Winning The Pools
From art deco lidos in Miami to the futuristic bird’s nest of the Park Hyatt’s pool in Tokyo, I wanted my swimming – which I think of as an aesthetic, as much as an athletic, pursuit – to take place in suitably picturesque surroundings. I had seen a photograph of the swimming pool at the Four Seasons, Florence, and I needed to go there. It is a shimmering, dappled stretch of cool green water with a Romanesque temple at one end, shadowed by dark, swaying trees. Faded tiles of yellow sandstone surround it. It is close to the perfect pool.
The fact that I hadn’t yet visited Florence was also beginning to seem ridiculous. I love art, good food and E.M. Forster. I have spent many holidays in Italy. Yet somehow the image of Florence in my mind had grown so strong, the cultural associations so looming, that to visit it could only prove a disappointment. I preferred to keep its splendour intact in my imagination. I was also aware that every bumbling, badly-dressed, middle-class Brit I had met spoke of Florence with dewy eyes. I didn’t want to be just another ghastly tourist. The allure of that pool, though, was too powerful, and so I set off, on the arm of my bella donna, for a weekend in Florence.
In the days leading up to our trip, we did all that we could to arm ourselves against disappointment. We checked and cross-checked recommendations, sought advice from experts, sent out pleas on Twitter, honed our schedule to a fine point. We wanted to make sure that we saw the unmissable whilst leaving room for those serendipitous discoveries that are the real magic of travel. We needed time to follow blind alleys, to disappear down rabbit holes, to find that ideal trattoria/chapel/wine bar. We wanted the weekend to be as perfect as that mythical pool.
The Four Seasons, Florence is one of the world’s great hotels. Just a short walk from the city’s major monuments, the hotel boasts eleven acres of parkland. In a town which is notoriously hot, dusty and over-built, the great green breath of the private garden is an astonishingly luxurious blessing. And in the park sat that gorgeous swimming pool. Within ten minutes of arriving we were plunging through the cool water, washing the grime of our journey from us. At the end of the pool is a warm Jacuzzi set in slightly darker sandstone. We lolled in the bubbling water, looking out across the rolling greenery, listening to birdsong and the quiet murmur from the poolside restaurant.
We had dinner that evening in the more formal of the hotel’s two restaurants, although this is a relative term. With tables arranged around the drooping arms of a vast weeping beech, Il Palagio makes the most of the hotel’s green spaces, and carries the relaxed vibe that would come to characterize our stay at the hotel. We sat and looked out into the gathering gloom as blackbirds trilled in high branches and the first bats flitted against a lilac sky.
Hotel dining is usually dependably mediocre. Even the best hotels often manage to combine a crushing lack of originality with the kind of penny-pinching economies that come from being part of a global chain. Il Palagio not only shattered my preconceptions about hotel food, it was quite simply one of the best meals of my life.
I still can’t quite work out how my wife managed to devour the breezeblock of foie gras with vin santo marmalade that appeared on her plate, although my own pasta dish of capoleti with raw prawn and squid was its equal in taste if not in quantity. As a suitably distant and actually rather good piano player tinkled some nostalgic fare – Toto’s Africa and Springsteen’s The River were particular favourites – the chef came to our table to tell us that the restaurant had just received a delivery of fresh porcini from the hills above Florence. Would we like him to cook us some? I’m sure that this is just your average bit of touristic or even, heaven forfend, journalistic titillation, but the fillet steak with porcini reduction, enjoyed with an excellent San Marcellino, was sublime. My wife, seemingly wishing to court animal rights controversy in her choice of entrée as well as her starter, went for veal – also delicious. For desert, we shared a pineapple carpaccio with basil yoghurt sorbet and lemongrass and vanilla pannacotta. It sounds complicated, but was light and refreshing. We staggered to bed, utterly ravished by the quality of the meal.
The next morning we woke early, keen to be out on the streets of Florence. The hotel provides a shuttle bus for those unable or unwilling to make the five-minute walk along pleasant, narrow streets to the nearest of Florence’s great squares, the Piazza Santissima Annunziata. The air in the shadows was still fresh, while the sun blazed down on the wide open spaces. We walked down to the cathedral, where there were already tourists queuing to enter the basilica. The dome looks strangely out-of-sorts with the rest of the building’s harsh straight black and white lines (indeed Brunelleschi didn’t design the church itself). We had reserved tickets for the Uffizi at eleven and strolled gently down to the Piazza della Signoria, stopping to marvel at Cellini’s wonderful Perseus.
Clive James describes the Uffizi as a “mind storm” of paintings, with simply too much to take in at one visit. The best way to approach it is to allow your taste to guide you. Of course you must see Botticelli’s Venus, with her strangely long toes and ambiguous gaze, but the joy of the gallery is in discovering works that aren’t on the postcards. I loved El Greco’s surreal painting of St John and St Francis, tucked inside a doorway, almost out of sight, or Bellini’s enigmatic Sacred Allegory, with its oriental figures sporting beside a dark river. Another must-see is the final room on the top floor, where the Bronzino portraits of the various Medicis are magnificent.
