Magazine: Marie Claire (South Africa) - Year 2009
Guesthouse: Casa Howard Florence
Accommodation Review: "Florence may be the ultimate romantic destination, but it's also the perfect location for a girls-only break, says Georgia Black. So what happens when you send three yummy mummies to live la dolce vita?
Our trip starts out as something entirely different. Lulu calls me from London to say that she and Lucy are going to Italy with their kids;I must come with mine. I don't even need to think about it. 'No way', I say. Not even the thought of sipping prosecco in a springtime piazza with my two belve school friends can convince me to fly to Europe accompanied by my toddlers. A few months later I get the call I've half been expecting. 'I'm shattered. Let's live the kids at home.' I launch into action (I'm the obsessive organizer;they are the committed relaxers. It's a division of labour that works well for us). I SMS my two Italian friends –Olivia, who edits a French/Italian travel magazine, and Enrico, a sexy, stylish architect who knows his stuff when it come sto having a good time. '4 days, 3 girls, Rome or Florence?' His replay comes straight back: Roma! More fun.'
Hers is more thought-out: 'It's difficult to advice [sic], but in both cases I would recommend you stay in a B&B named Casa Howard!' In the end we opt for Florence because we like the idea of walking everywhere and because there is availability at what looks like the most perfect guesthouse on earth.
Also, the three of us decide, we're not interested in bars and parties. Nope. We're esauste and we haven't been together in years, so we're there to catch up on each others' lives and much-needed sleep. Capisci?
We arrive in Florence on a Thursday, and we are very kindly – and entirely unexpectedly – taken to the local trattoria, La Martinicca, for lunch by the owner of Casa Howard, the slightly dishevelled, wonderfully debonair Massimiliano Leonardi (or Max, as we settle on after our first bottle of wine.) He's leaving that afternoon for Sarteano - his farmhouse in the country -, but he'll be back for a big party on Saturday night. Why don't we join him as his guests? Sure, we say, between forkfuls of the most perfect bistecca alla Fiorentina.Tuscan love meat, and the bistecca – basically a huge T-bone so tender, when it's coke right, that it can be cut with a spoon – is a source of National pride.
Before he sets off, Max asks the housekeeper to hand me the keys of the house (Casa Howard is an 'anti-hotel' he explains) and show us around. There's no doorman or concierge and they don't do any marketing except enhancing their website, so Guests are always either friends of the owners or, like us, have had the place recommended to them by previous guests. It feels like the apartment of your fantasy Florentine friend – smart, discreet, a little flamboyant, and totally relaxed. Max credits his wife, Jenifer Howard Forneris, for the impeccable style of the rooms but I notice that he too knows the story of every antique and light fitting.
After Max has left, the three of us decide that he has that humble, rumpled, slightly melancholic air that makes women want to look after him. A friend has told me that we absolutely must head up to Fiesole (in the hills above Florence) for a sundowner at Villa San Michele, a 15th- century Franciscan monastery that's now a very grand hotel. 'It's expensive but so worth it,' she said, seducing me with descriptions of the terrace overlooking the city and their famous peach bellinis made from the sweetest, freshest fruit. Ignoring the ominous stormclouds gathering, I squeeze myself into my new favourite dress and we grab a cab. By the time we're there, it's bucketing down. (The best thing about travelling with girlfriends, I decide at this moment, is that they never say 'I told you so'.) We are led to the completely empty verandah by our gracious waiter who, with a sweep of his arm, says 'You may sit anywhere'. Things deteriorate further when he tells us that the chef sampled the peaches that morning and has pronounced them unripe. We order martinis and I'm only half cheered up by the fact that these arrive with a tray of delicious antipasti that the waiter keeps filling up – miniature crostini with decadent toppings and small silver bowls of olives and capers. We stretch out our drinks as long as is politely possible and admire Nicodemo Ferrucci's famous 'Last Supper' fresco in the bar (which used to be the monk's refectory). Then we leave, giggling at the hush-hush fur-and-diamonds-filled dining room.
Aaah, the sweet memory of our next encounter! As we enter Trattoria Sostanza, a narrow restaurant on a side street near our “anti-hotel” where, I am assured, 'only the real Florentines eat', we spot a table of four men (all dressed in black, of course) i flash a cursory look and notice immediately that one of them is gorgeous – lean with floppy hair, a big nose and good teeth. By the time we sit down, the air's bristling, and suddenly we're 19 again, whispering animatedly behind the menus. I should have paid more attention when the waiter recommended their famous pollo al burro (chicken breasts cooked in butter) because when Lulu's sizzling pan arrives it is heavenly. Lulu has always been the boldest in these situations and before we register she's grabbed her camera and is at the next-door table. Moments later, the gorgeous one is walking over towards me. He smiles, pulls up a chair and casually puts his arm around me. 'I told Niccolò that he looks just like your husband and we must take a photo', Lulu says, hiding her wicked smile behind the camera. Now I am not easily fazed, but I feel like I'm going to faint – a result of the combination of embarrassment and the fact that Niccolò is so completely beautiful up close. He looks right into my eyes, gives a slight, sexy, smirk while he talks (I would be lying if I said I remember what he said) and leaves his arm draped around my shoulder long after the camera has stopped flashing. Before long, Maurizio, Stefano and Massimo who work at the Bulgari head office, are also sitting with us, talking as if it's the most normal thing to hook up and make friends.
