As welcomes go, my arrival into Genoa airport will take some beating. In my experience, airport transfers usually involve a 45 minute purgatory of cabs or shuttle buses. However, there I was, driving along dream-like coastal roads with a soundtrack of classic Italian standards. An appropriately bespoke introduction, given I would spend the next week exploring the best of Italy's culinary and fashion traditions.
The first destination of the week was Portofino, a fishing village nestled in the North of Italy on the Ligurian Coast that has always been a favourite among the rich and famous. Politicians, oligarchs and celebrities park their yachts in the colourful, vibrant harbour; buy villas and castles in the mountains above; or flock to the Belmond Hotel Splendido, where I spent the first couple of days.
Jovial chefs weren't the only experience at the Splendido's disposal. The next day I climbed aboard their speedboat (available for guests to hire) and cruised along the Ligurian Coast feeling like an overfed 007.
The hotel is breathtaking. Overlooking lush winding streets that lead down to the harbour, the vision below stops many guests in their tracks. I, however, had a cooking class to attend. After an apology from a hotel rep about the weather (apparently gorgeous sun with a slight breeze is disappointing), I went to the hotel's restaurant, Chuflay, in the heart of town, where I was greeted by the head chef and given a pesto making lesson. Wrestling valiantly with pestle and mortar, I produced a pesto that got an approving nod from my instructors, who explained the importance of fresh ingredients and time-honoured methods to all Italian cooking.
Jovial chefs weren't the only experience at the Splendido's disposal. The next day I climbed aboard their speedboat (available for guests to hire) and cruised along the Ligurian Coast feeling like an overfed 007. My destination was San Fruttuosso Abbey, reachable only by sea or foot. The adjoining restaurant offers a prime location to enjoy the scenery, although I inadvertently had another lesson – properly de-shelling langoustines, a skill taught to me by a sympathetic fellow diner.
Jovial chefs weren't the only experience at the Splendido's disposal. The next day I climbed aboard their speedboat (available for guests to hire) and cruised along the Ligurian Coast feeling like an overfed 007
That evening I attended the hotel's 115th birthday party, a ‘50s themed affair with typically gorgeous cuisine and entertainment. The Splendido gained notoriety around the mid-20th century when the great and the good of Hollywood were guests. The enthusiastic concierge revealed a guest book that boasts messages from Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor; and with the architecture having rarely changed over the years, I truly felt part of that history.
Midway through the week, I waved a fond farewell to Portofino, and drove to Florence to another of the Belmond group's hotels, Villa San Michele. A former monastery once occupied by Napoleon, the ornate hallways and gardens compete with a view of the city that never gets old. While offering the obvious sightseeing and tourist traps, Florence also has a rich tradition of design and sculpture, which I would experience over the next couple of days.
I started with a trip to Galleria Romanelli, a TARDIS-like studio tucked away in a Florentine side street, where I got an introduction to the art of sculpting. After an hour of patient tutorial from fourth generation artist Romano, it was painfully clear I'm no prodigy (the nose I sculpted was more ‘ten rounds with Tyson' than Michelangelo's David), but it proved an oddly therapeutic experience.
My guide led me through several secret doors, some exclusive to hotel guests. I marvelled at the fascinating mills of Antico Setificio Fiorentino (a centuries-old fabric mill with a loom designed by Leonardo Da Vinci); and the city's famed leather school, set up for wartime orphans to learn a trade, now teaching the future fashion greats their craft. It’s also a great place to get that impressive gift for those back home, particularly as most purchases are monogrammed in gold leaf free of charge.
One of the last stops in the city was the bustling Mercato Centrale, a food lover's nirvana which offered a variety of Italian cuisine to either be scoffed with the masses in the main food court or enjoyed with some local wines in the upstairs restaurant. It's a testament to the Italian attitude towards eating – there's no packaging, no sell-by dates, the food is fresh and comes from no more than a few miles away. Eating the right way seemed as natural to Italians as queuing is back home.
The importance placed on heritage and region was also evident everywhere I went. Many businesses are hundreds of years old, run by people inheriting trades from several generations, and using original techniques. Such tried and tested tradition is reassuring for those used to a Starbucks on every corner – gentrification is one fashion that Italy appeared to have no need for.
Both the sun-drenched hills of Portofino and the riverside splendour of Florence deliver their own authentic experience. After a week of learning new skills and new levels of indulgence, I left Italy having seen the best of two very different worlds.