I first went to Florence with my mother when I was 18. I was in the middle of a full-on love affair with Renaissance art, and spent my days pounding the corridors of the Uffizi in search of Botticellis and Titians, seeking out obscure churches harbouring triptychs by Giotto and Mantegna, and scaling seemingly endless winding stone staircases in an attempt to fully understand the genius of Brunelleschi.
My mother and I stayed in a crumbling palazzo on the outskirts of the city; behind the flaking wallpaper and fraying curtains lurked a glorious and no doubt decadent past. When I returned to Florence this time, I found myself in the throes of a very different love affair. The lure of da Vinci and Co suddenly didn’t seem quite so compelling. And the hotel the Continentale, the creation of Salvatore Ferragamo, while a far cry from my decaying palazzo, looked the perfect luxury hotel for a weekend of dedicated romance.
With its sleek minimalist design, the Continentale is the very antithesis of the classic Florentine Room With a View-style pensiones, and it’s a huge hit with those searching for a contemporary vibe. And then there’s its location; it couldn’t be more central. It almost sits right on the famous Ponte Vecchio, and is within a few minutes walk from, well, everywhere. You’d never guess that just steps from Florence’s iconic bridge, lined with goldsmiths and stallholders selling all manner of ‘ode to the Renaissance’ paraphernalia, lies this monochromatic retreat. Sleek receptionists clad in black suits welcomed us into the cool white interior, where black and white fashion photographs line the walls. Classic European films run on a loop on a giant plasma screen in the foyer; or the hotel webcam delivers views of the human traffic on the bridge, bringing the outside in very cleverly.
From the moment we arrived, our every need was looked after by the Continentale’s staff: from the charming bellboy who whisked us up in a vast glass lift complete with leather sofa, to the patient receptionist who spent hours tracking down my passport (which, to my embarrassment, I’d left in the lounge at Gatwick), smiling genuinely throughout.
The standard bedrooms are small but cleverly laid out. Our first thought was that the minimalist decor owed more to Habitat than John Pawson or even Conran, but such notions were quickly pushed to one side as the white cotton drapes around the bed fluttered seductively in the breeze. The bathroom boasted a spectacularly powerful shower, and the huge bottles of luxurious body products were a serious treat. But battling it out for Best Thing About The Room award, along with the fantastic bed, was the incredible view over the river: you can almost lean out and dip your little finger into the Arno. We sat for ages watching the early morning skullers meander down the river, bathed in Tuscany’s unique soft golden light. Florence’s beauty hasn’t changed much since I was here as a girl, but I have. And somehow the Renaissance cityscape looked more beautiful than ever.
Breakfast is the only meal the hotel serves, and we opted for room service every time. When we did venture out of our modernist boudoir to explore the hotel’s artfully designed communal areas, we discovered the relaxation room, with comfy day beds and stacks of magazines, and amazing views over the bridge. As a contrast to Florence’s ‘it’s like the 19th century never happened’ vibe, the aesthetic is really very refreshing. All that you could possibly desire lies minutes away, be it dusty old antique shops or chic boutiques, not to mention all that great art – though the studious 18-year-old in me was nowhere to be seen.
Taking a respite from wandering Florence’s answer to Bond Street – the superbly-heeled Via Tornabuoni, where Prada and Gucci have settled in next to Florence-based Salvatore Ferragamo – we settled on nearby Il Latini for lunch. Packed full of locals, with a commanding and eccentric maître d’ who prefers to order for you and frowns if you don’t get stuck in to one of the hefty bottles of house red provided on all the tables, this is the classic Italian restaurant at its best.
Having drunk, laughed and sung (it was the man on the next-door table’s birthday) far more than expected, we set off for the Santa Maria Novella apothecary, where we stared in wonder at the towering glass cabinets packed with giant bottles and jars, before stocking up on herbal potions and lotions made from recipes devised by 15th-century Franciscan monks. As editor of a fashion magazine, I am spoilt with beauty products at the best of times, but the old-school scents here – rose, iris, nothing faddy – are seriously sexy.
Unguents accomplished,we headed in the opposite direction of the crowds, who were now teeming menacingly around the Duomo and Uffizi, for the Boboli Gardens, behind the Pitti Palace, where we strolled and sat talking like teenagers for hours in the sunshine. It was only, however, when we climbed the steps up to the nearby Piazzale Michelangelo, which offers beautiful views over the Florence skyline (nearly as spectacular as those from Continentale’s roof terrace) that my last vestiges of guilt about having not set foot in even one museum finally disappeared.
As the setting sun enveloped the cathedral’s famous dome in an Ready Brek glow, I finally grasped the real genius of Brunelleschi. More importantly, I realised that our weekend at the Continentale hadn’t only meant falling in love in Florence – but also falling in love with Florence.