After a light lunch at Obika – try burrata with violet artichokes – we went to the Accademia. It’s an inferior gallery to the Uffizi but one benefiting from the presence of the monolithic avatar of the city – Michaelangelo’s David. We had already seen a copy of the statue in the Piazza della Signoria, but there is something about seeing it inside, about noticing the flaws in the marble that meant that Michaelangelo got the stone at a knock-down price. It is one of the great aesthetic experiences to stand looking up at this divine work of artistic creation. We stood for half an hour, awe-struck, in the shadow of the sculpture before walking out into the bright afternoon.
That evening we went for dinner at the Villa San Michele in Fiesole. It’s a twenty-minute taxi ride from the centre of town, perched on a hillside looking over the city, and quite one of the most romantic spots on earth. The façade of the villa is attributed to Michaelangelo and looking down over the rooftops of Florence as we drank our pre-dinner bellinis, we imagined ourselves as Medicis surveying our domain. It’s cooler at Fiesole than in the centre of Florence and the villa is caressed by gentle breezes that carry the scents of jasmine and wisteria to you as you eat. We had a simple meal of ravioli with aubergine, goats’ cheese and thyme followed by sea bass cooked in white peach juice. An exquisite Terre di Tufi Super White Tuscan perfectly suited the cool tone of the evening.
The next day was Sunday, and we had churches to visit. It was on the subject of churches that there had been the most disagreement amongst our various advisors in anticipation of the trip. The problem is that there are just so many magnificent churches in Florence. One tip – ladies should set off with their shoulders covered if they don’t want – as my wife did – to spend their days festooned in a bizarre paper poncho. We began with Santa Felicita just over the seething Ponte Vecchio, where Pontormo’s altarpiece showing the Deposition is one of the great masterpieces outside of a gallery. From this dark, small church it’s just a short walk to the far grander Santo Spirito and then on to the Piazza del Carmine where the Brancacci Chapel, reached through a quiet monastic courtyard, is well worth a visit, with frescos by Massacio and Filipino Lippi.
The morning’s highlight, though, was St Mark’s, where you should not miss the room of Fra Angelico altarpieces on the right as you enter the courtyard. It is the frescoed monastic cells (including those of Savonarola and Cosimo di Medici) that are really breathtaking, however. An extraordinary glimpse into ecclesiastical Renaissance life, the most wonderful example of art in context. Look out for the crucifixion scene with Judas’s head floating over the cross like something from Dali.
For lunch, we went to the food market on Via St. Antonio. Rather than queuing with the swarming tourists in the market, however, we took the advice of a delicatessen owner and stepped out onto the Via Panicale where we found the remarkably good (and cheap) Trattoria La Burrasca. With a new menu daily depending on the season and the food the owner buys from the market, it is fresh, local food at its best.
After lunch we took a leisurely stroll back to the Four Seasons and my wife had a rather kinky-sounding hot wax massage in the spa. She emerged – glowing – to find me swimming laps with a handful of beautifully mannered French children. It is perhaps because of the extraordinary amount of space the hotel enjoys, but it manages the remarkable feat of being a child-friendly hotel where the presence of the young doesn’t detract from the calm and the romance of the place. Rarely do I step inside a five-star hotel and wish I’d brought my kids, but there is something very classy in this hotel’s approach to families. There are even events from ping-pong to film nights scheduled for kids so their parents can have a bellini by the pool. Club Med this certainly isn’t, but it works extremely well for all concerned. The Italians love kids, and this remains a very Italian resort. Any fool can do the snooty standoffishness of the Ritz, for instance, when it comes to children. Much cooler and classier to make them welcome but also render them near-invisible.
After a visit to hear Gregorian chants at the monastery at San Miniato – 5.30 every day, take a taxi up, walk down – we dined in the relaxed Al Fresco restaurant by the hotel swimming pool. Still peckish afterwards, we refused the admittedly excellent ice creams made by the Four Seasons’ pastry chef (pistachio and melon were our respective favourite flavours) and walked out instead to Grom, the best ice cream joint in town. Go for caramel or crema di Grom. Once more, we rolled into our large and comfortable bed, delightfully full.
On Monday morning we passed on the hotel breakfast in order to get some shopping in before reluctantly boarding the train to the airport. We had excellent cappuccini and croissants at Giacosa on the Via della Spada and then bought beautiful straw hats for the kids at Grevi just opposite. A visit to the Florentine institution that is the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy saw us leaving with heavily-scented parcels of goodies. We had time to poke our heads in at the church next door – look out for an easy-to-miss Botticelli over the main door – before it was time to bid farewell to Florence.
The Italians have a word for a brief glimpse of something beautiful (whether a face in a crowd or a church spire through a break in buildings). Something fleeting that still manages to burn into your consciousness and returns to haunt you far more than you would ever expect. That word is ‘scorcio’. I feel that our weekend in Florence was a mere scorcio. We only skimmed the surface of this extraordinary city, but I can see why people come back year after year. Perfection is a ridiculous aim, but thanks to a preposterously lovely hotel, some exquisite food and wine, and mind-blowing art, the weekend was as near-perfect as we’re ever likely to get. And the swimming pool – it was perhaps the greatest artwork of the lot.
Alex Preston stayed at the Four Seasons, Florence. (Borgo Pinti, 99). More information is available online at fourseasons.com/florence. He also dined at the Villa San Michele (Via Doccia 4). more information is available online at villasanmichele.com.