BrewDogging #21: Bologna [aka Italia '15 part one]
[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stockholm, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Brighton, DED Angel, Soho]
Have you been following BrewDogging since the very beginning? Remember BrewDogging #20, published back in June 2015? Well, here's BrewDogging #21, a mere nine months later. Sorry about that.
Here's what happened. The same month that #20 went online, The Belated Birthday Girl and I spent two weeks touring Italy. This is how long ago that was - at the time of the tour, there were only two BrewDog bars in the country. (We'll get back to that shortly.) Anyway, we had a very nice holiday which took in both of those bars, plus the cities they were in, plus a shedload of historically fascinating stuff in between the two, and a couple of bits of Switzerland either side of it all. That's a lot of material to be written up, and finding the time to do it has been tricky. In the time it's taken to do that, we've visited another eight new BrewDog bars: some of them have already been discussed here because I thought they needed to be covered asap, but for others I've been thinking "let's get the other ones written first, shall we?"
So here we are. Currently, there are holes in the BrewDogging series for bar numbers 21, 22, 25, 27, 28, 29 and 30. It's time to knuckle down and patch up those holes. And we have to start with the bar that caused all the delays - Bologna, the first stop in our Italia '15 tour, which we went to in June 2015. We did it in our usual style: travelling there the long way round, doing all the traditional tourist stuff alongside more esoteric arty things, and eating and drinking ourselves into oblivion. It was fun. Let me tell you about it.
As before, the ferry ticket also covers all of our train journeys within the Netherlands, though it takes us a few minutes to work out that on this trip they’ve given us chipped tickets rather than stampable ones. The Dutch trains to Rotterdam and Utrecht are perfectly fine: in an inversion of the usual stereotypes, it starts falling apart once we transfer to Deutsche Bahn. Our connection to Frankfurt is running on a non-standard timetable, and its appearance is only announced by word of mouth, never being put up on the boards. Still, it eventually appears as promised and gets us in to Frankfurt a mere five minutes late, even allowing for a short pause as they “switch from Dutch power to German power.” “That's always worked well historically,” I say to The BBG just before she hits me.
From there it’s another German train to Bern, where we’re taking an overnight mid-journey break – the first time in Switzerland for both of us. Bern’s a ridiculously pretty place, even more so in the slowly fading light of a summer’s evening, less so when an absolute bastard of a thunderstorm kicks off while we’re outside. There are open terraces, little cellar bars, and statues of bears everywhere (it hadn’t occurred to me before that the latter are what Bern is named after). Our hotel for the night is the Hotel Kreuz, which gives us an even better view of the city from its rooftop terrace, slightly tempered by the warning that in the event of bad weather the doors back into the building will lock automatically. In what appears to be a standard move by Swiss city hotels, we also get a free day pass on local public transport, which we use the following morning to cover some of the tourist highlights: the old Einstein house, the rose garden, and a hilariously tiny funicular.
And then it’s back on the train again. First Bern-Milan by Swiss Federal Railways, a company whose name is abbreviated in three different languages, with the Italian version leading to the delightful sight of trains with FFS written in big letters on the side. Then from Milan to Bologna on Trenitalia – our previous experience with the Italian national railway wasn’t so great, but the high-speed Frecciarossa trains are streets ahead from the cattletruck we took from Milan to Venice back in 2007. As soon as we’re on the platform at Bologna, I’m being approached by street urchins offering to carry my bags for money. We’ve arrived.
Bologna’s a good city for walking around: the streets are largely lined with covered porticoes, so even in the wet it’s pleasant to just stroll about, marveling at how ACAB has become the international graffito of anti-authority protest. Nevertheless, the receptionist at our hotel Al Cappello Rosso is impressed that we walked the 20 minutes or so from the station, and assumes we're therefore fit enough to carry our own bags up the stairs. Cappello Rosso is an intriguing mixture of old and new, with its breakfast room providing a glorious bit of old Bologna high style – a placemat based around a 300-year-old illustrated guide to the 59 best restaurants in the area, including the one you’re eating in right now.
If you’re planning on just walking around Bologna – and without really thinking about it, we never use any of the city’s public transport while we’re there – then Al Cappello Rosso is a great departure point, as it’s just seconds away from the main square of Piazza Maggiore. Frustratingly, we’ve picked a time for our visit exactly between two film festivals – the biographical film festival’s just finishing, the Ritrovato starts next week – so there’s a tantalizing big screen erected in the Piazza not having movies shown on it. Still, the Basilica di San Petronio is a definite architectural highlight worth exploring, including its rather nifty astronomical clock (read up on it beforehand, or risk doing what we did and arriving there just a few minutes after its peak time around noon).
