Stay in the Tuscan hills and slip into the city for all the awe without the sore, writes Neil Geraghty
“If you come back through the woods after dark, watch out for the wild porks,” the barman at the Villa San Michele warned me as I set out for an afternoon stroll to Fiesole, an ancient hilltop town overlooking Florence. Stifling a chuckle at the thought of joints of gammon charging out of the undergrowth, I walked out into the hotel’s terraced gardens from where a classic Tuscan landscape of rolling hills dotted with slender cypress trees stretched out towards Florence. In the distance, I could clearly make out the cathedral’s majestic dome bathed in golden sunlight and I was sorely tempted to jump onto the hotel’s courtesy shuttle bus to the city centre and use the afternoon to explore Florence’s fabled art treasures. However, after spending the previous day trudging around numerous galleries and churches, I was suffering from a mild dose of Florence Syndrome, a condition that sees thousands of tourists each year so overwhelmed by art that they often collapse with exhaustion.
For travellers who hate crowds, Florence can be a tricky city to warm to but with a few simple steps it’s possible to enjoy this beautiful place in relative peace and quiet. Staying outside Florence in the idyllic Tuscan countryside is a great way to escape the maddening crowds and recharge your batteries. The Villa San Michele is one of many that dot the verdant hills surrounding Florence. Originally a remote Franciscan monastery built dramatically into a cliffside, its elegant classical facade is attributed to Michelangelo. Beneath the hotel, flower beds meander down the hillside in ribbons of exuberant colour. During my stay more than 4,000 tulips were in full bloom and a magnificent 250-year-old lilac wisteria coiled around the monastery walls filled the air with a sweet, soporific perfume.
I arrived at the Villa San Michele just before noon and rather than head straight into Florence and run the gauntlet of lengthy lunchtime queues, opted to relax by the outdoor pool and enjoy the sublime spring sunshine sipping a glass of fresh lemonade. After 2pm, Florence’s lunchtime rush subsides and it’s the perfect time to head to the centre for a late lunch. The courtesy shuttle bus drops guests right outside La Rinascente department store, which coincidentally is also home to one of Florence’s most delightful lunch spots. From the 4th floor home furnishings department a staircase leads up to an outdoor rooftop cafe which has one of the best close up views of the cathedral in the city. I ordered a simple but tasty mozzarella and tomato salad and serenaded by a surprisingly good mezzo soprano singing Verdi arias in the busy square below, sat back to enjoy the timeless view of Brunelleschi’s towering cathedral dome.
After lunch I headed straight over the river to the Oltrarno district, a charming neighbourhood of historic churches, artisan shops and lively piazzas that attracts only a fraction of the 16 million tourists who visit Florence each year. From the San Niccolo Gate, a quiet country lane winds upwards through parkland dotted with umbrella pines to San Miniato al Monte, one of Florence’s most beautiful churches. Late afternoon is the perfect time to visit the church when sunshine floods through the open doors and illuminates the faded medieval frescos and early 13th century tiled floor covered in mysterious astrological symbols. On Via San Niccolo I popped into the atelier of Alessandro Dari, a world famous goldsmith whose sculptures and jewellery are filled with symbolic musings upon time and alchemy. As I peered at the strange angels and demons looking out of his intricate sculptures I felt as if I’d strolled into a Harry Potter Diagon Alley stage set.
After indulging in a sublime pistachio gelato at Santa Trinita, one of Oltrarno’s most famous gelaterias, I headed back to the the Villa San Michele for a rest. Dinner is served in the monastery’s romantic candlelit ambulatory where a pianist playing light jazz imbues the restaurant with a relaxing mellow vibe. I ordered a Florentine steak and a bottle of local carmignano red wine and sat back to enjoy the music and smooth chocolate notes of the wine. I felt totally relaxed, which is a rare feeling in Florence. Later on, as I walked back across the garden to my room, I heard an owl hooting and a strange rustling noise in the nearby woods – possibly the wild boars I’d been warned about foraging in the undergrowth.
Fact box: A three night stay at Belmond Villa San Michele costs from £1,179pp based on two adults sharing a Double Room Superior on a B&B basis, including return economy class flights with BA from Glasgow via LGW and private transfers. This price includes a saving of up to £150pp for bookings made before 15 August 2017 and travel completed before 16 October 2017. Book with ITC Luxury Travel (01244 355527, www.itcluxurytravel.co.uk).