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Fabulous Florence: Getting an insider’s view of this popular Italian city

Amy Laughinghouse, Special to the American-Statesman
The Arno can run high and fast, but at times in Florence it’s as smooth and glossy as a mirror. [Contributed by Amy Laughinghouse]

Perhaps you’ve been to Florence. You’ve marveled at the Duomo’s multi-colored marble façade, admired the rippling virility of Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia, and made the mandatory pilgrimage to the Uffizi, the greatest-hits art gallery filled with an eye-watering assortment of masterpieces by legends like Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Botticelli.

In our haste to check off must-see museums and monuments, it’s easy to overlook the Tuscan capital’s more subtle charms — encounters that make you feel less like a tourist and more like the friend of a family who wants to show you the best of a city they know and love. Guests of the Lungarno Collection are invited to explore exactly those sorts of opportunities, by a host family that just happens to be the Ferragamos — yes, as in the late Salvatore Ferragamo, the feted shoe designer.

“The Lungarno Collection’s connection is with the family, not the Ferragamo brand and the fashion world,” says Cristina Fogliatto, the collection’s PR and communication director. “The idea was to re-create the atmosphere of a private space, the same style as their private home.”

The Lungarno Collection features one hotel in Rome, a future opening planned for Milan and four hotels in Florence — the five-star Hotel Lungarno and Portrait Firenze and the four-star Gallery Hotel Art and Continentale. The Florentine quartet is clustered along the River Arno near the famous shop-lined bridge, Ponte Vecchio.

Some of the hotels’ “exclusive experiences,” like a photography tour with a Leica expert or painting lessons with a Florentine artist, are outlined on the Lungarno Collection website. Others are individually customized, as I discovered during my recent stay at Hotel Lungarno.

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I’m keen on quirky, off-the-beaten-track exploits, which explains why, with the help of the Lungarno Collection, I’m in a Florentine kitchen knuckle-deep in dough. Under the tutelage of chef Maria Valiani, I’m helping to prepare a Tuscan meal of handmade tagliatelle, meatballs and “tenerina” chocolate cake at Desinare cooking school, located above a sprawling design center where antiques are refinished and repurposed on-site. Not exactly the sort of establishment you would simply stumble upon yourself.

It’s also the last place anyone would expect to find me. Having once set my kitchen aflame while thrashing out a stir fry, I usually restrict my culinary forays to making toast. But cooking with confidence (or at least without employing a fire extinguisher) is something I’ve aspired to for ages. So, encouraged by Valiani’s gentle coaching — and well-oiled by Tuscan wine — here I am, rolling out pasta dough and shaping meatballs like a pro.

Naturally, I want to get out and explore, as well, so the Lungarno Collection has arranged a tour with a twist. My comrades and I travel in a tuk-tuk, which resembles a three-wheeled convertible golf cart. “The comfort is not like a Mercedes,” warns our driver, Brando, with an apologetic grin. “There will be bumping.”

There is indeed bottom-bouncing bumping, like a cross between an especially vigorous massage chair and a wooden roller coaster, but it’s fun whisking along cobblestone streets and into the hills south of the Arno. We pause at Piazzale Michelangelo, where a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David gazes upon a panorama of Florence’s historic landmarks, from the Arno to the Duomo and the tower of Palazzo Vecchio. We get our dose of Dave, minus the Accademia’s queues, and with a bonus bird’s-eye view.

The tour culminates with a visit to one of Florence’s most beloved bakeries. Pasticceria Artigianale Buonamici was founded in 1949 by Bruno Buonamici, whose son, Roberto, joined the family business at the age of 13. Fifty years later, Roberto — an ageless octogenarian who moves with the ease of a much younger man — still rocks up frequently to bake cantucci cookies before an enthralled audience. If you want the recipe for eternal youth, I reckon you’ll find it in Buonamici’s handwritten cookbook, which bakers have passed down for a century.

Of course, Florence is as much about fashion as it is about food, and so I can’t leave without visiting at least one museum — the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo. Located beneath the Salvatore Ferragamo flagship store on Via Tornabuoni — the Florentine version of Rodeo Drive — the museum features rotating exhibitions.

Through March 8, the theme is “Sustainable Thinking.” There’s an interesting display of eco-conscious clothing, including a coat made from recycled yarn and paper scraps, and a slinky gold dress, designed by Maria Sole Ferragamo, woven from waste leather from the Ferragamo shoe factory.

My favorite room features nearly 80 pairs of shoes created by Salvatore himself in the ’30s and ’40s. Supplies were hard to come by in those war-ravaged years, so Ferragamo used whatever he could get his hands on — cellophane candy wrappers, raffia, fishing line and cork. (Yes, we have Ferragamo to thank for the timeless cork wedge.) He also experimented with leather from unexpected sources, as evidenced by scraps of turquoise snapper skin and silver toad hide. Why that didn’t catch on, I’m not sure; perhaps turquoise fish and silver toads were too rare to prove practical.

I’ve barely cracked the cover of a guidebook on this visit, but I’ve done what I hoped to accomplish. I’ve walked in the footsteps of a Florentine, Ferragamo-style.

The Ferragamos were one of the first fashion families to enter the hotel industry, back in the late 1990s. Each of their “offspring” properties has a distinct personality, like disparate siblings whose common trait is a passion for hospitality.

Hotel Lungarno (from € 330) is the sophisticated connoisseur, boasting an important private collection of more than 400 pieces of modern art, including Picasso, Cocteau and Bueno, and a Michelin-starred restaurant, Borgo San Jacopo. Dressed in shipshape navy and white, Hotel Lungarno reclines directly alongside the Arno, without even a sidewalk to separate them. Sitting in the lounge, where large windows overlook the river, you feel as though you’re on a luxury liner — the water so close that you could almost reach down and let the current flow through your fingers.

Portrait Firenze (from € 450) is the sexy Instagram star, sporting black and white photos of Salvatore Ferragamo and ’50s celebrities like Audrey Hepburn and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. There’s even a selfie-cam in the elevator. Portrait has all the coolest friends — a young, well-connected “lifestyle team” eager to hook you up with unique experiences. In one instance, they arranged to have fabric woven to match the exact blue of a guest’s eyes.

Gallery Hotel Art (from € 160) is the hipster. Check out the art exhibition in the entry hall and lounge. Then head to Fusion Bar and Restaurant, where you can sip inventive cocktails like the Sonic Dirty, employing vodka “ultrasound infused” with fennel and celery, and feast on sushi and taste bud-bending, South America-meets-Asia cuisine.

Continentale (from € 230) is the chic minimalist. Soak up the view at La Terrazza rooftop bar overlooking the Ponte Vecchio, then relax at the White Iris Spa.

– A.L.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Multiple airlines provide one-stop flights between Austin-Bergstrom and Florence Airport, Peretola.

Where to stay: The Lungarno Collection, lungarnocollection.com

Eat and experience: Desinare cooking school, desinare.it/en

Pasticceria Artigianale Buonamici, pasticceriabuonamici.it

Mangiafoco Osteria Tartuferia, mangiafoco.com. Friendly, casual restaurant specializing in truffle dishes. You can buy truffle products to take home, too.

Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, ferragamo.com/museo/en/usa

Florentine hotels with personality