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Impeccable Italy: Villa Roma Imperiale and Grand Hotel Minerva - Forbes
If I were lazy, I would lead by calling Forte dei Marmi the Hamptons of Tuscany. It’s beachfront, south of Cinque Terre and north of Florence. It’s popular with elites from Milan and Rome, as well as with the Russians who have lately been buying up property. The array of high-luxury boutiques is dazzling. There are go-to-spots for happy hour and late night, and a stretch of increasingly posh beach clubs.
I guess I did just begin with the Hamptons comparison (though with its proudly worn retro-’80s style, it also calls to mind Cannes for me). Forgive me. I may be feeling lazy because I’m in the frame of mind I was in during my stay at Villa Imperiale Roma, a charming small hotel near the center of town. It excels in the art of languidity.
It is the sort of place to linger over a second cappuccino in the breakfast room, to curl up with a book in one of the many lounges and reading rooms, or to sunbathe by the pool. The decor of the 31 rooms and public areas is white and elemental, with touches of beach-chic blue and elements imported from Southeast Asia.
For all its (old and new) wealth, Forte dei Marmi still has a certain down-to-earth charm. The primary means of transport is bicycles—the hotel rents them in various sizes—and you should expect to get sand in your shoes (if you’re even wearing shoes), while lunching at the chic beach restaurants. A standout is Gilda, and the must-order dish is spaghetti with minuscule, flavorful arselle claims, sometimes harvested from the water right outside the restaurants.
The family that owns Villa Roma Imperiale made their wealth with an import/export business. After years of family vacations in Forte dei Marmi, they decided to own a part of it. And so, they turned a local house (not their own) into a hotel.
They also own the Grand Hotel Minerva, an understated gem on Santa Maria Novella square in Florence. (Disclosure: I stayed at both as their guest.) Parts of the building date from the 13th century—a few of the suites have frescoes or wooden beamed ceilings from that era—but it had its first heyday as a hotel in 1869.
It fell into disrepair for a while and was resurrected in the 1950s. At the time, many new owners were demolishing historic buildings and starting over. The then-owners had a different idea, keeping the façade and some of the historical details inside, while hiring one of the most important Italian architects of that decade, Carlo Scarpa, along with town planner Edoardo Detti. Many of their midcentury furnishings remain to this day.
Art has been a big part of the hotel since the beginning. Now the collection includes original 19th-century works, 1950s and ’60s pieces, and the owners’ personal collection. They brought in contemporary Italian artists to create installations in the 97 rooms and suites. Some push the boundaries pretty far. I’m not sure how I felt about the Pop Art/Andy Warhol/jigsaw puzzle thing going on beneath my 13th-century ceiling, but I can’t accuse them of playing it safe.
That’s their idea: to get guests to engage with the art and culture. “The experience of Florence shouldn’t end when you come into the hotel,” says Sara Maestrelli, the third-generation manager, noting that people generally visit Florence for these things. “There is still more art and design and beauty.”
There are also resort-style amenities, such as an outdoor dining area, a rooftop pool and terrace, an indoor bar, a fitness center with a view of the square, a courtyard garden and a stunning caldarium, a hot room with a plunge pool. The restaurant is worth a visit, as chef Tommaso Calonaci already has been recognized by Gambero Rosso, which the hotel’s marketing director views as the local equivalent of a Michelin star.
His clever vegetarian tasting menu in a refined dining room is a welcome counterpoint to Tuscan beef and those delicate little clams on the beach.