Culturious Accommodations in Tuscany

By David Cogswell

One of the defining features of the Tauck Culturious tour model is its use of boutique hotels. After experiencing the trip myself, I felt that I got a pretty good idea of what that means. There is no Webster’s authority for marketing terms like “boutique hotel,” but though it is a new, trendy term, what it refers to is actually much older. In fact the smaller, more individualized hotels are really more how things used to be before hotel rooms evolved into a mass commodity.

As I understand it, the easiest way to define boutique hotel is in terms of what it’s not. Though a boutique hotel is a luxurious place to stay, it operates by a different set of values than the mega brand luxury hotel chains. In the case of the latter, their value proposition is that they provide a consistent top-quality level of service in terms of the fundamental elements of hotel service. You can go to a Ritz Carlton anywhere in the world and expect to get nearly perfect service in terms of the Ritz proposition. But the boutique hotel is for the well-traveled vacationer, who doesn’t want a standardized kind of perfection. The individual personality of the hotel and its environs are more important to the boutique customer. The same idiosyncrasies that give the hotel its individual charm may also mean lower standards in terms of any particular feature, the width of the driveway for example. Tauck’s market researchers discovered that their target affluent baby boomers would trade some creature comforts for a more authentic experience of the destination and culture.

For the business traveler, the predictability of a standard product is useful. As a business traveler I want what I want when I want it. I don’t have time to diddle around. I need certain things and I probably won’t even be spending that much time in the hotel. As a cultural explorer on vacation, my concerns are very different. This is quality time I have set aside to savor. Efficiency and predictability are less important than charm, cultural authenticity and aesthetic pleasure. The hotel’s location is valued on the basis of its accessibility to culture, the ambience of the hotel neighborhood and the experience it gives of the destination.

The Culturious Tuscany trip used three hotels, three nights in Florence, two in the village of Monterosso in Cinque Terre and two in the city of Lucca. The choice in Florence was Gallery Hotel Art. It was a small, secluded property located right at the heart of the old city of Florence, within strolling distance of most of the major historic landmarks.

The hotel inhabited its own private alcove hidden within the busy tourist center of the old city. It was on a small, secluded block that could be entered only through narrow openings that were little more than alleys. But once through the opening, the street opened in front of the hotel, creating its own little private plaza for its entrance and its outdoor café. But private and calm as it was, it was only a block away from the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge across the Arno River, and a priceless period piece, as well as a busy artery of pedestrian traffic. About a block beyond is the Uffizi Gallery, one of the most important museums in art history, and beyond that the wide Piazza Della Signoria, where Michelangeleo’s statue of David stood in front of the Palazzo Vecchio for 400 years till 1873, when it was moved inside and replaced with a copy after some lunatic went after it with a hammer.

A few more blocks away is the Piazza Della Repubblica, a vast square crowned by a mighty triumphal arch, lined with restaurants, vendors, performers and a carousel. Built on the site of the Roman forum, the center of the Roman city, the square’s construction marked the unification of Italy in the late 19th century during the brief time when Florence was the capital. After several more tiny blocks packed with stores and cafes one comes upon the Piazza Del Duomo surrounding the enormous Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, with its dizzyingly intricate designs of red, green and white marble, its tall tower and orange dome.

Location was definitely Gallery Hotel Art’s ace in the hole. But that is not to deprecate the accommodations. The hotel itself was a delightful, a well-manicured little place with the crisp, sparse design of a contemporary art gallery.

The second hotel was the Hotel Porto Roca in the village of Monterroso al Mare, one of the “five lands” or fishing villages that comprise Cinque Terre. We approached the village by boat and from our view from the Mediterranean it appeared to be on a nearly vertical mountainside jutting out of the sea. It was not until we got close that we could see the natural terracing of the land that made it possible to build a hotel on such a steep surface. The view across the Mediterranean on the sunset side was certainly a prime feature, but then there was the warm climate, the beach, the lush environment and the quaint village. But beyond its location, it was furnished with a vintage elegance that delighted the senses and created a feeling of comfort. My room was equipped with a balcony as large as the room itself It was perfectly conceived because with the view over the harbor, the mountains and the open sea, the balcony was the best place to be.

In terms of service, Porto Roca had a friendly hometown feeling. Monterroso is, after all, a remote fishing village that has become a tourist attraction. With its experience serving a high-end clientele, it had a nice mixture of worldly sophistication and small town friendliness. We stayed there for two nights and the guests hiked, beached, visited the shops and cafes in the village or enjoyed the hotel itself.

Our final two nights were spent at Hotel Ilaria in Lucca next to the moat that marked the edge of the Medieval city. A center of the silk trade, inhabited by well-to-do silk merchants, Lucca was one of the only cities in Italy that eluded control of the Medicis, and the walls were built to secure that status. The hotel was in the heart of the old city where everything was accessible by foot. It was created from the stables of an aristocratic villa and a 14th century church. And yet the hotel’s design incorporated the sophistication of contemporary Italian design so that it also felt totally modern. Authentic ambiance? In spades. If these walls could talk… imagine! -- David Cogswell

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