For me to get away properly I need to change climate, language, culture, my domestic setting (of course) and most vitally I need to change centuries! The centre to the city of Florence and the banks of the river Arno are mercifully free from any modern architecture. It is not a living museum. The city still breathes but her history is respected. Gloriously the silhouette of the Duomo is able to be offset by a complete backdrop of unimpeded skyline.
Anyone trying to understand the greatness of European culture over the last five hundred years has to grasp the Tuscan journey of human confidence. From the fertile plains of Pisa and Siena to Florence herself the monastic medieval origins fashioned a revival in pride for Rome’s former glory. Popes and powerful regional families, fortified by the fortunes of their banks, created an unparalleled patronage for artistic talent.
All books and brochures take you to the majority of the well-known sites and they have their rightful prominence. Both Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Spring in the Uffizi Gallery froze me in their hold. The Bargello, a former prison, houses the iconic sculpture of Donatello’s David, such an androgenous contrast to the resolute version by Michelangelo housed in the Accademia.
But it’s my own discoveries from numerous visits that I cherish most. I love the pure and harmonious proportions of The Pazzi Chapel. Based on a simple geometric plan of the square and circle, this extraordinary early Renaissance masterpiece was built as the chapter house and was used by monks for teaching and other religious purposes.
Equally absorbing are the many restful church cloisters (my favourite being the one beside the Basilica di San Lorenzo) and the elegant promise of the countryside seen from different heights and angles as a result of the sloping enclosure of the Boboli Gardens. Up in the hills I recommend Bellosguardo, a small collection of houses, in the south of the city. I have often stayed there and walked down through orchards and cypresses to the Porto Romano city gate. It’s where Galileo contemplated the stars and it’s where to get a fabulous view of the entire city and beyond. Likewise on the surrounds of the city and well worth visiting is Fiesole, a village fifteen minutes north. It is home to the famous San Michele hotel, a converted 15th-century convent, with stunning landscaped gardens.
I always find myself in Florence with an inevitable visual overload; my eyes ever sharpened. To counteract this I went to listen to a rendition of romantic duets at Saint Mark’s Anglican church and it was full of reassuring brio and familiar operatic cries of ‘bravos’. Similar to the St. George’s church on the Dorsoduro in Venice, it serves the English community and is tucked away off the street (at Via Maggio, 16). Likewise the morning mass in the Duomo echoed with its Gregorian chants to sublime effect within Brunelleschi’s dome towering 375 feet above. It remains the largest brick dome ever constructed. This magnificent cathedral still dominates, like the Eiffel Tower, the landscape of Florence. It’s an architectural marvel with the construction begun in 1296 as a basilica, in the Gothic style. Offsetting it is Giotto’s bell tower (campanile) with the 414 steps, which I have climbed in my younger days, and the octagonal Baptistery which has a mosaic-covered interior and, on the eastern exterior, doors with stunning biblical images sculpted in gold by Ghiberti.
I discovered two restaurants. Guelfi and Ghibellini (Via Ghibellina 87) is without question an extremely grand and luxuriant series of rooms offering literally ‘music from a farther room’: that wonderful line from TS Eliot. It was converted from a property of a noble family that in the late 17th century housed the treasurer to the resident pope. Discretely set upstairs it creates a real sense of privacy with lots of space between diners and low lighting. The menu boasts amongst its traditional options of Tuscan pasta dishes (and a delicious tiramisu) the refined Laudemio olive oil only available from select local farms. This is clearly very high-end and perhaps is best reserved for a very special occasion!
Meanwhile Caffe dell’Oro (Lungarno degli Acciaioli 2) with its Euro Pop music was keen to attract a younger crowd. The setting is excellent: right on the riverbank and overlooking literally at a distance of a few yards the Ponte Vecchio. This famous bridge once housed merchants and provided an escape route for the Medici family via a lengthy gallery along the Uffici art gallery. It used in the sixties to allow cars to cross it; indeed I remember those old colorized postcards depicting an Alfa Romeo parked beside the its centre. The décor is clean and tastefully contemporary. For the menu I loved the fish egg Bottarga, one of its signature dishes.
Which other hotel can you name that has its own museum and the remains of a Roman bath? The Hotel Brunelleschi is tucked away from the heat and noise of the high-end neighbouring couture shops. It has a modern neutral décor enveloping the oldest structure in the city, a brick tower that was once a women’s prison. Of their two restaurants I tried their informal one for a delicious lunch. The perfect break from arduous museum visiting. My room was very spoiling with three window views of the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio.
This palazzo is the power house of the Medici family, the city hall, where so much was debated and which is now a museum consisting of beautifully decorated private rooms, complete with the ‘grotesque’ style of ornamentation where each ceiling section has a different theme and unique colour scheme, as well figural elements that range from the charming to the bizarre.
I ended up by starting my trip in Pisa, as there’s a common problem for airplanes landing in Florence. It’s something to do with narrow runways and the wind. Beware! The airplane was literally grounding when it lifted back up into the sky and took us away to land instead an hour away in Pisa.
There the leaning tower truly defies science so I preferred to photograph it from a distance! The baptistery has a bare interior in stark contrast to the one in Florence. The lawns of the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) that surround the Duomo give a wonderful frame to the honest and devout architecture. But even before I eventually did get to Florence all was forgiven. I had shot back in time. By several centuries!
Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher for the first BBC television series QI, hosted by Stephen Fry. He wrote The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books.
Classic Collection Holidays (0800 294 9318; classic-collection.co.uk) offers 3 nights at Hotel Brunelleschi, Florence from £890 per person in May. Price based on 2 adults sharing a classic executive double room on a bed & breakfast basis, and includes return flights from London City (other UK departure airports available) to Florence and private transfers.