“Ah, you must look out! It is very dangerous here!”
Our hostess was laughing, however, even as she warned us: The figs were falling. One sat in the gardens of the Villa Villoresi at the risk of being pelted by one. It had not happened yet, but one guest had apparently been rattled by a near miss.
We decided to take our chances. So on a warm autumn afternoon, as she poured us iced drinks beneath the fig trees, we embarked on the first of a series of memorable conversations with the Contessa Cristina Villoresi.
We were on an extended road trip, my college-age children, Sam and Ariel, Sam’s girlfriend Laura, and me. We had finally arrived in Italy, my original destination, but first we had seen Belgium, eastern France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Slovenia.
We had come to her villa just outside Florence by way of recommendation from our European friend, Richard Cabouret, a retired hotelier who maintains a list of places he can recommend. As varied as they are, from French castles to African game preserves, they possess in common some quality of being rare and hidden, something even in the well traveled roads of Europe, you might not discover on your own. “You must meet Cristina,” he told us.
The Villa Villoresi today is in a suburb of Florence, Sesto Fiorentino, two train stops away from the Santa Maria Novella train station; and its history has always been linked to that city.
It was first built in the 12th century as a military fortress, part of the defense of Florence. The first owners, the Della Tosa family, are in some of the earliest records of Florence when they filed claims against a rival family who’d set the tower of their villa on fire.
The present owners, the Villoresi family, acquired it in the 16th century, when the great power of Renaissance Florence allowed the ancient fortifications to be converted into summer homes for the nobility.
The villa had hosted guests throughout the centuries. One story relates that Dante’s wife, Gemma Donati, took refuge there when her husband went into exile. In the family’s former dining room, now a reading room, the walls are covered with paintings made by the Roman artist Bartolommeo Pinelli, (1781-1835) as thanks for the hospitality he received at the villa.
It wasn’t, however, until the 1960s that the family decided to convert the villa into a hotel, painstakingly preserving the heart and soul and charm of their home, while adding amenities, like a swimming pool to the walled garden and bathrooms — many quite ingeniously constructed — for the 28 rooms.
When she was a child, Cristina told us, the villa was still surrounded by fields. Today, these have become apartments and modern houses, but if you follow a rabbit warren of narrow streets, and find the small placard that says, “Villa Villoresi” even the most modern of travelers, living by Iphones and Internet, can fall prey to a feeling that time has fallen away, and history had come alive.
Tales of a villa
Our arrival at the villa coincided with the appearance of the contessa, a self-professed night owl, who does not appear until mid-afternoon. (Her small, but surpassingly gracious staff looks after the early-risers.)
As we sat down for drinks with her in the garden (where we escaped fig calamities) and she began to tell us stories of the villa, I realized we’d stepped into the world of Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” His great work is a collection of 100 tales, told by a group of people who flee to the country to escape the plague and pass the time telling stories — by turns hilarious, romantic, bawdy and tragic.
So it was with the tales of the contessa: Tales about guests — like the visiting Japanese astrophysicist who had been enchanted by her trees, he climbed to the top of one in a strong wind and entertained her greatly as he swayed in the heights shouting “Io alpino!” (“I am a mountain climber!) — were interspersed with the stories of those who portraits hang on the walls of the villa.
The 12th century military fortress had consisted of a tower and courtyard formed by two wings, connected by a passage way for soldiers. The tower, set fire to in 1260, was repaired only to be burned again by Pisans in 1332; and since then, Cristina told us, “has remained short.”
The lower part of the tower is now a bar, and the medieval wings are the library, reception and music and small conference rooms. The soldier’s passage way is now a corridor connecting rooms on the first floor, (second floor to Americans). A long row of arches opens onto a long loggia overlooking the gardens.
On the ground floor beneath it is the one of the more recent, (19th century) but spectacular, elements of the villa, the 120 foot gallery, lit by glittering chandeliers. Until the 19th century we learned it was unpaved and people rode their horses down it. In 1829 however, a Florentine artist Alfredo Luzzi painted the entire gallery with murals, in honor of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt: a Tuscan landscape dotted with sphinxes and pyramids.
Dinner at the villa is optional but had been highly recommended. So that evening we found our way to the cedar-beamed dining room, which once housed the carriages of the Villoresi family, but now is decorated with portraits — and all the last generation of the Medicis hangs there, observing diners feasting on classic Tuscan fare.
So we were feasting, when Cristina joined us, requesting her server to bring up a bottle of wine from her own collection, and so the stories began again. There was the Texan who decided to buy a Florentine bull for his ranch and requested her help in figuring out how to transport his purchase home via airplane — I know she had to have a special bull-crate constructed but he might have had to buy an airplane too that would accommodate it. Suddenly, it was past midnight: “Ah,” she said, “I must let you go and stop talking now.”
We found that we had come to a perfect retreat. Florence beckons, with all its treasures, but its modern-day plague can sometimes be all its enthusiasts: 14,000 students had just arrived, one shopkeeper told us, and the city was packed with visitors. We, however, could hop into a taxi, and in a short ride, escape back to world of the Villa Villoresi.
The contessa gave us an extended tour including the cellars where they’d found Roman ruins, where she now keeps her wines and olive oils and preserves she makes from the villa’s fruits. Hidden behind the conference room is a tiny family chapel; it had doors that opened to an outside street for times when the family wanted to invite in the neighbors (after they’d stopped burning each others towers).
That evening, she joined us for dinner again. This time, she deftly moved Sam’s girlfriend, Laura, from her seat next to Sam. “I will sit by the man tonight,” she told Laura with a twinkling, daring grin.
She told us more stories, including about how, as a child, she remembered the Nazi officers who moved into the villa —her mother, a Jewess, had to flee to the country to escape the advances of one officer. When the Americans arrived, she said, she was still skeptical of any one in a uniform, even if they were much kinder and had chocolate. She told us about her own adventures visiting the U.S. — these included giving the editor of the New York Times a piece of her mind about inaccurate coverage of the Florence floods of 1966, and one time being bewildered when she went into a segregated church in the deep South.
Boccaccio-style, she teased stories out of her visitors as well. “Ah,” she told my daughter Ariel, in discussing her junior year in Spain. “I know you had adventures that you have not told to your mother.”
That was also the night Sam ordered the Florentine steak, all one and a half pounds of pure beef, and declared after eating it, that he was very nearly full, a rare and remarkable occurrence.
Another advantage of staying as a guest of someone whose family has been in the neighborhood for 500 years: She knows quite a few people. One of her delights, she told us, is to arrange personalized tours according to a guest’s preference: food and wine, antiques, fashion, jewelry, perfumes or music. An artist herself — her paintings hang on the villa walls, along with the ancestors — she specializes in arranging classes for painters and sculptors, and offers special rates on a tower room especially suited for artists and writers.
She even can recommend first-rate pizzerias as we learned on the night when the kids wanted pizza. Her assistant provided us with reservations, maps and directions to a trattoria up in the hills — “It is the night when a group meets there to play cards,” she told us, “but they will save one table for you.”
With great reluctance, we left the Villa Villoresi heading for our next stop, Rome.
“If I were five years older,” my 20-year old son reflected, “I think I’d ask Cristina to marry me.”
He would have to get in line, Richard Cabouret told him.