A new list recently appeared naming the 50 best hotels in the world as selected by a collection of experts. However, I do wonder whether any of these experts has ever set foot in Villa La Massa, a historic and incomparable hotel located several miles from Florence, Italy.
Villa La Massa did not appear on the World’s 50 Best list, yet it is the best hotel on earth.
I have been traveling extensively for more than a half-century, a visitor to every continent other than Antarctica, and I was put up in hotels on every one of them—in my earliest days, by the U.S. Army (O.K., sometimes in tents too) and, later, by the newspapers and magazines that employed me. It was an era, now vanished, where travel departments tended to place correspondents in deluxe facilities wherever they went. I was indeed fortunate and perhaps at times even entitled, but I was also critical, because that was my job.
Villa La Massa was the best of them all, and based on a recent visit, it remains so.
I have other favorites throughout the world—Le Negresco, in Nice; the Peninsula in Chicago; the Rittenhouse, in Philadelphia; and, for offbeat pleasures, Uri Buri’s Efendi Hotel, in Acre, Israel, and Posada del Faro, near Punta del Este, Uruguay. Still, no place on earth has pleased me more than Villa La Massa.
Before I recommend that every traveler to Italy reserve there, I must unfortunately warn of the pitfalls of visiting once irresistible Florence. It was, on a very recent visit, nearly impenetrable. You surely have seen those zombie movies that pass for entertainment these days; that chilling experience might help you understand the overwhelmed Florence of today.
To visit is to feel as though you are an extra in one of those films—you will find yourself among masses of tourists shambling along the sidewalks, occasionally lurching into the streets, virtually every one heading in the direction of Michelangelo’s majestic statue of David, located in the Galleria dell’Accademia.
Blessedly, Villa La Massa offers complimentary as well as comfortable transportation into and back from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and the facilities of the hotel might make you wonder whether trips into this city are really necessary. Yes, the Uffizi remains one of the greatest of all art museums, even with throngs shuffling through the hallways, and the light of late-afternoon Florence is indeed lovely, should you be an aspiring portraitist, but the pleasures of Villa La Massa convinced me to limit my time in Florence to one brief trip.
The hotel property, which is spread over 25 acres, virtually all of it suitable for strolling, is located on a curve of the Arno River, which conveniently and graciously flows in view of the hotel’s principal dining facility. It offers a spectacular buffet breakfast resplendent with cakes and pastries, as well as an entirely pleasant dinner service. The morning meal continues to be a masterpiece of judicious extravagance, served by a hotel staff that is almost perfect, so instantly alert to the needs of patrons that single-handedly bringing my plate of food to a table was impossible to accomplish without someone offering assistance.
One evening, seeking an alternative and feeling somewhat nostalgic for the rustic Italy I used to know, I asked the staff if they could recommend a local trattoria that time had forgotten. What I longed for was a mother in the kitchen, a simple but well-kept interior, and waiters who had never taken formal lessons in their lives. That was the Italian dining I missed, and it turned out to exist just few miles away: the restaurant Donnini, in the village of Bagno a Ripoli, literally a five-minute drive.
There we found coccoli con prosciutto e stracchino, generally thought of as street food, and other dishes of superb simplicity, a woman of some years in the kitchen, a very quiet serving staff that had nothing to say, fresh flowers on the tables, and a surprisingly good wine list, even if vintages were not provided. It was the Italy of my past, the Italy that used to be, and I loved every bite of it.
The morning meal is a masterpiece of judicious extravagance.
Back at the hotel, I was fortunate enough to receive a room upgrade—perhaps a perk of being a repeat customer. The room, a small suite, was exquisite, masterfully juggling two seemingly contradictory requirements: it was comfortable without being dowdy, a tribute to impeccable furnishings.
Little has changed about Villa La Massa from our previous visit, five years ago, although the once adequate swimming pool has been moved, revamped, and expanded. I met the new general manager of the hotel, Elisa Peroli, and proffered my theory that Villa La Massa was the best hotel in the world. She told me her seven-year-old daughter also thought so and every day asked if she could accompany her mother to the office.
Villa La Massa is appealingly secluded. You enter the property by means of a simple country road that brings you to a gate. Beyond that gate are those acres of greenery, the Renaissance-style main building, an exquisite, tiny chapel, rows of lemon trees, and a new bistro where the focaccia is irresistible.
Like most everything that is wonderful about Italy, Villa La Massa has a history. It was built in the 13th century as a country house for a wealthy Florentine family and was later owned by European aristocrats. In 1948, the property was transformed into a luxury hotel, and achieved its highest level of fame in 1992, when David Bowie and Iman celebrated their wedding there. They were wise enough to select a venue that is a hidden world all its own.
A former sportswriter for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Alan Richman has won 16 James Beard Foundation Awards for his journalism on food and wine, and a National Magazine Award for feature writing