Florence can coax amazement out of the most jaded traveller. Snooty voyagers who’ve been known to snigger at the more naïve tourist’s awed remark about how old everything is will find this is one place where they can’t help but share those sentiments.
We are delighted to discover that our very stylish boutique hotel, which comes courtesy of the Ferragamo family, is seconds from the 14th-century Ponte Vecchio. It’s the stuff fairytales are made of: tiny jewellery shops line the narrow cobblestoned bridge. As do tourists. Happily, in a city teeming with sightseers, the Gallery Hotel Art is all calm. On arrival, we wonder if word has sneaked out we’re here to review – our room has been upgraded, and staff are super-friendly. Then we realise that everyone gets VIP treatment.
Modern lines and a minimalist-inclined decor contrast with the flagstone streets and centuries-old architecture outside. The overriding impression of the Gallery Hotel Art is one of impeccable quality; furniture and fittings are all stylish but solid, eschewing gimmicks or novelties. It’s through a heavy door that we enter our room. Cream, silver and dark wood – the perfumer Jo Malone would approve of the colour palette. The feel is contemporary but classical, and doesn’t sacrifice comfort for whimsical design. As tempting as it is to stall here and savour our surrounds (and the petits fours left on the dresser), the sound of live jazz lures us down to dinner.
The only outdoor space at Gallery Art is a delightful little terrace by the bar and restaurant. If you don’t manage to grab an alfresco spot, inside is also appealing, whether you sit at the bar, on a sofa in the corner or at a table for two next to the wall. Peopled by young and old, dressed-up and low-key, its biggest surprise isn’t the clientele or the decor, but the Italian, French and Japanese fusion cuisine – best illustrated by the test tubes of flavoured oils and soy sauce on each table. The staff are proud of the unique menu; Italians have been slow to embrace tastes even beyond the regional, each truly believing their own local cooking to be the best in the world. Mr Smith congratulates the waiter on his recommended red’s harmony with the tender fillet; such is the Italian love of food, our sommelier says, in earnest: ‘This is a beautiful moment for you.’
Though the cocktail selection in the hotel is exceptional, too, after dinner we’re in the mood for a wander, and plump for a nightcap along the river at Capocaccia. We snuggle on a rattan sofa on the pavement, in prime position for seeing rather than being seen; there’s a lot of coloured denim on the prowl, worn impressively tight. We’re not in a country of big drinkers, and after two mojitos (speciality of the house) we feel ready to head home.
The value of a room where you can have such a wonderful night’s sleep should not be underestimated. The windows keep out every peep of light, blinds stop the Tuscan sun from rousing you prematurely, and you can programme your desired room temperature. Breakfast is just how it should be: a spread of fantastic pastries, hams, cheeses – we could happily stay a few hours, grazing, especially as there is no clue that an outside world exists. Japanese blinds block out any views of the tiny alleys, cocooning you away in the library-style lounge and dining area.
The queues for all the major sights are so enormous on this scorching day that we can’t face broiling in a line only to be jostled along with a herd, however world-famous the art. You’re guaranteed a fix of one masterpiece at least – a copy of Michelangelo’s David is considerately placed outdoors for all to see at their leisure – so after a look at him we escape the crowd and head, predictably, to Boboli Gardens, south of the river, past Palazzo Pitti. It’s deceptively enormous, and we get lost in lush green foliage.
We’re grateful for the workout we get from its steep inclines, in anticipation of the mountains of pasta we plan to consume at lunch. Our destination for doing just that is at the other end of town, but Florence doesn’t take long to traverse. It also gives us the opportunity to get some first-class window-shopping done en route. Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, Hermès line our path, and then appear again on the next street. Markets overflow with handbags, belts and jewellery. If you’re someone who shares the sartorial sensibilities of Donatella Versace, you’re especially in luck; glittering animal prints and tassels abound.
It may only be a step up from kiss-me-quick hats in the tourist stakes (and a heck of a lot less sympathetic to your wallet), but we get a memorable tour from the Duomo, round to Santa Croce, past the Uffizi and the Palazzo Vecchio. Despite the fact that the sun is nowhere near the yard arm yet, and our lunch is barely digested, Florence is home to such quality comestibles that we can’t help thinking about our next meal. We pause for thought, and a glass of Chianti. Italians won’t neglect any opportunity to feed or be fed; so antipasto is on offer where you’d be lucky to get a bowl of peanuts back home.
After peeking at a few attempts at contemporary cool, we settle on family-run trattoria Buca Mario, where there are plenty of locals, affording us the best of both worlds: food that tastes home-made, and waiters well-practiced in playing both server and entertainer to English speakers. We end our night with an animated ‘chat’ with the matriarch of the trattoria; the fact that she speaks as little English as we do Italian doesn’t impede our merry conversation over a limoncello. It’s the fitting finale to a whirlwind stay at Gallery Hotel Art, into which we’ve still squeezed all we craved. Rather like the power generation of drinks and medicines that fuels us these days, it’s been Holiday Max Strength. And, boy, do we feel good.