JK Place Firenze
Unlike most people, I am usually filled with a sense of dread by the thought of a few days in Italy. Not because I have anything against its people or their magnificent country, but because in my profession a three-day trip to Italy usually equates to a huge amount of hard work in a less-than-glamorous factory on the outskirts of Milan. Touching down in Pisa with nothing more than a romantic weekend on the agenda is a delightful novelty.
It’s a warm and clear afternoon when my husband and I pull into Piazza Santa Maria Novella, one of Florence’s many beautiful and bustling squares. Situated close to the train terminus, it’s famed for its impressive Basilica and world-famous perfumery (a favourite place of mine, with ancient frescoes and implements, though it is the scents lingering in the air that make the strongest impression at Via della Spada). It’s also, we discover, the perfect Florentine bolthole. Tucked away on the corner of the piazza, between ordinary hotels and an Irish bar sits JK Place. It is unassuming and discreet – only a modest plaque indicates we are in the right spot and not at a private home.
This 20-bedroom boutique hotel exudes style, privacy and sophistication; it’s a place where everything is whispered rather than shouted. On ringing the bell, we’re met within seconds by an immaculately turnedout member of staff who offers a welcome you would expect from a friend you haven’t seen for years. As the heavy doors close, screaming Vespas and constantly blaring car horns are locked out and a sense of calm descends. Surrounded by framed life drawings, sculptures, Fellini-esque images and books ranging from Helmut Newton to Umberto Eco, we are in no doubt that we’re in one of the world’s most beautiful and culturally stimulating cities.
The sense that you are staying not in a hotel but a private residence is most apparent at check-in, or rather lack of it. Our friends at JK Place have done away with the conventional bowl-of-boiled-sweets-style reception desk and have plumped for a more personal approach. We’re handed our key in a small library, finished in dark wood, with mirrored doors that cleverly disguise the elevator. A refreshing glass of iced tea and a nibble on the torte of the day (served every afternoon in the courtyard), and we are shown to our room.
Having witnessed a very successful blend of modern and traditional downstairs, I’m glad to say our room doesn’t disappoint. High-painted ceilings, panelled walls, a Louis XV fireplace and extremely well-edited modern pieces sit comfortably alongside every audio-visual requirement. While not enormous, the room is sufficiently spacious to accommodate a large sofa, two winged chairs, a writing desk, side table and a super-comfy modern four-poster bed.
As someone who loves her fabric and is a sucker for detail, I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the perfectly pressed heavy damask curtains that are pleated into a fanshaped ‘puddle’ on the floor. While wanting to avoid any clichéd reference to EM Forster’s tale of romance, I’m finding it virtually impossible, confronted with three floor-to-ceiling windows, opening onto a small balcony in front of the Basilica. Our romantic weekend is afforded the full Merchant Ivory stage setting, and we have, without question, a room with a view.
Despite having polished off a generous piece of chocolate and Amaretto biscuit torte, my husband enquires about dinner. We feel in the mood to go rustico – or should I say, I am desperate for a real Italian pizza. L’Antica Porta is deemed by those in the know as the best place for it, so we take a cab off the tourist trail to an eatery full of locals. Having said ‘ciao’ to my health drive, so far, I suggest a romantic stroll back across the Ponte Vecchio to work off a few of the calories.
The following morning my Mr Smith heads downstairs to take breakfast in the covered courtyard. There is only one large table, encouraging guests to chat over coffee and the papers. (Though they can’t immediately oblige when The Times is requested, someone pops out to the local newsstand, quickly remedying the situation). I ask for some fresh fruit and a soya-based smoothie – a tall order in most hotels. But in true JK style they duly deliver one banana smoothie with soya milk – big brownie points from this vegetarian.
Our Saturday lunch venue turns out to be another success. Cantinetta Antinori is owned by the famous family of Tuscan wine-producers of the same name and is only three minutes from JK. In a relaxed, buzzy atmosphere we enjoy pasta with zucchini flowers in a light saffron sauce, which my husband deems one of the best he’s ever had – and he knows his pasta). This was accompanied by a robust red from the family vineyard, which goes down all too easily. We feel content in the resignation we have left ourselves with little option other than to return to Room One, take out a DVD from the library and spend the remaining part of the afternoon enjoying the company of our new-found friend: the four-poster.
All too quickly the morning of our departure comes around. We’re lying in our canopied crib, savouring the sun breaking through the curtains and the sound of the bells of Santa Maria Novella ringing out (the perfect backdrop to our final hours in Florence), when we realise we still have no idea who our host for the weekend has been. Having spent the last two days enjoying JK’s hospitality, it seems strange, somehow, that we haven’t enquired. We eventually agree that it doesn’t matter; whoever he or she is, we feel like we’ve known them for years.
