The past comes alive for Mariella Frostrup during a nostalgic trip to Florence.
When I was a child in rural Ireland, we never went on holidays, let alone holidays brimful of organised activities to keep us cerebrally stimulated. We lived in abject fear of "culture". The museum visit (dressed up as a treat) was our nemesis: trotting after one parent or the other, who would break the dust-speckled silence by droning on, as we trailed our fingers over the Do Not Touch signs and counted the long, dreary minutes until we would be liberated. This world of relic worship seemed completely alien.
So maybe it was no bad thing that it took me decades to reach the glorious city of Florence. Instead, it was love at first sight as I found myself in a living museum that brought the past alive without battering me with its provenance. It's impossible to cross the Ponte Vecchio or wander past the Duomo without considering its rich artistic history.
Ancient art rubs shoulders with hotels, restaurants, boutiques (read: shopping) and, of course, the year-round bustle of tourists, students and residents who thread their way though its medieval streets.
Unlike the UK, where all roads lead to London, Italy has always been admirably democratic when it comes to celebrating its cities. Naples is the bad brother, tousle-haired, petulant and edgy; no-nonsense Milan also totters on high heels, a prancing fashionista; Rome is the grand old lady, spectacular in her crumbling charm; while Turin plays patriarch — looking down from on high while siring fast cars and football heroes.
Florence, meanwhile, is always presented as the composed contessa, and there's no question it's a conservative city with a small "c". It's also a place of rich and evocative history, spawning both Dante and Machiavelli. The Medicis presided, Michelangelo flourished and patronage provided for a glorious renaissance in art and culture while ruling families battled to build the most ostentatious palazzi.
Those days were all about forward momentum, but as our world continues to turn at an ever-faster pace, I find myself increasingly drawn to places that stay the same. I recently returned to Florence after an absence of nearly 15 years to find only the refurbished Hotel Savoy unfamiliar. Situated on the premier shopping street, Via Roma, and decorated with the quietly distinctive sophistication that has made Olga Polizzi a designer of acclaim, it's an oasis of charming service and luxurious comfort in the bustling heart of the city — its cool blues and white blooms offering blessed respite from the sweltering streets.
On arrival, we flung open our balcony doors to embrace the early-evening bustle in the Piazza della Repubblica below and saw the same, albeit much-aged, Dylan-playing busker we last encountered at the turn of the century.
For those wanting to stir their offspring into cultural engagement, there are other enticements in Florence.
The hotel, in partnership with a company called VIK, has devised a way of overcoming the cultural lethargy that marked my childhood. VIKs (Very Important Kids) get to experience everything from out-of-hours museum treasure hunts and rafting past the city's abandoned windmills, to Spy Tours, where children learn the art of espionage by uncovering cultural clues. Smell is engaged during a visit to a master perfumer who helps you curate your own scent, and taste — with ample opportunity to sample chocolate and . . . gelato. How things have changed since my "analogue" childhood days out. Today's youngsters have the world at their fingertips.
I've always loved a bite-sized destination that can be traversed on foot and which you can become intimate with in a matter of days, and Florence qualifies on both counts.
My favourite restaurant, Trattoria Cammillo, was still serving perfect tagliatelle with fresh porcini. At the Accademia Gallery, Michelangelo's unfinished statues still begged for release as their half-formed limbs reached out from lumps of rock, and convincing copies of designer handbags were still being sold on the pavements.
Early on Sunday, I strolled along beside the Arno to the hilltop basilica of San Miniato al Monte, where the panorama and pealing bells provided the perfect end to an idyllic mini-break.