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Florence never gets stale

Even if you think that you know nothing about Florence, the truth is that you probably do.

Much of what the rest of the world think of as being typically Italian is actually Florentine.


Let’s take opera. It was invented in Florence. In fact, even the piano was invented in Florence. Or consider art. You have probably heard of the Renaissance. That began in Florence.


   Think of some famous Italian artists: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Cellini, Rubens or Raphael. They either came from Florence or worked in the city. Even the modern Italian language is based on the Florentine dialect.


   And yet, the history is not Florence’s claim to fame in today’s world. It is a great tourist attraction mostly because it is so beautiful. There are the famous structures, such as the Duomo, the cathedral which has the largest dome of its kind in the world and the great palazzos or palaces associated with the Medicis, the family that ran Florence for centuries. But nearly every street in Florence is beautiful. You don’t need to go looking for charm: it is all around you.


   If Italy has two great big cities (Rome and Milan), then it also has two of the world’s most beautiful towns: Venice and Florence. As much as I love Venice, it is a little like a movie set, a city that now exists only to look beautiful. Florence, on the other hand, is a living, flourishing town, where people go about their work normally, inured to its beauty by virtue of seeing it every day.


   I have been to Florence several times (most of them recorded in this column) but each time I go, I discover something new: Florence never gets stale. And it keeps changing. There are now far superior hotels than there were say, a decade and half ago and though the restaurants are the usual mixture of tourist traps and local favourites (inevitable in a city where visitors vastly exceed the number of residents), there are now some great restaurants as well.


   I stayed, this time, at the Four Seasons, a hotel that did not exist when I started going to Florence. It is, as you might expect, a luxury property that was recently rated one of the 50 Best Hotels in the world (it made it to number nine on the list). But nothing prepares you for how stunning it is. Its acres of grounds constitute the largest private park in Florence and its history goes back to the 15th century. It combines a medieval palazzo with a convent (two separate properties that were bought and merged later) and like nearly everything else in Florence, it is mainly all about art.


   I was lucky enough to stay in one of the most historical rooms in the palazzo (over 500 years old) which had been lovingly restored to its original glory. Sometime in the 19th Century, its owners commissioned large, beautiful frescos to cover the ceiling and parts of the walls. The story goes that when the Four Seasons began to renovate the property nearly two decades ago, it discovered frescos that had been painted over in many parts of the original building, an added plus that nobody had counted on when the property was acquired.


 "This kind of luxury and gastronomic excellence was not around when I first went to Florence and I am guessing that it owes something to the flood of a new breed of visitors to the city."

   The frescos needed restoration of course, a long and delicate process but the Four Seasons waited for years till they were completely restored before opening the hotel. It tried also to match the fittings to what they would have looked like when the palazzo was at its peak. So, for instance, experts were commissioned to discover what kind of chandeliers had originally hung from which ceiling and new chandeliers that evoked the old were specially commissioned.


   The result is one of the world’s most spectacular hotels that combines history, architectural splendour, beauty, medieval art, acres and acres of greenery, insane levels of luxury and of course, the service that the Four Seasons prides itself in.


   As if all this were not enough, the grounds are full of modern art, which serves as a contrast to the historical pieces and frescoes because, the hotel believes, Florence still has a flourishing art scene and it has an arrangement with a top local gallery to keep rotating works by great contemporary artists in the extensive gardens of the hotel.


   There have been historical hotels in Florence before. On one of my first visits I stayed at the Villa San Michele, a stunning property (run by Belmond) in Fiesole, a short distance from the city centre. But there has never been anything like the Four Seasons before.


   Even the food in Florence — at the top end — can be world class. My friend Alessandro Lagana, a key figure in the Massimo Bottura organisation, booked me into the Gucci Osteria. I have been to the delightful Torno Subito, a casual restaurant run by Massimo in Dubai (and now expanding all over the world) and thought that the Gucci Osteria, which is part of the complex that houses the Gucci shop, would be the sort of casual place where you could have a bowl of pasta and a glass of Chianti.


   I was wrong. It turned out to be a slightly less formal version of Massimo’s three Michelin star Osteria Francescana in nearby Modena. It has its own Michelin star and only two tasting menus. The chefs turned out to be Karime Lopez, who has worked in South and Central America’s greatest restaurants but says that her creativity only opened up when she went to work for Massimo at Osteria Francescana and Takahiko ‘Taka’ Kondo, the Japanese chef who was Massimo’s right hand for years and years and whose work in celebrated in one of Francescana’s most famous dishes “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart.”


   Karime and Taka take the basic structures of Italian (or more generally, European) cuisine and pack their dishes with subtle flavours from Japan and South America. There is no restaurant like it anywhere else in the world and food was astonishing; easily two stars rather than the one the restaurant currently has.


   This kind of luxury and gastronomic excellence was not around when I first went to Florence (though the remarkable Enoteca Pinchiorri has had three stars for 20 years and is usually regarded as Florence’s top restaurant) and I am guessing that it owes something to the flood of a new breed of visitors to the city: well-heeled, well-travelled and willing to go beyond the tourist clichés to expect global standards.


   For all that, the city itself has not necessarily got its act together. Transport remains a problem. There is no Uber and you are dependant as normal taxis. But there are not enough taxies and every time there is talk of giving out more taxi licenses, the city’s taxi union calls a strike. Nor are there many cruising cabs. You have to phone for one or use an app. Many times, they tell you no taxies are available or cancel on you. It is not uncommon to wait 20 minutes or more to get an overpriced taxi. And locals say that in common with many other Italian cities, Florence’s civic services are not top class.


   In many ways it is the usual contrast between the old and the new. As much as I love Italy which I visit around twice a year, it is hard to reconcile the glory of ancient Rome or even Medici-era Florence with today’s Italy, with its lazy bureaucrats and venal politicians. And the parallels with India continue: first rate private sector Vs third rate government sector.


    But it hardly matters. I spent most of my time at Florence’s great museums and galleries – the Uffizi, the Palazzo Pitti etc. — and there was so much beauty on display that it was easy to be transported back to an earlier, more magical era when the Renaissance was just beginning and Florence was the artistic capital of the world.



Posted On: 13 Oct 2023 11:58 AM
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