Saturday, March 19, 2011

Istria - The Mediterranean as it Once Was

This is the first time that I am happily posting an article contributed by another of our senior agents whom just returned from Croatia where he traveled with his wife.  Over the past couple of years, I have seen a big surge in travel to Croatia and last year sent clients there for their honeymoon as well.  This is definitely an area that is worthy of note.

Istria is the westernmost part of Croatia, an arrowhead-shaped peninsula dipping into the Adriatic Sea directly east of Italy and Venice.  In fact, the history of the Istrian peninsula is closely tied to Italy; from the Roman Empire to today's vineyards and olive groves, Istria owes much to its sometimes stormy relationship with Italy.

Basilica of St. Euphemia Dominates the Rovinj Skyline

Today, Istria is a paradise of small towns and villages, many expanded during the Middle Ages on the ruins of Roman fortresses and villas.  After Rome completed the conquest of Istria in approximately 50 BC, it became a popular "vacation" destination, even then.  Many towns and villages owe their existence to the summer villas built by Roman "royalty".  Even today, Pula, Istria's largest city, contains the amazingly well preserved remains of the 6th largest arena (coliseum) ever built by the Romans which still plays host to concerts, plays and even an annual film festival.  Remains of the Roman gateway to the city as well as the paved Roman roads can still be seen today.

Remains of the Roman Arena - Pula

Another View of the Roman Arena - Pula

The true beauty and charm of Istria lies not in the cities, but in the many towns and villages that dot the coastline and hillsides of this picturesque and diverse region and in the warmth and generosity of her people.

Opatija, Istria, Croatia

Due to its proximity to western Europe, Istria is gaining in popularity as a tourist destination for many Europeans whom are looking to experience all the Mediterranean has to offer without the prices of Italy and France.

Rovinj with St. Euphemia in Background
Rovinj Looking West

Rugged, rocky coastlines and calm and serene beaches highlight access to what Jacques Cousteau called "the clearest water in the Mediterranean" thus providing some of the best sailing and diving experiences in the Adriatic Sea.  You can relax on one of the many beaches or by the pool of your 3 or 4-star hotel or rent a villa or townhouse for a week or two; go biking on the miles of roads through the rolling hills of the countryside or explore the Ucka National Forest.  You can even go searching for the mushrooms, truffles and asparagus that grow wild in the forests.  Explore the villages of Pazin and Buje in the interior; visit the churches and basilicas built from the 16th to the 18th centuries that seem to rise from the center of virtually every town and village and take note of the Venetian architectural influences.  Sample excellent Croatian wine from the hundreds of vineyards that grace the hillsides and be sure to taste the famous olive oil produced in the region.  But, most of all, you must enjoy the seafood!  It is fresh, varied and delicious and caught in the morning and on your plate in the evening; truly a gourmet's delight!

Rovinj Harbor at Dusk

If you are looking for a true Mediterranean and/or Tuscan experience without the crowds, commercialism and expense, then consideration should be given to this beautiful, diverse and grand region.  It has it all!

Article submitted by and all photos are courtesy of Dana Thompson

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Villa la Massa, A Florentine Escape on the Arno

Villa la Massa on the Arno River

As you can see in the photo above, Villa la Massa is only a short distance outside Florence and enjoys a unique location on the Arno River.  It is a 40-minute drive from the Florence Airport. This exquisite property is a member of the Villa d'Este Group and is also a member of Leading Hotels of the World.  Two of the main buildings, the Noble Villa and the Old Mill, date back to the 16th century.  Along with the Villino, these structures comprise Villa la Massa and are surrounded by 20 acres of olive groves and lemon trees.

Villa la Massa Main Building

These historic buildings were converted from an aristocratic residence into a luxury hotel in 1948.  You will find that no two rooms or suites are alike amongst the 37 rooms offered.  All are decorated with antique furniture accented by beautiful fabrics created in many of the Florentine textile mills.  The Hotel is open from 24 March to 05 November, 2011.

