Luxury Explorer Review

5-Star Hotel Review

Belmond Villa San Michele

Italy

A stunning former monastery with a Michelangelo-designed façade overlooking Florence

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Belmond Villa San Michele
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Belmond Villa San Michele

Location

Fiesole, Florence

Travel Information

Florence airport - 20 mins (10km)
Pisa airport - 60 mins (72km)

Top Tips

The head barman offers a great cocktail-making lesson

5-Star X-Factors

The unparallelled views of Florence from the perfectly manicured gardens

Above it all

This is just a staggering place. On arrival, you are struck by the authenticity of a building (the façade was apparently designed by Michelangelo) that should be preserved for privileged aesthetes who can look but can't touch, let alone stay. You are also knocked sideways by the glorious sweeping vista spreading right across Florence and into the Chianti countryside.

The Villa San Michele a Doccia is situated on the hill of Fiesole and is named after the church of St Michael the Archangel. Its origins lie somewhere in the 15th century when it was built as a monastery for the Franciscan Monks. In the 17th century, the building was enlarged and restored by Giovanni di Bartolommeo Davanzati.

For hundreds of years this exceptional building, with views to rival any city hotel, was home and worship to the brown-robed Franciscans until Napoleon Bonaparte dissolved monastic orders in 1808. For the rest of the 19th century, it remained in secular use and, by the start of the 20th century, it was turned formally into a gentleman's villa. This gentleman – a New Yorker influenced by Victorian fashion – restored the building and landscaped the gardens, encompassing green houses and wrought iron gates.

Since this time it has been both bombed and restored, and today, thanks to Belmond and the cooperation of the Florence Fine Arts Authority, Villa San Michele stands out as one of the greatest examples of 'monastic' hotels in Europe, if not the world.

Silencing the children

We arrived shortly after midday with two of our boys. They are well-travelled kids and used to mini bars and five stars but, this time, they felt something different. Without prompting, there were well-mannered and seduced by an uncontrollable urge to be respectful. Needless to say, this came as a welcome relief. We were taken to our rooms and, walking along dark corridors with stone floors and century-old wardrobes and monks' benches, you really do feel the primal spirit of the place.

Our sons' room was smallish with a neatly compact bathroom with small, fluffy, toffee-coloured gowns with a dreamy view which was by now, being midday, crystal clear. Off their room we were led into the piece de resistance, where we all looked at each other with wide eyes and broad smiles.

The Michelangelo Suite is up there with Chateau De Bagnols (our benchmark for the best of the best historic hotels). This suite was the monks' library and retains a certain quietude to this day. It is vast, with aged terracotta floor tiles, an enormous fireplace and a double set of French windows opening out to that view. Wow. The four-poster mahogany bed in an old shade of burgundy was large enough for the four of us. My younger son threw himself on the bed and inscribed 'this is the best hotel I have ever seen' on the monogrammed bedside notepad.

Meanwhile, his brother was blown away by the sunken television at the foot of the bed, hidden in what looked like an ancient monk's coffer. Excellent Prosecco was chilled and the largest, most delicious, crunchy natural green olives were placed in a silver dish alongside. This was so exciting, but we couldn't wait to discuss the various hauntings – if monks indeed did such a thing (which we decided they wouldn't) – at lunch on the glorious loggia looking out at that view.

Scenic dining

Lunch was wonderful, really delicious, and the service was faultless with plenty of laughter. Clam pasta and fresh pea risotto, baskets of fresh breads, a wonderful Soave (La Rocca 2003 from Pieropan) and some classic carpaccio of beef with a lemony mayonnaise. The children had 'the best pudding ever' (an elaborate assortment of chocolate and ice-cream), and we sipped a perfect cappuccino knowing we were going to have to expose a little beside the splendiferous pool.

A few calories will be burnt off here, as the grounds are stepped, with Junior Garden Suites on one level, gardens on others and the pool almost at the top. Once you arrive you don't need to leave for quite some time. The pool service is excellent, however this is where the boys did take advantage; iced tea, cola, sandwiches...whatever they could scoff when we weren't looking, and they hid their disgrace behind their unread books.

From the pool I noticed the chapel, a small 17th century cappellina which was frequented by the monks for prayer and meditation. Today it is more used to wedding vows, as this is one of the most popular 'I do' retreats in Italy. It is deeply romantic and very private, and has a number of frescoes inside to enhance the Florentine flavour that one searches for when staying in this part of Italy.

A peaceful oasis

Another great advantage to staying at Villa San Michele is that it is above Florence, 10 minutes or so away, which means you can leave the bustle and sometimes oppressive weight of the much-loved city and relax in the peace of the soothing hotel. There is a service that shuttles up and down, almost hourly, dropping and collecting from outside the Savoy hotel.

From here you can shop until you drop, but for us it was education time and this is a staggering city to ignite your children's cultural fire. The Uffizi, the duomo, the Ponto Vecchio...and so it goes on; pacing yourselves is paramount. We ate at a great little trattoria called 4 Leoni on the other side of the Ponto Vecchio. It was authentic, rustic and atmospherically ripe with Florentians, which, after so many jutting Nikons, makes you really want to 'go local'.

Evenings at the villa are perfect. The boys had silver spoon room service followed by Forest Gump from the rising television at the base of our four-poster. We, however, dined in style on the candlelit loggia, watching bats catching mosquitoes while Florence was ablaze against a sun burnt sky. The delightfully fresh sea bass, roasted in a clay pot with herbs, was a delicate and light meal to end a long day. Sleep is sound in the monastery: it's deep and welcomingly dark and we had no floating robes to surprise us.

Touring in style

The following day we drove deep into the Chianti countryside to visit Capannelle, a wonderful winery and villa with five smart hotel-equipped double bedrooms and bathrooms and an infinity pool with wonderful village and hillside views. A guided tour and tasting followed. Tuscany is a relaxed escape from it all, moving from a gentle rolling landscape to dramatic mountain scenery with vineyards, cyprus trees, farms and forests.

Small villages with ancient walls and pleasant squares are scattered around, each one interesting and picturesque with a laid-back charm unique to Italy. Olive groves are scattered among vineyards and villas and, at night, a gentle mist always seems to hug the lowland. It's so beautiful here, and a few nights at Villa San Michele is the way to woo a slice of Florentine life.

Sophie Marchant
Sophie Marchant


Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer