Right in Florence: The Savoy

June 10, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (0)

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Savoy pavement nightcap

Ten out of Ten for location on Piazza della Repubblica a short walk from the main attractions of the Renaissance city.  A soothing Roccoforte hotel with classic Tuscan restaurant  opening out onto the square, where you can dine al fresco in summer, watching people flow by.  Not to forget the hotel’s pleasant service and a concierge who can book you restaurants and find you tickets for Michelangelos’  David or the Uffizi, thus avoiding impossible queues.

Food prices did not seem over the top compared with other delightfully placed restaurants – but the prices of individual items at breakfast could seem irksome. The continental buffet breakfast does not include your eggs but is adequate for Nordic peoples with delicious cured meats and hunks of Italian cheeses. Not to mention the pleasant feel of eating al fresco (under sunshades), encircled by the privacy of the Savoy’s rosemary bushes, or in the restaurant opening out onto the pavement through glass doors.

Here you watch Florence come alive with locals heading for work or tourists arriving or departing. Fortunately this Piazza is not the scene of frenetic over-activity. No special features just here bring busloads to stand in formation around the tour leader with flag upheld. Yet you are among fashion shops and just a short walk from the Duomo, Uffizi and Ponto Vecchia. Plus if you have been shopping and need a new suitcase you are in the world of classy items of leather luggage. And if you have misjudged the weather (like we did) and have been meditating upon an Italian leather coat, there are 15 outlets just from one leather coat factory in Florence – and many more. Actually high quality at relatively low prices.

Rooms at the Savoy feel tastefully and demurely luxurious – though small as five star rooms go. However, if you have views of the Piazza out front or the Duomo out back they feel much larger. Our Executive room (a mere 27 sqm) gained a sparkle and sense of space from the fifth floor view of the sky and the square.  Rooms are contemporary with a Tuscan feel emanating probably from the bedspreads which bring in a softer country touch. The small bathroom was richly adorned with marble and mosaics, with toilet and bidet squeezed in – and shower over the bath. Roccoforte amenities add luxury touch.

Big plus for us at the Savoy was that an ironing board was quickly delivered by friendly Francois the porter – in contrast with no do-it-yourself ironing opportunities being available at the Four Seasons where the cost for pressing was equivalent to buying a new dress at H&M or Zara (which are actually just a few steps from the Savoy along with designer outlets).

With such hot real estate on Repubblica one can understand that room size is not the main allure at the Savoy. Lead in size Classic feels small (25 sqm)  but as already noted Executive feels adequate (28 sqm), uplifted by higher position and better view. Deluxe definitely is more spacious at 32 sqm and studio at 38 sqm.  In addition to 88 rooms there are 14 suites.

Their equivalent of Presidential (Suite Repubblica) is 70 sqm and can be interconnected with a deluxe  room for more space. Highest suite with best view is Suite Brunelleschi (50sqm) including steam room (no balcony) – this is also the newest suite.

As to accommodating children, they have many connecting rooms, and deluxe rooms and suites take an extra bed for a child. Among child-friendly features hotel boasts special crockery designs for kids and special food including pizzas (one called Pinnochio). Gifts are adapted to various age groups, starting at a teddy on the pillow for the little ones; learning guide to Florence for older children in English and other main languages; DVDs for kids.

Note: the restaurant L’Incontro is under a 2 Michelin starred Chef Fulvio Pierangelini. Did not try it except for breakfast –  the concierge was on the ball for dining arrangements and booked us close by in a former cloister, where we had our favourite Aubergine Parmigiano for very affordable price.

Nice feature is the free gym on the top floor with a view of the Duomo.


Villa Mangiacane: vines & roses

June 7, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (16)

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Entrancing Tuscan views from Villa Mangiacane

For lovers of the Tuscan countryside – a palazzo housing a country hotel  gloriously placed among its own vineyards and olive groves in the Chianti area. Rustic in feel, eclectic in style and opulent in decorative details Villa Mangiacane is an intimate hotel. And historic.  It was built for a Cardinal in the Machiavelli family and another Machiavelli, Nicolo,  wrote the Prince in a stone house on the opposite ridge.

His name  lives on in a restaurant on that ridge called Albergaccio Di Nicolò Machiavelli,  easily reached by a walk through the vineyards. And  the spirit of his times lives on in the original villa with its frescoes restored  and the rooms exquisitely furnished – a long labour of love by a South African who bought the then rundown villa as his own palace. Later turned into a hotel.

