DISCLAIMER: I LOVE FLORENCE so I couldn't stop writing!
There are a few reasons why Firenze (Florence) was my favourite city in all of Europe after we last visited Italy during our honeymoon in 2014... The beautiful old city has amazing history hidden on every corner just like Rome and it is filled with palaces, museums and artwork, though unlike Rome, it is spotless, safe to walk and explore at night and you don't need a car to see it all! It also has amazing shopping of the very best luxury fashion labels in the city boutiques and around the outskirts which is a big tick in my book. Further, I have never once eaten a bad meal in the city or in all of Tuscany for that matter!
Above all though, my fondest memories of this city are due mainly to the people; and this trip would just reinforce all of that again for me. When we last visited it was very cold (around Christmas time) but I just instantly felt the warmth of everyone in the city. They all seemed so happy in Florence; the businessmen sit to enjoy a relaxing coffee, nobody beeps on the roads, the doormen always say hello with an infectious smile and the students look like they are just loving life. It doesn't have that hustle and bustle of a major Italian city (despite the fact that for 5 years it was actually the capital of Italy!). We even met an old man at the Christmas markets who was so endearing he invited us to have dinner at his house with his wife and daughter!
This time around, we wanted to see a bit more of the scenery of Florence so we stayed at an amazing new hotel on the skirts of the city for the first two nights. Il Salviatino in Fiesole looked beautiful on the internet and in photos when we had booked it, and it went on to exceed even our highest expectations. Driving into the entrance gates of the manicured gardens and up the winding private road you instantly get a feel for the grandeur of one of Florence's newest luxury hotels. Inside the hand restored 15th century villa is simply stunning; we sipped on our welcome drinks as they showed us through the beautifully restored floor-to-ceiling mahogany library, formal dining area and wine cellar, a restaurant terrace overlooking the duomo and grand staircase and we hadn't even reached our room yet! Inside our suite which boasted 3m high ceilings, amazing views of the rolling Tuscan landscape and a huge king size bed there were a few more luxury surprises including a huge mirror that actually doubled as a TV and a romance shower which had a see-through window. We were keen to just spend our entire first day at the hotel tanning by the private pool and spa, relaxing with a book in the library, walking the gardens and even a little time in the gym.
Dinner at the hotel was just as beautiful... On the terrace we sat by candlelight with amazing views of the entire Florence cityscape, all low-set buildings with the exception of the glowing white dome of the Duomo. From the open-air outdoor kitchen the chefs made us an eggplant parmigiana done three ways (all modern and delicious) and a ricotta 'gnudi' naked ravioli which blew our socks off! We followed those entrees with one of the local favourites, a 'florentine steak' which is effectively a giant T-Bone, cooked perfectly and sliced at the table. We had begun a habit of ordering desserts to our room to enjoy them with a movie and tonight was no exception, sharing a very modern tiramisu with a surprisingly gooey centre!
Gianni was really excited for our tours the very next day which we had jam-packed. In the morning we took the hotel shuttle down to the city centre (a short 10 minute drive) and over to the offices of 'We Like Tuscany', the aptly named tour provider who would give Gianni the keys to a classic 1950's Fiat 'Cinquecento' which I really did not know much about at all. These tiny little cars were just cute things I spotted but never took much notice of before but they were the first mass-produced vehicles that were readily-available to Italians and they have quite the cult following. I could instantly see why as soon as I hopped inside and Gianni fired up the little 500cc motor and pulled back the sunroof! Our tour would last for 4 hours and took us through some of the city streets of Florence, past the Ponte Vecchio bridge and out to the mountains of Fiesole to get a real feel for Tuscany. It also included stops at some castles, churches, and landmarks and some vineyards for a talk about the wine and olive oil production! After a traditional lunch with the tour group and a few wines (not too many, we are driving!) we followed the guide car back down to the city centre where we were the obvious envy of every single tourist that we whizzed past. It was a half-day tour that made me feel like we had retired early and moved to Tuscany in the 1980's - not a care in the world!
