Canny travel is all about knowing a secret. Sometimes you keep that secret to your self, loath to share it with the throngs lest your hidden gem or enchanted trove turns that covert sanctuary into something common or trendy – ergo, not exclusive at all. Sometimes though you yearn to spread the word, taking that risk that only extraordinary people will set foot in spectacular retreats, that only the best will appreciate your whispered tip. It’s with trust and rampant enthusiasm that I share a hidden gem in Tuscany, a villa experience in an untrammelled corner of Chianti: Villa La Massa, sister hotel to Lake Como’s storied Villa d’ Este.
A 13th-century country house, embellished with medallions, statuary and other artistry, it perches on the banks of the glossy Arno River amongst 25 acres of fragrant herb and flower gardens, plus groves of cypress, lemon and olive trees. Irises, Florence’s symbolic flower, sprout up in season. Nooks abound, nostalgic spots that bring out the child within, sun-dappled, leafy places that urge you to leave your phone behind and turn the pages of a book. Invariably, birdsong wafts through the air.
Ghosts throughout the property whisper their stories. After all, Villa La Massa has been the domain of cardinals, nobility, ladies, countesses, rapscallions and self-made men. Housing the region’s elite and aristocracy in bygone times, it continues the tradition today. (Note: Iman and David Bowie married and honeymooned here.)
An undisclosed retreat for glitterati hoping to sun by the pool or skip through the olive grove without bothersome fans, Villa La Massa has kept celebrities as varied as Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor out of the public eye, gifting them with that moment of Italian zen we all crave, an interpretation of dolce vita that soothes and revitalizes.
For those who’ve sought a more pastoral Tuscany, a more authentic Chianti, a place steeped in the the true essence of the Florentine countryside, this intimate stay is your next Italian hotel adventure.
Summoning aspects of classic Tuscan architecture, Villa La Massa enwraps guests in Renaissance sumptuousness with plush fabrics, frescoed ceilings, canopy beds, hand-carved furniture and priceless art. Fifty one spacious guest rooms dot the parkland, spread amongst five distinctive buildings, including the original Noble Villa and La Limonaia, a contemporary Tuscan hideaway.
Two of the retreat’s buildings, Casa Colonica, an ancient farmhouse and Il Villino – which overlooks the Arno River steps from the main villa – can be rented by small groups in their entireity. For the most privacy, book one of three grand apartments set further afield in the parkland like a separate country estate.
Romance seekers should opt for the Presidential Suite, ensconced within the Villino. Combining several stunning spaces, it consists of the glamorous Arno Suite, and an expansive terrace that hovers above the river, ideal for moonlit dinners. A connecting junior suite enlarges the accommodation to ensure the space can be family friendly – if desired.
An homage to the region, Villa La Massa’s main restaurant Il Verrocchio delves deeply into Tuscan gastronomy, traditions, vendors and products. Chef Stefano Ballarino takes advantage of his deep relationships with farmers and producers to bring his slightly modern spin to the table for every meal. Breakfast is gobsmacking, Nibblers will stay for hours attempting to try everything.
Below Il Verrocchio, the timeless 15th-century Wine Cellar provides a captivating spot for private dinners and wine tastings. Casual L’Oliveto Bistrot, situated beside the pool, specializes in pizza and pasta – isn’t that why you came to Italy in the first place?
Don’t miss the Medicean Bar, which feels like sipping in a private room at the Uffizi Gallery. Choose one of bartender Alessio Baneschi’s brilliant libations, each meant to connect the past with the present. Most mesmerizing are those that use (or are inspired by) ingredients from the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence, the oldest—and most fascinating pharmacy—in the world. Try the Nocciolino (with Michter’s whiskey rye, Vinsanto and Frangelico) or the Cardinale (a martini hero with caper-infused gin).
A huge outdoor pool beckons surrounded by an emerald, tree-speckled lawn. Poolside, guests flop onto lounge chairs with cold beverages and snacks after rigorous days spent shopping in Firenze (the hotel offers a complimentary shuttle to the city center) or wine tasting Chianti’s bounty. A small, but perfect spa in the main villa offers a hydrotherapy/sauna area and treatments that use herbal products, also from Santa Novella Pharmacy.
The resort has a helipad for swift arrival. Though conveniently set just nine miles from the Peretola Airport and five miles from Florence’s historic city center, Villa La Massa feels deeply removed from the bustle, providing that lost beneath the Tuscan sun experience, ever a draw for travelers to the region.
Jogging paths undulate through the grounds. Not to be missed, stellar cooking and cocktail classes will delight novices and experts alike. For off-property adventures, knowledgeable concierges excel at organizing activities that run the gamut from VIP museum tours to exclusive winery experiences to private boat rides down the Arno.
From €493 ($530), villalamassa.com