“Traveling leaves you speechless then turns you into a storyteller”. How on the mark is this quote from my hotel’s exquisitely neat stationery?
Four Days is about the minimum for a tourist to get a gist of all that Florence has to offer. And winter’s a great time to visit for I didn’t spot a selfie stick and only one guide’s umbrella and it’s when there are no lines for anything, and the waiters are assuredly at their most attentive.
The secret is to surrender to being transported in time, to sharpen your eyes by testing and training yourself to look, look and look again at all the detail and refinery. It’s one of the best ways to revive the spirits. How life-affirming to admire the artistic skill of our forebears. Indeed, anyone trying to understand the greatness of European culture over the last five hundred years has to grasp this Tuscan journey of human confidence.
I stayed first at the boutique hotel Dimora Palanca. From €295 a night it has18 spacious rooms with the master suite even having a private terrace and, above the four-poster bed, its own 19th-century gilded fresco. Opened in August 2020 it has all the glory and freshness of being brand new. This elegant and classical square villa was formerly the 19th century home of the Palanca family and is bang opposite the luxurious grounds of the esteemed Corsini family on the Via Scala just out from the city center.
The sense of harmony and tranquility is enhanced by the height and light from its large windows and by its predominantly pristine white interior: a colour that exudes supreme confidence. Inspired by Marcel Wanders there’s a Zepellin lampshade in the breakfast room presiding over the natural parquet floors. There’s even a privately walled ornamental garden for those sultry summer months. For in this Porta al Prato neighborhood there’s much of American interest with both the St. James Episcopal Church of the USA and the Consulate General’s building on the part of the Lungarno (the riverbank along the Arno) called Amerigo Vespucci after Florence’s merchant, explorer, and navigator from whose name America comes.
Downstairs at the hotel’s Mimesis restaurant, the décor is neutral, chic, and contemporary suggestive of Giorgio Morandi at his most still, and here one night I enjoyed a taster menu in which the chef Giovanni Cerroni exhibited all his craft: a veritable Florentine fancy and culinary conceit with a policy that emphasized strictly the importance of food and its environment.
I like to take a zonal journey beyond the walkable centre exploring one at a time in the North, West, South and the East). I strongly recommend Destination Florence for their specialist tours and expert advice. If you find a church door open, then go in (by the right-hand door) as they are often shut. All the museums and most of the churches offer some delight for the eye, some masterpiece of craftmanship. However, beware the Accademia which is overpriced and overrated luring unsuspecting tourists to see the original of Michelangelo’s David and not much else.
The stretch along the Lungarno is now mercifully free of traffic and the perfect spot on an unseasonably warm day for what the British used to call a ‘spot’ of lunch. For here, at Harry’s Bar amongst a stylish international crowd, I sat watching the locals at leisure as the sculling boats took themselves the short distance to the weir and back. As ever the liveried staff, presided over by the charming Roberto, were super-attentive serving with dignified aplomb. The traditional interior of this restaurant (not a bar!) is of dark wood offset by pink tablecloths and here I enjoyed my prawn cocktail served with Marie Rose sauce, spaghetti with clams and bottarga and garlic followed by codfish and artichokes.
Time to go on a shopping spree! As for my suggestions for unusual shopping I recommend Ricceri Giuliano in Via Dei Conti for ceramics and Fabio Innocenti in the Piazza Dei Ciompi for antiques. Try Galleria d’Arte Pietro Bazzanti e Figlio on Lungarno Corsini for your very own sculpture or Occasioni Musicali on Via dell’Oriuolo for pop memorabilia and vintage rarities. And if you happen to be there for the last Sunday of the month, go to Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio to rummage around for a bargain from the bric-a-brac market.
Tucked away and recently opened down a narrow side street in the city center is Ristorante San Paolino
It’s set within 25 hours of Hotel Piazza San Paolino. In its outdoor courtyard and under its vast glass roof are aluminum pipes reminiscent of Paris’s Center Pompidou. Here it plays host to, and pop music for, a young hip clientele who lurk amongst the forest of potted plants and jazzy tableware. For those who knew its previous incarnation as a pawn shop, the imaginative play on rich and poor, on heaven and hell may not be lost and all are invited into the ‘Garden of Eden’ theme of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. The magic emanating from the show kitchen comprises a simple cuisine offering dishes from all over Italy. I loved my truffled fried egg, my leek soup and in keeping with the grill being a vital component of Tuscan cooking, my chicken and those wonderful vegetables the Italians always serve with aubergine and peppers. All rounded off admirably with chocolate cake with Piedmont hazelnuts.
As for things to notice about the city: when you’re by the Uffizi spot the secret passage that crosses the river above the shops on the Ponte Vecchio. It was designed for Cosimo I to move unnoticed between his two palaces (Vecchio and Pitti). When in the Piazza Della Signoria look up at the extraordinary revolving outdoor staircase right at the top of the Palazzo Vecchio, spot the boats emanating from the rowing club under the Uffizi, the ambulance service opposite the campanile, or go to a Gregoria chant in Latin at San Miniato at 5.30 pm. As for the best guidebook ensure you don’t miss anything special with Edoardo Bonechi’s ‘Florence: A Complete Guide for Visiting the City’.
On a crossroads and in the Santa Croce, district is Boccanegra. It’s a restaurant that’s popular with the locals, indeed, on a Saturday night, packed to the rafters, which is always a good sign. With 180 seats it divides into three: an osteria, a pizzeria, and a fully-fledged restaurant. Looking up from the tiles and parquet flooring there are modern art derivations of Kees van Dongen, Matisse, and Pissarro and upstairs there’s a romantic loggia and below an impressive ‘cantina’ (wine cellar). Here I began with Tuscany canopies that included a delicious liver pâté amongst those beans and tomato favorites of Tuscan dishes. Next, my ravioli was filled with burrata cheese and parmesan with confit cherry tomatoes. The grilled sliced beef to follow came with a radicchio salad and was aided by a Chianti Classico 2019 (‘Tenuta di Nozzole’).
When the chorus of church bells chime on the hour I can almost smell the frankincense in the air. When I sit lapping up the holy energy of the monastic cells in San Marco, I imagine myself as a medieval monk cocooned and ascetic looking out at the stillness of the cypress trees. Likewise moving towards the altar through the columns within Santo Spirito is truly uplifting and gives me a sense of moving closer to heaven. All very edifying!
On the fifth floor of the Baglioni Grand Hotel and with pergolas and terraces on different heights is B Roof. Such a romantic setting with ‘Florence under your feet’ as it overlooks the ‘duomo’ (cathedral) and its ‘campanile’ (bell tower). The clientele is smart and formal being popular with top Florentine society and well-heeled business types. The décor is sober, neutral, and more traditional than contemporary with a grand piano and equestrian prints. But with ceiling-to-floor windows, it’s all about the light and the view out over the city. It serves Tuscan food with an international inflection, and, for my antipasti, I enjoyed a smoked potato cream, a poached egg with salmon caviar and squid ink waffle, from the ‘primi Piatti (first courses) some chestnut dumplings with Pecorino cheese, roasted pears and licorice powder and from the main courses (‘second piatti’) a lentil hummus and zucchini noodles with cumin (part of the restaurant’s eager emphasis on ‘wellness menu with taste’. Not that you can’t indulge a little with a dessert consisting of a Caprese cake with whipped cream and orange sauce!
The hills are visible from every central point and nowhere more directly than from the cathedral (the ‘duomo’) along Via Camillo Cavour. The Duomo is still mercifully the tallest building in the skyline with no modern buildings in the city center allowed to detract the eye. The interior is vast and empty with all the hollow echoes that bring. The opposite is the Baptistery. Just imagine baptizing your child beneath the echoing hollow, the gilded splendor, and of course the centuries-old holy breath. From the cupola’s vastness images expand like unfurling petals with the symmetry broken only for Christ from above to welcome you reassuringly into his church with his all-enveloping, outstretched arms.
A minute’s walk from the Palazzo Medici Riccardi
on the Via de’ Ginori and I reached La Ménagère, a restaurant within a concept store. No wonder in this uber-cool or, as they alternatively say, achingly trendy location is so popular with women as they sit in the library area amongst books on design and gardens or on the chef’s table near the grand piano. Others rest and dine amongst the kitchenware and glassware, the candlesticks and scent, or amongst the fresh and dried flowers on sale. Those being served in the outside ‘loggiata’ with its florally adorned wall are the envy of those still waiting to be seated. A top spot for brunch for smoothies smashed avocados and marinated salmon, for cinnamon rolls and the most enjoyable quinoa salad: rich and substantial with buckwheat and barley, with chicken and sesame seeds, with olive oil and coriander, with dried tomatoes and mint and all with a subtle trickle of Caesar sauce.
Fantastically situated overlooking the river and only one bridge along from Florence’s world-famous Ponte Vecchio is Antica Torre di Via Tornabuoni 1. It’s where I was next to stay: a hotel (from €245 a night) possessing the top half of a rather grand 13th-century tower. My goodness, it’s perfectly placed for high-end shopping. Along opposite is the Salvatore Ferragamo flagship store (complete with its own museum). And there’s Tiffany and Burberry, Gucci, Prada and Alexander McQueen, Armani and Dior, Bulgari and Montblanc to name but a few.
My room (and I recommend you ask for room 55) has lime green curtains and painted yellow striped walls: traditional and stylish but simply decorated and refreshingly free from pictures so as not to compete with the stunning view out over the Ponte Trinita. The terrace breakfast room and, higher up, the panoramic restaurant a further climb looks longingly out along the city’s famous riverscape: the bridges, the churches dominating the skyline, and the glorious almost delicate cypress trees of the ‘rural suburb’ that is Bellosguardo.
These were four of the happiest days of my life. As I left, I shed a tear as I have also done looking back at Manhattan in a taxi to the airport. For I was exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure: like Richard Burton on the airplane home in ‘Where Eagles Dare’ … my mission was accomplished.
I must go back. Whenever but soon!