Noble Villa

The Villino

Villa la Massa offers several room types to choose from and unlike many ancient structures, a number of their rooms can be booked with another connecting room or suite depending on the size of your party.  They offer Double Deluxe Rooms in all three buildings with river or garden views and are equipped with either twin beds or a queen bed.  Should you need a larger room with a sitting area, you may choose a Junior Suite, Suite or Suite Exclusive.

Double Deluxe Room

Junior Suite

Suite Exclusive

Located in the Villino is a very special suite called the Arno Suite which overlooks the Arno River.  It is 860 sq. ft. with a canopy queen bed and large living area.  One big plus in this suite is its working fireplace along with its private garden and jacuzzi gazebo.

Arno Suite

Villa la Massa's most recent addition is the 2-bedroom Arno Presidential Suite.  This suite offers two large bedrooms, two marble bathrooms, a living room with a fireplace and a private garden and outdoor jacuzzi.  If you are fortunate enough to be a guest in the Presidential Suite, then you will enjoy a 15-minute welcome massage as well as a lovely Tuscan amenity from the General Manager.  Additionally, should you book this suite for more than 3 days, you will be provided a car with a driver for six hours to enjoy a private tour of your choosing.

All rooms offer such creature comforts as Egyptian cotton towels, bathrobes and slippers as well as satellite TV, internet service, voicemail, minibar and climate control.  I am also happy to point out that Villa la Massa welcomes your canine friend and dogsitting is available upon request.

Another highlight of this fabulous hotel is their restaurant, "Verrocchio".  It is the only restaurant in Florence with a terrace that overlooks the River.  Verrocchio offers indoor dining as well as terrace dining.


Terrace Dining

The Medicean Bar is located in the Noble Villa and offers an extensive selection of cocktails, brandies, whiskies and grappe.  During the summer months, the Pool Bar is open and serves light snacks and lunches.

The Pool at Villa la Massa

If you are traveling in this area of Italy with a culinary focus, then this will excite you.  Villa la Massa offers cooking classes and wine tastings.  You can enjoy a cooking lesson with Executive Chef, Andrea Quagliarella, which takes place in the Hotel's kitchen between 10am and 12:30pm with a minimum of two people and a maximum of 8-10 people.  The cost per person is 150 Euro.

If wine is your focus, then you will be able to taste wines with their Master Sommelier from their over 300-label wine collection.  Wine tastings are conducted in the Wine Cellar and the cost starts at 35 Euro per person.

The Wine Cellar

Additional services provided by this unique property include complimentary shuttle bus to downtown Florence, private airport transfer or rail station transfer upon request, complimentary mountain bikes, outdoor heated swimming pool from May through September as well as a fitness room with state-of-the-art equipment.

The Chapel at Villa la Massa

This Hotel would be perfect if you want to be close enough to Florence to go into the city each day, but would like the serenity of relaxing along the River at day's end and be the recipient of the highest level of service and surroundings.

River View of Villa la Massa

                     All Photos are Courtesy of Villa la Massa

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Locanda dell'Amorosa, a Medieval Tuscan Charm

 Since my last few posts have been focused in Florence, I am having a very difficult time making myself move on.  For that reason, I have chosen to take you a short distance south of Florence and introduce you to a very special place that I have previously booked for a family of five - Locanda dell'Amorosa. 

The Approach to Locanda dell'Amorosa

Should you not want to spend all of your time in a city during your time in Italy, this would be the perfect place to settle for a few days and use as a base to explore the REAL countryside of Tuscany.  Locanda dell'Amorosa is located a few miles south of Sinalunga between Florence and Rome and is easily accessible from the expressway.  If you are driving there, it is approximately an hour and fifteen minutes from Florence and approximately two hours and fifteen minutes from Rome.  Staying here would enable you to explore many of the surrounding towns like Montalcino, Montepulciano, Pienza, Cortona and Siena.  These are only a few.  Other towns in that area include Orvieto, Todi, Assisi and Perugia.

