Where on earth could you be expected to start when trying to write about a city like Florence? Florence is not a place that has a beginning, middle and an end, it is a complex, beautiful, multifarious metropolis. A mystery to be explored.
At first glances you could be forgiven for dismissing Florence as little more than an aloof stunner, a haughty tourist trap, clogged up with doughy Americans and snap happy day-trippers. This was my first visit and my point of reference up to now was the bizarre, extraordinary A Room with a View (a must watch film, Simon Callow at his finest), I expected something a little more staunch and stand-offish.
I’d just returned from Venice, which is, of course, also divine, but Venice’s beauty is somewhat capricious, it’s a city that feels dangerous and unpredictable, you can be appalled down those dark alleys as quickly as you can be seduced. I feared a similarly mixed narrative, akin to meeting a beauty, falling in love and then being kicked cruelly to the kerb. Happily, Florence offered a richer experience than I could have ever have dreamt.
We begin in Pisa and make our way on one of the thousands of shuttle buses across the Tuscan landscape into Florence. It’s a strange experience, approaching a city of such medieval magnificence on a modern bus, with iPhone in hand; at least in Venice there are the gondolas and old, golden timbered water taxis to provide the illusion of an antiquated world of elegant shadows. Here there is as stark a contrast as you might imagine between the pink light on stained glass and the Terravision coach that rumbles meaningfully into town.
The Hotel Continentale is part of the Lungarno Collection, a small group of extremely elegant hotels situated around Ponte Vecchio. The group is owned by the famous Ferragamo family and the hotels are marked by the their intimacy and originality. The first hotel to be taken over by the group is the most famous, Hotel Lungarno. Lungarno opened in 1992 and quickly built a reputation as the finest riverside hotel in Florence. The hotel is designed to resemble a ocean liner of old. White and blue maritime colours dominate rooms that are filled with an art collection that includes prints by Chagall and Picasso. The hotel has also has a magnificent outside breakfasting terrace built out, overhanging the Arno – perhaps the best spot for breakfast in the whole city.
On the other side of the river, Hotel Continentale has a perfect view of the Ponte Vecchio. We check in and make our way up to our second floor room, which fortunately looks out right over this singular structure. The hotel opened in 1996 and offers the most contemporary aesthetics of any of the hotels within the group. Our room is decked-out in pale wood and white cotton and offers a spacious, modern vision of hotel luxury, this is a world away from the ostentatious luxury of the palace hotels. Large wooden-framed windows open out along one side of the room offering a magnificent view of the bridge and river below. Once we’ve had a short rest and the afternoon starts to draw toward evening, we head up to ‘La Terrazza’ the rooftop bar of Hotel Continentale, and one of Florence’s finest bars. This is the best spot for an early evening aperitivo to enjoy as the sun sets in a pink haze over the Arno.
The Lungarno Collection operate a fantastic system whereby you can enjoy breakfast in any of the hotels in the group, so over a four night stay, you could breakfast all over the city. Having admired outside breakfast terrace from our room at The Hotel Continentale, we decide to head over the bridge and enjoy the riverside setting. The view is magnificent and the kitchen know exactly how to scramble an egg in a heavenly manner.
We wander the streets taking in Florence in all its rare, effortless beauty. It is almost perfect in early summer when the warmth and light are at a perfect juncture. We explore the Uffizi and the Duomo and then wander around in a daze, our minds alive, aching almost, after taking so much grandeur and magnificence in. Lunch is at The Savoy, in the sun-drenched courtyard of Piazza della Repubblica. The Savoy, part of the Rocco Forte Group, occupies a fine position on the piazza, looking out with a certain sense of regal splendour – it is one of Florence’s great old hotels, part of the city’s history.
