Mrs Smith has never seen Florence. I tell her it’ll be amazing: we’ll meander the corridors of the Uffizi, I’ll explain the architectural genius of Brunelleschi’s Duomo using only an egg, we’ll watch the sun set from the Ponte Vecchio, and titter romantically over caricatures by overpriced street artists. We’ll return home fluent in the language of Dante and experts in mediaeval banking systems; we’ll be the Renaissance on legs.
That’s the plan. As soon as we start to make our way to Grand Hotel Villa Cora, it’s clear that things are not going to go according to it. We’ve walked from the station, because I had a ridiculous notion that lugging baggage and buggy through central Florence in the parching heat would be poetic. There’s a protest on in the piazza (this is Italy), the streets are thronged, traffic’s solid and I’ve led us half a mile in the wrong direction. By the time we’ve made it over the Arno to the grassy serenity of the Boboli Gardens and the illustrious, villa-lined Viale Machiavelli, we’re sweating, exhausted and Mrs Smith is silently calculating the divorce settlement.
Luckily, nothing saves a marriage quite like stepping into the most special place you’ve ever seen. Villa Cora is magnificent. Palatial. Opulent. All the words that ring hollow because they’ve been used so many times before to mean ‘quite nice, with marble bits’. It’s stuffed to the ceilings with gilded stucco, sweeping frescoes and ornate statuary – you can barely cross a corridor without bumping into a dryad. Or, for that matter, head-turningly glamorous Italian women. As my eyes follow a Vogue-worthy vision out the dramatic double doors, I wonder if we’re going to be turned away for crimes against looking fabulous.
I needn’t have worried; given the enthusiasm of the welcome we’re given, we may as well be Rothschilds (or Medici). Check-in is relaxed and conducted over a round mahogany table supported by a helpful golden cherub. It would have been over in seconds, but the lady at reception is so taken with young Master Smith, we have to take a few coo-breaks. And I need a few gawp-in-slack-jawed-amazement pauses: the ground floor is a baroque fantasy of over-the-top magnificence.
The foyer gives way to a domed and stuccoed antechamber, presided over by a sculpted marble dancing girl. Above each arched door is a painted neoclassical scene illustrating what awaits beyond (boozing for the bar, cards for the games room…), and each of those rooms is another straight-to-the-brain shot of extravagance. A 12-foot glass table glows in different colours; a chandeliered ballroom is multiplied into infinity by mirror-clad walls; improbably intricate patterns of parquet (dating back centuries, yet unscuffed and immaculate) – there’s so much going on that working out what to look at next makes your eyes dizzy.
It could so, so easily go wrong, this madcap collision of periods and styles: a few cherubs more and it could start to look like a bad dream in a rapper’s mansion, but through some mysterious alchemy or the heady Florence air, it works: it’s beautiful.
Ours is a junior suite on the second floor, where the decor pays tribute to the one-time lady of the house (19th-century banking-heiress aristo Eugenia Fenzi, wife of Baron Oppenheim, in case you’re into specialist pub quizzes), who was, it’s fair to say, a fan of roses. Our suite could teach Cath Kidston a thing or two about floral prints. Mrs Smith sniffs at the Annick Goutal bath bits; I manhandle the heavyweight crimson curtains out of the way to gaze down at the pool (where catwalk queen is now sunning herself), and Master Smith crawls straight into the ensuite to smash up a soap dish.
Oops. Given the provenance of everything else at Villa Cora, I panic that said dish is an Oppenheim heirloom, hand-crafted Murano glassware presented to Napoleon III on his wedding day by the King of Sweden, and retrieved from the wreck of the Titanic. This may have been the case, but when I ’fess up to the staff, they barely bat an eyelid and go back to fussing over the boy like adoring aunts.
That’s the genius of this place – aristocratic luxury plus passionate, personal service. It sounds an easy formula, but few hotels remember to make their staff act human – you just feel you’re being conveyer-belted around the building. Not at Villa Cora – these are real people.
You don’t even need to go out – literally, because there’s a network of underground tunnels linking the basement of the main building with the poolside restaurant and the subterranean spa in the Villa Eugenia. We head off to Le Pool to eat (Pasha in the basement takes over dinner duties in winter), entering the tunnel, emerging at the… spa.
It’s a labyrinth down there. Compasses reset, we try again, this time successfully finding the restaurant, where we plump (this is the operative word) for a four-course Tuscan tasting menu, delivered with a gastronomic flourish by a chef who clearly knows his way around a cow. We may not be exploring Tuscany, but at least we can give our tastebuds a tour of the region.
Mrs Smith has a facial booked the next morning, so – after getting well acquainted with the cornucopian breakfast buffet and introducing Master Smith to Florence’s only heated outdoor pool – she redescends into the maze in search of the spa. Leaving us to snoop around.
Our expedition takes us to the lift, up to the undiscovered heights of floor five (floor four requires an elevator key – it’s the Forties-themed honeymoon suite). The doors open – and we’re on the roof. A spectacular panorama is spread out before us: the Boboli treetops recede into a sea of alabaster and terracotta, dotted with domes and backdropped by hills. If there’s a better view of Firenze out there, I don’t need to see it; this one’ll do me.
I drag a freshly facialed Mrs S up to share the vista. She too is slack-jawed. We may not have ‘seen’ all of Florence, but we’ve certainly had an eyeful of it. Next time we’ll just have to stay in a worse hotel – that way we might actually go out.