Of all Italy’s major cities, Florence is the hardest to describe to the uninitiated. Rome has the majesty, Venice the mystery, Naples the pizza – and, if you must, the dirt. Yet Firenze is something quite different. Wandering its streets, squares and alleyways, there is the constant sense that one has stepped into a city that has changed little since the great cathedral, the Dumo, was finally finished in the fifteenth century.
It is a place of intrigue and plots; not for nothing were the Medici family pre-eminent here for generations, and as one strolls around the historical sights, there seems the ever-present likelihood that one will see a hooded figure loitering to your left, or a black-clad assassin darting into the shadows. And then your line of vision clears, and the city presents itself in all its glory once again.
It’s easy to walk around, taking less than half an hour to cross from the station (interesting modernist architecture, hopeless signposting, don’t linger) across the Ponte Vecchio, the city’s most famous medieval bridge, which still features shops across it, as would have been seen for hundreds of years. It should now be noted that the shops are generally peddling expensive and inessential items aimed at the tourist market, but there’s nothing to be lost by wandering over there; not least because the south of the city is where the best wine bars and osterias are all located.
We were especially impressed by the Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina, which is located next to the famous Pitti Palace, or the tucked away Le Volpi e l’Uva. You’ll soon know the drill with these places; excellent wine at no more than five or six euros a glass, reasonably priced cold cuts of meat and cheese and, if you’re lucky enough to be having a drink at somewhere that offers aperitivo, an entire buffet might appear, albeit of wildly varying quality.
Food is very much something that dominates the city, whether you’re in the market for a full Michelin-starred extravaganza or something altogether humbler. No visit to Florence is complete without a wander into the main food market, the Mercato Centrale, where, as long as you’ve got a strong enough stomach not to be repulsed by some of the more challenging items displayed proudly in the butchers’ counters (one thinks, with a shudder, of flayed heads and tripe), then you will be rewarded by one of the city’s best lunchtime treats.
Nerbone is an old-school food stand, founded in 1872 and with prices that haven’t gone up too much since then. For five euros, you can buy a more than drinkable glass of red wine and a porchetta sandwich the equal of anything that you’d pay double or treble for in a more formal establishment. It’s determinedly basic, but there’s something really heartening about seeing a great melting pot of Florentines, visitors, workers and drunkards alike all finding common cause in excellent food at peerless value.
In order to enjoy Florence, you have to stay in one of the city’s finest hotels, and this is where the Helvetia and Bristol (so good, they named it twice) comes in. A magnificent, palace-like structure in the centre of the city, it offers a combination of enormous sophistication and old-school charm and comfort that is seldom rivalled by more modern establishments. The friendly staff are only too willing to attend to your every whim, no matter how absurd or demanding (in our case, various child-related requests), and the breakfast spread is as delicious and, in parts, decadent as you would expect.
Our palatial room, which looks out onto a lively nearby square, has the feeling of a grand palazzo all of its own; the marble bathroom, meanwhile, radiates opulence and the sense that one is doing something altogether grander than merely washing yourself. Here, you feel, you are communing with those who have gone before, and will go afterwards. The experience is Florence in a nutshell.
If you haven’t been to this wonderful city, then you are missing out, and the experience of your first visit will be a joy that it is hard to recapture. If you are a seasoned veteran of visits to this peerless place, then check into the Helvetia and Bristol, lie on your bed and plan an adventure. You won’t regret it.
For more information about the Helvetia and Bristol, including offers and details of its concierge service, visit www.hotelhelvetiabristol.com. The Helvetia and Bristol is part of the Starhotels Collezione.