A special guest post by Rajul Chande.
To call Relais Santa Croce in Florence a “hotel” is a slight misnomer. The building is so unique, replete with historic details and visually opulent that I immediately felt as if I’d stepped into an entirely different dimension. This feeling began with the sense of discovery on arrival. The entrance is so discreet that you feel one of the privileged few invited to enter an exclusive private palazzo. It is followed by a grand staircase sweeping upwards to the reception. As you step inside the building, you catch an intriguing glimpse of the courtyard of Enoteca Pinchiorri, a world-famous 3 star Michelin restaurant situated underneath the hotel (and the basement further down has one of the finest wine collections in Italy). So you have world class dining literally on your doorstep.
Although the staff at Relais Santa Croce apologised as I checked in for not having greeted me personally at the entrance to the building, I loved the sense of discovery. The service was so warm that I immediately felt in the company of old friends, a feeling enhanced by the fact that there are only 24 rooms so each staff member makes the effort to get to know you personally. After check-in I was taken to what was rather humbly described as ‘my room’ – the Da Verrazzano Royal Suite, an enormous and spectacular ‘house within a house’. It is the former residence of famed Florentine traveller Giovanni da Verrazzano.
From the suite’s two imposing reception rooms (so large I temporarily misplaced my belongings!) complete with original frescoes, to the hand picked objets d’art, it was like stepping into an exclusive museum of fascinating curiosities. There was even the intrigue of a secret safe with an apparent escape passage, which added to the sense of grand history all around. The master bathroom had impressive scale – split into two levels with a magical candlelit Jacuzzi with just the right ambience to add another dollop of luxury to an already overflowing glass.
I was given a tour of the hotel, including the palatial Music Room used for private concerts and performances by the famous Teatro Verdi located on the same street. This is one of many reasons why this slightly bohemian neighbourhood is one of the most underrated parts of Florence, despite being nestled within the city’s historic centre.
Just behind the Music Room, which also doubles as a chi chi spot for a quiet drink, was the fumoir. This is used for intimate private events and cigar tasting and was furnished with yet more frescos and artful curiosities in glass cabinets.
The décor throughout was quite breathtaking, from the glittering chandeliers and lights (the building was previously used as a warehouse by an enterprise crafting some of the most innovative and artistic lighting in the world and this influence was everywhere), to the comprehensive transformation of every aspect of each room into art and antiquity, in the style that the Italians do so well.
I was also lucky enough experience an atmospheric tour of the Wooden Trusses above the Music Room, where the intricate process of lighting the candles of the grand chandelier once took place, before the miracle of electricity. The Trusses have now been conserved as a fascinating museum and I was even allowed to step gently onto the planks of wood to take a closer look.
My friends Massimo and Simona are both born and bred in Florence. Simona (an architect) is usually fairly blasé about classic Italian palazzos – but the Relais Santa Croce blew them both away when they came to visit.
There is an intimate and opulent bar with a discreetly luxurious atmosphere and the deepest and most comfortable chairs, where I was treated to a bespoke drink mixed by a barman unafraid to show off his considerable expertise after asking me a couple of well-judged questions (it was Italian with a personalised British touch and utterly delicious).
The hotel’s own restaurant has the feel of a refined private dining room thanks to the small size of the hotel, and the menu includes… well pretty much anything you want using local ingredients in season, served up with some serious Italian flair. I had a superb breakfast there in the morning – my espresso even came in a little jug to keep it piping hot, an ingenious idea I’d never seen before.
With the Enoteca Pinchiorri – world famous for its food and its renowned wine cellar – located right below and attracting dining aficionados from all over the world by plane, train, private jet and helicopter, the opportunities for fine dining here are pretty enticing.
The Relais Santa Croce also arranges special packages with the restaurant and has privileges in getting tables for its guests so you don’t have to lift a finger.
Whilst I loved the luxurious room, the grand palazzo style and the stunning food and drink, it was the service that made the Relais Santa Croce really feel a cut above. This is the type of hotel where staff actively look for opportunities to delight you, from offering timely refreshments to tailoring the stay to your personal tastes – and most of the time you don’t even have to ask. They are performers much like those of Teatro Verdi nearby.
When I returned to my suite in the evening I found some refreshing satsumas had been left for me – well-judged as I am a serious satsuma fan. How could they know? Not only can the Relais Santa Croce offer a secluded hideaway with both historical pedigree and a luxe finish, but it seems they also have the gift of a sixth sense too…my stay was a true Velvet Escape in every sense and I felt enveloped in luxury from the very first moment.
About the guest writer
Rajul Chande writes about hotels and contributes to Italian Talks – a blog for Italy lovers.