Upon our return though, we had no time to relax (that was yesterday) as we had booked in with City Wonders for a private guided walking tour of Florence. We met up with our tour guide, the amazing Angelo, at the Academia gallery. He was not from Florence, born in Pompeii actually, but he had a big smile and such a huge passion for art, architecture and archeology that he really should have been born in Florence! We told him from the outset that we had wondered the streets a few years ago, seeing most of the main landmarks and museums. He was genuinely happy then that he didn't have to give us the 'scratch-the-surface' tour and so he took us straight to the gallery to see Michelangelo's Statue of David. We bypassed all of the lines (perks of the tour) and popped straight into the main hall where the enormity of the statue hit us immediately. Now I must say, I am by no means an art connoisseur, I mean I love it and can appreciate it but beyond taking photos of it like most tourists and moving on I never really looked much farther. I guarantee you though, spend 20 minutes with Angelo and ask him about art and your opinion will change forever. In fact we spent about 60 minutes just sitting in the Academia gallery admiring the statue of David alone from different angles, not just physically but historically and spiritually, glued to every word he said because his passion was contagious! After that we exited the museum with an entirely new view of the importance of artwork in Florence and during the Renaissance and I found myself looking at everything in a different light. We walked all around the city, past the Duomo, the main shopping strip, the Uffizi Gallery,Ponte Vecchio and the palaces and he even took us to a few hidden gems like the second floor of the food market. It was a tour of Florence that made us realise we really hadn't toured any of Florence before!
That night, working up a huge appetite we made our way back up to Fiesole, but went past our hotel up to the Belmond Villa San Michele for dinner. We had already had amazing dining experiences at the Belmond hotels in Portofino and Ravello and Gianni's parents promised the views up there were just as amazing. The same luxury and opulence that Belmond had made us accustomed to awaited us once again. A grand driveway with a few Ferrari's parked out front, the entire villa filled with original and restored frescoes that you admire as you walk through with the sounds of the pianist out to the terrace with the amazing panoramic views. Our stomachs took another welcomed beating; artisan homemade breads, handmade ravioli filled with eggplant in a creamy goats cheese sauce and a 'tagliata' sliced tender beef fillet with a wine reduction and local beans served in a Parmesan crust. We washed it all down with a signature 'Frozen' cocktails which were extravagant tropical daiquiris and followed it with a silky smooth chestnut soufflé and homemade gelato.
Rolling out of bed after a glorious sleep, we regretfully checked out of Il Salviatino; but this wasn't to be the end of our florentine adventure as we made our way into town for one more final day (and night) in the heart of Florence. Tonight we would stay at another beautiful and interesting boutique hotel called 'Antica Torre Via Tornabuoni'. It seems like a mouthful of a name at first, but it's quite easy, Antica Torre means the 'antique tower' and Via Tornabuoni is the street name so you will never forget your address! Not that it is hard to find; literally a stones throw from the Ponte Vecchio bridge, on the corner of the riverfront boardwalk, its positioning is perfect which is why Dior, Ferragamo and other luxury brands occupy the shops on the street front (it helps me sleep better when there is a big-brand name below me).
Plenty of tourists talk about the heading to the Westin Hotel for drinks at their rooftop bar with an amazing view; but there is no need for that when your own hotel has a breakfast buffet (perhaps huge banquet is a better description) on the rooftop of a 13th century tower! The tower has so much history itself but it has now become one of Florence's true hidden gems (even our local guide Angelo commended us on both our hotel choices!) and we will most certainly return to both again in the future. Our final day we spent getting lost in the streets of Florence, Gianni giving me a history lesson on every street in between each boutique we shopped in before our final trip to my equal most favourite food destination in Florence 'il Antico Vinaio'. This translates loosely to the Old Wine Shop and what started as a wine vender became a next level sandwich bar (and I mean a level which I am still yet to find anywhere else on earth). For a very relaxed, very tasty and very filling meal you can order a focaccia here from their suggested menu or build your own for just 5 euro. Yes the lines get long but everyone happily waits with a 2 euro 'self-service' glass of wine because they know it is well worth waiting for. These aren't normal sandwiches, they are for the kind of people who get excited walking into a deli. And so we sat in silence, at the foot of a Medici Palace, covered in crumbs as we scoffed our panini's with the sun setting over the beautiful buildings around us. This is why I love Florence!