A holiday to Florence usually involves one of two fantasies. The first is waking up in the heart of the city, breathing in Renaissance history as you stroll down narrow cobbled streets towards the Uffizi Galleries. You weave through horses, cyclists and market stalls. Lunch is at a delightful trattoria, stumbled upon by chance. The second fantasy? It probably involves a stay at a rambling country estate, tucked into the hills of Chianti, behind vineyards and ancient chestnut trees, miles away from anywhere, where dinner looks like local wine and hand-rolled tagliatelle al ragù.
Staying at Villa La Massa is a rare bridge between these two visions. It's having your castagnaccio (chestnut cake) and eating it. From Florence or Pisa airports, an easy taxi ride will bypass crowded city roads and take you straight to this quiet and palatial pad. Perched upstream of Florence on the banks of the River Arno, the five-star villa has all the assets of an elegant country resort. It's close to the residential suburbs of Bagno a Ripoli and Rimaggio - just 20 minutes from the white sculpted abs of Michelangelo's David - but it also has 10 hectares of beautifully landscaped gardens, uninterrupted river views and offers a sense of escape amid the hazy Tuscan hills.
The entrance to Villa Noble, left, and the hotel from above
Built in the 13th century as a summer retreat for the Medicis, Florence's former ruling family, the property is all about luxury on a Renaissance scale. The palace remained in the hands of local aristocrats for over 600 years, being gradually added to here and there, until, in 1948, it was transformed into a luxury hotel. Over the last few decades, the property's outhouses, barns and cottages have all been swept up into its offering. In the gardens (so large they have their own running routes), well-watered lawns lead down to an infinity pool (something of a rarity in the tight corners of this city).
The main villa interiors are magnificent, drawing on the building's rich history. It's serious and formal - with a touch of that elegant gloominess so typical of the historic Florentine aesthetic. If you're seeking something lighter, head to the refurbished outhouses for brighter interiors.
The service nails that old-style European manner, teetering between attentive and formal, warm but never overly gushy. If you do wish to leave the bucolic retreat and venture into Florence for a spot of culture, you need only borrow one of the property's elegant Dutch bicycles. And for anyone who doesn't fancy cycling, a private shuttle goes every hour to the city centre, too.
The bedroom in Casa Colonica, left, and a sunny terrace seat
There are 51 guest suites arranged across five buildings, each with a distinctly different feel drawing on the villa's original architecture and atmosphere. Bedrooms in the main house - Villa Nobile - are traditional, set around a central hall adorned with fine brocades and antique curios. Expect four-poster canopy beds, historic furnishings and ornate frescoed ceilings. Elsewhere, rooms in Villino and Mulino offer something a little lighter and more modern, while the four suites in Casa Colonica are the biggest and airiest of the lot, kitted out with Loro Piana fabrics and spectacular marble bathrooms. The 10 rooms in La Limonaia follow form, with the added benefit of gardens overlooking the river. All rooms have free WiFi.
For those travelling with family or a large group of friends, the Casa Colonica, Villino and La Limonaia sections of the hotel can also be booked out for private use and there are five further private villas within the hotel grounds, too.
What's for breakfast?
A lavish breakfast buffet is laid on every morning, offering all the cured meats, cheeses, fruit, pastries and "Italian breakfast cake" one could wish for. Freshly squeezed juices and homemade bread are especially well done. There's also an à la carte menu, offering classics like pancakes and maple syrup (at additional cost).
How about lunch and dinner?
The hotel's two dining options serve up two very different takes on typical Italian cuisine. For lunch (in flip-flops and a kaftan), poolside L'Oliveto bistro nails the clubhouse vibes, serving simple salads, pastas, sandwiches and fritto misto until the late afternoon. Feeling decadent? Make like a Medici noble and have your spaghetti alle vongole delivered to your sun lounger.
For evening extravagance, head to Il Verrocchio, a white-tablecloth, shirt-and-jacket affair. This restaurant serves classic Italian fine-dining dishes, and has an extensive list of full-bodied wines. Head chef Stefano Ballarino uses seasonal produce from the kitchen garden and estate. Be sure to try Villa La Massa's own olive oil, mopped up with the irresistible focaccia.
Is there a bar?
Yes. Take a leather seat between sangiovese-red walls and below original frescoed ceilings at the cosy Medicean Bar. Cocktails are irreverent, and there's a large selection of grappa to try. Oenophiles should ask for a tour of the 15th-century wine cellars, too.
Interior details in the Vilino Suite
Tucked beneath the villa's main hall, the Arno Spa facilities are a welcome treat: you'll find a gym, sauna, Turkish baths, steam room and more, all hidden in what feels like a Medici vault. Enjoy skin products from the famous Florentine range of Officina Profumo - Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (the oldest perfumery in the world, dating back to 1542, when Caterina de Medici ruled the city).
What are the hotel's eco-credentials like?
Nothing special - just the ordinary "no plastic straws", plus menus that include herbs and vegetables grown in the kitchen gardens.
What about accessibility?
Some of the ground-floor rooms in Limonaia Villa are fully accessible, as are all public areas, although some routes involve gravel paths.
What's the crowd like?
You'll spot guests who return year after year, plus a few honeymooners and young professionals drawn in by the new pool and restaurant.
Dinner with a view of the Arno, left, and a courgette dish at Il Verrocchio
Things I should know
The private shuttle to the city only goes to and from the Ponte Vecchio, so if you want to go anywhere else in Florence, you'll need to arrange a taxi.
Within a short cycle I can find…?
A 6km cycle track follows the river all the way into town. The journey - taking in grassy banks and Renaissance-era bridges - is as magical as the destination. If you're wanting a taste of more traditional Tuscan cuisine, head to Trattoria Donnini and Tullio a Montebeni - two rustic local restaurants we loved.
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