There are plenty of other places to explore. In the two and a bit days we're in Bologna, highlights include climbing Torre Degli Asinelli (the views from the top of the tower are terrific, but watch out for showy-offy South Africans swinging off the safety poles and kicking you in the arm): hanging out in the delightful Conservatorio di Musica GB Martini, which is not so much a tourist attraction, more a working music school: strolling around the botanical gardens: and experiencing the low-key religious delights of Chiesa di Santo Stefano, a lovely historical church with a courtyard, a herb garden, and a shop playing Enya in the background.
But you know why we’re here: we have a bar to tick off our list. BrewDog Bologna is quite a way off the beaten track, and we end up going around the block at least once before we finally hit it. When we get there at a little after the 6pm opening time, it's disturbingly quiet: for the early part of our visit, there's just us and one other English couple in the bar. But gradually, it becomes apparent that the locals start turning up later in the evening, and that they prefer to sit at the tables outside on the pavement. It's quite a large room when you've only got a couple of people rattling around inside it, but we stay inside anyway because we're planning to have dinner there.
The dining arrangements are quite interesting, because they don't really have a kitchen behind the bar. What they do have, though, is a pizzeria next door called Da Toto’. Ask the bar staff nicely, and they'll place an order and have pizza delivered directly to your table. We have a Siciliana and an Estiva from their standard range, and they do the job just fine. As for the beers: well, to be honest, they're a rather traditional mix of the BrewDog standards along with familiar guests from the likes of To Øl and Wild Beer, with no obvious attempt at pushing the local brews. Generally, it's all very similar to the British bars. The staff are friendly (particularly when they realise we've come over from the UK), and it's fun to watch them sat at a table working through possible food and beer pairings for an upcoming tasting event. The decor, meanwhile, is very much in the standard BrewDog style, all the way down to the English language graffiti on the walls. Here's a curious thing: there's a large metal shelf in the gents at nose height, presumably for holding the stuff from your pockets while you're taking a dump, and written above it is the phrase 'please use responsibly. ' What can this mean?
Let's leave that question hanging and segue into the inevitable food and drink section of the piece. Putting aside BrewDog and the associated pizzas we had there, here’s The Belated Birthday Girl to tell you about some of the other stuff we rammed down our necks.
In many ways, Bern was the big surprise of the holiday: a delightfully charming town, with lots of interesting-looking bars and restaurants in the cellars down the main street. We picked the Altes Tramdepot before we’d even arrived, for its irresistible combination of location, local cuisine, and beer from the on-site brew-house. In fact, the food available is a choice between Asian-inspired stir-fries and Swiss classics. We both went Swiss, with Spank opting for Spatzli mit Speck, while I had a mixed veg version. Both were filling and tasty. The sampler of the three regular beers brewed on-site plus the day's special was a great way to try them, and we picked our two favourites – the Rooibos and the Marzen – to have for a second drink. We were seated outside, with great views across Bern – which took a more dramatic turn as a spectacular electrical storm set in – but inside would be good, too, with the tanks and pipes from the brewery on display. All in all, Altes Tramdepot was a good choice for a Bern experience.
Arriving in Bologna on a Sunday evening, we wanted to have our dinner booked in advance, and plumped for the rather special I Carracci, the restaurant of the 5-star Grand Hotel Majestic "già Baglioni". Combining traditional Bolgnese cuisine with innovative fish dishes sounded right up our street. The set menus, while expensive, are very good value. Spank’s traditional menu leaned heavily on the meat, as would be expected in the region, and consisted of a starter of culatello di zibello (apparently one of the best salumi you can have), a tagliatelle ragu’ made with minced pork, and a traditional veal cutlet, with an Italian rice cake for dessert. It was all lovely, so he tells me, with the ragu’ the standout – much drier than the image of a ragu’ we’d have for an English interpretation of “spag bol”, but that more than suited him. My fish menu started with a huge burrata – a fresh cheese made from a mix of mozzarella and cream – with anchovies and raw red prawns, which was spectacular, but almost filled me up. A bit tricky, as there were three more courses to follow: a delicious and unusual primo piatto of strigoli pasta with pesto and clams, a big cut of beautifully cooked fish served with some fabulous baby potatoes, and a white chocolate mousse. We washed the meal down with a fabulous bottle of Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva from Umberto Cesar, which no doubt accompanied Spank’s traditional menu far better than my fish one, but was a gorgeous wine which I enjoyed very much. If I’d realized how large the portions would be, it would have been more sensible to have just had two courses from the a la carte. But there’s no denying how excellent the food was, and I would recommend the four course menus for a special occasion, as long as you go with a good appetite.
