Harpers Baazar’s Travel Guide recommends Niquesa Hotels & Residences Tuscan properties: Hotel Helvetia & Bristol in Florence and Grand Hotel Continental Siena.
TRAVEL GUIDE: TUSCANY
What to do and where to stay in Florence and Siena
26 MAY 2015
“Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten” – so said Aldo Gucci in 1938. He was talking about his family’s range of luxury goods, but the same could be said of the fecund and almost ridiculously picturesque Tuscany, a region that houses a dazzling number of the world’s masterworks as well as some of its finest wines and foods (and was home to the first Gucci store back in the early 1920s).
In today’s climate that quote takes on deeper resonance given Italy’s central position in the Eurozone crisis – but financial gloom aside, the country is one of the few that does genuinely deserve the superlatives often attached to it. The wine is that good, the scenery that beautiful, the art that impressive, but where do you even begin to explore? We decided to base ourselves in two of the prominent cities: Siena and Florence: both rich in history and ideally located for day trips to the Tuscan hills. Siena is famed for being the site of the very first bank in the world and, like Florence, was ruled by generations of wealthy merchant families who donated heavily to the arts as a symbol of their wealth and status. As a result this tiny city is a flamboyant mix of medieval architecture and Renaissance sculpture, dominated by Tuscany’s tallest tower and the dazzling Duomo.
Where to stay
We stayed in the Grand Hotel Continental, which is located in the heart of the city close to Piazza del Campo, and was the residence of choice for Daniel Craig who based himself here while filming Quantum of Solace. This 17th Century palazzo, now part of the Niquesa Hotel Group, was originally built as a wedding gift from Pope Alexander VII to his niece Olimpia and has been lovingly restored to rightly earn its reputation as the finest hotel in Siena. Luxurious rooms boast original frescoes, sumptuous fabrics and opulent artworks while a team of extremely attentive staff continue the Tuscan tradition of community with many having worked there for years. They talk of themselves not as employees but as a family devoted to the prosperity of Siena, echoing the sentiments of the ruling merchants who built the city.
Sophie inside the Hotel Continental Siena
What to do
The borders of the Chianti region extend between the provinces of Florence and Siena and as such both cities are ideally located for the all important Chianti wine tour. The beauty of staying with a small luxury hotel group like Niquesa is that external organisation can be arranged by the concierge and you can rest assured that it will mirror the quality of the hotel. Our private tour was with My Luxury Drive and included a transfer to Florence with a visit to a local vineyard. It was here that we spent an enjoyable afternoon gorging ourselves on the regions greatest hits and taking in that breathtaking Tuscan landscape.
The Tuscan hills
What to do
The unofficial capital of Tuscany and widely known as the ‘Cradle of the Renaissance’, Florence was, like Siena, ruled by generations of wealthy merchant families who invested heavily in the arts. Home to a staggering collection of the world’s greatest artists including Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Botticelli, the beauty found at every turn defies belief. Although the city itself is quite literally an open-air museum, if you wish to learn more of its history it’s worth investing in a tour. Ours was arranged by our hotel and the extremely knowledgeable guide educated us on some of the humanising facts behind the most important landmarks.
But it is not just art where the legacy of the ruling merchants makes its presence felt; in a city where creativity and commerce have always met and fed off the ambitions of each other, the output today extends to fashion, food and wine. Although Florence was deposed of its title as the Italian fashion capital in the 1970s, Florentines still take their shopping and dining very seriously. Gucci has a museum here and every luxury fashion house a store, which all appear to be agonisingly located next to restaurant after restaurant serving steaming bowls of pasta, artisan meats and traditional Tuscan bread – a weekend off any low-carb diet is well advised.
It’s also impossible to mention Florence without making a nod to the city’s outlets which are ranked among the best in the world. Located about 45-minutes-drive away from the city, it is here that you will find discounts of up to 70% from houses such as Gucci, Saint Laurent, Prada, Balenciaga and Armani. I vowed to exercise some restraint and still ended up buying an extra suitcase to take my haul home in.
The ceiling of Brunelleschi’s dome, Duomo di Firenze
Where to stay
We stayed at Hotel Helvetia and Bristol, a property located in the city’s Centro Storico, and just minutes away from Via Tornabuoni, the area’s most exclusive shopping district. As part of the Niquesa Group, great care has been given to distilling this 19th century palazzo with a contemporary air and, despite its undeniable exclusivity, it manages to avoid stuffiness. Bedrooms are sumptuous and furnished with typical Italian opulence while bathrooms belie the historical feel by boasting whirlpool baths and modern marble finishes. A more central property you could not find and those lucky enough to afford the Royal Suite will be treated to unrivalled views of the Piazza del Duomo, the Campanile di Giotto and the Palazzo Strozzi – sights that surely rank among the most beautiful in the world.
Hercules and Cacus by Baccio Bandinelli, Florence
It is true that Tuscany, like all of Italy, has been marred by the financial crisis and its scars can be seen in everything from the vacant factories to the hotel chauffeur who shyly revealed to me his classics degree. But what makes Italy so great is what continues to exist today: its passion, its pride and its deeply entrenched sense of community. It its those traits, arguably above all others, that makes this nation a must-see.
View from the Tower of Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
Rates at Grand Hotel Continental, Siena, based on two adults sharing, start at €441 per night for a Classic Double and up to €1,670 per night for the Royal Suite
Rates at Hotel Helvetia & Bristol, Florence, based on two adults sharing, start at €462 per night for a Classic Double and up to €1,890 per night for the Royal Suite. For further details and bookings, visit niquesa.com.
By Sophie Ball