area

The following, day, we all got the chance to explore (foggy-headed, beneath our Foster Grants, post-bacchanal) the Mugello — apparently artist Giotto’s birthplace. We made our way there in the spirit of (an even more Italian) Italian Job, via a small but speedy brigade of Fiats. Mine was commandeered by adventurous hotel general manager Achille Di Carlo and accordingly proved to be a wild ride.

After our arrival at La Felicina in San Piero a Sieve, I wandered around, prosecco in hand, taking in the eccentric ephemera collected by Ducci the elder— such as prominently displayed men’s ties and model airplanes. Another long dining room table, which took up the entire room, awaited our lively group of hungry writers. So did a small home-cooked feast of vino, delicious homemade pasta and unforgettable cheesecake —whipped up by Zia Laura (Ducci’s aunt).

The afternoon was spent pottering around the second-hand and antiques market in Piazza Colonna, the town square, as well as visiting the local church and ultimately the Saint Bonaventure church in Bosco ai Frati — where a monk photo op was de rigueur. The latter was endowed by Cosimo de Medici and later his son Piero — a family which famously had a habit of obsessively affixing its crest just about everywhere in the region, à-la early brand evangelists. In the church, suspended in a chilly, dark room we discovered the enigmatic 15th century ‘man on the cross’, which our tour guide proudly implied had been sculpted by Renaissance master Donatello (officially, its patronage is unknown).

Villa La Massa Junior Suite

Sacrificial religious symbolism notwithstanding, a stay at the Villa la Massa and visit to its surrounding areas, is hardly conducive to the ascetic experience — and that’s a good thing. The creative and vivacious visitors who gravitate to the region and the property seem to enjoy living life to its fullest — through decadent design, opulent food and wine, spur-of-the-moment adventures and lots of laughter. As such, the hotel’s warm and elegant halls are the perfect setting for an intimate soggiorno piccolo with friends — whether they happen to be of the international pop star variety, or better yet, newfound fellow travellers.

The Villa La Massa is hosting a six-day ‘Villas & Gardens of Tuscany” tour, organised by Villa d’Este Hotels and art and garden historian Armand de Foucalt, between 26 June and 1 July 2016. It includes cocktails, wine tastings, meals, private tours of the Palazzo Corsini in Parione, the Palazzo Corsini al Prato and the Villa la Foce, as well as a visit to the Bagno Vignoni Roman baths, among other activities. The cost, based on two people and a double deluxe room, is 7,930 Euros.

Villa la Massa, Via della Massa, 24, 50012 Candeli, Bagno a Ripoli FI, Italy. +39 055 62611. For more information, visit www.villalamassa.com.

Hotel La Felicina, 50038 Scarperia e S. Piero (FI) — Piazza Colonna, 14. +39 055 8498181. For more information, visit www.lafelicinahotel.com.