The restaurant, L’Incontro, is much more contemporary in style. The restaurant’s kitchen is overseen by the expert eye of two Michelin starred, consultant chef Fulvio Pierangelini. Whilst Pierangelini isn’t always in the kitchen, his ethos and style of contemporary ‘best of Italy’ cuisine can be seen in the dishes, which are superior to that which you might expect from a hotel kitchen. We enjoy excellent linguine alle vongole and braised octopus followed by a magnificent plate of porchetta – roast suckling pork. This is a glorious place to find yourself on a warm summer’s lunchtime in Florence, it’s becoming clear that Florence has a rich and varied dining potential, if only one knows where to search.
Later when the sun begins to droop the sky and our appetites awaken, we make our way to the market, the Mercato Centrale, Florence’s extraordinary gourmand’s paradise. We settle at Da Nerbone, a small, unassuming, but absolutely packed stall on the edge of the market, that’s been serving the best tripe in Florence since the middle of the nineteenth century. After queuing with a mix of Japanese tourists, smart Scandinavians and Ghanaian market traders, we eventually get our tripe. It is meltingly lovely, having been braised in tomatoes, stock and olive oil and smothered in parmesan, a feast for all the senses.
Harry’s Bar serves the best Martinis in Florence so that is where we choose to end our night, we make a beeline for the bar and that is where we stay, perfectly lost, caught in a moment in time. The barman is a star, he mixes strong and tells tales of long ago. The bar opened in 1953 and has charmed those lucky enough to visit ever since. We drink happily, and late, then stagger off to see the moon’s reflection twinkling on the Arno – a moment to savour.
Our next night is spent in the splendour of another of Florence’s great old hotels. The Regency isn’t quite as showy or central as the aforementioned Savoy, but it has a history to match. Set back from the main action, away from the bustle of tourists that circle the river and the main piazzas, The Regency has a different essence. Once a favourite option for the political elite of Florence, the hotel is now the choice for the discerning traveller who desires a home away from the mania of the streets around The Doumo. The hotel is situated on the tree-lined, leafy Piazza Massimo d’Azeglio which it shares with smart residential townhouses and indeed resembles a grand Florentine villa. The decor inside is opulent and ornate, this is a hotel for the classicist who enjoys traditional luxury. Our room is on the third floor with windows looking out to the piazza and out over the rooftops of Florence beyond. It’s a lovely room, filled with light and with high ceilings and large, comfortable bed. There is a large bath, a bath for sharing. The whole set-up it luxurious and with a sense of old-world style, the hotel wouldn’t seem strictly out-of-place in A Room with a View.
Aperitivo and breakfast are served in a calm, leafy courtyard at the back of the hotel which is, this week, playing host to the work of a local artist who specialises in sweeping, evocations of sun-baked Cypress trees. We sit and drink the house cocktail, a disarming concoction of Aperol, lemon and prosecco, plates of finocchiona keep us fortified. The hotel’s real loveliness comes to light the evening arrives and the courtyard with soft candlelight. Around us food starts to arrive bistecca all Fiorentina and platters of bollito misto, delicious aromas of Tuscan delicacies fill the air. It’s a challenge to leave, but we decide to head out and wander the streets around the hotel in the calm dusk, away from the crowds to enjoy our final hours here in the shadows, away from the obvious grandeur of The Regency.
We walk out, through the hotel’s reception, which is as quiet and reserved as one might expect. The sun is gone now and the streets close to the hotel are still in the early moonlight. We walk quietly until we find a decent bar, from which we can just see the Duomo, rearing up, green-tinged in this light, and hauntingly fine. We drink Fernet Branca and sit in contented silence, listening to the music of the evening and soaking up Florence’s indescribable majesty.
Hotel Continentale, Vicolo dell’Oro, 50123 Florence, Italy. Tel: +39 055 27262.
Hotel Savoy, Piazza della Repubblica, 7 50123 Florence, Italy. Tel: +39 055 27351.
Regency Hotel, Piazza M. D’Azeglio, 3 50121 Florence, Italy. Tel: +39 055 245247.