While the  suites and lounges in this building have kept a more Italian style, a newer wing by a South African architect is more eclectic in details, with African art and trendy modern touches.  

Africa runs out too into the Tuscan gardens – among the lawns, pools and roses, there are dozens of sculptures from Zimbabwe.  It can seem a little uncanny as if the owner’s other existence is ever present in his palace in Italy.

Signs of his personal life and tastes  – photo albums and books lie casually between frescoed walls, on the comfortably furnished verandahs of the original villa, and in the cosy lounges, one the scene of complimentary afternoon tea. And his imagination is also evident in the flamboyant Royal suite with its influences that seemed to be Thai, African and Moroccan along with perhaps some basic Italian.

Though not quite what you expect, Villa Mangiacane is a great place to chill. Just to linger. A sparkling swimming pool lies amid open lawns behind the main building – a pool bar opens later in the summer, and  a second pool lies in shadier position by the Machiavelli villa, adorned by sculptures invading from the African garden. The signature sculptures from long ago stand on the gateposts – two stone dogs – to illustrate the name Mangiacane (eat dog), trying to rise imposingly above lush growth.

Roses, lemon trees, herbs and of course encircling vineyards create a heart warming Tuscan ambience of colour and fragrance. Come good weather, which we did not have, you can dine in the garden. Actually we dined off property every night, generously provided with a free shuttle and booked by reception.

This is a boutique hotel with only 27 rooms, and you get very personal treatment by the GM Juan and his multinational staff, though I did not meet a single Italian among them.

Your life is their life it seems. Where will you eat tonight? What will you do tomorrow? Far from trying  to trap you at the hotel to spend money in their own gourmet restaurant, they are keen for you to have a really rich Tuscan experience. Whether hiring a car for you for the day to get to the architectural gem of Siena, or arranging a Chianti wine tour just for you (quite costly),  or booking you at the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo’s  David and on the complimentary shuttle to Florence. Or to nearby San Casciano.

The little town of San Casciano is a gem only 5km distant with narrow streets lined with small shops, eateries and fragrant rose bushes. And we were encouraged to try all the restaurants and trattorias there – they booked our tables and gave us free lifts back and forth to we could have that experience. Not just us – but many other guests took advantage of this opportunity.  I have never known such generosity in a hotel.

San Casciano turned out to be a great place to eat local food at very reasonable prices  – our favourites were Cinque de Vino and  Cantinetta del Nunno.  I would go back anytime.

Accommodation

In the newer building (also housing reception and dining room) there are a row of Superior rooms with private gardens, some with plunge pools. The category below that is the Classic rooms – not recommended to top luxury customers. Rising up into a tower was our room – a so called Junior suite. It did not feel at all Junior. Downstairs a lounge with easy chairs, sofa  and attractive items of furniture (no TV – that is upstairs). The sitting room opens into a huge bathroom with a big round bath and adjoining shower with opens sides, two basins and dressing tables, and more private toilet and bidet. Upstairs is a cosy bedroom with massive bed – very dreamily comfortable – luxury linen and pefect pillows. We loved our room, but in the unseasonable cold weather it took a while to warm up on entry. And when the rain turned into gentle sun we did envy the private garden next door where people were relaxing on sunbeds while their kids played in the plunge pool. Their plunge pool, looking a bit opaque when we arrived, was cleaned up and sparkled.

We also saw a Deluxe room, with generous bathroom but rather small bedroom. And another junior suite, this time with the bathroom upstairs.  Others we saw in the Machiavelli villa were the Royal Suite and a Terrace suite. Lounge and romantic bedroom. There is one two-bedroom suite on the upper terrace.

Weddings & cooking courses

The wine cellar is rented out for weddings along with the accommodation above it – the Royal suite. Their prices are very competitive with Florence. And like so many Tuscan country hotels, they offer Tuscan cooking courses in a dedicated kitchen. You dine what you cook at the adjoining table.

How to get to Villa Mangiacane

25 minutes by car from Florence International Airport. There is a free shuttle from Porto Roma – a circle just outside the Florence city walls. From the city centre a taxi ride to Porto Roma cost 6 euros.

In a nutshell

A place for a great Tuscan holiday with plenty of help to dine around taste wines and discover the charms of Tuscany. The mood is laid back, personal and friendly with every effort made to help you – but little misses do happen, and effectiveness is not always evident. Like the complementary afternoon tea. The girl at reception was not sure if it was at 3pm or 5pm. She then assured as 3pm – but it turned out to be around 330 pm that day. One of the staff ran back and forth carrying the tea things over the sculpture park from the kitchen to the Machieavelli villa till all was in place in the attractive sitting room. And then we had delicious freshly baked cake and tea with a choice of bags…we were the only two there among the albums and frescoes.


Fairytales & Rococo: romantic Four Seasons Firenze

June 3, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (2)

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Royal suite

Four Seasons Firenze

One of the wonders of the Renaissance city is indeed a hotel.  Housed in a palazzo from 1490 and a former convent Four Seasons Firenze places you restfully among restored murals and bas-reliefs.  Meticulously renovated with respect, joy and imagination under the watchful eye of governmental agency Belle Arti, parts are pure fairytale. Parts are pure Renaissance.

 But never dry. For all the feast of frescoes and objets d’art, Four Seasons Firenze is soothingly comfortable and hauntingly romantic.

 What is more after sorties to some of the earth’s most astounding cultural treasures, you come home to peace, fresh air and greenery. The Four Seasons enfolds a 4.5 hectare private park providing a green refuge, a 10 minute walk from the Duomo and the busloads of culture vultures and happy snappers.

 And when you are saturated with the astounding heritage of the Uffizi and Accademia, the resort offers an enjoyable break at the pool lined with sunbeds.  The park is a sight in itself, sculptures and arches, fountains and flowers, gigantic trees. Here you can enjoy al fresco dining and bar. Not to forget a good sized Jacuzzi that breathes its warmth into cold air in winter.

 The indoor restaurants (one Michelin star) ooze style, art and gourmet lifestyle, and a cleverly titivated sense of history.  The bar and reception lounge are both housed in former courtyards, where you can see the upper storeys towering above a glass roof. A floor was added every century or so, when the owning family felt their power and influence merited concrete (or rather stone) proof.

 For events the Gherardesca ballroom with its astoundingly beautiful 18th century French chandeliers and its murals is hard to beat. Those dazzling glittering chandeliers even outshadow all the beautiful Murano glass ones generally lighting the hotel.

 Romance comes high on the list of reasons for choosing Four Seasons Firenze. It is very romantic in fact. Delightul spot for intimate weddings with a teeny chapel astoundingly rich in frescoes and dazzling spots for dining and celebrating. Its lavish historical suites invite the prince and the princess to honeymoon. Not to forget an opulent couples room with baroque gold decorated massage beds, and spa rituals for total rejuvenation. And so they lived happily ever after…

 We saw (and photographed – see the gallery above) the divinely lustrous bedroom of the Royal Suite and two other romantic suites, the Gallery Suite and the Renaissance Suite.

 Of course Four Seasons does not have any rooms that are not at least 39 sqm with marble bathrooms, bathtub, and glass encased cabinets for shower and toilet bidet . The starting categories – Superior, Deluxe  and Premier rooms, and Four Seasons rooms (51 sqm) –  are all luxurious but more corporate in style uplifted by well placed artwork.

 All the Four Seasons category look into the green park, and so do many of the others and are placed both in the old convent and the Gherardesca palazzo.

 It takes the suites to get the real flights of fancy and magic. Silken bedspreads and drapes and gossamer butterfly wing effects as in the bedroom of the Royal suite…  the kind of shot colours you imagine  Cinderella must have had in her ballgown from the Fairy Godmother.

 But back to the joys of Renaissance Florence. If you make  good use of the brilliant concierge at Four Seasons, they will book you into the famous museums so you don’t have to queue for hours, and I mean hours….

So Four Seasons Firenze is great for lovers of renaissance culture, and for lovers in love,  and those including families who want connecting rooms, resort style peace, spa and pool, a short walk from it all.

Note: images of Four Seasons Firenze by Aleah Stanbridge  (c)


Breakfast in Tuscany

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Four Seasons park view

Notes written 20 to 26 May during breakfast at three hotels in Florence and in the surrounding Tuscan hills. I enjoy the sense of place arising after a morning cappuccino…especially in Italy.

