The Complete Guide To: Palatial Italy

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Historic palaces across the country have opened their doors to guests – and you don't need a princely budget to experience some atmospheric Italian splendour.

Must I be at least a minor royal?

No. Italy has a panoply of palaces, but many are no longer associated with crown or church. Accordingly, many of these majestic buildings have been turned into upmarket villas, luxury hotels and boutique B&Bs.

The city with the widest choice is Venice – and, appropriately, the place you can arrive in the finest style, as a passenger on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (0845 077 2222; orient-express.com). There will be 28 departures this year on the core route from London via Paris to Venice's Santa Lucia station.

The journey begins around 11am with a Pullman train run from London to Folkestone and a transfer to Calais, where restored Wagons-Lits rolling stock awaits for the train to Paris and the Swiss Alps, arriving at Venice before 6pm on day two; one-way fare £1,550, based on two sharing.

Home to almost as many palaces as canals, Venice is the obvious jumping-off point for a tour of the country's most palatial accommodation. Most of its palaces are at the luxury end of the scale, however, and priced accordingly.

Grandest of all, perhaps, is the Ca' Sagredo, a five-star hotel housed in a fabulous 15th-century palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal at Campo Santa Sofia 4198/99, Ca' D'Oro (00 39 041 2413111; casagredohotel.com).

Once home to the Sagredo family, the building is now a national monument. It features opulent sleeping quarters such as the library suite, set, as the name suggests, in the property's early 18th-century library.

Most rooms overlook the water; some of the top-floor ones come with little wooden terraces that are perfect for lazy sightseeing. Double-room rates start at €220, including breakfast.

Something modern?

The fashionable Palazzo Barbarigo, at Sul Canal Grande, San Polo 2765 (00 39 041 740 172; palazzobarbarigo.it), is a more contemporary option – and a member of the Design Hotels brand. The 18 art deco-inspired rooms at this hip Venetian retreat may have been fashioned from a 16th-century palazzo but they now feature internet, power showers and flat-screen TVs, as well as some sexy, softly lit styling. Rates here also start at €200 double, including breakfast.

If you like the sound of that, keep an eye out for the Palazzina Grassi, a sleek 32-room hotel set in a 15th-century palazzo at San Marco 3247 (00 39 041 528 4644; palazzinagrassi.it); it is scheduled to open imminently alongside the Grand Canal, and is also a Design Hotel.

A room with a view of Florence?

The Four Seasons, for a start, in the "centro storico" area of the city at Borgo Pinti 99 (00 39 055 262 61; fourseasons.com). It is set in the 15th-century Renaissance Palazzo della Gherardesca and a neighbouring convent.

After a seven-year renovation it opened last summer. One architectural highlight is the collection of 12 bas-reliefs by Flemish Mannerist, Jan van der Straet, which was commissioned by Alessandro de Medici in 1555. Rates for its 117 individually designed rooms start at €327 double, without breakfast. There's also an outdoor pool, spa and extensive gardens to enjoy.

Even newer is the Palazzo Vecchietti, a glamorous if slightly more understated option, which opened in the city centre in December, close to Piazza della Repubblica at Via degli Strozzi 4 (00 39 055 230 2802; palazzovecchietti.com). Part of the Town House chain, which also has properties in Turin and Milan, it comprises a collection of 12 serviced apartments hewn from a 15th-century palace. Each is named after an Italian artist or architectural icon (the largest is Leonardo da Vinci) and all come with comprehensively equipped kitchenettes and Wi-Fi. Doubles start at €407 double, including breakfast.

The Relais Santa Croce is now part of the swish Baglioni hotel group. This property is set in the heart of the city, in the Palazzo Ciofi-Jacometti at Via Ghibellina 87 (00 39 055 234 2230; relaisantacroce .com). A restoration has smartened this popular palace hotel, reviving its original frescoes and creating an appealing combination of period furnishings and modern elegance. Doubles from €198, with breakfast.