In our three days in Bologna, aside from our first evening splurge, we had several other excellent meals, as would be expected of somewhere with Bologna’s reputation, and there isn’t room to do them all justice. A great value lunch at Cafe Cabala, close to the due torri: a post-cinema dinner with excellent wine by the glass at Cantina Bentivoglio: and a final day quality fishy lunch (with complimentary limoncello) at the friendly Il Pirata del Porto, all warrant a mention. I may never have picked up on Bologna as a destination if BrewDog hadn’t opened a bar there, but it is a beautiful city, full of culinary delights and well worth a visit.
Two other areas we wanted to explore on our trip were the local craft beer scene, and proper Italian ice-cream. Being in Italy in the summer, I wanted to visit a gelateria in each city we visited. In Bologna, we ended up picking Cremeria Mascarella, quite close to the BrewDog bar and just along the street from the Odeon cinema. Spank chose a local flavour which we didn’t make a note of, creamy and fruity, while I went for a scoop each of chocolate and cherry vanilla. The gelato was of high quality, and both our choices were delicious.
As for beer: aside from BrewDog, we also found a couple of local bars, selling Italian craft beer. In Lortica, again near the Odeon cinema, Spank chose the wonderfully hoppy Hop Art from Birrificio Rurale. I decided I wanted to have a local wine instead, and had a Pignoletto from Corte d'Aibo, a slightly fizzy white which was very pleasant. Over in the Mercato di Mezzo, Piedmont brewery Baladin has its own bar, open into the night when the rest of the market is closed. We went there on our final night, and sampled two of the beers, both more in the style of traditional European beers rather than being influenced by the American craft beer scene. One was a Belgian-style blonde and the other a wheat. Both were perfectly drinkable, but lacked the individuality of the Hop Art. But it was good to finish on a pretty local beer.
To wrap this up, a few bits of art to consider, although many of these are only temporary displays and will be long gone from town by now. Up there in the purple bit, The BBG's mentioned the Cinema Odeon a few times, which has a restaurant, a bar and a gelateria all within handy walking distance. We saw Nanni Moretti's Mia Madre there, which I reviewed for MostlyFilm shortly afterwards - in the time it's taken to get this piece online, the film has already been and gone from UK cinemas, and can be now watched online via Curzon Home Cinema, obviously with subtitles.
You've also missed the MC Escher exhibition at Palazzo Albergati, not to mention a similar but unrelated exhibit of his work which visited both Edinburgh and London in the second half of 2015. These multiple touring exhibits are presumably a direct consequence of Escher being an artist primarily available in print form. Having said that, the Albergati exhibition tries to give you a bit more than the images we're all familiar with: there are some 3D installations and computer graphics which do a grand job of deconstructing the artist's optical illusions, and a final room which looks at Escher's impact on modern culture (i.e. adverts that have ripped him off).
One problem with building a visit to Bologna around art is that the Bolognese don't believe in Tuesday afternoons. At least, that's the impression you get from their museums and galleries, most of which close up for the day at 1pm on Tuesday. It's a policy which results in us making a rushed tour of Palazzo Poggi, a huge linked complex of museums on the site of the university. Some areas are closed down altogether, notably the museum of astronomy, but there's plenty of other stuff to cram into our high-speed hour and a bit. The collection of military architecture has its moments, mainly because of the delightfully detailed models of forts which subconsciously drive you to study them for weak spots. But the most memorable exhibits are the anatomical ones, particularly the School of Obstetrics, whose appeal will largely depend on how you feel about confronting a wall with several dozen models of deformed human foetuses hanging off it.
Finally, if Escher wasn't contemporary enough for you, there's plenty more 20th century work at MAMbo, Bologna's museum of modern art. The museum's permanent collection is a splendidly arranged timeline through the century and Bologna's role in it, showing the political undercurrent that ties all of the city's life together - the graffiti on the streets isn't just a modern thing. In the temporary exhibition area, there's an excellent overview of the work of Li Songsong, featuring monumental depictions of scenes from China's past, thickly painted onto bolted-together metal panels, with a wry satirical humour evident. MAMbo is also, temporarily, the home of Museo Morandi, a gallery dedicated to the work of local artist Giorgio Morandi. It's less interesting as an art collection than it is as a psychological study: Morandi spent much of his life in a single room, only painting what he could see on his table or out of the window, making his oeuvre a series of variations on the same few subjects.
We spend a little under three full days in Bologna, and I think that's about right. We could have spent a bit longer in some parts, but on the whole I think we've achieved a decent overview of what the city has to offer, not just the beer. From there it's on to Naples, where we're going to be spending twice that length of time. Everyone thinks we're nuts for doing that. Let's find out, shall we?