Monday Four Seasons Firenze

Strains of violins, with Rococo nostalgia and flourish. In tune with the décor of the Four Seasons dining room, elaborately lavish and ornate, but in taste. Perfectly in style.  I try to drink it in. It is an experience to be here – perfect lifestyle.

I ask for vanilla tea. A polite pause. He returns. We have no vanilla tea…pause. But we have… my mind runs to Ceylon tea in a yellow bag. Wrong. “We have real vanilla beans in hot water”. I remembered my usual morning tea with Oatley cream but felt that too much so asked instead for hot milk. So I now have a delicate jug of hot milk and await the real vanilla tea. It comes in a silver pot, while music ripples and triples. But I realize it is divine vanilla water without tea.  I finally delicato ask for tea to add to my vanilla. It finally comes  but my glasses are off so I allow him to gently ruin my vanilla with Earl Grey. The mystery tea (mystery why people think it is superior).

So that was a failure despite the best intentions. My morning caffeine is still required.

Charming waiter with a melodious Italian voice asks: Was your tea right now?

Oh, I said, not wanting to tell him I don’t like Earl Grey – he has been so keen to please. So instead I say: Now is the time for my coffee.

Americano?

Latte please…café latte. Now that was fine.

My omelette was also a Four Seasons experience in ultimate service. I asked Could I have an omelet with cheese and tomato … no meat. My charming waiter said: I have better – with mozzarella and herbs and tomato.

Delicious. And now I cannot eat more. I do not even need the delights of the buffet, among which is date cake tasted yesterday as subtly sweet as you could wish, like a mere whisper of temptation.

I am waiting for A. She is not ready yet.

The breakfast room opens into the private park. And so do the best rooms look that way into the greenery. Our room doesn’t – it looks into narrow lane Borgo Pinti. Where the main entrance is.

It has rained like a drain so further visits to town seem horrendous. Luckily Four Seasons is an art study and a romance kick all in itself.

And by the way – I have found out – they do keep a small stock of almond milk. Now why didn’t I think of that for my tea or my cappuccino?

 

Wednesday Villa Mangiacane

 A quiet moment with the tinkling of piano music, soft and fluid. My perfect cappuccino. The shabby chic chairs with purposeful chips in the gray paint have charm. A little Shetland pony stands outside the window, where the view stretches out over Tuscan countryside. Under the white grey sky a soft fertile green with patches of woodland, vineyards and olive groves.

The main feel here at Villa Mangiacane after two nights is contentment and ease despite the rain. It’s the highly personal service; though laced with unexpected interludes and little eccentricities, you feel friendliness overall.

I had no idea when booking the car that the hotel was so casual and generous with shuttles – i.e. lifts to town (Florence) or “the village” – the pretty little provincial town of San Casciano (Cashana) 5km away. Not it turned out according to timetable, but on demand – if they can fit you in.

Apart from great local dining and coffee bars al fresco , we found two shops for sunglasses (Dior, Gucci, Dolce cabana etc) cheaper in this village than in Florence, and a designer “outlet” from Milan in the cute narrow shopping streets lined with roses.  And four shoe shops. So we lost desire for our car that was to be an escape from what we imagined would be a snobbish place – an old palace built by Machiavelli – “nobleman’s home”.

In fact Machiavelli never lived here. He wrote The Prince in one of the houses on the ridge facing his palace. He oversaw the designs and his plans are now in the Uffizi. He died before he could move in.

His architect was also the designer of the Duomo in Florence, we were told. So at some stage the direction of the villa was changed to give a view of the Duomo – now golf ball size on the horizon. They obtain permission every few years to cut a V shape in their own woodlands. Next cut is next year 2013, said Juan, the GM.

The hotel is richly attired in eclectic fashion, with haunts of history and fancy – all embraced by vines and Tuscan greenery – somehow gently unpredictable, warm and exuberant, Italian style. But actually no longer owned by an Italian. A South African has bought it as a home from home and costs of maintenance made sense of turning it into a hotel.

Thursday Villa Mangiacane

 Cappuccino in Italy. Where else can it taste so good? Cake today for breakfast instead of croissants. The same cake as at complimentary afternoon tea. Delivered bit by bit on a tray by a girl who crosses the park from the kitchen to the comfortable lounge in the original villa Machiavelli with its Baroque frescoes and details.

