Florence, Italy: A long way from Footscray

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Florence, Italy: A long way from Footscray

The instructions on how to get to her hotel were quite specific: she said they were located directly opposite Cartier. Which was true, but it might have been equally easy to describe it as being just down the street from the enormous Palazzo Strozzi which dominates this block in central Florence 10 minutes walk from the Major Attractions: the Uffizi, Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo and so on.

The 14th century Palazzo Strozzi -- about five stories high by current standards and built in massive stone -- is what Americans might call "a real piece of work".

But then in its own way so is the family-run Hotel Scoti.

A tiny lift takes you to their second floor entrance in this 16th century building where their foyer opens out into an enormous sitting area with floor to ceiling frescoes painted in the 1770s by a member of the famous Florentine Gherardini family. They depict the three country properties of the original owners.

The Scoti -- which was seven neglected rooms which hadn't been painted for 30 years before its current owners took it over -- has a fascinating story to tell.

And so does its owner Doreen who was born in Footscray, Melbourne to Sicilian parents and who at 20 went with her father to Sicily. And she never went home again.

She met her husband in Sicily and worked 15 years for an American pharmaceutical company while he ran a small tabacchi. Coincidentally when her company planned to relocate to Rome he sold his shop and so they considered their options. Ten years ago, she says, they found this place.

"We feel very much at home in the hustle and bustle of a city centre -- although this place is quiet -- and we were looking for a business to live and work in. We'd spent six months in Australia three years before and considered moving there. My son was 19 and daughter 12 so we had to choose something they could slide into as well."

They considered a hotel and had been looking in Milan and Como, but the places they saw didn't feel right. Then they were passing through Florence and bought a local newspaper.

"In winter the hotels are always changing hands but we'd seen nothing the first time, and then this place came up. The rent was quite high, all the bathrooms were shared, there was a hole in the ceiling of the dining room, and the place was quite eerie because it only had two guests. It had really been let go and would be a lot of work.

"But there we were, both in our 40s and with the spectre of unemployment hanging over us, and this had room for the family. And the fresco was very attractive."

Against the advice of an accountant who told them they could barely expect to break even they took over the hotel and began renovating. They refitted the sitting room and large dining area with appropriate decor.

"In winter we went to markets to get period furniture, we put in plumbing, painted the place, and got phone lines into every room."

And now Hotel Scoti has expanded across the hallway into five apartments on the other side.

"We give people a key so they can come and go as they please and it is just like having guests in our own home. We live and work here and this is the kind of place people who come to Florence seem to want, especially if they have seen Room With A View," she laughs.

The hotel is a quiet refuge in a busy city, the building a character-filled place, and the fresco a talking point as much as offering a frisson of the elegant past this place must have enjoyed.

"We were probably crazy to do this, and you wouldn't buy a business like this if you just listened to the accountants. But sometimes you have to take a chance. You never know where life will take you."

Well, from Footscray to Florence for a start.

For other travel stories by Graham Reid, see here for his two award-winning travel books.

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