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By Padraic Gilligan, Vice President, Ovation Global DMC

Florence – 18 April 2013

I’ve visited Rocco Forte hotels in Brussels, Berlin, Prague and St Petersburg but this was my first visit to a Rocco Forte property in Italy, the country of origin of the eponymous founder and of his talented sister, Olga Polizzi, interior designer for the group. Francesca Shoes at the SavoyPretin, Senior Sales Manager, took me around Savoy Hotel in Florence and, once again, I was struck by the subtle ways Sir Rocco connects his properties to the dynamic fabric of the destination in which they stand. The Savoy is decidedly boutique with a bar / restaurant that connects directly with the epi-centre of Florentine life, Piazza della Repubblica. The 104 rooms have views of the square to the front and of the Duomo and historic centre to the rear. The guest room product is typical of Olga Polizzi combining simplicity and luxury in a seamless, natural kind of way. Colours are muted throughout and, unusual for Italy, floors are wooden. Art pieces are contemporary and themed around shoes and footwear, a whimsical nod to Florence’s artisan leather traditions. The Savoy is a beautiful property, assured and self confident avoiding any temptation to compete with the city in which it lives. It’s a great property for incentive experiences of about 40 rooms. Limited meeting facilities in the basement make it suitable for small corporate assemblies too.

Florence – 19 April

Stendhal’s syndrome is an actual medical condition involving fainting, dizziness, confusion and sometimes hallucinations induced by over-exposure to the aching beauty of art. It’s not surprising to hear that it’s also called Florence syndrome and that it’s most frequent occurrence is at the Uffizi. In anticipation of a nasty dose of Stendhal’s we asked our guide, the immensely capable US ex-pat, Cindy, to pick out one highlight in the main gallery before taking us to the 1km long Vasari Corridor  built by the Medici in the 1560s to link the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno river.

Cindy picked Paolo Uccello’s “Battaglia  Di San Romano” from c. 1436 which has recently been returned to the Uffizi following its extensive restoration. Reading our group perfectly she gave a short but impactful exposé of the piece stressing Uccello’s seminal  contribution to the history of European painting for his early efforts at perspective and his depiction of non-religious subject matter. Interestingly, only one third of the original canvas is in the Uffizi, the other panels being in London London and Paris.

Giovanni di S GiovanniThe elevated passageway linking the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti is a kind of power statement from a family of merchants and bankers seeking acceptance, status and degree amongst the titled, blue blood royalty of the greater Europe. The Medici had boundless ambition, adundant funds and direct access to the smartest, most creative minds in Renaissance Italy. Polymath Giorgio Vasari was hired to design and build the structure and completed his project in less than 6 months.  The Ponte Vecchio was spared from destruction by the retreating Germans in 1944 by direct order of Adolf Hitler who had been escorted along the Vasari passageway in the late 1930s by Mussolini. Our guide Cindy shared all this information with us while highlighting some of the more noteworthy self portraits of artists and painters that are displayed in the part of the Vasari corridor managed by the Uffizi. I particularly liked the self portrait of Giovanni Di San Giovanni, a Florentine painter of the Baroque era who has a look of Brad Pitt.

When we exited the Vasari corridor on the other side of the Arno some of us were clearly in the early grips of Stendhals and opted out of the walk through the Boboli gardens and the recently opened Giardino Bardini. Those of us who soldiered on were not disappointed We all re-assembled in the late afternoon, however, on via dello Spirito Santo at Il Santino, described on one Tripadvisor review as the “best wine bar ever” where we enjoyed local cheeses and cold meats along with some wonderful, and very fairly priced, Brunello Di Montalcino.

Lucca – 20 April

We wanted to do wine tasting and, simultaneously, to spend some time in the Tuscan countryside. However, we also craved the road less travelled. This ruled out the Chianti region as well as the ever popular Siena and San Gimignano. Instead we chose Colle Verde and Lucca. We knew for sure we’d chosen the road less travelled when, in search of our chosen vineyard, we made our slow and tortuous way to the top of the hill only to march back down the other side – just like the Grand Old Duke of York. But taking the long way home is sometimes part of the charm of the journey and we were rewarded with stunning views of the remote Tuscan countryside.

Colle Verde is a vineyard and olive grove situated in Matraia, close to Lucca and the Tuscan coast. It’s a legacy holding now owned and managed by Francesca Pardini and Piero Tartagni, formerly producers with RAI, the Italian TV network. For the past 30 odd years they’ve been painstakingly growing an agri-tourism business  around olive oil and wine production in the “green hills” of Lucca. Focusing on sustainability and bio-diversity, the couple has created a truly charming visitor experience combining remote rural immersion and some basic lessons in viticulture and olive oil production. With an maximum out-put of about 3000 litres of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Colle Verde is a truly qualitative enterprise that follows artisan values and prioritises sustainable practices over high yield. Christina, our guide there, greatly enhanced our visit with her thorough knowledge, her excellent English speaking skills and her gentle sense of humour.

Lunch followed in Lucca at the excellent Buca Di San Antonio. There’s historical evidence of a restaurant operating at this location for well over 200 years and inside it certainly has that confident timbre of tradition and heritage. Most of us ate Tortelli Lucchese al Sugo and enjoyed a deeply satisfying pasta dish of rich flavours. A quick post prandial walk around the walled city  left us wishing we had allocated more time to truly discover this Tuscan gem.

Naples – 21 April 

I’ve never met a Neopolitan that I didn’t like a lot. They’re passionate, warm hearted and empathetic to a fault. Until today, however, I’d never actually visited Naples although that didn’t prevent me from having some pre-conceived, mostly negative, notions of what it might be like – chaotic, dirty, lawless etc. To be honest, there was more than a touch of lawlessness and chaos in the manner by which my taxi driver conveyed me to the Grand Hotel Santa Lucia. There was also evidence of general urban decay and squalor – ubiquitous graffiti, roads in poor condition, un-swept streets etc Yet having spent the guts of a day there in the company of a native Neapolitan who knows and loves his city madly, deeply, passionately it now seems irrelevant to even mention these stereo-typical half baked viewpoints. In fact it merits a posting all of its own – watch this space!

Things to be thankful for:

1. Sei Divino, a wonderful bar close to Trattoria dei 13 Gobbi on via della Porcellana. Less frenetic and thronged than the cool bars on via dello Santo Spirito, we enjoyed great company, drinks and live music courtesy of the excellent “Tea for Two”, a voice and guitar acoustic duo;

2. Hotel degli Orafi – boutique property beside the Ponte Vecchio with a wonderful terrace on the 5th floor overlooking Arno on one side and Duomo on the other;

3. Daniela Trovato, Director of Sales at Four Seasons Firenze, probably Europe’s most perfect hotel experience (see previous blog posts). Thanks, in particular, for the Brunello!

Padraic Gilligan is Vice President of Ovation Global DMC and was in Florence and Naples to assist his Ovation Italy colleagues on a number of important operations.

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