FLORENCE — I pass through the marbled columns holding up the arched entrance of the grand Relais Santa Croce by Baglioni Hotels and suddenly find myself surrounded by ancient frescoes, paintings and furnishings.
Some of the museum-worthy antiques date back to the 18th century when this elegant Relais & Châteaux property served as the palazzo Ciofi Jacometti, built for the Marquis Baldinucci, a noble figure back then. It also served, for a time, as the home of a Vatican treasurer.
My excitement heightens when I discover a door off the hotel entrance leads to the Ristorante Enoteca Pinchiorri, Florence’s only 3-star Michelin restaurant and a dining room recognized as the 32nd best in the world. I try to sneak a peak inside but a stoned-faced sentry blocks my way.
“The hotel elevator is this way, sir,” says the man as he leads me through a series of narrow passages to a small lift that slowly takes me to the hotel lobby on the second floor, where more surprises await.
Above: The entrance to Florence's Relais Santa Croce by Baglioni Hotels is very palatial.
“Please follow me to the sala della musica (music room),” says a nattily-attired attendant, who greets me in the lobby and offers me a glass of Prosecco while I wait for the hotel’s congenial manager Marco del Lama to appear.
I gaze in wonderment at the grand room’s decorative inlays, terra cotta floor, impressive fireplace, large windows and soaring frescoed ceiling.
“I see you like our music room,” says general manager del Lama as he enters the parlour that sits directly across from the hotel’s own gourmet dining room, Ristorante Guelfi e Ghibellini.
The GM gushes with pride as he tells me the history behind the 24-room hotel, which sits on a quiet street near the Medieval Piazza Santa Croce, home of the great basilica of the same name where some giants of Italian history, including Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli and Galileo are buried. The square in front of the impressive church is believed to be where the first-ever soccer game was played.
“We still use the music room for small performances,” says del Lama, who draws my attention to some large panels on the opposite side of the bright room bathed in pastel colours. “Those panels lift out so musicians can sit right in the wall to play their instruments.”
Above: The hotel's music room is a lavish space filled with memories of Florence's history.
The room’s most impressive feature, though, is its massive ceiling, which is held up by a series of wooden trusses and beams that date back to the Renaissance. On the way to my room a few minutes later, a hotel employee leads me to a glass cutout in a wall where the ingenious ceiling infrastructure is revealed. I even get to walk on the historic wooden trusses, which were actually based on a Leonardo da Vinci design, and believe me, it was quite a thrill.
Each of the rooms in this truly unique boutique property are stuffed with antique furnishings and delicate wall coverings. My spacious and tastefully decorated room looked out on the tiled rooftops of Florence and the beautiful Basilica of Santa Croce, which at night is magically illuminated. Each morning during my stay, I felt like I’d spent a night at the museum because of the original artwork I awoke to each day.
The hotel’s two largest suites — the Da Verrazzano suite and the De Pepi suite — are located on the main floor near the music room. They have hosted the kings and queens of stage and screen, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie when they were a couple.
The two large suites can be combined into one massive 2,800-sq-ft Royal Suite, which, with its original 18th-century frescoes, Italian marble bathrooms, contemporary furnishings, Turkish bath and lots of modern conveniences, would make any member of today’s European courts feel right at home.
“This suite alone is worth a visit to Florence,” smiles the GM.
Above: The narrow streets around the hotel are full of history and Ponte Vecchio is within walking distance.
As you’d expect, the Royal Suite commands a king’s ransom, with a one night stay costing about $3,500 U.S. Don’t be frightened off, though. The price for standard rooms is far more reasonable with rates at this Baglioni-owned beauty starting around $275 (Cdn) a night. A bargain in this overheated tourist Mecca.
Guelfi e Ghibellini restaurant doesn’t have a Michelin star — yet —but the dishes created in the kitchen of Chef Niccolò De Riu are certainly star worthy.
For starters, we enjoy traditional Tuscan antipasti dishes like Prussian beef tartare infused with Carmignano caramelized shallot, parsley and ginger sponge, followed by carrot cardamom creamed soup with mousse and mignole olives’ powder. Next: charcoal octopus accompanied by porcini mushrooms and crispy scorzanera.
Our primi piatti (first course) dishes are highlighted by perfectly prepared plates of chestnut tagliatelle with pigeon boscaiola and a spaghetti with tomato sauce unlike any I’ve tasted before.
Main course highlights: piglet medallion — pork is big in Tuscany — lacquered with marinated pak choi and crispy topinambur, and double cooked black cod with coconut and cardamom milk that's paired with smoked rosemary mashed potatoes cream in a cloud of Mirin.
Chef tempts us with deserts like raspberry soufflè with ginger and Sechuan pepper English cream and a Marron Glacé mousse with Diospero gelée and cocoa Gruè. Who can say no to such sweet treats.
The only thing better than the food at Guelfi e Ghibellini is the romantic atmosphere surrounding diners while they sip the finest Tuscan wines and gaze out on Florence's lovely terra cotta skyline.
The hotel sits just a few steps away from most of Florence’s main tourist attractions, including Santa Croce Basilica, the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery and Ponte Vecchio.
It’s not all pleasure at Relais Santa Croce Baglioni Hotel, though. This property also caters to the business crowd with two meeting rooms that can seat up to 35 people.
The attentiveness of the hotel staff makes you think you’re visiting a friend’s residence.
Relais Santa Croce by Baglioni Hotels sits cradled in the heart of the Renaissance and offers its guests a once-in-a-lifetime experience at an affordable price.
JUST THE FACTS
• The Baglioni Hotels Group owns many stylish and historic properties throughout Italy. For information, go to
• Best way to get to Florence from Canada is with either Air Canada or Alitalia via Rome.