Capital options?

The Hotel d'Inghilterra in Rome is part of a trilogy of sister palace hotels, with siblings in Florence and Siena. Its location in the capital is Via Bocca di Leone 14 (00 39 06 699 811; royaldemeure. com), close to the Spanish Steps and within easy walking distance of the chic shops of Via Veneto, Condotti, Borgognona, Frattina and del Corso. The hotel is set in a 15th-century palace that was originally designed as a guesthouse for visitors to the nearby royal palace, though it's been run as a hotel since 1845. The Anglophile name stems from the fact that Keats, who lived in nearby Piazza di Spagna, invited so many English visitors to stay. It has undergone a big refurbishment and now features 97 stylish guest rooms, plus a celeb-heavy bar. Doubles start at €243, room only.

Northern Exposure?

For more old-school glitz, the Palace Hotel in Merano is worth considering. Merano sits right on the edge of idyllic mountain terrain in the north of the country, and there are lovely open views from the hotel grounds as well as easy access to great walking. The hotel, at Via Cavour 2 (00 39 047 327 1000; palace. it), has one of the most highly regarded spas in Italy. It specialises in one-week detoxing and weight-loss programmes, and also offers indoor and outdoor pools, steam rooms and plenty of other facilities for guests who want to relax. Doubles start at €320, including breakfast.

A sea view?

Head south, to the Amalfi coast. The Palazzo Sasso is the colour of sugar mice but there's more to this fairytale confection than grand, 12th-century architecture. Its location is Via San Giovanni del Toro 28 (00 39 089 818 181; palazzosasso.com), surrounded by palm-strewn gardens in the hilltop village of Ravello. Its 43 rooms and suites are perched on a clifftop, overlooking sparkling sea and some of the coastline's prettiest fishing villages. The hotel's two-star Michelin restaurant makes it especially popular with foodies. The décor is pretty impressive, too, with handmade Italian tiles and period furnishings juxtaposed with iPod docking stations and a glitzy spa. Double rooms start at €484, including breakfast.

Further south still, the Palazzo Belmonte doesn't so much come with a sea view as a toe in the surf. It is located at Via Flavio Gioia 25 (00 39 097 496 0211; palazzobelmonte.com) in the village of Santa Maria del Castellabate on the country's Cilento coast. This 18th-century former hunting lodge stands in extensive gardens, from which a gate leads directly onto the neighbouring (private) beach. Sophisticated double rooms (choose between the main palazzo andu otwo garden villas) start from €186, including breakfast.

Also in Italy's far south, consider the Palazzo Tre Cuori, outside Salve in Puglia. An art deco palace, it was restored last summer and features original art deco furniture, contemporary Italian design and its own walled garden. Rental costs from £1,740 per week and sleeps up to six people (020- 7401 1039; cvtravel.co.uk).

Island life?

If you crave personality as well as historic architecture, the Palazzo Federico in Palermo should fit the bill. Dating back to the 12th-century, it is stuffed with chandeliers, heirloom portraits and an antique weapon collection. A big selling point here is that the current count and countess are usually on hand to guide you around in person. A guest room, the Federico Suite, has been available for several years. In addition, the palazzo now offers new self-catering apartments, set in the old stables. Each sleeps two and rental rates start at €190 per night. You can book through Solo Sicily (020-7193 0158; solosicily.com).

Rural retreats?

Two of the best palazzo hotels in Italy are located in Umbria. L'Orto degli Angeli is at Via Dante Alighieri 1 (00 39 0742 360130; ortoangeli. com) in the village of Bevagna. It boasts 14 vast rooms and apartments, and a garden filled with wisteria, jasmine, clematis and roses. Doubles from around €220, with breakfast.

The alternative is the Palazzo Terranova, in the countryside outside Perugia (00 39 075 857 0083; palazzoterranova.com): more contemporary in style, though its eight elegant rooms are not without of period features. Facilities include a sleek pool. Doubles start at €305, including breakfast.

