Summer in Italia is as close as mortals get... to heaven. Sun-bathed piazzas, colorful, aromatic farmers markets, sensual people throbbing to different music 24 hours a day. If Alaska is the land of the Midnight Sun, Italia is the terra of the Midnight Fun.
Italians are different than Americans, very, and not just because they rarely wear fanny packs accessorized with sandals and socks. Italians are hedonists. They are overwhelmingly stylish, thin and affable... and seem to live each day in the joyful pursuit of sensate pleasures -- food, wine, art and sensual delights. You don't find Italians gathered around the TV watching "The Skanky Housewives of Verona" or breathlessly following the plastic imbeciles that populate American pop culture. Italians actually live their lives... rather than watching others pretend to live theirs.
The almost smug knowledge that their ancestors invented the modern world, albeit thousands of years ago, oozes from the well-tended pores of modern Italians. Yet, they are not pretentious or reclusive. Quite the opposite. They welcome visitors with trademark gusto and panache as we invade their countryside each summer, and do their best to cocoon us in their sensual lifestyles. In Hollywood where I live, people air-kiss upon meeting... to see if there's a knife cocked and ready behind the back. In Italy they really kiss because they like kissing.
Lovers, fighters, eaters and artists from around the world, eventually make their way to Italy, making their pilgrimage to the place where La Dolce Vita isn't just a movie.
Roma is the cosmopolitan heart of this ancient, yet very modern country, but Firenze is its soul. Birthplace of the Renaissance, home still to much of the world's greatest art -- including perhaps the artistic apex of Western Civilization, Michelangelo's David, Florence is a bucket-list must. Which is why we chose to visit as my wife, The Traveling Diva, and I began our new life together.
We skipped the tour package, instead opting for a boutique hotel in the heart of the city. We wanted to be walking-close to all the must-see destinations, but we also wanted to experience the local life. We wanted to meet real Florentines and immerse ourselves in their culture, food and lifestyles. To do that, we chose JK Place, more a home than hotel, and upon our several hours-delayed midnight arrival, were surprised to find the GM waiting up for us in entry hall -- there is no "front desk." The first words out of his mouth were, "Can we get you something to eat?" I freakin' LOVE Italy!
We settled into JK place like we were visiting family. Luckily, it was Italian family. Every morning the breakfast spread looked like something out of travel magazine -- fruits, cheese, ham, prosciutto, and the most delicious cappuccino. The food is served around a large communal table, which gave us a great venue to try out our Italian. Yeni, a native Spanish speaker, took Italian classes for 6 months prior to our departure, and was welcomed as a Florentine. I, on the other hand, just know the Italian parts from The Godfather -- handy if you're brokering a gangland peace with a Turk, not so much if you're navigating through the cobblestone streets of the birthplace of Classical art.
Firenze is a city focused on the ethereal. Its not a steel town, or a port town, or a financial center -- it is, as its always been, a fertile womb from which the world's greatest art is born. There are enough museums for a lifetime. Treasures you've heard about, seen in books, and know you should know... but you don't know, until you see them in person. Only THEN can you know... you know?
I can tell you that seeing the actual statue of David, Michelangelo's masterwork -- not to be confused with the Sistine Chapel (he always thought of himself as a sculptor, he painted because the pope made him paint) -- brings people to tears. But you won't believe me -- or really care -- until you see it yourself. Standing there, dwarfed by this monument, art becomes visceral. That is the magic -- this genius is able to time travel 500 years into his future and grab modern visitors by the gut. I can tell you all this, but not until you stand there in its shadow - where photos are strictly forbidden -- will you understand. Firenze is a very special place.
All we did in Firenze was walk, eat and sleep. And unlike most other places, that's more than enough. As your feet shuffle down the same stone streets that have hosted bazillions of artists and benefactors, each turn reveals a new treasure. A gallery, a fresco, a café, a wine bar, a church... even the coffee places here are stunning. It is a city that places a premium on style, art and essence above all other.
The mere act of just grokking it all is exhausting, let alone what it must have taken to actually create the works we marveled at in every square. Each day started at dawn with the most amazing food and interesting conversation. We met couples from Germany, Japan, Spain and Demark. On the first day. The communal table fosters conversation and interaction, which only made our experience more authentic and richly "European."
JK Place was the perfect haven for our tired bodies and thrilled minds. Comfortable, homey and peaceful, we truly felt like we were in a friend's home. It's not at all a hotel. The staff walk the delicate balance between accessible and intrusive, always there to offer food, drink or ideas on what to do, where to go... and most importantly why. Frankly, when I read this kind of stuff about hotel brands, I just assume its PR BS written by some intern thousands of miles away from the property. But JK Place is different. They don't go through the motions -- they love their city and its riches, and take a real pride in sharing it with you. Probably because once you've been to Firenze, all you can think about is coming back.
After 10 years of providing personalized service to visitors to Firenze, the team behind JK Place has just opened JK Place ROMA. Taking the same attention to detail and comfort from bucolic Firenze and nestling into a similar spot in the heart of the Eternal City, JK Place Roma aspires to cultivate the same fanatical devotion in an entirely new, old City.
A visit to Italy in the warm months celebrates all the best things about being human. Every step feels like a victory lap.
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Listen to A FORK ON THE ROAD, iTunes #1 Travel show. New episodes every Thursday at iTunes. This week, its all about Italy. Mark and the Traveling Diva talk to Mark Anderson about when and how to get the best value booking travel to Italy, and include the full interview with GM of JK Place, Claudio Meli.