If you need to invoke the muse, she won’t turn up for anything less than Villa Lena, a bright spark of an artists’ retreat amid glorious Tuscan countryside. The creatives call the central, peachy 19th-century villa their home, while guests get the run of a 500-acre estate and cosy suites in the surrounding buildings. The painters, sculptos et al work for their board too, often teaching classes on, say, flower-crown making, poetry writing and more in an atmosphere as fruitful as the organic kitchen garden the chef uses inventively, and as fizzy as the rosé sourced from the vineyard. This cosseting commune is the passion project of curator Lena Evstafieva, musician Jérôme Hadey and nightclub owner Lionel Bensemoun, so expect candlelit concerts and late-night partying too, plus scattershot works of those who made the muse an invitation she couldn’t refuse.
Get this when you book through us:
A bottle of Villa Lena sparkling wine; cookies made by the pastry chef; a private tour of the foundation; complimentary early check-in and/or late check-out (subject to availability)
18, including 10 suites and two standalone villas.
11am, but flexible, on request and subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £197.08 (€230), including tax at 10 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of €1.00 per person per night on check-out.
Rates include a buffet breakfast with à la carte choices, plus pastries from the house chef. A two-night minimum stay is required. Half board rates for extra guests are €75 an adult; €35 a child.
The hotel has some accommodation suitable for guests with mobility issues.
The property closes during the winter months and will open from 1 April to 5 November in 2023.
At the hotel
Art studios, kitchen garden, bikes to borrow, lounge, TV and games room, petanque court and small playground, boutique, charged laundry service, plug adaptors, free WiFi. In rooms: Marshall Bluetooth speaker, gourmet minibar, tea-making kit, pool towels, air-conditioning, Biolu organic bath products.
Our favourite rooms
For splashier, more colourful spaces, stay in the San Michele rooms (where you’ll also find iconic pieces by Ettore Sottsass, Superstudio for Zanotta and other greats). Styled by Fred Rigby and many sporting frescoes by the artists in residence, they have plenty of character, while the rooms in the former farm’s stables and hunting lodges, styled by Clarisse Demory, are more chicly spartan. However, all have beds engineered to fit a suitcase underneath, repurposed antique wardrobes, and hand-printed recycled fabrics. The Cassetta Bella and Maison Stento, which share a private pool, are ideal for families or those looking for a little more privacy.
A splash of colour becomes literal round the main pool (open 8am to 8pm), one of three (and a half) on the property. The water’s a searing turquoise, Tuscany’s sages and saffrons spice up the backdrop, and parasols in stripy primaries add a pop to proceedings. Set at the highest point of the property, its views look painted by a master, and – more importantly – you’re so close to the pool bar that you can practically hear the Aperol Spritzes fizz. There’s covered seating for cooler days, and the pool’s heated in spring and autumn. By San Michele restaurant there’s a shallow comma of a children’s pool (with floaties and toys); the five apartments of the Renacchi building share a peaceful swimming spot; and Cassetta Bella and Maison Stento share a private pool.
There’s no spa onsite, but should you need some kneading, a masseur can be called on for sessions in your room or the dinky therapy space. And, the hotel has both an alfresco yoga deck and indoor studio for classes.
Should inspiration strike, the hotel has crafty materials to make use of, but a sketchpad might come in handy for idle afternoons. (Or you can buy a print and try to pass it off as your own.) Use this as a cupboard-stocking expedition, too, jamming supplies of the house olive oil and bottles of red into your suitcase.
What’s that intoxicating scent? It’s no accident: a heady mix of savon de Marseille household products, Santa Maria Novella diffusers and good old Pronto Italian floor wax.
Creative talents are nurtured from a young age here. Many activities are tailored to kids, they’ll have a dedicated pool and menu, and families can easily fit into suites and villas, and all rooms fit a baby cot free of charge.
All ages: for very small kids, there’s the wonder of roaming free in the Tuscan countryside, while older kids will enjoy the creativity-nurturing activities.
The apartments in the Renacchi building have at least two bedrooms and a kitchen. Or, the standalone Cassetta Bella or Maison Stento are sizeable and secluded.
Alongside pools to splash in and bikes to pedal, the villa’s resident artists hold colourful workshops and classes, many suitable for little ones, and the chef will teach them how to make pasta. To keep them on their toes – in a fun way – the hotel’s partnered up with Oppidan Education to arrange seasonal pastimes focused on personal development. And, for downtime, the games room has ping-pong and table football; a small playground has a sandpit, pétanque court and other outdoor distractions; and, there’s a screening room with DVDs for snoozier days.
Beside the osteria there’s a small shallow pool with boxes of toys and floaties just for kids. (Villa pools are not gated, so you’ll need to be vigilant if travelling with toddlers.)
Children and adults dine in harmony here, in true Italian style. Simple mains include pesto or tomato pasta and chicken Milanese, and the ice-cream sandwiches for dessert will undoubtedly be a hit.
Babysitting can be arranged for €30 an hour, but you’ll need to book at least 15 days ahead of your stay.
