[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, Bologna, Brighton, DED Angel, Soho]
People of Britain! You see that board over on the left there? Let me break it down for you. The logo in the top right hand corner indicates that it belongs to the BrewDog bar in Florence: the third and final stop on our Italia '15 tour after Bologna and Naples, and the second of the two BrewDog bars that existed in the country back in June 2015. (We'll get back to that shortly.) As for 'aperitif', it's meant in the traditional Italian sense of food being offered to you alongside drink in a bar.
So, to summarise. On a regular basis, you can walk into BrewDog Florence, pay them eight euro, and they'll let you drink a pint of BrewDog beer and eat as much as you like from a buffet table full of hot and cold tasty things. And we're talking a large plate buffet here, not just namby pamby finger food.
People of Britain! Over the next few months, there are many who will try to persuade you that our country should not have anything to do with Europe. Taking the above as evidence, I suggest that you tell those people to fuck right off.
Florence turns out to have two major surprises in store for us: the concept of the BrewDog aperitif is merely one of them. We discover the other during the train j0urney from Naples to Florence, as I flick through our Florence Rough Guide to see if there's anything we missed in our original research. And I come across the following listing under Festivals and Events: "The saint's day of John the Baptist, Florence's patron, is June 24 - the occasion for a massive fireworks display up on Piazzale Michelangelo..." This is news to us, and all the more relevant as we read about it for the first time on June 23.
With our carefully wrought Florentine plans suddenly thrown into chaos, we check into Hotel Nizza, which is a little bit of a step down from our last couple of hotels. It's okay, I guess, fitted out in a Mediterranean terracotta distressed style, to the extent that you expect to see lizards crawling up the walls. Ready for lunch, we head out to Mercato Centrale, which is our first indication of just how heavily this city is geared towards tourists: many of the market stalls boast that they'll deliver internationally if you ask them nicely. We try a few bits of basic sightseeing: we're okay getting into San Lorenzo church and crypt, but quickly realise that any hope of visiting the Duomo is completely doomed - there's a gigantic queue for tickets, and an even more gigantic one for ticketholders waiting to get in. We have plenty of other things to do during our three days in the city, so we decide to give up on that one quite early.
There was never a chance of us giving up on BrewDog Florence, though. We originally go in assuming we'll grab a burger or something similar with our beer, but the aperitif deal turns that idea around completely. By the time we leave that evening, we've had four beers each plus everything we could eat off the buffet, and it's cost us around £30 in total. Unlike the Bologna bar, there are a couple of Italian beers on the slate, the best one being Brewfist's Spaghetti Western - an Imperial stout made with spaghetti water, no less. This gives us an opportunity to ask the barman why - based on what we've seen in Naples in particular - the beer that's currently trendy amongst Italian youth isn't one of the Italian brews, but Scotland's own Tennent's Super. Apparently, they're going for the combination of low price and high ABV, coupled with the inherent cachet of it being imported from abroad. Oh, great, now I've got to explain the concept of 'tramp juice' to someone whose first language isn't English.
He gets it, though. The guy in charge, it turns out, is one of those massive beer enthusiasts that all the best BrewDog staff are. I'd tell you his name, but unfortunately the staff portrait board in the bar depicts several bald guys with beards, and we aren't entirely sure which one he is. But he's delighted to have a couple of Brits in his bar, and we swap stories about favourite beers as we drink. (At one point, I notice that he's quietly nipped over to the Spotify account that's being used for the bar's background music, and specifically chosen a British playlist to keep us happy. Awwwwwww.) It's obvious that his enthusiasm is infecting the customers too, as can be seen when a couple of Italian lads come in and ask him what they've got from Beavertown. (Phew, that was close. I'd been practicing the phrase 'succo di vagabondo' in my head just in case they asked for something else.)
He also gives us some useful info regarding the next day's St John the Baptist festival. He explains that it's one of the biggest holidays of the city's year, which gives us fair warning that the restaurants and streets are going to be rammed that evening. We also get to find out a bit more about the Calcio Storico, a crazed 27-a-side football match played that day in 16th century costume. Our chances of getting to see that at such short notice are nil - although, as it turns out, it's perfectly audible from elsewhere in the city - but there's no such problem seeing the fireworks. Granted, the pavements along the banks of the Arno are full of people who've waiting since early evening, but it turns out that the carpark next to the city gate is just as fine a location as any. The BBG's Florence photo album has a nice collection of shots of the fireworks starting from here.