Discreet as an opium den, the entrance to JK Place Firenze is on a low-key corner of Piazza Santa Maria Novella. And here we are, after a small hop from Paris, pressing a magic button to enter a secretly sumptuous 20-room bolthole. Once inside, this musk-infused former mansion doesn’t even seem like a hotel – it’s for this kind of hideaway that such clichés as ‘island of tranquillity’ and ‘haven of peace’ were invented. African headdresses surmount a sombre and imposing Charles X fireplace, and 1960s paintings share space with 18th-century sculptures and art deco furniture… Everything here is cream, grey or black; marble, wood and geometric – clashing eras all edited together beautifully. I sense Mrs Smith’s pupils dilating.
Etchings, drawings and a Regency-era fireplace furnish JK Place’s take on a reception, a snug space in the property’s former library. Staff are elegant, friendly, well-groomed and as gracious as can be – and this coming from someone who knows what it takes to be a world-class concierge. Next to us, there’s a tiny little glass-roofed former courtyard, where we’ll eat breakfast communally at an impressive walnut table from the 1800s. Just beyond is a lounge where we plan to relax with a glass of chilled prosecco – on offer gratis at cocktail hour – under the cool glow of a huge Bang & Olufsen TV. It’s funny how, in Italy, it’s ubiquitous in bars to have a giant screen playing glossy fashion and music shows on a loop – even when you’re already somewhere so glamorous.
Our high-ceilinged room is a junior suite, and it riffs on the same chic monochrome theme. Cream and black architectural drawings line the walls, stacks of his and hers fashion magazines sit bedside a hi-tech telephone, and there are even two marble bathrooms treating us to a separate shower and bath. As if that doesn’t underline luxe living strongly enough, there’s thick grey carpet all around, fresh white roses, and an inviting plate of fresh fruit with cold Acqua Panna and Pellegrino at our disposal. We are entirely enamoured. We want to live here. Forever.
After a quick glass of the delicious Tuscan white Vernaccia di San Gimignano in the lounge, we head out to explore this city, the crucible of the Renaissance. In 10 minutes flat, we’re at the La Bottega grocery store
at the corner of Via dei Neri. I confess we’ve sidestepped the many cultural offerings of this diminutive but distinguished city – the way to this pair’s hearts is through our stomaci. Soon we’re laden with charcuterie, pecorino, and a cheap bottle of Lambrusco opened for us on the premises. We set out across the river for a wander along vertiginous and winding streets, to find an ideal evening picnic spot.
Up the road past Galileo’s house, we end up at the Forte di Belvedere. The riverside grounds of this fortification in the Oltrarno district have wonderful views over the city. Eating, drinking and merriment ensues, interrupted only by a peculiar puss intent on sampling our ham and the occasional Asian and Russian tourist asking directions. As our bottle of wine is down to the dregs, we start to saunter back downhill and are caught off-guard by a downpour. Darting in and out of 16th-century porticoes – the vestiges of former noble residences – we end up at the artisan-packed mediaeval Ponte Vecchio and stroll over one of Italy’s most celebrated landmarks.
Rainclouds disperse, and we head back to JK Place, where a kindly night watchman sneaks us a bottle of ‘clandi’ prosecco and shows us the way to the hotel’s rooftop terrace. Empty, and cushion-festooned, it’s a heavensent spot for a pair of romancing weekend-awayers like us two.
A word on the concierge credentials of JK Place: being one myself lends a different perspective when visiting other establishments – and to encounter such intuitive service is a delight. Coming back weary from a day’s walking, eating and drinking, unable to think for ourselves, being steered up here with a bottle on ice and glasses and given a view of the nearby Duomo lit up in all its magnificence has created an unexpectedly memorable end to our evening. The bubbly goes down well under the bright Florentine moonlight, and Marvin Gaye on my iPhone completes a night that has been filled with an antipasti picnic, mirth, and a little too much of the local vino.
Day two of our all-too-short weekend treats us to a more formal feast, care of the closest Michelin stars. La Tenda Rossa is a half-hour taxi ride away in the village of Cerbaia. Mrs Smith suggests this family-run affair was last decorated when nouvelle cuisine was at the height of fashion. (I ponder whether the menu is also somewhat trapped in the same timewarp, but we both agree the food shines thanks to the use of superb produce.) After a tasting of locally produced olive oil, we dine on langoustine ravioli with white beans and orange marmalade, a light and delicious version of fritto misto, all the while quaffing a splendiferous local chardonnay named Batàr. How does the rest of our evening play out? Ahem. It in fact continues well into the next morning, care of pints in the neighbouring Irish Pub – well, it is St Patrick’s Day…
Finally we retire to our room for more music and wine. Cosseted in this corner of paradise, we realise what makes this hip hotel so special. A place that can make you feel so at home, seemingly without too much effort, yet enveloping you in chic luxury, must surely be prized. We salute you, JK.
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Smith extra at JK Place Firenze
A bottle of spumante and a surprise gift from JK Place.