Made in Italy
Words by Alexandra Longstaff, Photography by Daria Kurilo and Phill Taylor
There’s a reason Italy is considered to be one of the most romantic countries in the world. Italians are passionate people who place the highest importance on a little thing called love. The country exudes it, from every nook and cranny, to every sleepy coastal town and buzzing restaurant.
A stroll down an ancient cobbled street reveals statues and carvings made with love, about love. Balconies and windows tell of sweet nothings that have been spoken through them, and galleries and museums ring with the sound of beating hearts that have inspired artworks and carvings for centuries. Some of the greatest love affairs we know of have happened on Italian soil. From Romeo and Juliet to Dante Alighieri’s Paolo and Francesca, love has reigned supreme on this boot-shaped corner of the world for many years.
So what better place to spend a post-wedding wind-down than in the land of love? We explore two of Italy’s most romantic destinations — Florence and Venice — and get to know two of the most charming hotels here.
Winding through the hills of Tuscany is a truly warming experience. There’s something special in the air here that reminds visitors to get back to their roots and enjoy some of Italy’s earthy, intoxicating culture. Meandering, cobbled streets wind around rolling hills of cypress trees. Beautiful cathedrals rise elegantly claiming their space, while lush greenery welcomes visitors with open arms. There is a whisper in the air reminding holidaymakers that there is more to life than the big city and its big lights.
Tuscany offers a form of respite that nurtures the soul. Its warm hues reach deep into the heart, from the dusty oranges of the villas and the magnificent pinks of the sunsets to the warmth emanating from the people who live here, the kind of warmth that has been passed down from nonna for generations. Of course, it is this irresistible charm that brings thousands of visitors to the region each year.
Follow, if you will, one winding pathway out of the Arno valley leaving Florence and the Chianti Hills behind you and you will find yourself ascending towards the magnificent Belmond Villa San Michele. This hotel is a magical sight to behold. Nestled into the hillside about 20 minutes outside of Florence’s city centre, the former monastery is a reminder of the history that exists here in Tuscany.
The hotel is a Renaissance villa dating back to the 15th century, with a facade designed by Florence’s most talented and renowned artist: Michelangelo. Its historical presence can be felt as soon as you approach the large archways.
Beautiful old timber and tiles have been retained throughout and a historic altar greets you instantly. The magic of centuries past has been retained in a way that is uniquely Tuscan. Secret nooks and crannies that open up to large spaces with incredible views remind visitors that this was once a religious space. It’s easy to imagine this being a spiritual centre for those that used to inhabit it. But, while the hotel expertly maintains its historical character, it is also effortlessly contemporary, with five-star service and amenities, a view to die for and the most perfectly manicured gardens you’ll ever see.
It’s not small, with the hotel boasting 45 beautiful suites including the ancient Limonaia Suite, which was originally built as the monks’ orangery and features its own private heated plunge pool and unrivalled views over the Tuscan hills. The Limonaia Suite is actually made up of two villas sat one on top of the other, creating a total of three suites all with their own living areas that can be utilised individually or together.
The perfect evening spent here comprises sipping on peach Bellinis in the stunningly manicured gardens — couples can while away an afternoon in the Lover’s Corner — which offers an uninterrupted view across the hills, complete with glimpses of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Nothing could be more romantic than watching the sunset as the last rays catch on the Cupola of this magnificent piece of architecture.
Live, romantic music begins to play in the early evening, drawing visitors into the five-star La Loggia Restaurant, which offers delicious local Tuscan cuisine cooked by the hotel’s own expert chefs. It’s no surprise that proposals are common here as guests take in the romantic atmosphere while overlooking one of Italy’s most inspiring landscapes.
This same restaurant is just as superb a setting for breakfast the next morning. Watch the sun rise over the Tuscan Hills, just as it set the evening before, now revealing new corners of the valley as the rays hit. A comprehensive buffet breakfast is served, offering local and continental plates catering to all tastes.
Head up to the pool to lap up the rays and relax or make the most of the private spa gazebo where couples can be treated to a relaxing massage with scented oils and chocolates while admiring the magnificent view. For those honeymooning, the Belmond Villa San Michele offers a range of activities to make your experience that little bit extra special. From a private AcroYoga class or a Vespa ride through the countryside to a romantic 30-minute helicopter ride over the Tuscan Hills or even a hot-air-balloon ride over the beautiful city, there is an activity here for every couple.
Of course, there is the option to head into the city of Florence and soak up some of the Tuscan culture. The concierge will be able to recommend many activities and sights to make your stay more memorable, some of which are unique and off the beaten track. Every year, the hotel comes up with a themed tour that relates to the city’s rich heritage, revealing lesser-known secrets about the area and its past. These tours change each year and in fact many guests who stay here come back annually to kick back, relax and lap up the villa’s warmth. As there is always something different on offer, visitors can expect to uncover a new Tuscan treasure each time they return.
For more information, visit belmond.com/villa-san-michele-florence
Strolling through Venice today is an extraordinary experience. Here, visitors will find an immaculately preserved city that is both decadent and humble; one that is built literally on the sea, not alongside it, and one that is crafted with a visual aesthetic so unique that nowhere else on Earth looks or feels the same.
Venice’s rich cultural history spans centuries. It has been both a battleground and an Austrian-ruled city. It is the home of Carnival, Murano Glass and the famous Piazza San Marco. It is the land of the gondola and their gondoliers, a place frequented by the rich and famous, and the site of many films, from The Italian Job to The Talented Mr Ripley.
If you want to be wowed at every corner, you’ve come to the right place. The city is rife with achingly decadent architecture: gold leaf is the adornment of choice and around every twist and turn, there’s a perfectly crafted balcony or bridge that you just know lovers have united on. Everything revolves around l’amore here. A hustle and bustle exists that thrives off it, and it’s no secret that the people of Venice celebrate it. The restaurants are packed, but their sole purpose is to wine and dine lovers.
Gondoliers majestically float down canals skilfully negotiating the busy waterways, but always done with expert precision and with an accordion serenading in hand. Hoteliers welcome visitors to their concierges with a view to hosting passion.
Of course, it’s also the city where the Carnival of Venice first blossomed. Although there is debate around how or why the festival began, it is synonymous with the idea of pleasure, hosting a spectacular array of costumes and face masks that whisk visitors off their feet into a fairytale land for two weeks of the year before Shrove Tuesday.
Almost perfectly preserved in its beauty, the floating city never disappoints, no matter how many times you return. Whether it is a frosty grip that holds the town or the hordes of summertime tourists with eyes lit up by the gold leaf of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice transfixes with its special brand of life.
So what hotel could possibly carry the baton of Venice’s magic to complement it? Well, the city’s most prestigious hotel can: The Belmond Cipriani. This salubrious venue was opened in 1958 by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s Bar and allegedly the inventor of the Bellini cocktail. Legend has it that Giuseppe was working in Hotel Europa where Harry Pickering, a young, rich Bostonian traveller frequented. Harry stopped coming to the bar because his parents had found out about his drinking habits and cut him off financially. Giuseppe, thinking Harry a fine young man, loaned him 10,000 lire to help him out of strife. Two years later Harry returned with 30,000 lire in his hot little hand to repay his debt, and propose that Giuseppe open his own bar called Harry’s Bar.