On a trip to Italy, our contributor lived la dolce vita at two famous Belmond properties that dish out equal amounts of history, luxury, and destination flavours. By Aatish Nath
Travel often feels like a dream—surreal, exciting, demanding, and unfamiliar. Consequently, it can take some time to truly give in and comprehend that your life, momentarily, has taken on the rhythms of its new surroundings. In Italy, where a trip is about living la dolce vita, it feels like you’re not on a holiday so much as on the set of an elaborate movie, where men are dressed in suits, the colours are saturated in the afternoon sun, and everything from the architecture to the food is waiting for its close-up shot. It’s only when you wake up and step out onto the balcony that the reality of it hits: the Italian sun blazing down on you, Mount Etna smoking in the distance, and all around, a garden blooming. In my case, I walked out with a cup of coffee in hand, made not in the house of a gregarious grandmother but in my hotel room.
Exploring The Cultural Delights Of Italy
The hotel in question was the Grand Hotel Timeo, A Belmond Hotel in Taormina. It’s the kind of property that guarantees the feels. Having started out as a private home, it has played host to everyone from Guy de Maupassant to D H Lawrence to Truman Capote. It abuts the ancient Greek theatre in Taormina on the east coast of Sicily, but its main draw has always been the views it offers over the coastline.
Like Capote, who stayed on for two years and loved to have his nightcap on the terrace, you too can settle into the coveted real estate and take in the sunset. It’s best enjoyed after a day spent outdoors, exploring the mineral-rich vineyards of the area or getting to the source and hiking on Mount Etna. For those seeking culture (and gelato), the hotel organises day trips to the city of Noto; water babies can dive into a hidden grotto!
I chose the first option and headed to Pietradolce, an 11-acre vineyard where the area’s minerality—it’s planted at the base of Etna—comes through in the wine offerings. Sampling their reds, I enjoyed the 2016 Contrada Rampante’s intense first sip that peters off with metallic undertones. The 2016 Etna Rosso, made with the Nerello Mascalese grape, which grows only on Sicily’s volcanic slopes, is similarly bold and dry but features notes of red fruit from the three months spent barrel-ageing. The barrels, state-of-the-art fermentation vats, and other equipment in the cellar mingle with art by artists like Alfio Bonanno and Giorgio Vigna in a setting that’s equal parts Danish hygge and Corten steel modern, but uniquely Sicilian.
Closer to the hotel too, the city is full of delights. Start with an early morning hike up to the Chapel of Madonna della Rocca, which offers stunning, uninterrupted views and the chance to burn off the cheese, wine, and gelato that are staple in every meal. Come back for breakfast, which includes a spread of local cheeses and cured meats, and the prickly pear—the sweet and crumbly fruit of a spiny cactus grown in Sicily. Coffee is served in a miniature lidded cup that was high on my list of things to pilfer from the hotel. Next door, the hotel offers after-hours tours of the Teatro Antico di Taormina, the Greek theatre that continues to play host to musicians over 2,000 years after its construction.
A day by the property pool has the potential to put all these plans on hold, given that its adjoining bar helps you acclimatise to the lush surroundings and change of pace. I realised this while staring longingly at the pool of another Belmond property, Villa San Michele, in the hills above Florence. A trip to Italy wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Florence—to marvel at its architecture, walk its public squares, and learn about the Medici family.
The property was once the home of Franciscan monks and even has a functioning chapel, but it’s got more than just history to offer. The facade has been credited to Michelangelo, although that’s harder to confirm. What can be vouched for are the impeccable staff and luxury credentials, as well as the food and drink under its head chef, Alessandro Cozzolino.
But first, the city. Florence is a choose-your-own-adventure type of destination, so there’s a lot on offer. Stand in line to gaze up at Michelangelo’s David, or walk through the Uffizi Gallery and jostle your way through the crowd to catch a glimpse of The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. Of course, there’s also the iconic Duomo di Firenze, where you can climb to the top and take in unparalleled city views. If tourist crowds overwhelm you, ask the hotel to arrange for a different kind of experience. You can retrace Dante’s steps and learn more about the poet on a day-long jaunt, or discover how the new generation of artisans and creators are using their skilled hands to craft everything from bespoke scents to leather goods, jewellery, crystalware and more. The latter tour ends with an experience at the city’s Louis Vuitton store, where one can learn the art of luggage organisation.
Once I was back at the hotel after the day’s explorations, I booked a dinner at La Loggia, where the set menu is an introduction to the produce of the region and a showcase of Chef Cozzolino’s flair. The dishes here include fresh fish ceviche, roasted pigeon, and the simplest of pastas with assertive flavours—all enlivened with produce like zucchini flowers, chanterelles, wild fennel, and peppers. Before I retired, I perched at Il Chiostrino, the centrally located bar, for a taste of its negroni—a drink that was invented in Florence over a century ago. The barrel-aged version is made with peated Italian gin, pear cognac, house vermouth, and Campari bitters—all aged in a mini wooden cask.
The next morning, it was tough to wake up in time for the sunrise, but the views that the property offers—of the city nestled below and the rolling Tuscan hills—were incentive enough. At daybreak, the clouds rolled in, the lawns glistened with a layer of dew, and there was a slight nip in the air just before the sun emerged. And slowly, the city revealed itself—in the grand dome of the cathedral, the red brick roofs, the stone chimneys, and iron railings. It was a moment that was equal parts breathtaking and surreal, an apt culmination of an epic trip.
Turkish Airlines has the most connections from India to Italy via Istanbul, and the closest international airport to Taormina is the Catania–Fontanarossa Airport, which is about an hour’s drive away. For Florence, you can land directly at Florence Airport, Peretola.
Grand Hotel Timeo: This luxury property is great for those looking to divide their time between the sea, city, and surroundings. Rooms are plush and feature large bathrooms with balconies. Doubles from INR 49,500
Villa Sant Michele: This majestic hotel sits above the city and is great for those seeking a calm oasis away from the crowds. The hotel is historic and has a lot to explore. Doubles from INR 67,700
Pietradolce Winery: This modern winery has a great tour to guide neophytes and serious drinkers alike. With the art that peppers the space, it’s a great setting for a wine-paired meal.