Florence: A luxurious stay at Hotel Helvetia & Bristol in the birthplace of the Renaissance
I have only visited Italy twice previously, but it is one of my favourite European destinations. With fascinating culture, beautiful countryside, delicious food, fine wine and welcoming people, this country has so much to offer. Several years ago I spent a week in Rome and visited some of the most famous historical sites in the world. Meanwhile, last year I experienced the diversity of Italy by travelling to the far south and exploring Sicily (read the travel feature here). My latest visit incorporated another dimension of the country as I flew to Tuscany.
As I boarded the Gatwick Express First Class cabin at London Victoria I couldn’t help but feel excited about the prospect of spending time in one of Europe’s leading art destinations. Although there is an airport near Florence, this is typically for transatlantic journeys and only a limited number of direct flights are available. Therefore, it is common to fly to Pisa, which is only about an hour away from Florence.
As you start your descent towards Tuscany, you can see beautiful scenery. Blue sea and golden beaches are framed by a dramatic and mountainous background, with luscious golf courses and vineyards stretching inland. The heat is intense but not oppressive and I was welcomed by wall-to-wall sunshine.
With limited time available, I bypassed Pisa and went straight to Florence. In hindsight, I would recommend taking half a day to look around the city to admire the leaning tower, if nothing else. Although I missed out on seeing this landmark at ground level, I was able to catch a glimpse of it from the skies above.
My first impressions of Florence were that it’s a highly sophisticated and relatively peaceful city. Although the key sites such as the cathedral and Ponte Vecchio are brimming with tourists, many of the side streets seem deserted. This is largely due to the fact that Florence is quite condensed in terms of its layout and therefore the locals and tourists alike often stay close to the centre. The tall buildings and striking architecture protects you from the raw sunshine but is pleasing to the eye.
I stayed at the luxurious Hotel Helvetia & Bristol, which has the enviable reputation of being one of Florence’s most prestigious hotels. The building dates back to the 1800s and has become an important symbol of the history of Florence, offering extremely refined and elegant rooms. As soon as you make your way through the entrance, a traditional theme is clearly evident with wonderful pieces of art adorning the walls of the lobby. It is not just the décor that is impresses; the furniture also reflects a sense of Florentine aristocracy from one of the most elegant periods.
This theme runs throughout the hotel and the rooms contain a collection of antiques and paintings. The panoramic suites are superb; here, you can enjoy inspiring views while relaxing in opulent and spacious surroundings.
The location of the Hotel Helvetia & Bristol makes it an ideal place to stay for those on a city break. It comes as no surprise that the guest list has previously included members of the international elite, men such as Nobel Prize winners Pirandello, Enrico Fermi, Bertrand Russell and Mikhail Gorbachev.
After checking into the hotel I began to explore the delights of Florence. With little time to conduct any preliminary research, I was grateful to the concierge for helpfully recommending the best sites to visit in an afternoon.
First up was the cathedral. Known as Santa Maria del Fiore, it boasts the largest dome in the world that has ever been built in brick and mortar. It is hard to appreciate the magnitude of this tremendous building until you are actually standing beneath the Duomo. It dominates the skyline, along with the Palazzo Vecchio.
After visiting the cathedral I ventured through the side streets, which are teaming with leather goods and jewellery shops. With only a limited time to take in the main sites I was forced to bypass the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, or “Gallery of the Academy of Florence”, which is the home of Michelangelo’s sculpture David. Pre-booking is available and I recommend arranging this in advance as the long queue is positioned in direct sunshine.
The River Arno flows through the old city and is home to the famous Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). This is a very busy area but certainly worth seeing. There are a multitude of shops built upon its edges, held up by stilts. It is also the only bridge in the city to have survived World War II and the first example in the western world of a bridge built using segmental arches.
Alfresco dining is popular, with many authentic wine bars and restaurants evident. I chose to relax away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre by eating on the pavement terrace of the Hotel Helvetia & Bristol. The restaurant is known as Hostaria Bibendum and presents guests with genuine Tuscan food that is complemented by impeccable service.
As I relaxed in the warm evening temperatures and enjoyed a traditional Italian meal I began to wish that I was staying longer. There is so much to see in Florence, and although a brief tour of the city sufficed, it also acted as a rather enticing taster. I quickly realised that I had begun to fall in love with the charm and rich cultural offerings. The city known as the birthplace of the Renaissance certainly epitomises sophistication and is ideal for a romantic break or even just some ‘me’ time.
Watch Sloaney TV for a tour of some of the highlights, including Hotel Helvetia & Bristol…
Stay at Hotel Helvetia & Bristol
Travel from London Victoria to London Gatwick First Class on the Gatwick Express
Fly British Airways from London Gatwick to Pisa
COMING SOON: Laura escapes to the mountains and visits Villa San Michele for the spectacular wedding of The Sloaney’s former Bride-To-Be…