1 January 2009 by Amy Sohanpaul
In the heart of Florence, a Louis Vuitton store brimful with bags and baubles, its vast plate glass windows covered in sparkly seasonal lights,sits shiny and shimmery on one street corner.The Strozzi Palace,a magnificent 15th century residence, with severe stone walls,guardian of a precious Renaissance book and manuscript collection,sits solidly on the corner opposite.Overlooking both,a balcony attached to an elegant room in the charming, Belle Époque, Hotel Helvetia Bristol.
Just as the view sums up Florence,so does the room.On the street, style and substance,cutting-edge modernity and historical grandeur happily rub shoulders. Behind the balcony and the thick wooden shutters,the same agreeable balance applies.The carved heads on an antique armoire stand sentinel as drawers are opened and filled.Marble topped tables and cabinets are laden with fresh flowers and platters of fruit.The grapes and clementines are so shiny that it is entirely possible that they might have been polished as carefully as the gleaming, inlaid bedside tables.The bathroom appears to be carved entirely from Carrara marble,as Michelangelo’s David was.
As the sounds of the Florentine evening drift into the room through the open shutters and as the bright blue sky shades to black, the light from a finely crafted Murano-glass chandelier reflects in a vast old mirror and burnishes the already gilded frame of the painting above the bed. A Persian rug feels fine against feet that have been walking all day.Here is oldfashioned luxury from fabric-covered wall to fabric-covered wall.But there’s nothing old-world about the flat screen televisions and internet access, the extremely comfortable beds and sofas,the heated towel rails and Jacuzzi baths, the quietly efficient air-con and heating systems,the 24-hour room service.
All the rooms share this blend of oldfashioned comfort and modern efficiency, but there the similarity ends.Each room has its own personality and differs from the next in mood,colour,decor,size and furnishings, with the two suites at the top of the hotel offering impressive views over Florentine rooftops and the Duomo,which is a minute’s walk away.
But with or without a room with a view, Florence is always there,a part of the hotel. This isn’t one of those hotels where you have to look out of the window to work out where in the world you are.Replicas of the portraits commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici to line the secret passage he had built between his summertime residence at Palazzo Pitti and the Palazzo Vecchio, adorn the walls opposite the reception. This in turn is made from an old Florentine vestry,turned upside-down so the old floor is the new ceiling. And in the lobby lined with seventeenth century canvases in classic Florentine style,massive Pietra serena columns still bear testament to the flood thatwashed through the city in 1966 - the height the water reached is clearly visible, indelibly staining the old stone.
The same old stone lines a fireplace large enough to sit in,although the numerous sofas and armchairs dotted about beneath another impressive chandelier are the conventional,comfortable option.So close is the Helvetia to all the attractions - Via Tornabuoni,Florence’s most exclusive shopping street is metres away,the Uffizzi a minute away - that guests pop back to the lobby several times a day for a spot of tea and biscuits in between marathon shopping and sightseeing sessions.
It’s a good place to have a drink at the end of the day as well,before strolling to one of the many good trattorias nearby, or stepping into Hosteria Bibendum,the hotel’s own restaurant.This has tables outside on a quiet side-street,or inside a cosy room with red walls and low lighting, and a super seasonal menu.
White truffles from San Miniato were on the menu during our stay,borne to the table under a silver dome. As soon as this was lifted,with the requisite flourish,the heady aroma filled the entire room, and that night’s dining decisions were made. The hotel runs cookery lessons on site, with guests rolling up sleeves and rolling out fresh pasta during the afternoon, before sitting down to a supper of the authentic Tuscan dishes they’ve created in the company of Chef Enzo Pette.His friendly demeanour draws guests back for repeat visits,and he in fact, typifies one of the best points about this hotel.The staff - from the courteous general manager Stefano Venturi to the serene,endlessly efficient,unfailingly cheerful Maria at reception - are standard-bearers for good old-fashioned customer service.
It’s a retro-attitude,that suits this refined old palazzo rather well. The rooms, the walls, the antiques all hark back to a grand old time. It can still be felt,and had, here, in this hotel that is Florence inside and out.