No need to pack
The hotel doesn’t have any baby kit, so bring any essentials.
All accommodations can fit a baby cot (free for kids up to two years old) or one extra bed. In Superior Rooms, the charge for one extra bed and breakfast for kids aged three to 11 is €55 a night, €75 for half-board; for kids aged 12 and over, it’s €80 bed and breakfast, €130 half-board. In Large Superior Rooms, the charge for one extra bed and breakfast for kids aged three to 11 is €55 a night, €75 for half-board; for kids aged 12 and over, it’s €85 bed and breakfast, €135 half-board. An extra bed in an apartment or villa is only available on a half-board basis (€75 a night for three to 11 year olds; €135 for kids aged 12 and over).
A not-for-profit hideaway for artists, Villa Lena seeks to nurture and safeguard the beautiful on and beyond canvas. Conservation efforts go far beyond recycling, reducing plastics and using Earth-kind products, although these are all duly observed. The hotel aims to be wholly sustainable when it comes to food, crafting delicious plant-based dishes from their vast organic vegetable garden, eking out 600 litres of extra-virgin olive oil a year from their groves and producing two delicious red wines from their Sangiovese vines. Farming is biodynamic, pesticide-free and works on closed-loop principles: nutrient-rich organic matter goes back into the soil, restaurant waste is composted with the help of a worm farm, a network of pipes harvests rainwater, and if wild animals start to harm the landscape, they’re ethically hunted as game. Around 65 per cent of the estate runs on renewable energy (solar panels, air pumps) and alongside the careful restoration of the peachy-hued main villa, antiques have been repurposed or upcycled and decor has been carefully sourced from Italian craftspeople. Dining and drinking is farm- and vineyard-to-table, too. On top of that, the Villa Lena Foundation has supported more than 400 artists and counting, the hotel offers hospitality training for the local workforce, and the owners support numerous causes (UNICEF Italia, Mediterranea Rescue, Cooperativa Alice…) alongside holding charity dinners and hosting markets to showcase Tuscan makers.
Elbow-to-elbow with the artist du jour is ideal. Or, pile on the romance with a table set in the garden or deep in woodland.
Fortune favours the bold here.
Dinner in Osteria San Michele often feels more like an erudite salon gathering than a simple mealtime; often you’ll find yourself amid the artists currently in residence, so conversation is guaranteed to engage. And the food is thoughtful, too, with many dishes using picks from the garden, and a menu of sublime Tuscan simplicity, where humble dishes of fava beans and pecorino, risotto with spring vegetables, or turbot in a porcini broth, sear into your subconscious like the toils of the hotel’s creatives. For dessert, choose the dreamily creamy tiramisu or brioche ice-cream sandwich. Lunches, too, are decadent affairs with wild boar and gojuchang ragu, taleggio-topped burgers and full-on truffle tasting menus (in season).
Parisian club Le Baron, with its mood-setting scarlet lighting, sultry EDM sets and bright young things dressed to impress (the very discerning bouncers, that is), was the love labour of Villa Lena co-owner Lionel Bensemoun, and he’s worked his party-starting magic here, albeit in frothier style. There’s a kicky yé-yé rhythm to the San Michele bar, with its wicker seating and powder-pink stools against emerald tiling, and the Pool Bar is a sociable kiosk. The villa’s vineyard produces two sumptuous reds and a screams-summer-drinking sparkling rosé, but the cocktails are top, too, such as the signature Art Star with mezcal, rhubarb, strawberry, lemon and tabasco; or the house negroni, splashed with gin infused with homegrown olive oil.
Breakfast is from 8am to 10.30am, lunch from 12.30pm to 3pm and dinner from 6.30pm to 10pm.
Dine in blissful seclusion during restaurant hours or when housekeeping is active.
Villa Lena’s setting, about an hour from both Florence and Pisa, is reliably Tuscan, and looks like a Google-image search, with cypress-lined drives, olive groves and rolling vineyards.
Pisa International is the closest airport, just under an hour’s drive away, and has a slightly wider reach of direct departure points than Florence’s hub, which is just over an hour’s drive away. The hotel can help to arrange transfers for €100 one-way in a car, €135 in a minivan.
Pontedera-Casciana station is about a 30-minute drive from the hotel, and trains from both Florence's Santa Maria Novella and Pisa’s Centrale stop here. Transfers can be booked for €70 one-way in a car, €90 in a minivan.
One of the villa owner’s first impressions of the location was ‘I remember feeling like I was holed up in the middle of a forest that engulfed me and cut me off from everything else.’ Really the seclusion is rather wonderful, but, bottom line, you’ll need some wheels. If you want to stay in line with the hotel’s eco-cred, hire an electric car – there are chargers onsite – or borrow a bike.