Last night we crossed through the vineyards (500 metres)  to restaurant Albergaccio Di Nicolò Machiavelli in the little hamlet on the ridge, Sant’andrea. We were told it is better than the restaurants we experienced earlier in San Casciano:  Cantinetta del Nunno and Cinque di Vino. However  I preferred the San Casciano eateries. The pasta at Machiavelli was cold in areas and warm in others, as if reconstituted from  pre-prepared ingredients of different vintage. Cheese sauce does need heat to taste good. We sent it back and finally it did taste right. But not before I had remembered our experiences in Provence. Roadside restaurants with tourists dining rather than locals, ALBEIT picturesque and Provencal, did not perform well in culinary terms. In Machieavelli we saw just tourists from our own hotel.  The simple Nunno with its modest prices was full of locals (and some tourists also booked there by our hotel).

Carmen is playing, as the mist clears and sunshine floods the grapevines, with a shimmering haze over distant trees. Life is good. Second cappuccino even better: round, foamy, rich.

We are entitled to omelette with our buffet breakfast  – which otherwise costs 20 euros. Nice omelette. The buffet is not huge, but it has quality, strawberries and kiwis, luckily some plain yoghurt among all the fruity ones in plastic tubs, some hams and cheese for those who like to eat that on their bread…adequate. It is the view and the ambience, not to forget the cappuccino that makes it delightful.

Friday the Savoy Florence

View of Piazza della Repubblica through glass doors. Quiet now – last night brimming over with life. Icecream festival, merry go round, yellow benches under canvas. But the icecreams dripped in the heat after a 28 deg C day and we dumped them in the trash. Then made for the inviting street tables of the Savoy with the privacy of a ring of Rosemary bushes. Coffee 6 euro. Definitely worth it for the sensation of living out Florence lifestyle in the balmy evening (at last), with the pulse of a live band floating over from another pavement cafe in the Piazza.

This lively square is a haven of peace in comparison with the Piazza adjoining and surrounding Duomo–number one item to tick off the ‘must see’ list.  Other must sees close by are the somewhat tarnished glamour of Ponte Vecchio, and the huge weight of Renaissance and medieval heritage that is the Uffizi. Then  past the Duomo and the long queues you reach Galleria dell’accademia and the uplifted wonder of the original David,  surrounded by worshippers and duty visitors with itching hands (not allowed to take snapshots) – though they make up for it next to the gigantic burlesquely coloured David copy in the Accademia courtyard. Miles of facebook smiles.

But back to the Savoy. You get the must sees close by and the must be’s (moments of being, like sitting at the Savoy tables staring out). Here and now.

Ten out of ten for location said the Australian woman at the next table…also staring out…

Her name is Goldie.

Been cruising and staying at Leading Hotels (she is a member). She was disappointed they hadn’t upgraded her at the Savoy from her Classic room, when she had been upgraded everywhere else. Her room was too low down she felt. Our executive room on the 5th floor (same level as the gym) was small but uplifted by sky and the view of the whole square. My confidante Goldie was rather upset over having to pay extra for her eggs when she had buffet breakfast included. But the small buffet was excellent quality – most Scandinavians would not need more than the espresso or cafe latte (included), Parma ham, salami, smoked salmon and big choice of cheeses – not sliced neatly with your obligatory cheese slicer, but put out in hunks of the best. Fresh breads of course. And fruit salad of tropical fruit chopped small.

Now I love Italy, A. said, adding: I remember annoying men in Rome but here they are normal. Indeed, they look appreciatively, but do not goggle or coo, and certainly bottom pinching days are over even for gorgeous girls. Or is it just the North? The North was always held up as an example of Italian refinement.

But back to the Savoy. Yes 10 out of 10 for location and a soothing Roccoforte hotel with Michelin star restaurant, al fresco dining, pleasant service. Food prices not over the top for your Michelin starred dinner. Plus the concierge is on the ball to help with dining Tuscan fare out on the town.

PS

I used to think that plastic Davids in all the shop windows cheapened the David – just imagine how many Davids and other treasures are featured in Facebook merely because someone is smiling in front of them. Or am I a hopeless snob…who has never forgiven facebook for changing the face of chats to be so surface oriented, compared with the deep world of the imagination called up by the first chat sites when you used communications programmes rather than www platforms.