TIME spent in the museums and art galleries of Florence is an enthralling experience. From the glories of the Uffizi Gallery to the magnificence of Michelangelo’s David, to the ancient artworks decorating street corners and lurking in tiny unvisited churches, the city offers hours of sublime pleasure. Florence, though, is small city with very big numbers of visitors and escaping the crowds by withdrawing to restful accommodation and worthwhile restaurants is fairly essential for a successful few days spent gazing at the paintings of Botticelli, Fra Angelico and many others.
Right in the heart of the city, with sweeping views over the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio, is the Hotel Lungarno with its classically styled rooms, fine art collection and Michelin-starred restaurant. The luxurious buffet breakfast and river views – the hotel is at one end of the Ponte Vecchio – suggest a slow start to your day. Across the bridge, its sister establishment, the Hotel Continentale, is in a different style altogether: simple clean lines, blonde wood and a modern take on the Fifties look. On its roof is the chic terrace bar La Terrazza, perfect for an early evening cocktail or two, while the spa offers a great wind-down when tired feet cry out for relief.
If your preference is for people watching a perfect place to stay is JK Place Firenze. A small boutique hotel with individually designed rooms, lots of amenities including a free minibar, snacks laid out for customers all day, gorgeous bathrooms and an elegant slew of sitting areas. On a sunny day – and expect most days to be sunny in Florence in the summer — rest and recuperation is available out on the hotel’s terrace in Piazza de Santa Maria Novella. Here you can shelter from the sun and watch the weaving crocodile-lines of tourists dutifully following their tour leaders or the impromptu street performances in the square. Art continues to beckon with the Santa Maria Novella church on the other side of the public space while a bar on the roof offers a comfortable position for admiring the skyline of the ancient city.
But where to eat? If it’s an inexpensive, cheery evening meal you want Il Santo Bevitore fits the bill. Cantina-like, with bare wooden tables laid out in rows and a queue at the door at opening time, the food is tasty and the choice of wines could detain you here longer than planned.
At the other extreme is the Michelin-starred Il Palagio located at the discreetly located Four Seasons Hotel away from the hustle and bustle but within walking distance of the city centre. Set in a palazzo dating back to the 16th century, the grand dining room is filled with original artworks and lavishly furnished in a classical style. Grand it may be but there is a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere and in summer the terrace offers alfresco dining looking out over more than ten acres of greenery. The vast garden is worth a visit in its own right, if only for the eye-catching artworks which punctuate the tree-lined lawns; it is difficult to miss the pieces by Dario Tironi using common items we throw away, from remote control devices to sections of car bodies.
Back in the centre of town two places for lunch stand out. First is Se-sto on Arno on the sixth floor of a hotel with panoramic views over the river and the ancient city. For a long, sunny lunch the menu offers an unusual mixture of French, Italian and Asian cuisine while later in the day it’s a lovely spot for cocktails while watching the honey colours of a Florence day morph into the fairy lights of evening.
Irene is a restaurant gracing the Piazza della Republica and you can sit out on its terrace and admire the statuary and a retro merry-go-round in the busy square. Based on traditional Tuscan ‘poor food’, the menu makes inventive use of such local dishes as panzanella, yesterday’s bread mixed with lots of herbs and oil and local tomatoes. Gorgeous inventive starters such as octopus, endives, chicory and beetroot follow tasty salads to amuse the palate while watching the crowds.
The pleasure of being in Florence can turn to exhaustion if you remain there too long in the summer heat but redemption comes with a short train journey and a taxi pick-up to the Tuscan countryside. Exit Botticelli and enter Adler Thermae, nestling in the Tuscan hills in the ancient village of Bagno Vignoni. Built around naturally occurring hot springs and surrounded by rolling hillsides, lines of cypress trees and beautifully manicured gardens, Adler Thermae can easily fill your time. Early in the morning or late at night soak yourself in the pool’s sulphuric water while throughout the day there are many organized activities to enjoy – yoga, pilates, walking, cycling, wine tasting – and a range of therapeutic and/or beautifying spa treatments.
Stays at Adler Thermae include afternoon tea and dinner in an enormous dining room the roof of which rolls back in summer to make a grand outdoor courtyard. The pretty village of Bagno Vignoni and its Roman-era thermal basin is a five-minute stroll away and for a longer walk the signposted trail to the small town of San Querico, with a walled garden and trattorias without websites , makes for an engaging afternoon’s exercise. The hillside medieval walled town of Montalcino is an easy excursion for a day out but a good reason for coming here, the famed Brunello wine, can also be lazily appreciated by the pool or at dinner in Adler Thermae.
by Sean Sheehan