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The Ferragamos' Florence

One of the most famous photographs in 20th-century fashion depicts Salvatore Ferragamo surrounded by a sea of shoe lasts in a workroom of his Florentine palazzo, the 13th-century Spini Feroni. Written in heavy black ink on the wooden forms are the names of their owners: Greta Garbo, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall.

Dubbed Shoemaker to the Stars, Ferragamo shod Hollywood royalty on and off the screen, pushing the creative envelope with sandals and stilettos, pumps and platforms, in such innovative materials as woven cellophane and raffia, "invisible" nylon thread, hemp, bark, hummingbird feathers, and exotic skins of toad, water snake, and kangaroo. Born outside Naples and headquartered in the heart of historic Florence from 1927 until his death in 1960, Ferragamo was a charismatic and persuasive (not to mention dashing) ambassador of Tuscan style.

This legacy is a lot to live up to, but his wife, Wanda, five children—Ferruccio, Fulvia, Massimo, Leonardo, and Giovanna—and grandson James fill the role as comfortably as they do their Ferragamos. Asked to name and describe their favorite hotels, restaurants, shops, and sights in Florence, they approached the task as if they were designing a new collection: with almost feral concentration, respect for tradition, and disregard for the obvious.

As the Ferragamo company has grown—embracing complete lines of men's and women's classic ready-to-wear, along with jewelry, leather bags and belts, silk scarves and ties—so too has the responsibility of belonging to what even the corner tripe vendor calls the First Family of Florentine Fashion. Like the two-inch-thick grilled bistecca for which the city is famous, Ferragamo and Florence are inseparable. Brunelleschi's mythic dome for the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) is a must-see, but so is the Ferragamo flagship boutique in Palazzo Spini Feroni, which, with its lofty frescoed ceilings, is nothing if not grand.

where to stay

The Ferragamos draw such a sharp line between their fashion and Florentine hotel empires that it's possible to spend a week at the Lungarno, Gallery, or (less perfect) Continental and never know that the family owns them. Following a strict "church and state" policy, nothing at the Hotel Lungarno (14 Borgo San Jacopo; 39-055/27261, fax 39-055/268-437; doubles from $310, including tax and breakfast), not a matchbook nor telephone pad, says "Ferragamo." But the synergy is no less powerful for being unspoken. The giveaway that CEO Ferruccio Ferragamo and company are behind the hotel, which they acquired in 1995, is the high, high style quotient.

The Lungarno stands on the Arno's south bank, steps from the Ponte Vecchio. Its rather anonymous modern building is linked to a 12th-century tower, which houses the most romantic guest rooms. "Other hotels can claim to be on the river," notes Ferruccio, "but ours is the only one that doesn't have a street separating it from the water. Drop a penny from your window and it falls straight into the Arno." Massimo, head of Ferragamo's North American operations, says, "I would stay at the Lungarno even if it were owned by my worst enemy."

The Ferragamos' careful renovation of this much-loved classic yielded 57 rooms and 12 suites, crisply decorated in blue and white with cushioned headboards, avian prints, and pedimented mirrors (not, alas, full-length). Bathrooms are lavishly done in beige Botticino marble. Only the plastic tumblers glare—was glass really a corner worth cutting?Marshaled atop the mini-bars are bottles of Chianti, grappa, and vin santo, and a package of the mother of all biscotti, made by the Matteis in nearby Prato since 1858.

Set just above the river, the restaurant puts diners nearly at eye level with passing boats and, at breakfast time, locals bicycling unhurriedly to work on the opposite quay. Photographs of personalities who have left their mark on the city adorn the walls: Eleonora Duse, Harold Acton, Aldo Gucci, and, of course, Salvatore Ferragamo. The lobby, with its white-slipcovered upholstery and oxblood ginger-jar lamps, is a good place for ordering a morning latte and spreading out a map to plan your day. Service is respectable, though the concierges can seem less than thrilled to be doing their job.

In May the Ferragamos shook up Florence with something it had never known before: a resolutely contemporary boutique hotel. Within whistling distance of the Ponte Vecchio, on the north flank of the Arno, the Gallery Hotel Art (5A Vicolo dell'Oro; 39-055/27263, fax 39-055/268-557; doubles from $280) romances young and worldly customers with an art theme that reaches from the warm taupe-and-gray public spaces (showing Alberto Reggianini's insect watercolors) to the 56 pin-striped guest rooms and nine suites, hung with moody black-and-white studies of Florentine monuments. Rectilinear armchairs are in pigskin and wenge, the furniture wood of the moment. Books in the library, including first editions of English literature classics, were handpicked, title by title.

The Helvetia & Bristol (2 Via dei Pescioni; 39-055/287-814, fax 39-055/288-353; doubles from $403) retains the thick, tufted atmosphere of the 19th-century private palace it was before morphing into a hotel in 1894. In the years after, it became a magnet for composers, artists, and writers such as Stravinsky, Pirandello, and De Chirico, as well as English nobility. Travelers with a taste for the rich textures, dark woods, and murky colors of the fin de siècle will not check out feeling underfed. Most of the H&B's 29 guest rooms and 20 suites have extravagantly high ceilings, Venetian glass chandeliers dripping rosettes, and slipper chairs whose frilly skirts make them look like demoiselles waiting for their dance cards to be filled in. The hotel's dining room is one of the most formal in Florence. As for location, the H&B is perfect for those for whom no walk—even in Europe's most walkable city—is too short: the hotel is just off Florence's main square, Piazza della Repubblica.

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