Review featured in our 'Mr & Mrs Smith – Hotel Collection: Italy' guidebook
When I was 17, I had a fantasy about how I wanted my life to be. I wanted to go to Florence and paint, draw, and sketch. And be very, very romantic. Alas, an overprotective uncle saw how distracted I was by English schoolboys, thought that I would never be able to cope with Italian men, and dashed my dreams of heading off to the atelier schools with the long-haired Chelsea girls and dreadlocked ex-Etonians. Now, a decade later, Locanda al Colle has reinvigorated my lust for Tuscany. These days I am greedier than that schoolgirl: why settle for the hustle and bustle of the city when you can have rolling hills and rural romance, too?
Locanda al Colle combines the best parts of a home and a hotel: there’s no reception desk or uniforms or paid bars, and the owner, Riccardo, has created an atmosphere of luxurious informality that never compromises the level of professionalism. He has cleverly arranged the nine bedrooms, giving each of them individual features so you can stay in one that seems tailor-made for you.
Mr Smith and I were checked into a top-floor room that has a slanted chestnut-beam ceiling, stone floors, elegant antiques, a state-of-the-art shower and a bath (so we were both happy). Our favourite bit though (on this we agree) is a private roof terrace complete with a day-bed for lounging on when the sun is too hot, and a fireplace to keep you warm once it has gone down. Other rooms are suitable for families or larger groups, with private gardens or kitchens, but with our secluded room and long stints alone by the swimming pool, there was nothing more we needed.
Riccardo has a great eye, and was buying up Grayson Perrys and Mark Francis pieces before the big gallerists. Over two decades spent travelling around Europe working in fashion, he has accumulated an exquisite and eclectic collection of furniture, re-upholstering chairs owned by Mussolini’s son-in-law to make them ‘less Fascist, more funky’. He’s filled the Locanda with these treasures, each piece beautiful in its own right, combining them seamlessly with the traditional Tuscan architecture to create a guesthouse that feels immaculate, every detail considered, but not so precious that you can’t run around trying out every armchair for size.
Locanda’s location makes for plenty of adventures. On our four-wheeled excursions, Mr Smith pointed out that my yelping at the Italian drivers was probably more dangerous than anything they were doing. Half an hour away was the walled city of Lucca, where we hired bicycles and rode the 30-minute loop; it’s amazing how much guilt it relieved when we tucked into our daily pizza. In under an hour, we were in the middle of Florence, climbing over the side of the Ponte Santa Trinità to picnic on one of its buttresses. Hidden from passing tourists, with a beer, a gelato and an unopened sketchbook, there was lots of snogging – making up for that unromantic all-girls art-history school trip all those years ago.
Versilia’s long stretches of sandy beach were within a 10-minute grasp; Pisa’s famously leaning tower only a bit more. When we got lazy, Pietrasanta was just 5km away. This compact, unspoiled, pedestrianised town has impressive churches, galleries, antique shops and a bell tower that the padre allows you to climb up, even if you are wearing a short skirt. There is also Paul Smith’s favourite dining room, Enoteca Marcucci, which has one of the best wine lists in Italy, and which, incidentally, selected all the house vintages for the Locanda. After a quick hit of culture, some sightseeing, and a splash of good old Catholic guilt, we could be back at the hotel before the bubbles fizzled out of our remaining prosecco.
The meals at the house are worth staying in for. Like in all great Italian homes, the main kitchen is at its heart, and there is always someone in it squeezing fresh blood oranges or filling the building with appetising aromas. We ate on the patio when it was warm enough and in the kitchen when it wasn’t. There is no menu – Riccardo and his friends just create delicious unpredictable yet classic dishes, such as slippery mushrooms in filo pastry for breakfast. Riccardo has a knack of anticipating exactly what you desire, before the thought even crosses your mind. ‘Yes, of course I want a glass of pink prosecco with my tiramisu.’ Grateful sigh. ‘Yes, of course I want raspberry cheesecake for my breakfast.’
Once, while watching The Godfather, an Italian friend interrupted a kitchen scene to tell me – with no trace of irony – ‘People think that in Italy we eat spaghetti and meatballs all the time, but we don’t! Only, like, three times a week.’ When it came to our very last meal, as I hadn’t been able to find the classic dish on any menu during our escapades, Locanda’s kitchen rustled some up with what they had in their cupboards. As greedy as my demands were, as ever, they did everything they, or we, could think of to make our stay as perfect as possible. Locanda al Colle – thanks for making a schoolgirl’s dreams come true.