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Faded glory

Published 18 June 1995
Style Magazine
102nd article





I have come to a highly important conclusion. I was not put on this earth to unwrap butter. I considered this as I looked at a number of small, silver- wrapped butter pats in my £700-a-night suite at the Grand Hotel Villa Cora in Florence. For that money, I expect the butter to be in nice little ringlets on a bowl, the bowl itself set in a larger bowl with ice in it. I also do not wish to unwrap sugar from paper sachets which give the appearance of British Rail, nor do I expect to see four large black chips in one of the cheap-looking plastic baths. Or a Kimberley-Clarke tissue dispenser in plastic with a GH emblem attached to it like a car sticker.

It would be nice if the television were positioned facing the bed, and not the only two small chairs in the most enormous ballroom-like bedroom. Vanessa kept walking round saying: "This place is odd." We'd got there by accident. It has the same Michelin rating as the Villa San Michele near Florence and I couldn't get in that for two nights. The Grand Hotel Villa Cora is grand. Built by Baron Oppenheim in 1865, later lived in by the Empress Eugenie, widow of Napoleon III, its pure neo-classical style includes a great deal of rococo gilt and pillars, ceiling paintings (cherubs and doves doing odd things above my bed) and ornate rooms that look rather different from the brochure. The main lounge, beautifully furnished in the coloured pictures, had hardly any furniture in it at all. "It lets in more light," explained a hotel manager helpfully. A brochure photo of a couple eating on a balcony overlooking the hills and domes of Florence was taken on a never-used roof. The "Antique Rolls, one of the villa's hospitality cars" looked the same age as my Bentley, 1975, and stood outside dirty and getting worse each day. My goodness, at the Sandy Lane, Barbados they keep their white Rolls-Royces gleaming!

The dining room is ugly and in a windowless basement. It also smelled musty so I never ate there. The swimming pool is tacky-modern with, thrown in for bad measure, five little islands with poles on them and the flags of Japan, Europe, America, Germany and France. Since I was not attending a convention of the United Nations I didn't use the pool, either.

The breakfast orange juice was so bitter we couldn't drink it and the croissants were chewy. The staff were rather nice. The whole thing has great possibility but hardly any actuality. The concierge did recommend a lovely little restaurant at the "wrong" end of the Ponte Vecchio. This is called Bibo, in Santa Felicita, a tiny square, more an indent really, made up of an interior and an exterior bit surrounded by hedges in pots to carve its boundaries. Pink tablecloths, black hooped chairs and two very big white umbrellas. It was extremely efficient in a refreshing, non-fussy way. They behaved most properly and gave me a table for four, thus turning away quite a few customers. We used the second table for the water, the bowl of ice, the flowers and the wine bottle. A quietly well-dressed Italian in a grey suit supervised all and shook my hand. He was the owner. Everything was excellent and inexpensive. The ravioli with ricotta cheese and spinach inside with a tomato, basil and cream sauce was tiptop. The lemon sorbet was soft, historic and the best ever. If you go to Florence, find it.

A biting letter from Reg Williamson of Staffordshire sneers at me as totally ignorant for calling a 1981 Penfolds Grange Australian wine "mild and harmless". It was, he said, "one of the great red wines of the world and one an educated wine drinker would go on his knees for". I asked my friend Michael Broadbent, head of the wine department at Christie's for 30 years and a writer on wine, if he would go on his knees for a 1981 Penfolds.

"No," he said. He'd recently tested a bottle for his new book and thought it rather poor. Should it be considered one of the great red wines of the world? "Definitely not," he said. Although he did think some of the other years of Penfolds Grange were excellent. Particularly the 1971.

I'll stick to the 1961 Latour, Haut Brion, Mouton-Rothschild or Lafite and almost any Petrus. Wine buffs place them six times higher, and more, than a 1981 Penfolds Grange, as you can see from the auction prices. Sorry, Reg.



Letters

I'm incensed by Mr Winner's and now (Letters, June 11) Alison Bowyer's unjust attacks on Raymond Blanc of Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. A visit there is the nearest thing to heaven, which is why we have already booked in for our fourth stay in November for my husband's 60th birthday. No, we're not rich, nor are we gullible fools. The food is so paradisiacal as easily to justify saving for months for the privilege of eating there.
Sandy Byrne, West Beckham, Norfolk

As an avid reader of Restaurant Watch I should like to nominate The Coffee Shop, Wimbledon High Street, as Purveyors of the Most Disgusting Breakfast. Furthermore, they were tersely unpleasant when the shortcomings of my small brekkie were pointed out (and it cost £6 for scrambled eggs, bacon and mushrooms). If you ever find yourself in a ratty mood and want to sound off at somebody pop along for a bite ... you'll feel a whole lot better afterwards for all the wrong reasons!
Monima Siddique, London SW10