One of Florence’s best hotels has done a marvellous job of updating itself – and the city never disappoints, writes Christopher Jackson
We sometimes think of our great hotels as static. It would be somewhat embarrassing if, say, the Ritz or the Dorchester were to change too much: it would be tantamount to admitting they’d previously got it wrong. But in truth, there are little evolutions in our hotels – tweaks to the colour scheme, a new cocktail menu – which form a hidden aspect of the lives of cities.
The Hotel Savoy in Florence – part of the Rocco Forte chain – has the location of a hotel that doesn’t need to change, which makes it all the more impressive that it has. Sandwiched between the Duomo and Giotto’s campanile on the one hand and the Piazza della Signoria on the other, it’s a location which people will stay at come what may.
I first went there in 2017 during the unbearable glamour of the May administration. It was our penultimate stop at the end of a road trip which had taken us from Rome to Florence via the Tuscan hills. During that time, we’d got used to the grandeur of another RF hotel (it’s an oversight that the hotel hasn’t yet done a sponsorship tie-in with Roger Federer): the Hotel de Russie in Rome. I won’t say we were disappointed by its Florentine counterpart then, but it was made clear to me by the manager at that time that change was in the offing.
Actually, things weren’t quite working back then. The reception area when you went in was tucked away to your left under a fairly low ceiling, meaning that there wasn’t quite so much theatre to one’s entrance as one usually finds with Rocco Forte hotels. One thinks of the confident sweep of the Hotel Astoria in St. Petersburg – or the Russie itself, where even as you enter the foyer, you have a sense of the gardens receding in tiers away from you up towards the Borghese Gardens.
Furthermore, the Savoy 1.0, as I encountered it in 2017, was also somewhat lacking in space: the room we were given on that occasion was beautiful and ornate in typical Rocco Forte style, but somewhat cramped.
And so to the refurbishment – the Savoy 2.0. It’s changed subtly. Now as you go in, reception is straight ahead. True, it’s always going to be one of the more intimate RF hotels as there’s simply not sufficient real estate in Florence – except in the Fiesole hills – to make something grander. But a discrete theatre is now achieved.
And today’s suites are larger, with fewer of them. We had the good fortunate to stay in the wonderful presidential suite: this had a large living room with adjoining kitchen, two bathrooms and a bedroom. One gets used to the shelves of Everyman books in these hotels: here was a lifetime’s reading.
But the most remarkable thing about the suite was the view: the balcony was about a hundred metres from Brunelleschi’s famous dome, that masterpiece topped by the gold bauble which Leonardo da Vinci took as a benchmark for the rest of life of what was possible in art. Giotto’s tower is visible too.
You could happily spend the whole trip in your suite but a city as rich as Florence is not to be jettisoned in favour of luxury. Your only problem is knowing where to start. It’s said that half the world’s treasures are found in Florence. I don’t know if this is true – or even measurable – but it is certainly the case that beauty here is de rigeur, and that this fact can play havoc with your itinerary.
At busy times of year, the churches are a better place to hit than the major galleries. This is no loss. It’s arguable, for instance, that Masaccio’s Holy Trinity in Santa Maria Novella (no crowds) is a better work than the Botticelli Venus in the Uffizi (teeming always) - and if you only have time to do one then why not give yourself an outside chance of being able to look at it in some peace?
In other good news, Santa Croce – as if taking its cue from the Savoy – has now completed its own refurbishment. After years of looking like a sort of abortive barn-disco, it’s now able to display the Giotto St. Francis frescoes and its Donatello sculptures in what feels like an appropriate setting.
In that sense, the Savoy is luxury where one doesn’t need it – in Florence, even those going back to the worst hotels have images of glory spinning through their heads. But there is nothing finer than after a long day of walking through the medieval streets than to return to this superb hotel – and to know that it’s better than ever.
Christopher Jackson writes for Spear's