Italian Stopovers that Inject Tuscan Essence and Experience
When it comes to exploring the beautiful country of Italy, there are a variety of areas to dive into, but this piece unveils the hidden gems that are a must-stay while visiting.
Whether you are craving a hustle bustle city lifestyle or a serene and expansive landscape, there is something for everyone, and within the region of Tuscany you can have both.
Our first stop is Florence, or as Claudio Meli, General Manager of THE PLACE Firenze likes to call it, “My Beloved City.” The most whimsical and idyllic features of this property are tied to the rich culture and history, ranging from its signature floral logo connected to the Santa Maria Novella Church (it’s all in the details!) to the fact that almost every item in the hotel was created by local Florentine artisans, down to the salt and pepper shaker. Located in the heart of Santa Maria Novella, you are greeted with a view of blooming flowers and a piece of history, steps away from the most renowned churches and cathedrals. THE PLACE Firenze is a sartorial or tailored experience brought to life by the Babini family.
The hotel was recreated in an imaginative way by Florentine designer Luigi Fragola from Sicily, with a luxury spin on a chic, yet comfortable apartment-style design, so you feel right at home. The independent, boutique hotel has only 20 rooms, encompassing 7 categories, with the top level boasting views or the Duomo on the terrace.
The Kitchen and Bar restaurant by Chef Asso offers an array of delicious selections, and a choice of only Tuscan wines. I opted for an impeccably presented beef tartare, a light sea bass and a pink sponge cake, all prepared with simple ingredients, in true Florentine style. Even the Art Deco style furniture, delicate tea pots and embroidered linens are presented in an elegant fashion.
Pre-pandemic, Travel + Leisure named THE PLACE Firenze the best hotel in Europe and in 2014, Amex Centurion voted it the best hotel in the world. The efficiency and beauty of this 5-star hotel can even be seen as you walk in, with a real pull-down oversized tassel doorbell and no check-in required as Claudio states, “We never do check in at THE PLACE Firenze- you should only ever do check in at airport. We aren’t luggage, we are people.”
That’s the true THE PLACE Firenze experience.
The next stop on our list is the charming Borgo San Felice, a beautiful Medieval hamlet that is literally a town of its own, immersed in the Tuscan countryside around Siena. The history of the property is colorful. In 1978, it was acquired by Allianz Group who decided to embark upon a significant restoration and preservation project, highlighting its unique artistic and architectural characteristics. In 1991, Borgo San Felice was converted into a 5-star albergo diffuso (scattered hotel) featuring 29 rooms, 31 suites, as well as two private villas. A year later, the property became part of the Relais & Chateaux group, the only such estate in Chianti Classico. The meaning of Borgo is an aldea, or a village, just like Belle’s in Beauty and the Beast.
The 17th-century buildings are kept carefully intact, with the perks of two restaurants, the Michelin starred Il Poggio Rosso and Osteria del Grigio, a full vineyard tour and wine tasting, as well as a heated pool and luxury spa treatments at the Botanic Spa, located in what was once an olive mill. They kept the original names on each building including a Rimessa Officina and Forno bakery, with views of the churches and bell tower. The Palazzo Patrizio in the center faces an expansive piazza, which is perfect for weddings and markets. We stayed in the Foresteria, or workers suite, which was tastefully designed and spacious, with endless views of the Tuscan countryside.
The lush botanical wonderland took my breath away. Everywhere you turn, there are stone walls lined with flowers in pops of color — white jasmine and pink hydrangeas. Red and white grapes hang from a vineyard ceiling. The best part? Borgo San Felice is mission-driven, luxury with a purpose, thanks to its social project L’Orto Felice which was conceived and developed by the Allianz UMANA MENTE Foundation. L’Orto Felice project currently involves six young people with disabilities from the Siena area, who cultivate the land and take care of the farmyard, under the guidance of the operators of the Koinè and Betadue cooperatives. Their organic, “0-km” produce can be found in many of the home-grown recipes served at the restaurant or sold at local markets. Be sure to visit Gennaro the donkey behind the orto, great for kids who love playing with the goats and animals.
Looking for a little privacy and adrenaline? You can find the property’s private helipad in the vineyards to get in and out, and two tennis courts can be used to break a sweat. For a more casual dinner, feel free to visit the Osteria del Grigio, and nosh on the homemade Tuscan bread with olive oil.
Colombian Executive Chef Juan Quintero at Borgo San Felice has some innovative dishes, which are created with only local ingredients. Some of my favorites included the boar and cypress risotto as well as the lobster with black tea. All dishes are exquisitely presented, like true works of art, and even the thin bread pieces are designed to look like lace.
Our wine tasting was led by winemaker Leonardo Bellaccini, who passionately described the different areas and wines — Chianti, Brunello and Bolgheri. He took us through the notes and tastes of the South Border of the Chianti Appalachian. He reviewed the history of the Super Tuscan wine category, born 50 years ago.
Leaving Borgo San Felice, I felt like I had been transported back in time and now going back to the real world. For a piece of Tuscan history and true immersion into the local culture, these properties are not to be missed.