Aerial View of Locanda dell'Amorosa

This particular property is quite unique for many reasons.  The history of it alone dates back to 1363.  It has weathered the ancient Etruscans, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  It has undergone battles, the loss of its fortification and various changes in ownership.  The property is comprised of several structures including stables which have been converted into a charming restaurant called "Le Coccole dell'Amorosa".  There is a small chapel on the property that is privately owned as well.  Locanda dell'Amorosa also enjoys a lovely outdoor swimming pool which is open from April to October.  As you can see from the aerial photograph, this lovely property has a central internal courtyard whose arched windows are many months of the year overflowing with fresh flowers.  The hotel is surrounded by their very own vineyards, olive groves and acres of fields and woods.

Lush Beautiful Flower Gardens Adorn the Grounds
Terraced Steps at Locanda dell'Amorosa
Arched Windows Overflowing with Flowers

Upon arrival, you will not have a problem relaxing in this "home away from home" inn.  Throughout the property, you will sense a true "country" feel with various antiques and period paintings decorating the rooms and walls.  Locanda dell'Amorosa offers four Standard Rooms, six Superior Rooms, seven Deluxe Rooms, two Special Deluxe Rooms, six Suites, one Special Suite and a Luxury Apartment.  If you visit their very well-designed website, you will be able to obtain a specific description of each room along with measurements and a description of the view.

Standard Room
Superior Room
Deluxe Room
Special Deluxe Room
Special Suite Balcony
Luxury Apartment

As previously mentioned, Le Coccole dell'Amorosa is the restaurant which was converted from the original stables on the property.  It is open every day for lunch and dinner and it is here that you can enjoy a combination of Mediterranean and Tuscan dishes enhanced by their very own fresh herbs grown in their garden.  You will be treated with extra virgin olive oils, truffles and saffron from the area.  Along with indescribably delicious meals, you will be able to choose from some of the best wines in the world.  It would be well worth selecting Amorosa's own wine called "Borgo Amorosa".  Since 2001, the Amorosa Farm has run an organic operation.  As they will tell you, the old vineyards that were planted in 1969 and 1970 have been uprooted and substituted with over 5300 plants per hectare.  They now grow Sangiovese grapes which make up 80% of the vineyard.

Le Coccole dell'Amorosa
Outdoor Dining at Le Coccole dell'Amorosa

Once you have experienced only the best wines, cheeses, salami and olive oils, you will fortunately be able to purchase them at Locanda dell'Amorosa's "Osteria".  Osteria is their very own wine bar which offers many locally made products for you to enjoy and you also have the opportunity to purchase them as gifts.

Osteria Wine Bar

During the summer months, you can truly enjoy basking under the Tuscan sun at the pool which is open every day until sunset.

What a Way to Spend a Day
Sunset Over the Pool at Locanda dell'Amorosa

For those of you whom are interested in sipping only the best wines from Tuscany, enjoying the most delicious meals and relaxing in the country, this is the place for you!!!!

All Photos are Courtesy of Locanda dell'Amorosa

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Four Seasons Graces Florence

The Four Seasons Hotel Firenze

It would be unfair to discuss any of the top hotels in Florence without bringing to your attention one of the city's most current and significant additions - the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze.  I vividly remember the "buzz" at the time and the intense anticipation of clients for this long-awaited luxury hotel to open in Florence.

Renaissance Artwork at the Four Seasons

The Hotel opened in June of 2008 with 116 guest rooms which includes 44 suites.  As Four Seasons did with their Milan hotel, (See previous post on 16 December, 2010) this property was converted from a Renaissance palace residence spanning five centures, the Palazzo della Gherardesca, into one of the most sought-after hotels in Florence.  This magnificent property is adorned with many of the original architectural details and frescoes that have been painstakingly restored.  To be clear, the entire property and grounds include two main buildings which offer guest rooms, the Palazzo della Gherardesca and Il Conventino.  Also of note is their 11-acre garden, Giardino della Gherardesca, which is Florence's largest private garden. 

Giardino della Gherardesca

This Four Seasons enjoys a central location which is only a ten to fifteen minute walk to the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia Gallery where Michelangelo's "David" stands.  Another plus is that it is situated in an area designated as a limited traffic zone or zona a traffico limitato (ZTL).  If you are driving to this hotel, it is suggested that you contact the Concierge or Guest Services to obtain permission to enter the limited traffic zone.  If you are arriving by air in Florence, it is only about a twenty minute drive from the airport.

