Visiting Florence can sometimes feel like standing 10 centimetres away from a renaissance canvas. You know you’re face to face with history — monumental figures looming over you; rich, honeyed hues everywhere you look — and yet you can’t quite take it all in, can’t quite gather your focus. I blame Wikipedia. They’ve got this new function now — if you’re so minded to download the official app, which you really should, or shouldn’t, depending on how your other half feels about historic sewer factoids mid-tiramisu — where you can pull up articles and facts about everything and anything around you, in real time and in full colour.
Every innocuous portico and lowly frieze; every tiny staircase or sandwich vendor (more, much more, on these later) — each is worthy of academic research and scholarly citation in this ancient, modern city. You could sit in a square here for 24 hours (and some of the lovely cafes positively encourage it) and still barely scratch the surface of history and anecdote contained within its warm, smooth, marble flagstones; still barely get beyond the Wikipedia entry for “Illegitimate sons of Medici Princes, A — F”. If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Florence is the city that never ages. It’s just all there, right in front of you, all of the time. Sometimes it’s easier to grab a sandwich (patience, patience) and forget about it.
Or you could just zoom out a bit. Take a step back. That’s what Villa La Massa has done, at least. This is the private-palazzo-turned-hotel that sits on a serpentine curve of the River Arno, some four miles from the centre of the city, lounging in cool serenity behind some vast, ivy-clad gates. You do not know it’s there until, suddenly and quite wonderfully, it is — a pleasingly solid and square mansion, sat atop huge river embankments and apparently clad in a vanilla crema pasticcera.
Standing on the terrace of Il Verocchio — the only restaurant in Florence with a terrace above the Arno, by the way, a fact even Wikipedia overlooks — you can see the rolling green of Tuscany to your right, the horizon punctuated by the odd terracotta rooftops and stately cyprus tree. To the left you can vaguely sense the pull of Florence, and the bustle and promise of an evening in town, perhaps — at vaunted, low-key trattorias like Camillo (have the chicken curry) or the brilliant, tiled Sostanza (buttered chicken). But in the middle there’s everything you need for now — including Florentine steaks as thick as large-print bibles, and bellinis prepared with moving pomp and ceremony. (They do this clever thing where they swirl the fresh peach juice around the birthday balloon-sized glasses so it coats every centimetre.)
The 15th Century cellars below serve up Super Tuscans with care and flare, while the pretty orchards that cover the 25-acre estate bring forth bright green olive oil that you’d glug directly if it wasn’t so much better with the freshly baked, pillow-grade focaccia. Talking of bread: over in town, the truly rewarding institution — along with the handsome Boboli Gardens, the always-bigger-than-you-remember Duomo, and the engagement-trap Ponte Vecchio — is All’Antico Vinaio, a sandwich shop (with three nearby satellite sites) that draws queue from dawn. The bread is not even the star next to the freshly sliced porchetta or the yogurty mozzarella.
If I’m jumping around a bit, then that’s sort of the point. The lovely thing about Villa La Massa is that it’s just close enough to town that you can hop in and out with abandon — descending into the fun and dough of the city, before retreating again to calmer, gentler pastures. For these, read Villa La Massa’s wonderful Arno Spa. Or just its bathtubs — one of which, in the particular suite we were blessed with, seemed carved from a single, vast piece of dove grey Duomo marble, and which overlooked, through its pale shuttered windows, green fields below. I can confidently say it is the loveliest hotel bathroom I have ever been in.
Or you can take a stroll in the grounds. Seen from above, they are a natural patchwork of sprightly flower meadows, olive groves, winding paths and deep green lawns, into which is a set the azure blue rectangle of the swimming pool. You can see why the Villa has long drawn a lofty crowd — from Italian aristocrats (the high, timber beamed main atrium of the main house still feels like a mediaeval banqueting hall), to cardinals and popes, countesses and European princesses, mid-century movie stars and jet-setters, grand Yankee industrialists — and even a few Churchills. They would have come to La Massa for its natural discretion and enveloping calm, and you can picture their afternoon passeggiata around the florid parkland. They didn’t have Wikipedia, you’ll note. But they would have adored the respite — the glorious, perspective-adjusting, tastebud-swaddling, life-affirming respite — all the same.