Rooms with views

Renting an apartment in Florence allows you to whip up an impromptu dinner party. And for dessert? A villa in the hills. Robert Nurden samples a two-centre holiday in Tuscany

Much to my surprise, the Hansons were complimentary about the antipasti starter we made for them. They were our guests, so perhaps they thought they'd better be polite. And they were enthusiastic about the mouth-watering lasagne, made with fresh pasta and vegetables bought from a nearby corner shop. By the time we attacked the castagnaccio (chestnut cake), we were on our third bottle of chianti.

We'd met the Hansons - Richard, an American attorney, his wife Rosie and their two teenage daughters - in the queue for the Galleria dell'Accademia the day before. During the long wait that is almost de rigueur for sightseeing in Florence, we'd chatted and found that we got along famously in that instantaneous, lifelong-buddies American way.

"We're staying in a first-floor apartment that looks out on the Palazzo Vecchio," I explained.

"A room with a view," said Katie, who was majoring in English at Chicago University and had read EM Forster's novel set in Florence.

"Why don't you visit us? Come and have a meal," I said, instantly regretting it. But when our new friends arrived at the door clutching a crop of fine wines I knew the evening would go with a swing. A pecorino cheese accompanied the fourth bottle as we dragged our chairs to the window to watch the passeggiata below, with the lemon light washing over the cooling flagstones and the swifts screeching above our heads.

Staying in an apartment rather than a hotel while taking a city break makes sense. Not only can you entertain, but you can sleep in without being bothered by the chambermaid knocking on the door, and you can come and go at all hours without frowns from surly night porters. Somehow it makes you feel more like an adult, a right proper Medici with your own palace.

Our "suite" - the Michelangelo - was one of six housed in a former convent tucked away in the corner of Florence's loveliest square, the Piazza della Signoria. It couldn't have been more central and it had just about the best view the city could offer. So we had no complaints, unlike Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View, who is disappointed because her accommodation does not come with the promised panorama.

But there was the little matter of what exactly to call our temporary new home. Our Italian hosts said it was La Casa del Garbo. Our British agents referred to it as the Palazzo Uguccioni - that, though, was the building with Raphael's noble façade two doors down, which now houses the Michael Collins bar. We, however, were just intent on enjoying our four days in our luxury flat and our week in a country villa, so we let the magic of this most magical of cities do its work.

One of the highlights, of course, is the Uffizi Gallery, home to masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Titian. But getting in seems to require an honours degree in logic - or perseverance. The ever-helpful Janis, our accommodation's general factotum, said there was no point in phoning up to make a reservation: it was booked for the next month. We should queue today to obtain a 15-minute entry slot the following day. But we were only a minute's walk away so we decided to solve the problem by getting up early. We were there at 6.15am, the first in line, taking it in turns to ply each other with coffee, write postcards and read until the doors opened. The early start also meant that the figures in Botticelli's Primavera looked extra sprightly in the morning light.

Coping with Florence's abundance of artistic candy takes a bit of ducking and weaving, and staying there for a while enables you to learn a few tricks. We hit upon the notion of going to museums early in the morning or late afternoon. And we savoured walks to the east of Santa Croce, to shop at the market in Sant'Ambrogio, where tourists seldom venture. Joining the flotilla of cyclists on their ancient Raleigh-style contraptions is another option.

Vivoli, the city's best purveyor of home-made ice cream, helps to restore aching limbs - it boasts 48 flavours of succulent perfection. For some sociable evening entertainment, eat out simply at the Belle Donne where, at trestle tables, you swap travellers' tales with fellow diners. Amble over the Ponte Vecchio and check out the chamber concerts at St Mark's English church. Here Japan and America combined forces as soprano Norico Torii and Brian Marble performed extravagant, pagan pieces by Puccini, Faure and Tosti.

