Every morning while in my room at Il Salviatino, an intimate villa hotel in the Tuscan hills, I'd dramatically fling open the shutters of my windows (as I imagine Helena Bonham Carter would do in A Room With a View) and take in the idyllic scene spread before me--beyond the villa's formal gardens and towering cypress trees lies the Renaissance gem of Florence: orange and red tiled roofs, ancient palazzi were the Medici family held court and the cathedral, simply called the Duomo, with its majestic Brunelleschi dome dominating the skyline.
Did I mention the pealing church bells? The magical early morning light?
Yes, Florence does that to you. The last time I'd been to the Tuscan capital was a three-week stay after college with the aim of trying to improve my Italian. I roomed in a small pensione near the Piazza della Repubblica with intermittent hot water and a lumpy mattress and while I loved every minute of being in Florence, it definitely was not what you'd call a luxurious experience so my three-night stay at 45-room Il Salviatino would be a different story altogether.
Located ten minutes from Florence in the village of Fiesole, the four-story villa dates from the 15th century when a prominent banking family bought the existing farmhouse and built a palatial mansion in its place. The Salviati family took the reins in the 16th century and over the ensuing centuries the property had numerous other owners. During the 1970s it was being used by Stanford University for its overseas program, and by the time hotelier Marcello Pigozzo and his son purchased the property in 2007, it was in serious disrepair. They spent several years and several million dollars meticulously restoring the villa and the grounds and while stone fireplaces, frescoes and mosaics are back to their former glory, guests will also find modern amenities from flatscreen tvs embedded in mirrors, WiFi, LED-lit rain showers and espresso machines.
An evening ritual was to meet up with my traveling companions for an apertif in the library whose soaring vaulted ceiling and floor-to-ceiling wood paneling created quite the elegant setting. Amid a warm glow cast by a pair of silver candelabra (making everyone look fabulous), we sipped prosecco and Negronis and nibbled on marinated olives before heading to the restaurant to dine on chef Carmine Calo's modern Italian dishes (smoked eggplant-filled pasta, black cod with Tuscan black cabbage). Come springtime, guests take their meals on the terrace, which also attracts in-the-know locals from the fashion and business worlds. I couldn't imagine a more romantic spot, so it's no surprise that the villa is popular for weddings and honeymoons.
The hotel just unveiled its new spa, a freestanding building in a secluded area of the 11-acre parkland with an outdoor swimming pool overlooking the lush Fiesole hills. I opted for a deep-tissue massage and my therapist, using Florence-based Dr. Vranjes aromatherapy essential oils, had my shoulder knots untied in no time. There's more cause for relaxation in the rooms, what with a Jacuzzi tub (toiletries incorporate organic Tuscan olive oil) and a platform duvet-topped bed with a stylish leather-and-gilded wood headboard (no lumpy mattress, thank you!).
Each room is singular in design and layout and many are named for former owners including the fourth-floor Ojetti, a loft suite with a skylight, glass-floored living room and a winding stone staircase that leads to a fabulous Florence-facing outdoor deck. My personal favorite was the ground-floor Affresco Suite, where a 19th century fresco by Italian painter Domenico Bruschi was found under a false ceiling during the renovation and an ancient carved marble bath tub left sitting in the overgrown garden now takes pride of place in the open-walled bathroom.
I'd spend my days exploring Florence: catching the latest exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi, Americans in Florence (through July 15) showcasing works painted by Whistler, Sargent, Cassatt and other American artists while living in Tuscany and a visit to the new Gucci Museum, with stops for gelato at Carapina and macchiatos at Gilli along the way -- oh yes, I also bought myself a pair of soft-as-butter teal leather gloves at Martelli just off the Ponte Vecchio. But truth be told, I was more than happy to get back to the tranquility of Il Salviatino. As twilight fell, we'd sit in the library amid antique leather-bound books chatting by candlelight. I felt as if I had been transported back to another era. My budget hotel all those years ago certainly couldn't do that for me and I dare say, precious few other hotels in Tuscany could either.
Il Salviatino rates start at $365 and includes breakfast. Inquire about its newly introduced cooking program.