Back at Casa Howard late that night, we're all love-struck by Niccolò, who, we agree, has that rare, sexy and very dangerous ability to make each of us feel he was singling us out. The next morning calls for some grease with our cappuccinos and we head to Caffè Giacosa, an elegant 19th century bar-cafè where my new favourite cocktail, the Negroni (gin, red vermouth and Campari ) was invented. Now owned by Florentine fashion designer Roberto Cavalli and frequented by the women in leather pants who are disciples of his store next door, it's the kind of place I'd love to slag off were it not for the most delicious hangover cure I've ever tasted: a valsdostana of ham, cheese and tomato in buttery layers of phyllo pastry. Heart attack on a plate, but worth it. We plan to head to the Uffizi Gallery after breakfast, but somehow the long queue and sudden appearance of Zara conspire against us.(I buy a short python-print skirt that I know I will never wear). Shopping for fashion in Florence falls into two categories: High Sreet, and very high end on the Via Tornabuoni (many of these designers have huge factory stores at The Mall outside Florence too – need a Gucci saddle anyone?). Florentines are lamenting the gradual disappearance of a once-thriving artisan community, though there are still some gems on the Oltrarno (the south side of the Arno river). Cobbler Francesco (of Francesco da Firenze fame) and his joung Japanese protégée make me some red leather sandals that lace all the way up my calves – a bargain, I reckon, at R500. I could have gone to a shop only in Florence (conveniently located right next door to Casa Howard) and my trip would have been worth it on the shopping front : Santa Maria Novella Pharmacia. Dominican Monks started concoting herbal remedies here in the 13th century and although the brand now has stores worldwide, the Florentine headquarters are magical – from the architecture and dimly lit, frescoed rooms to the magnificent product display and the strong, sweet smell of flowers and essential oils. I go back three times, always leaving with a sense of virtous calm as Iclutch a beautiful handmade pomegranate soap or bottle of rose-water. It would take a lifetime to appreciate all the art that Florence has to offer, so we're selective. We've asked Maria , our wonderfully offbeat guide, to take us up the hill to San Miniato al Monte, which remains mysteriously unfrequented even though it's the most beautiful church in Florence with the best panoramic views of the city. There are still eight Benedectine monks living there who sing Gregorian chants in the crypt at 5pm every day. (They also make olive oil, Maria tells us – the 'work' component of their motto, 'Work and prey'.
From there we head to the Brancacci Chapel to see Masaccio's harrowing depiction of of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Maria tells us that the relationship between Masaccio and his teacher Masolino was similar to that of Mozart and Salieri. Masolino, jealous of his pupil's talent, probably caused Masaccio's untimely death at the age of 26 poisoning him. (I can't work out if Maria's view is shared by the rest of the art world – an on-line search suggests perhaps not, but it's fascinating anyway). Max collect us that evening, wearing red trousers.
His friend Filippo Mazzei will be joining us for dinner before the party, he tells us. 'Two of us I can handle, three is too much' he says seriously, as if we're naughty children. Filippo, it turns out, is from one of Italy's most famous wine-making families. CEO of the business, he's divorced and seems to know everyone. He orders a bottle of their award-winning Chianti and we talk about Italians and fidelity.
Max sums up what seems to be the generally accepted view – that 'marriage is a long-term project' and if you have a few days off it shouldn't be a problem. 'So what happened to you then?' I ask Filippo boldly. 'My wife fell in love with another man' he says, which shuts me up. After midnight we head out of town to the party – in a club attached, bizarrely, to a Virgin Active gym. As we walk in we're descended on by the host, a tubby, over-friendly guy who seems intent on pairing us up with his three sons (they are the only other people under the age of 50, and two of them look terrified of us). I grab three Cuba Libres and only half-registere that Italians don't drink with our kind of determination – the bar is almost empty. But boy oh boy, the dance floors's not. There are TV screens everywhere and about 200 very tanned men and women dancing frantically to Mika. I feel as if I've descended into karaoke, plastic-surgery hell, though the girls apparently aren't sharing my desperation. Lucy has temporarily fallen in love with Adam Broody lookalike called Francesco who works behind the bar, and Lulu is working both spectrums of the age gap, fitting from the host's third son – a cute 20-year-old who knows how to shake his skinny hips – to a man we nickname 'Papa Nicolas' because he has a big white beard. She wispers to us that she's paying him attention because he's so old – until he tries to smooch her, after which she doesn't feel quite so sorry for him anymore. Sometime just before dawn the three of us are sprawled on the huge velvet couch back at Casa Howard, swapping stories of the night with tears of laughter running down our faces. So what's left to do but order a Napoletana pizza (tomato, mozzarella, and anchovies), perfectly thin and burned (Max's suggestion) from the restaurant right outside the guesthouse? Lulu sighs as she sums up why it's been such a perfect trip: 'We were adored wherever we went' ."