Too soon, it was time for our move to the country. We rented a car and drove up to La Collina, our villa in the Tuscan hills between Siena and Arezzo. On arrival we were hot and tired so, rudely, we bypassed the iced lemon water that our host, Stella, had prepared for us and jumped into the cool embrace of the 35ft-long pool that was to be ours for a week. We swam lazily under the hot Italian sun, our splashes the only sound for miles around.

Back on the terrace Carla, Stella's sister, talked expansively of the ancient stone farmhouse. It was perched on a hill commanding 360-degree views of the Chianti countryside. An Italian homes and gardens magazine had thought it such a gem it had devoted an eight-page colour spread to its charms.

It was time for a tour of the 35-acre Castriota family estate. An avenue of cypresses led from the electrically operated gates up to the house and then along the rim of the hill to the woods below. Vineyards lined both the north and south slopes.

Indoors, an elegant Roman arch divided the rustic lounge, an open fireplace at the far end. On the chimneypiece was a coat of arms. "We are descended from Giorgio Castriota Seanderberg, the hero of Albania," Carla explained. La Collina's high vantage point meant it caught whatever breath of wind there was, so the top floor - with all the windows open - was cool and inviting. All the bedrooms opened on to a beautifully appointed central lobby, lined with family portraits. We made our way back to the terrace by way of the outside steps, which in former times would have been the only access to the top floor.

A bottle of their own wine, La Collina, was already open waiting for us. "Please try some," said Carla. "There is just one more thing to ask you. Please look at the menu and say what you'd like Teresa to cook for you this week." There were no less than 45 local dishes to choose from, although we could have demanded anything. It was the only extra we had opted for but it was worth every euro, as each morning she shopped and then served up anything from pasta with wild boar sauce, artichoke salad, chicken cacciatore with tomatoes and black olives, and tortas of every flavour.

"We'll go now," said Carla. "Have a lovely stay." The two sisters always drive up from Rome to greet new guests, staying for just one night in the lodge house by the gate. "If you need anything, phone me."

We listened as their car crunched down the gravel drive before silence fell on Chiantishire. From that point on we did little except eat, drink, swim, read and walk. It was bliss. We had meant to go fishing in the nearby lake but never got round to hiring the rods. We were going up to Cennina to hear a concert, but that plan never got beyond the drawing board either. We understood that a spot of polo watching could be had nearby, and we were told that fashionistas - not us - could indulge themselves at a Prada outlet in Montevarchi.

The idea of yet more pampering did appeal, however. At the thermal spa in Rapolano we took a mud bath and had a massage. And once we went into Siena and loved its claustrophobic, Gothic atmosphere. At the bottom of the Torre del Mangia we were asked to leave our bags in a locker because last year someone had lugged a parachute up there and jumped off. We sat outside Enoteca I Terzi and worked our way through a bottle of prosecco and picked at cheeses. But, as the stars came out, there was really only one place to be: back at our villa on the hill. Even after just a few hours away, we were already missing it.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Many airlines fly to Pisa, including Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted, Prestwick and Liverpool, easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Bristol, British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick, and Jet2 (0871 2261737; www.jet2.com) from Manchester.

STAYING THERE

Both the apartment and the villa were booked through The Villa Book (020-7286 5278; www.thevillabook.com). Palazzo Uguccioni (also known as La Casa del Garbo), which sleeps up to four, starts at £600 for four nights. La Collina, which sleeps up to 10, starts at £2,200 per week.

VISITING THERE

Uffizi Gallery, Piazza della Signoria, Florence ( www.uffizi.firenze.it), opens Tuesday-Sunday from 8.15am-6.50pm; admission €8.50.

The market in Piazza Sant'Ambrogio, Florence opens Monday-Friday from 7am-2pm. Torre del Mangia, Il Campo, Siena, opens daily from 10am-7pm; €6.50.

Galleria dell'Accademia, Via Ricasoli 58-60, Florence, opens Tuesday-Sunday 8.15am-6.50pm.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Florence tourist office (00 39 055 29 08 32; www.firenzeturismo.it).

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