Some privacy, please

One of the most talked-about openings of recent months is the Palazzo Tornabuoni in Florence, a private members' club at Via Tornabuoni 16 (0870 609 8555; palazzotornabuoni.com). It offers those with the wherewithal the chance to buy a share in a residence in this decadently refurbished 15th-century palazzo – once home to Pope Leo XI of the Medici family and now managed by the Four Seasons hotel group. Rates start at €218,000 for a studio apartment.

If you have plenty to spend, Bellini Travel is a company to contact (020-7602 7602; bellinitravel.com). Though it can organise tailor-made stays in a wide range of Italian accommodation, Bellini is known for arranging accommodation in more rarefied properties, including suites in private palazzi.

Currently on its books is the Palazzo Bartolommei in Florence, a five-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor of a family-owned property right by the Piazza della Signoria that has recently been renovated, in contemporary style, by interior designer Ilaria Miani. Prices start from €1,000 per night and additional services such as a private chef can be catered for. The same company can also arrange exclusive guided tours of other private palazzi.

Budget palaces

Plenty of publicly accessible palazzi are worth a visit. The Medici Riccardi Palace in Florence, once home to the infamous Medici and housing a tiny Magi chapel decorated with exquisite 15th-century frescoes is one of the city's must-sees. It is located at 3 Via Cavour (00 39 055 276 0340; palazzo-medici.it) and opens 9am-7pm daily except Wednesdays, admission €7.

Further north, almost every museum in Venice is housed in a palazzo. The Doge's Palace (00 39 041 271 5911), the official residence of the Venetian dukes from the ninth century until the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797, is one of the city's most iconic buildings. It also includes the Bridge of Sighs, named because condemned prisoners were said to have sighed as they walked across it and saw the outside world for the last time. It's currently open from 9am to 5pm daily and entrance costs €17. Then there's the Palazzo Venier Dei Leoni, a half-finished 18th-century palazzo at Dorsoduro 701 (00 39 041 240 5411; guggenheim-venice.it) on the Grand Canal. It is home to one of the world's greatest collections of contemporary art: the palazzo was bought by Peggy Guggenheim in 1949 and turned into a gallery after her death. Open 10am-6pm daily, except Tuesday, admission €12.

The talk of the town at the moment, though is the Palazzo Grassi, a recently opened art gallery set in a lavish 18th-century palace at Campo San Samuele 3231, Venice (00 39 041 523 1680; palazzograssi.it). It was originally designed by architect Georgio Massari, and has been renovated by architect Tadao Ando at the behest of its current French owner, the art collector Francois Pinaulf. It opens 10am-7pm daily, except Tuesdays, admission €10.

If you fancy a palazzo but don't have a princely budget, there are some alternatives to the high-end hotel option. BB22 in Palermo, Sicily, is a boutique B&B set in a restored 15th-century palazzo, with six sophisticated guestrooms and a small roof terrace. Doubles start from €€110, including breakfast (Largo Cavalieri di Malta 22; 00 39 091 611 1610; bb22.it).

In Florence, Johlea and Johanna Residences offers comfortable B&B accommodation in five different palazzi in a quiet residential area just north of the Duomo. The atmospheric, homely decor is well pitched and the rooms are good value, with doubles from €90, including breakfast (00 39 055 481 896; johanna.it). Johlea and Johanna is one of several palazzi listed on i-escape.com. Another of its cheaper finds is Ca' della Corsa, off Dorsoduro in Venice, a family-run B&B in a 16th-century palazzo with rates starting at €80 for a double.

Or, look at booking a package. In Sardinia the palatial Villa Las Tronas (above) is set right on the sea. Once the summer home of the Italian royals, it now serves as a five-star hotel with spa and pool.

Seven nights here cost from £695 per person, including flights, transfers and B&B accommodation (01694 722 193; long-travel.co.uk).

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