Worth getting out of bed for
Yes, the hotel is as green as a Tuscan landscape painter's smock, but – surprisingly – one of their mottos is to ‘leave a trace’. Of course this refers to spectacular works of art in all disciplines, left by the creatives in residence, rather than, say, a discarded Torres crisp packet. The Villa Lena Foundation has supported and hosted more than 400 artists since its inception, all chosen for their deep passion and invigorating stylings. Wander through the villa and spy what remains (you get a private guided tour as your Smith Extra): Evalie Wagner’s botanical screens, David Fenster’s delicate mushroom sketches, Pedro Batista’s sun-bleached paintings, Precious Opara’s underwater captures, Peter Ern’s eerie forestscapes… And speaking of lasting remnants, Gregor Hildebrandt’s cassette-tape assemblage has captured Elvira, the rumoured ghost of a murdered woman who allegedly haunts abandoned mediaeval village Vecchio Toiana. It’s within the confines of the hotel’s 500-acre estate, but you’ll be more charmed than spooked by its fountain, shell grotto, kitchen gardens and terraced viewpoints designed by former artists in residence Jocelyn Oppenheim and Kate Smaby. Art is Villa Lena’s life force, and guests are encouraged to get swept up in it, partaking in pottery and ceramics classes with Matteo of Montelupo’s La Galleria, drawing sessions, flower-crown making with Rebel Rebel floristry school, clay sculpting, scent making with Porcelain perfumers, wild fermentation, poetry reading and tablecloth designing. In season, you can go take a guided truffle tour through the woodland, where trained dogs will help you source Palaia’s fresh white truffle (resident hound Igor is a truffle dog, but prefers snaffling scraps from guest tables), before returning to the Villa for a pasta-making workshop – of course, topped with your freshly picked truffle and paired with a well-deserved glass of Da Occasione wine. And amid the heady scent of lavender, sage and mallow, DJs man decks by the pool, films are screened alfresco and concerts are held by candlelight. Hike or bike through the estate to spy wild boar, red deer, rabbits, pheasant or mouflons, or venture offsite to see the Renaissance marvels of Florence, Pisa and Siena; the torres and ancient frescoed churches of San Gimignano; golden beaches of Cecina; and the wonders within Lucca’s well-preserved fortified walls.
Remote, sch-remote – this is Tuscany – you could be miles from any discernible landmark without a glimmer of WiFi and still stumble across the best meal of your life. Dig into the surroundings and you’ll unearth treasures such as Antica Farmacia. Formerly a pharmacy, this Michelin-recognised space now prescribes work-of-art plates bearing the likes of pumpkin and porcini muffins drizzled in gorgonzola cream, spaghettoni with snail ragu, or coffee-powder-dusted quail with hollandaise sauce mousse. Casa Masi has a charmingly rustic dining room with arched doorways and stone walls; and it's loyal to country methods, using chickpea or chestnut flour to make pasta. Dine on tagliolini blitzed with fresh truffle, spinach gramigna tossed in local pecorino, or steak sizzling in vinsanto. Florence and Pisa are perhaps a little far out for dining and dashing but you could stop for a lingering lunch – at the former, we like the romance of Beppe Fioraia’s secluded olive-tree-studded terrace, plus ragus of scorpionfish or rabbit with raisins and pine nuts. Or chicken-liver- and plum-stuffed guinea fowl. And in Pisa, dine on tomato-ey courgette pudding, chianti-soused wild boar, and parmesan ice-cream with honey and dried fruit at historic-centre pit stop Osteria dei Cavalieri.
The picturesque village of San Miniato draws foodies for its truffle festival come November, but if you’re stopping by any other time of the year, be sure to grab a picnic lunch at Sergio Falaschi, a centenarian butchers and deli with deliciously meaty boxes of salamis, plus rustic stews, stuffed breasts and meatloaf for dining alfresco.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this picture-painting retreat in the remote Tuscan countryside and unpacked their tubes of oils and deliriously scrawled sketchbooks, a full account of their muse-chasing break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Villa Lena in Italy…
Nothing so static as a gallery, or so languid as a mere hotel, Villa Lena is a living breathing creative entity. Here artists in residence not only rub shoulders with guests at sparkling communal dinners or tours of the studios that dot the vast country estate, but light a fire in them during lightning-strike workshops covering drawing and painting, clay sculpture, flower-crown making, perfumery, poetry writing and more. Co-owner and curator Lena Evstafieva has asked each of the 400-plus artists the villa’s not-for-profit foundation has hosted to leave a piece of work behind, so the stay itself is a work in progress, kept fresh by initiatives that promote underprivileged and female artists, overseen by a board including architect Rafael de Cárdenas, fashion designer Barbara Casasola, and Wu-Tang Clan rapper RZA.
In between baring your soul, the broader strokes of the Italian good life await: barkeeps show you how to mix the signature negroni (made with gin infused with house olive oil), eager dogs sniff out truffles, the chef schools you in foraging and feast-crafting. And thanks to the other two struts of holy-trinity owners – musician Jérôme Hadey and nightclub czar Lionel Bensemoun – there’s French-inflected fun to be had, whether DJs start dance parties poolside, terraces are cleared for concerts to carry late into candlelit nights, or minds meet over communal dinners that swim into evening drinks.