Nearly 20 years ago, I danced alongside Princess Margaret to ‘Le Freak’ at the Savoy Hotel in London. Sadly, we weren’t about to bump into HRH at the Hotel Savoy in Florence, but I’m pretty sure she would have approved of this Italian hotel’s perfect manners and 'stand straight at Tiffany' elegant chic.
Hotel Savoy is a regal presence on Piazza della Repubblica, right in the historic centre of Florence. The magnificent 15th-century terracotta-roofed, intricately patterned Duomo is around the corner, as is a dazzling array of the major fashion houses, treasure-filled museums and world-famous galleries. The fleet of limousines at the pavement’s edge and the top-hatted doorman tell you all you need to know. This is, without doubt, the real thing.
Of course, that often has its downside. The ‘real thing’ can be aloof, superior and sometimes downright snobbish. But not at this boutique hotel. The smiles were genuine and the welcome warm and friendly. The doorman positively beamed his ‘Buongiorno Signore’ as, with a slight bow, he swung open the enormous front door.
We were checked in with crisp, Swiss efficiency and then the charming receptionist insisted on showing us to our room personally. It was obvious that she loved working there and that she wanted us to love it too – just the ticket at a Smith hotel. First impressions? Gosford Park with high heels and an engaging heart.
On the way, we were given a tour of us public areas, decorated in a gorgeous array of off-white and beige that would give the Farrow & Ball colour chart a run for its money. Sleek contemporary furniture and thoughtful modern art complete the sophisticated, grown-up interior, and completed the ideal city-break setting for this pair escaping gorgeous, but predictable, rural Tuscany.
There’s no point being in this former ‘Kingdom of Italy’ without being able to ogle its architectural splendours and we were happy to discover that our stylish bedroom overlooked the piazza itself. Again, this hip hotel proved itself to be beautifully designed with modern, mahogany furniture, discreet lighting and swathes of neutral fabrics and linens, with splashes of mint green upholstery. In recognition of the fashionista spirit of Florence, the hotel’s artworks are themed around shoes and hats. Ours had images of high heels fashioned from chicken wire, as well as a white plaster sculpture of a trilby in the style of über-milliner and fellow Smith reviewer, Philip Treacey.
We’d planned a rather special dinner this evening at the hotel’s L’Incontro Bar and Restaurant – so we agreed that a pre-prandial pampering was essential. I spent the first hour in the overwhelmingly marble bathroom in a bath of the same glorious 'dribbled' olive oil and honey coloured stone. Extra eye candy came in the form of a large Etruscan-style mosaic and a fine collection of Rocco Forte toiletries, as well as a separate marble shower for my other half. Two ablutions for the time of one and no hanging about forming creases on the bed linen.
The bar at L’Incontro spills out onto the Piazza. Its decor is a delicious confection of chocolate brown leather and crisp mint green. Unlike most Italian restaurants, where the lighting is so bright that ladies are advised to put their make-up on in the full glare of the headlights of the Range Rover, L’Incontro also has superbly discreet lighting. If only everywhere was so thoughtful; imagine the savings on the botox.
The menu meanwhile, is traditional Florentine with a modern flourish and a few contemporary surprises. (In case you’re wondering, I jumped at the chance to devour a green apple and green curry risotto with shrimp. This was followed by a Bistecca di Maiale, which was the most succulent, juicy piece of pork that I’ve ever eaten. My other half plumped for Tagliatelle with tiny meatballs and fungi porcini, followed by Coniglio – roast leg of rabbit – both delicious.) The flavours were fantastic and the service even better. OK, it was a Tuesday in autumn and the restaurant was by no means packed, but we had three waiters dancing attendance on us. All very young, very enthusiastic and very professional. Candles were relit as if by magic, the wine and water poured consistently, and plates cleared within seconds of the last mouthful.
The next morning I woke at dawn and opened the window so that we could hear the bells of the Duomo calling people to first Mass. They started slowly and quietly, building to a breathtaking crescendo that shook the earth. It was as if we were in the campanile next to the bells themselves. Trust me, whatever the weather, the earth will move. The surprise certainly got us out of bed and into our schedule for the day – shopping.
After a morning of browsing the boutiques along Via Tornabuoni, with Gucci, Prada and Hermes fighting for attention along the way, we snuck off to our favourite hole in the wall for lunch. And when I say ‘hole in the wall’, that’s exactly what I mean. I fratellini at Via dei Cimatori 38, off the shopping street of Via dei Calzaiuoli, is an antico vinaio, or traditional wine bar, dating from 1875.
The two brothers stand squeezed together in the tiny space behind their counter. Centimetres behind them is an amazing array of Tuscan wine and to their right piles of homemade bread rolls filled with wonderful local meats. You stand on the pavement, dazzling Chianti in one hand and mouth-watering snack in the other. We loved it. And judging by the Prada and Cavalli-drenched clientele, designer shopping bag buttresses at their feet, so do the locals.
You may know what’s coming, but believe me when I say it. Hotel Savoy really is fit for a princess. It’s the essential, ideal place for a grown-up getaway for anyone who wants an escape packed with first-class shopping and unrivalled culture. Or if that sounds too demanding, just relax in the cool, contemporary surroundings and take advantage of that, so rarely found, yet 'old-fashioned' service. Even if Buckingham Palace were a boutique hotel I’d still find it hard to imagine it could rival this Fiorentino retreat.