For the first time in my life, when I get off the plane in Florence, I walk through customs and straight past the baggage-carousel area. For a woman who loves and lives fashion, this is a great accomplishment – I have packed my whole weekend into a carry-on (ladies, take note: gold flip-flops will save you packing endless shoes in summer, since you can dress them up or down). I feel like my old, breezy Californian self once again, travelling short-haul for a relaxed weekend away, with few wardrobe rules to worry about.
It is 3pm when we arrive at the Villa Sassolini in the hills of Tuscany. The charming hotel manager, Andrea, comes to meet us at the gate of what appears to be a village monastery hiding behind a strong stucco façade. Mr Smith remarks that Andrea has an air of Lex Luther about him. It might be fair to say that his levels of passion are comparable to the comic-book villain but, rather than obsessing about global domination, Andrea’s focus is clearly to ensure the world is a better place – especially for guests at Villa Sassolini.
As we enter the lobby, it feels as though no one is home, and that we’re the only guests here. We tread the slate-coloured wooden floors that run throughout, past a spacious living room with a fireplace, books and oversized lampshades. The low yellow lighting enhances a pervading sense of calm. There is a small reception, but the greeting at the gate counted as check-in.
Andrea shows us to our room on the top floor, helping with Mr Smith’s bulky baggage while I saunter up the stairs with my carry-on. Mr Smith notes that, though we have a lounge and bedroom with beautiful old white-painted beams, what we don’t have is a bathtub. Without so much as a whiff of irritation, Andrea lumbers himself with Mr Smith’s luggage once again and takes us off to another room on yet another floor. Our new abode has a lovely four-poster bed, fresco-painted ceiling, grey walls and a bathroom large enough to house a whole family – with a beautiful, oversized bath in the middle of it.
With the heat absolutely scorching at 30 degrees, the pool beckons. I am reminded of my childhood in the Californian valley, where pools were more important than passports. Having had to adjust to leisure-centre versions in London, it is a joy to swim outdoors again. We’ve come straight from the airport, with no lunch pitstop, so we are starving: Andrea, who is nothing short of a miracle-worker, whips together a plate of cheeses, pears, honey and rolls, while we have a cooling splash about.
It’s such a beautiful night that we decide to eat outside again at sunset. There are two options at Villa Sassolini: inside is a softly lit dining hall near the tower, with a vaulted ceiling and a wine cellar; outside there’s a honeysuckle-framed garden full of overgrown rosemary and lavender bushes. We choose a garden table, where my handbag is even given its own pedestal – how nice to be in a hotel where the staff anticipate the whims of a fashionista. The food is gorgeous, but beware: don’t fill your belly on the tasty traditional Tuscan fare. Make sure you save room for the homemade puddings – namely the chocolate fondant and the cheesecake.
We’re back in the garden once more for breakfast and to plan our day out. Nothing is too far, but nothing is quite on the doorstep either, so a car is crucial; taxis aren’t really an option out here. We begin with a stop at the local Prada outlet. There are lots of charming hilltop mediaeval villages to visit, but shopping is taken just as seriously as heritage around here. (We pull in to a petrol station on the way to check where we’re going and, without prompting, a serviceman approaches us and says, ‘Next light, left and left again.’ Three shopping bags later, I realise my hand-luggage-only approach might not work for the return journey.
Our next foray is to Badia a Coltibuono, an old monastery and vineyard where we enjoy a light lunch with a stunning view of the hills and valleys. It is clearly marked on the tourist map, though, and in high season we feel like dots in the crowd, so we set off on a mission to seek out a rather more intimate wine-tasting experience. At our first stop, Monterotondo, the owner gives us a private tour of the cool cellar and a broken-English explanation of his wines. We’re no connoisseurs and, after several tastings, we have to confess that everything tastes like a glass of Canaletto Primitivo. When Mr Smith points out that a particular vintage tastes a bit like Um Bongo, I take it as a sure sign that it is time to go back to the hotel.
As we say farewell to Sassolini, I realise that the place has caused me to reconsider exactly what accommodation means. This is a small hotel with a relaxed ethos and wonderful service, whose atmosphere serves as a valuable reminder that a holiday in Tuscany is best enjoyed unhurriedly. I see the region as a little like my home of Napa Valley, but quainter and more personal. And I have yet to find a hotel as unique in style and personality as Villa Sassolini in the Californian wine country. Our break doesn’t end with the simple pleasure it began with: at Gatwick, I stand by the carousel waiting for my luggage, smiling in the knowledge that I am returning laden with rewards both sartorial and spiritual.