Travel for mind, body and spirit: Nose The smells of Italy

There are many reasons to choose Florence in the autumn: the city is cooler, it's less crowded and the hills around are blazing red and gold. But the most irresistible reason of all is truffles. Or rather, the smell of them.

In the Oltrarno area, south of the river, there's a small restaurant, the Vecchia Bettola, that you'd walk straight past in daytime, without a second glance. There are no poncy bay trees at the door, no self-referential quotes stuck up in the window. But here, you get some of the best Tuscan cooking in the city.

As soon as you enter the place, you pick up the rich, slightly earthy, almost narcotic smell of truffles, sliced extravagantly over plates of springy spaghetti, packed into little parcels of ravioli, or transmuted into airy omelettes. A plate of strong, sweet prosciutto, smelling of treacle, truffled pasta after, coffee strong enough to stand up without its cup, this is my idea of a good Italian meal.

Smells are dangerously evocative and the smells of abroad tell you almost faster than the sights that you are in a place that is different and strange. One February we left England at its bleakest moment, frozen, cheerless, monochrome, and stepped out, only a few hours later, at Faro on Portugal's southern coast, where the soft black night was heavy with the smell of mimosa. Now Portugal and mimosa are inextricably linked in my head. France, despite the efforts of the anti-smokers, is still Gauloises to me. Dominica, in the Windward Isles, is the sulphur which rises from the island's bubbling hot springs. But the sulphur is cut with draughts of datura, whose huge night-scented trumpets attract moths as big as tablecloths.

Most scent memories are cocktails rather than straight draughts. Italy isn't just truffles; it's damp plaster, too, the kind of venerable, ancient, cool smell you get when you walk into a church such as Santo Spirito in Florence. Did it already smell old when it was first built in the mid- 15th century by the Florentine architect, Filippo Brunelleschi? As you wander round the side chapels (38 of them, each decorated with extraordinary paintings), the territory is marked out by other smells hovering in the air: a whiff of warm wax from the offertory candles, a sharp flash of incense, the powerful sweetness of white lilies, the same flowers that you have just been looking at in the paintings of Verrocchio and Filippino Lippi.

The same cool smell (though without the overtones of damp) enveloped us when we walked up the steps into the vast room that does duty as reception at the Hotel Torre di Bellosguardo. This old four-square villa, dominating a hill to the southwest of the city, had been recommended by a Milanese friend who had stayed there. "In my travel guide," he said, "it was marked with two red hearts." That was the clincher as far as he was concerned.

I liked it because it was so quiet. Our bedroom was as big as the cavernous reception below, and had a high beamed ceiling. The beams were painted in faded herringbones of red, white and blue, the little cartouches in between filled with flowers, fruit and insects. When I opened my eyes each morning, the first thing I saw was a perfectly painted snail, caught for the past four centuries between a bird and a daisy on this wooden panorama.

At least half a mile seemed to separate each piece of furniture in the room: a low bed, a beaten-up but intriguing old writing desk, two chairs, a table. And a piano. In an alcove close by was a dusty pile of music for it, mostly Edwardian lieder, printed in Austria and Germany. How had they got there? The room's one outside wall was more than 4ft thick and a stone window seat was built in under the huge round-headed window. This looked out over the terraced garden and then on to a ridiculously beautiful view of Florence below. Not even that fastidious film-making duo, Merchant and Ivory, could have conjured up anything closer to the English dream of Italy.

The dreamtime tenor of the place was intensified by the fact that it seemed to be entirely empty. Not only of other guests, but of any staff either. Beds were made, but we never saw a maid. Glass doors slid open silently to let you into the hall, but there was nobody there to do the sliding. The doors worked on a sensor. On the far side of the vast reception room was a monumental conservatory, filled with the scent of orange and lemon trees ranged in huge terracotta pots down the length of the brick- floored building. Nobody ever sat in the neatly arranged cane armchairs, though there was a bright pink parrot on a perch.

At the end, a door gave on to the garden, with a tunnel roofed in wisteria disappearing to a shady courtyard beyond. Narrow terraces marked by parallel box-hedged paths fell down the side of the hill. Behind the box hedges the last flush of roses bloomed, lush sweetly scented roses, the uncompromising pink of Neapolitan ice cream. Tall white acidanthera, with leaves like gladioli and flowers like little orchids, had been flowering in pots at home before we left. Now here they were in Italy, but planted alongside oranges and olives and vines and all sorts of other plants that I hadn't a hope of growing outside.

One rainy afternoon, on impulse, we took the bus to Pistoia, just for the ride. As it drew into Pistoia's windswept piazza, an unmistakable breath of chestnut swept through the bus window. Like well-trained truffle-hounds, we leapt off, tracked down the chestnut-roaster and returned with hot chestnuts, charred to perfection, piled in roughly twisted cornets of paper.

Now chestnuts are mixed with truffles in my quintessential compound of Florentine smells: chestnuts with the aroma of new bread and wood smoke. It may not be as heady a smell as essence of truffle, but it doesn't break the bank either. Anna Pavord

Hotel Torre di Bellosguardo (0039 55 2298145, fax 0039 55 229008). Vecchia Bettola (0039 55 224158).

Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
Arts and Entertainment
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - Business Services-£70,000 OTE

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + OTE £70,000 + car + pension: h2 Recruit Ltd: A wel...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Receptionist / Warranty Administrator

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion the Largest Independent Motor...

    Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

    £39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game