Skyline of Florence

Room types at this Four Seasons include Superior, Deluxe, Premier and Four Seasons Rooms ranging in size from approximately 420 sq. ft. to 548 sq. ft.  Superior Rooms offer a king bed, whereas, the other room types offer either a king or two twin beds.

Premier Room

Should you require more space than the standard room types offered, then there are several suite types to choose from.  They offer Jr. Suites (592 sq. ft.) with a king bed or two twin beds, Executive Suites, Parlour Suites, Gallery Suites and Renaissance Suites, respectively increasing in size.

Executive Suite

The most luxurious and obviously the most spacious suites are the Noble Suite (969 sq. ft.), La Villa Garden Suite (893 sq. ft.), plus two Presidential Suites and the Royal Suite ranging from 1300 to 2500 sq. ft.  The Noble Suite is located on the first floor of the Palazzo.  The Villa Garden Suite is located in a stand-alone building near the Conventino.  One of the Presidential Suites is on the third floor of the Palazzo and the other is on the first floor of the Conventino.

Presidential Suite at Il Conventino
Royal Suite at Palazzo della Gherardesca

Each guest room at this Hotel is equipped with a flat-screen satellite television, CD and DVD player, clock radio with iPod docking station, two multi-line telephones, a fully stocked private bar and a built-in safe large enough to contain a laptop.  High speed wireless or wired internet access is also available.  Of particular note to me due to my undying passion for bathing, are the marble bathrooms with contain European soaking tubs with a separate glass-enclosed shower!!!!  I now find myself, being the bathing snob that I clearly have become, rating hotels according to their bathrooms, specifically to their bath tubs.

Pure Luxury!!!

An option is always to take advantage of the Hotel's 24-hour in-room dining, but should you want to venture out, they offer several dining options.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served at Il Palagio on the ground floor of the Palazzo della Gherardesca which offers very elegant surroundings with views of the inner gardens.  Il Palagio is home to the Winery which is located in the center of the restaurant and proudly showcases almost 400 bottles of wine.  The Winery offers a menu which features small portions complimented by various wines by the glass.  Dinner is served at the Winery every day from 7pm until 11pm.

Il Palagio
The Winery

For those guests staying in the Conventino section of the property, breakfast is served at La Magnolia on the ground floor.

La Magnolia at Il Conventino

As a guest, from June to September, you may enjoy dining by the pool in the Giardino della Gherardesca at Al Fresco.  Lighter dishes and salads and sandwiches are served here from noon until 6:30pm.

Dining by the Pool at Al Fresco

If you have spent your time eating your way through Florence like I did, you will be happy to know that the Four Seasons in Florence is also home to state-of-the-art fitness facilities.  A number of ways to help you wind down, tone up or simply to relax are offered here.  Various private sessions of yoga, meditation or aerobics can be arranged in the private garden.  They offer individual, couples or private group sessions as well.  Reservations are absolutely required for all sessions and can be arranged by contacting the Fitness Centre.  The hours of operation are from 7am to 10pm daily.

Last, but definitely not least, is the Spa which differentiates itself from any other in a few very special ways.  First of all, it is located in the private gardens and is approximately 8500 sq. ft. containing ten treatment rooms.  One double treatment room is offered as well as one double VIP Suite in what is called the Grand Spa/Couples Suite which is in its own separate garden building.  Here you can enjoy lounging by the fireplace or the freestanding bath with views into a private garden.  The most special aspect of this Spa is the products that are used from Officina Profumo - Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella.  This is one of the world's oldest pharmacies and uses only natural ingredients which still are combined using the recipes of monks from the 13th century.  I can speak personally of one of their products since a client whom returned from a shoot in Florence sent me some bath oil from the Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella.  EXCEPTIONAL!!!!  It was so heavenly that I purchased more when I returned to Florence.

Spa Entrance
Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella Spa Products

Once again, the Four Seasons has reached boundaries beyond imagination in offering its guests only the highest level of service combined with surroundings of historic note and significance as well as the most comfort and luxury anyone could ask for.

All Photos are Courtesy of the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze