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Fabulous Florence – A Work Of Art In Itself

Renaissance man Malcolm Handley rediscovers his sense of wonder

Written by . Published on May 1st 2014.

Fabulous Florence – A Work Of Art In Itself

FLORENCE is an open book of wonder and history – each name is a chapter, each street a paragraph, each building a sentence, all in a volume bursting with interest on every page.

'Aesthetically brilliant, it defied architects and builders for centuries and defies onlookers to this day. Quite stunning'

Tuscany’s capital is the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci, of artist and sculptor Donatello,  and of artist sculptor, mathematician, engineer and architect of its famed cathedral dome, Brunelleschi.

It is the final resting place of Galileo and Michelangelo and, although they have all shuffled off this mortal coil, their influences, masterpieces and history maintain their genius. And now, with British Airways’ new four flights a week service, it is far easier to explore and enjoy.

I walked into the Piazza del Duomo and once again began to appreciate Firenze’s importance to the history of art, culture and architecture. Like me you will – and this I promise you – stand in sheer wonder at the Duomo Cattedrale Di Sante Maria del Fiore – Cathedral of St Mary of the Flower.

Florence Cathedral FacadeThe magnificent facade of the Cathedral

It is one of Europe’s largest churches, but don’t let that fact impress you for too long – it is truly one of the world’s most beautiful buildings. Its façade of green, white and pink Italian marble is topped by the stunning, magnificent beauty of Filippo Brunelleschi’s red-brick octagonal dome and, alongside, another masterpiece of marble architecture, Giotto’s striking campanile.

You can – if you have the stamina, aren’t claustrophobic and have a head for heights – climb to the top of the dome and its crowning lantern, But why? The view you, and everyone else, wants to see, is beneath your feet.

Florence had to wait 200 years before the Duomo was crowned by the genius and beauty of Brunelleschi’s dome – it is such a triumph of architecture that it will fill you with wonder. Aesthetically brilliant, it defied architects and builders for centuries and defies onlookers to this day. Quite stunning.

Piazza Della SignoriaPiazza della Signoria

A short walk away is Piazza della Signoria – with Palazza Vecchio and its array of statues and fountain. It was the centre of Renaissance civic activity and still feels that way now – in summer it boasts a flower festival of undeniable beauty. It is the gateway to the Uffizi, the finest art museum in Italy and, arguably, in Europe. It houses many of the finest pieces of Renaissance art and, of course, Michelangelo’s David – the world’s most famous statue – I suspect that makes it worth the air fare alone.

From the Uffizi I strolled to the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge that centuries ago was the butcher’s district but is now lined with small jewellery shops. This is the place to see and be seen.

Jewellers On The Ponte VecchioJewellers line the Ponte Vecchio; below, a paper maker

Paper Making Florence Style

On almost every Florentine street corner there is a story or symbol of architectural and artistic genius, but there is much more to this former Italian capital. Its streets are lined with small interesting shops – some historic in their own rite – gelato, paper making, jewellery, cafes and restaurants – and that is just touching the surface. There is a wonderful atmosphere in the city streets and it is impossible not to be drawn in.
It has the finest of fine dining, the freshest of Tuscan ingredients and the richly varied Italian cuisine which will have you craving – and there is ample choice.

My hotel, nestling in the Tuscan hills, brimmed with history, class and those almost-inexplicable touches which make a good night’s stay an unforgettable experience.

A few minutes from the city centre in the Fiesole district Il Salviatino is a villa which was the haunt of Italy’s literati in the 16th & 17th Centuries and now welcomes today’s European fashonistas – model Kate Moss, Kate Hudson, Jade Jagger and Jamie Winstone are just some of the celebrity names – along with well-heeled locals and visitors, like myself, looking for a five star hotel with a difference.

Ll Salvatino's GardensIl Salvatino and its gorgeous gardens

The bedrooms are classy with beautifully décor – 21st century luxury in 17th Century style. The food is superb from beautifully constructed breakfast trays  – or hot, freshly cooked dishes – to superb dinners with the freshest local ingredients and excellent wines both local and international. I enjoyed the scallop and red prawns, gnudi, Tuscan pasta and stuffed monkfish but at some point I had to try Fiorentina di Manzo [traditional Tuscan T-bone steak. Delicious.

The Library In Il SalvatinoThe Library, one of Il Salvatino's stylish public rooms

Behind the terrace bar, award-winning mixologist Nino weaves his magic – even my gin and tonic became a creation in his hands.

You can be a guest here – but you feel more like someone who has returned home from a journey from somewhere in the rest of the world. I enjoyed the spa with relaxing and reinvigorating treatments.

Panoramic DinnerPanoramic dinner on the terrace

The hotel’s fine gardens and the view from the terrace is quite stunning. I sat there on a warm spring evening with a glass of local wine, with all Florence laid out before me with the Duomo, as it should, taking centre stage – a living Renaissance painting gently demanding to be enjoyed  and it was, more than once. As it says on the label: “History is more than a trend.”

For the best view of the city walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo – a terrace on a hill on the south bank of the Arno which offers a stunning panorama of Florence, the entire, stunning vista of Firenze.

One thing that did drag me away from Florence’s countless attractions was a visit to the Antinori Chianti Classico winery just a few miles out of the city. This is the latest vineyard and winery from a family who have been making Chianti Classico for centuries.

Glass, Suspended Tasting Rooms At Antinori WinerySuspended tasting rooms at the Antinori Winery

Forget those ubiquitous straw-wrapped bottles, which adorned Italian eateries – and became candle-holding centrepieces in many British homes in the 70s and 80s. This is serious wine with some excellent vintages. My tasting took place in glass-walled room suspended over the barrels. This is a futuristic winery built into the hillside at the new vineyard but the wines are still classics.

No matter how often you visit Florence there is certain to be something in its rich history and beauty which you haven’t seen. But you will go back. I have. Everyone does.

Fact file

Getting there

One way all inclusive hand baggage only fares to Florence available from £67 on www.ba.com/londoncity. All BA include a generous free hand baggage allowance, seat selection and on line check-in 24 hours before departure, complimentary refreshments and drinks and no debit card charges.

Staying there

Stay three nights at the luxury 5* Il Salviatino from £689pp for travel in July, including return flights from London City to Florence and accommodation with breakfast. www.salviatino.com or ring +39 055 9041111.

Further information: Lonely Planet: Florence & Tuscany. www.lonelyplanet.com

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