Monastic Magic and Florentine Follies

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Lanie Goodman   Contributor

Provence and Florence provide two quick escapes from Monaco—and you don’t need a boarding pass.

Provence and Florence provide two quick escapes from Monaco—and you don’t need a boarding pass.

There is the first time we go abroad, and the first time we go to Provence,” wrote British journalist and critic Cyril Connolly in his 1938 autobiographical book, Enemies of Promise. And as improbable as it is some eight decades later, there is a still a wild side of Provence with pockets of spectacular countryside, far from the gentrified villages and Peter Mayle-infatuated selfie-stick crowd of linenclad tourists.

At the end of a quiet country road in the fortified hilltop village of Mane, some 240 km from Monaco, stands the Couvent des Minimes, a honeycolored stone 16th-century convent surrounded by fruit orchards and olive groves. Elegantly restored in 2008 and member of the Relais & Châteaux group, this 46-room hotel and spa is where Louis XIV’s personal botanist once came to study the secret powers of plants with the resident monks. No wonder the herbal body-care line L’Occitane (originally founded in Mane in 1976 by French entrepreneur Olivier Baussan), seized the opportunity to showcase the company’s almost edible creams and fragrant oils (chockablock with almonds, verbena, honey and lemon) by creating their first spa in Deep Provence.

Renovated in 2014-2015, the hotel is a stylish mix of minimalist chic, with deeply comfortable rooms in different shapes and sizes and touches of pastel pink, pale green and mauve.Highlight: the Cassine Suite, perched in the ancient chapel under the bell tower, with a sweeping vista of the countryside.

Everything—the restaurant, bar, library, boutique and rooms—is grouped around the vaulted cloisters, plus you won’t go hungry. Chef Gatien Demczyna, who helms the bistro Le Pesquier and gastronomic restaurant, Le Cloître, whips up a variety of regional specialties, from Sisteron lamb to roast fish with seasonal vegetables from the Lubéron, in tandem with pastry chef Alessandro Parodi, who excels in creative combos of flavors, like his mouthwatering mascarpone, black figs and red berry sorbet dessert.

The owner of Couvent des Minimes and L'Occitane Chief Executive, Austrianborn Reinold Geiger (No. #1717 on the Forbes Billionaire list with a net worth of $1.8 billion), who bought a third of the company for $2.4 million in 1994 and became chairman two years later, has since expanded widely in Asia, Russia, Brazil and throughout Europe, with 90 spas in 30 countries. Yet, unsurprisingly, L’Occitane’s trademark beauty treatments—a regenerating anti-aging immortelle flower facial, soothing lavender-oil massage or an almond detox wrap— remain in total sync with their first-ever spa, surrounded by aromatic bushes and flowers named after the Franciscan sisters who once lived there. 

If you can tear yourself away from the pool, check out the neighboring village markets in Manosque (immortalized by writer Jean Giono) and Forcalquier; June and July are the best months to book for a sniff-and-swoon experience in the lavender fields of the Plateau de Valensole.

At just over 400 km from Monaco, the moment you step through the doors of the 117- room Four Seasons Hotel Firenze, you’re hit with a kind of enchantment that most urban resorts can seldom conjure within the first thirty seconds. Call it a flashback to Medici Florence, a luxurious microcosm of quiet grandeur where the museum quality art, monumental frescoed halls and ceilings, stucco bas-reliefs and period furnishings transport you into another era.  

This stately converted 16th-century Palazzo della Gherardesca, about a 15-minute walk from the Duomo, is set back inside the city’s largest privatelyowned spectacular 11- acre botanical gardens, a romantic 19th-century style expanse of lush greenery and interconnecting paths lined with towering sequoia trees, maples, and flowering Azaleas amid burbling fountains, statues, temples and follies.

The rooms and spacious ornate suites, handsomely designed by Pierre Rochon (think rich brocades, Venetian-style chandeliers, gleaming marble bathrooms mixed with a modern color scheme of light greens and yellows), are housed into two buildings—the palace and the comparatively sober 37-room Villa, a restored former convent that sits on the far end of the park, with its own private concierge and breakfast room restaurant.

Add to that a large outdoor swimming pool, a superb spa using the fragrant line of Santa Maria Novella products, and the arcaded Atrium bar for cocktails or afternoon tea.

Dining at the lavish Michelin-starred Il Palagio, headed by Executive chef Vito Mollica, is a cornucopia of seasonal offerings, with innovative regional dishes, including the signature Cavatelli pasta Cacio e Pepe with red prawns and marinated baby squids, seafood with champagne risotto and a mouthwatering baba al rum for dessert.

Another option is the Asian gastronomic restaurant, Magnolia, hidden away at the far end of the park, or the informal poolside restaurant, Al Fresco, renowned for their delicious slow-rising pizzas and homemade ice cream.

No detail is overlooked— from the jaw-dropping original art and ultraprofessional attentive staff to enticing offers like wine-tasting and white truffle hunting—which all contributes to a singular hotel experience in an exquisite timeless setting.

Run by Massimiliano “Max” Musto since 2019, the Four Seasons Florence is owned by Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani (No. 1867 on the 2018 Forbes Billionaires list with a net worth then of $1.2 billion), a member of the ruling Al Thani Qatari royal family who acquired the property in 2013 from the Florentinebased Fingen Group.

 

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Lanie Goodman   Contributor

Born and raised in New York, Lanie Goodman is an arts and travel writer based in the south of France since 1988. She is a contributor to publications such as T-Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveller and Departures, and the author of Romantic French Homes . Formerly a Professor of French Literature at CUNY, she teaches courses in journalism and cinema at the SKEMA at  Sophia-Antipolis. Lanie covers arts , travel and lifestyle at Forbes Monaco.