Hotel Excelsior, Florence, Italy

Florence offers its visitors great art, great shopping, great vistas and great food. And it boasts at least one great hotel--the Hotel Excelsior. At the epicenter of Western culture, slightly downstream on the Arno river from the famous bridge of goldsmiths, the Ponte Vecchio, not far from where Dante met Beatrice, the Excelsior is a convenient stroll from the main treasures of historic Florence, the Duomo, the Uffizi Galleries and the Pitti Palace, as well as an easy walk to the best shopping, the choicest antiques on the Borgo Ognissanti, the elegant and exclusive crafts and handwork on the Via Tornabuoni, and the expensive designer fashion boutiques along the Via della Vigna Nuova.

The Excelsior, formerly a CIGA Hotel and now part of the ITT Sheraton Luxury Collection, was at one time the house of Carolina Bonaparte, Napoleon's sister. The spacious proportions and fine materials betray its noble origins. The lobby is a warm mixture of coffered wood ceilings, bronze chandeliers, marble floors and columns, and wood trim. Tapestries, frescos, stained glass and oriental rugs complete the luxurious setting.

With its leather armchairs, overstuffed brocade sofas, Chinese vases of fresh flower arrangements, and unique antiques, the Donatello bar, off of the lobby, is the place to go in the evening. A pianist plays nightly (except Monday) to a lively crowd of locals and international visitors intent on relaxing. The barman stocks a limited selection of cigars.

Florentine cooking is exemplary for the flavor and freshness of its ingredients. The Ristorante Il Cestello at the hotel admirably upholds that tradition. A beautiful wood-paneled room, its high ceilings are ornately painted dark walnut. One wall has eighteenth-century polychrome blown glass windows. Another is graced by a seventeenth-century tapestry of Ferdenado II by Giuseppe Badaraccio, which wags at the hotel claim depicts the restaurant's chef being worshiped by the headwaiters.

A typical four-course dinner at Il Cestello might start with shrimp and white beans dressed with olive oil and black pepper or smoked breast of duck salad antipasta, and proceed to a rich and earthy risotto with fresh truffles, or an equally inviting home-made flat noodles with rabbit sauce pasta dish. The main course might be either a tasty fish and vegetable mixed grill or veal sautéed with spinach and raisins. Save room for a finish of assorted fresh pastries. All this for only 95,000 lira ($63), coffee, taxes and service included. Be sure to try the wide selection of local Tuscan wines and conclude the meal with a sweet vin santo.

Tuscan cooking provided the foundation for French cuisine. In the sixteenth century, when Catherine de Medici decamped for France to marry Francoise I, she thoughtfully brought her retinue of Florentine chefs. Unfortunately, the French carelessly neglected to assimilate the generous hospitality of Florence along with the cooking. A wooden statue of Hospitalitas, the Latin god of hospitality, graces the Excelsior's lobby and prevents such lapses. The forest green twill-clad staff at the hotel are relaxed, capable, attentive and fluent in English. Their service is efficient and gracious.

The Excelsior is the perfect place for the traveler to recover from "Stendhal's syndrome"--a condition of confusion, dizziness, disorientation, depression and loss of identity, that is said to come from overexposure to great art. The rooms are large, elegantly furnished and supplied with standard comforts, including a multilingual satellite color television, three direct-line telephones, individual climate control and minibar. More importantly, they have generous storage bureaus and closets, comfortable sitting areas and adequate writing desks. The bathrooms are modern, mirrored and marble, with full-size bathtubs and ample hot water to soak away any weariness or cares. Terry robes, toiletries and heated towels are some of the amenities included. Balcony terraces overlook the river and offer a splendid relaxing vantage from which to view the city as walkers, joggers and rowers pass by.

At night, the Excelsior offers a turndown service. Silk draperies are drawn over the double glazed and shuttered balcony windows. Down pillows and comforter are fluffed and ready to cosset you into a deep restorative sleep. Addictively delicious Caffarel chocolate truffles are placed on the side tables along with a card that provides tomorrow's weather forecast. In the morning, the International Herald Tribune, along with another beautiful day filled with great art, food and sights, is waiting at your door.

--Joshua Shapiro

Joshua Shapiro is a freelance writer based in New York. Hotel Excelsior

Piazza Ognissanti 3
Phone: (39) 55 264201; fax: (39) 55 210278; U.S. reservations: (1-800) 325-3589
Rates: Rooms, 627,000-792,000 lira (approximately $418 to $528), Suites, 990,000-2,420,000 lira (about $660 to $1,613)