Dolce vita Duo

hf-italy2Villa San Michele, Florence

As I arrive at Belmond Villa San Michele, high in the wooded Tuscan hills above Florence, I am confronted by the stunning juxtaposition of past and present: A beautiful building façade attributed to Michelangelo, with two classic Ferraris parked out front. Stepping out of my more mundane transport, I’m entranced by warbling birdsong and crisp, clean air with a fragrant woodiness—or is it a hint of lemon from the trees in the garden?hf-italy3

This is a place to relax, unwind and think. I’m hardly the first to figure that out. A Franciscan monastery was founded here in the early 15th century. The current building, apart from the façade, dates to 1600, when it was renovated by a local noble family who had earlier donated the land.

Belmond, in its previous incarnation as Orient-Express Hotels, purchased the property in 1982 and undertook a sensitive renovation under the guidance of the Florence Fine Arts Authority.  The results are simple, yet stunning. Entering my suite on the second floor of the main building is like stepping back in time: It has a high barrel-vaulted ceiling, a huge stone fireplace you could roast a pig in, and a rich-red drapery-hung canopy bed. I half expect the abbot to stride in and demand to know why I’m in his room. Although he would probably be nonplussed by the Prosecco cooling in the ice bucket, the exquisite canapés and the television that discreetly ascends from an ancient cabinet.

A summer day in a glass
In the early evening I find myself in the hotel’s lovely garden, dotted with lemon trees, watching the shadows sharply define the distant hills and the sun turning Florence, far below in the valley, a golden hue. “May I recommend a glass of Prosecco with fresh strawberries, Signore?” Well, if I must—it’s important to be polite. It is a summer day in a glass. I could get used to this, I think to myself.

hf-italy4My early evening is topped only by dinner in La Loggia, an elegant covered gallery with half-height glass walls to the exterior. I am fortunate to run into Executive Chef Attilio di Fabrizio. A fixture of the hotel for 30 years, he tells me that he has taken Tuscan cuisine and applied his personal, slightly lighter touch. His pici pasta is traditional and delicately set off by a ragout of duck and Tuscan ewe’s milk cheese flakes. Almost a meal in itself. Nevertheless, I press on with thinly sliced Chianina beef in Brunello wine sauce with spinach and Tuscan zolfini white beans. This dish has been on the menu for three decades, and it’s no surprise—the buttery soft rare beef is exquisitely set off by the spinach and beans. A glass of an intriguing full-bodied and easy-drinking red wine from Puglia is the perfect companion, with dark red fruit and quite arresting undertones of leather and perhaps figs. The service is polished and attentive. A perfect evening.

After dinner I wander into the old refectory, now a room for special events, and contemplate a recently restored fresco of the Last Supper by local artist Nicodemo Ferrucci. Painted in 1642 when Ferrucci was 68, it’s interesting because of its depiction of two presumably symbolic elements: An oil lamp above Christ’s head, and a rather startled white cat in the lower foreground. Then to bed.

Hotel Cipriani, Venicehf-italy5

From the moment I step off the Belmond Hotel Cipriani’s private  launch, Roberto Senigaglia, the self-styled “roaming concierge” has  me chuckling.

I listen as he playfully jokes with my fellow arriving guests. “I do everything from the heart,” he tells us. And so he does, and has done for 25 years. His gentle, respectful good humour is infectious. A great start! The lingering stress of the tourist crowds swirling around St. Mark’s Square vanishes.

hf-italy7In this most magical of cities, it takes a very special something to  conjure up that certain je ne sais quoi that I’m looking for. The Cipriani seems to have it, but I can’t put my finger on why. I decide an empty stomach is interfering with my thoughts, so I find my way to Cip’s Club, the hotel’s quayside restaurant with a priceless view across the lagoon to the square.

The gracious Adamello Bianco anticipates my need, gliding up with a magnum of Prosecco and pouring me a glass. An exquisite light lunch of finely sliced raw scallops with overtures of roasted baby artichokes, chased by a delicate pan-fried turbot, follows. Adamello returns with a fine vintage Grappa. He leaves the bottle, “in case of emergencies.”

Ambiance plushf-italy6
Gradually, it dawns on me: It’s the people. Adamello, like Roberto, has over the decades calibrated a finely matured sense of hospitality—the staff preside with an easy, respectful and engaging self-assurance that sets the mood.

Something new
To celebrate my newfound profundity I head to the bar, where I run into the almost effervescent head barman, Walter Bolzonella. As a young man, Walter claims, Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar agreed to teach him how to make the perfect Bellini, provided he swore never to change the recipe. And he hasn’t. Sadly, he can’t make one for me today as the mandatory fresh peaches aren’t yet in season.

Sensing my disappointment, Walter suggests that I try one of his own inspired cocktails. He darts behind the bar and rummages around in pots of fresh herbs. Bottles appear and disappear. Exotic potions drip out of pipettes. No medieval alchemist could be more engaged. Suddenly, he turns into a fussy florist. His edible flowers have to precisely compliment the now pale-pink concoction. Does this cocktail have a name, I ask? Thinking for a few moments, he decides on “Fresh Harmony.” Hints of hibiscus, orange, lime and grapefruit are set off against vanilla and cardamom, with a refreshing undergirding of gin and tonic. A meeting of minds, indeed.

As befits its birth, Fresh Harmony is presented in an exquisite Murano cocktail glass. I drink it very, very carefully.

Inside and out
Time for a little exercise and to explore the hotel grounds. I’m surprised to find a sizable garden, unusual for Venice, complete with statues, grapevines and wisteria-covered trellises, as well as a menagerie of livestock: A duck, several chickens, two rabbits and a sleek black cat. Near the bar, I discover one of the largest open-air hotel pools I have seen.

My oh-so-elegant sun-dappled suite boasts a grand balcony with vistas over the channel, the front garden and the main boat dock. Near the Michelin-starred Oro restaurant there’s a second, more private dock for discreet celebrity access to the Palladio Suite. And, should you be so inclined, there is of course room to moor your yacht.

Also of note is the Vendramin annex, a former palazzo on the quay-side overlooking Cip’s Club, where most guests have that same stunning view over the lagoon to St. Mark’s.

Upon departure, my hosts at the Belmond Cipriani send for “the Diva,” one of Venice’s beautiful wooden water taxis. Sweeping up the legendary Grand Canal I feel like a descendant of the Doges. A perfect gran finale.

Photos: Belmond Hotels and Keith Edwards