Beer and fireworks are all well and good, but Florence is primarily a city for art. You're probably surprised that the picture to the right isn't a closeup of the genitals of Michelangelo's David, and to be honest I'm just as surprised as you. But those genitals aren't the be-all and end-all of Florentine art: there's all manner of work, both ancient and modern, to take in.
I suspect that the Palazzo Vecchio museum and tower is the easy option for a lot of tourists - we didn't even look for it, just stumbled upon it while wandering around town. It's got lots of interesting art, without all the messy queues that you get for the Uffizi and the Accademia. It's even got a copy of the David outside, so you can get your souvenir pictures without paying an admission fee. Plus, the associated tower gives you a lovely view across the city on a summer's evening. For more applied artistry, there's the Museo Galileo with its excellent collection of scientific displays, and Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana for the best looking library in town.
If your tastes are more modern, the Museo Novocento has opened recently on the former site of the Museo Nazionale Alinari Fotografia - recently enough for our guidebook not to know about it, anyway. It's a collection of 20th century Italian art, broken down into a variety of categories. As with MAMbo in Bologna, the political undercurrent of modern Italian art is impossible to ignore, but this collection also has some lighter moments too: in particular, some hilarious reworkings of Italian cities by the group Superstudio, suggesting, for example, that the ground of the entire city of Pisa should be realigned so that the tower becomes vertical. Meanwhile, over at Fort Belvedere - although it was only there till September 2015 - we have Antony Gormley's Human, an arrangement of dozens of his life-sized body forms in multiple locations across the fort. They line up in procession, or pile up in obscene clumps with the odd leg sticking out, or can be found singly in positions suggesting they've just fallen there from a great height. As with Gormley's best work, you can't help but see past the simplicity of the figures and try to impose your own narrative on them.
But ultimately, you've got to tackle the two giants. We book online for the Uffizi weeks in advance, and it's definitely worth doing that: the crowds are huge, but they're efficiently handled, and once you're inside it's generally easy to get around, apart from when you hit the obvious bottlenecks. (The biggest one is Botticelli's Venus, surrounded by at least four different tour groups at any given time, each group being given its own personal audio description simultaneously.) I wish I could say we learned something timeless from seeing all this great art in one place, but the main impression we took away was how John The Baptist kept on photobombing Jesus' baby pictures, always pointing at him in case we couldn't work out where he was. The Accademia doesn't need to be planned quite so far in advance - we picked up tickets the day before from the office at Orsanmichele church - and to be honest, once you've seen the David, everything else in it feels like padding. (I should link to the official websites for the Uffizi and the Accademia at this point, but bizarrely they seem to have been shut down at the end of 2015, with no replacements available yet...)
What about food and drink? Well, our best bargain was probably the free glass of wine we got at the Odeon Firenze cinema when we booked our film tickets. Unfortunately, they were tickets for The Mystery Of Dante, an appalling sub-Dan Brown piece of cack that I've already reviewed here. So maybe that wasn't such a good deal after all. Here's The BBG to tell you about some better ones.
We were very lucky to get a table at Hostaria del Bricco on St. John the Baptist night, as this Oltrarno restaurant not only positioned us nicely for getting back to the river to view the fireworks after, it also gave us an excellent dinner in congenial surroundings. Arriving early in the evening, the place was booked out with locals celebrating the Saint’s day, but we nabbed one of the two tables they’d kept back for walk-ins. We went for primi and secondi, choosing the farfalle al fattore for me and tagliatelle alla saturnia (wild boar sausage) for Spank for the primi, and peposo alla fornacina (a beef stew) for Spank and baccala coi porri (salt cod with leeks) for me for the secondi. All the food was good quality and very tasty. Keen to drink the local wine, we shared a bottle of Chianti Classico Borgo Salcetino, which was a very enjoyable Chianti. The staff were friendly and efficient, and it was a great place to spend the biggest Florentine local holiday. We saw several people trying to get in for walk-ins later being turned away, and we felt very happy indeed at our success in landing a table there.
As well as the excellent buffet at BrewDog Florence which Spank has already mentioned, a couple of other meals in Florence are worth a brief mention. Just around the corner from the Uffizi, ‘ino provided a great lunch of excellent panini washed down with a good house red (and also supplied some wonderful biscotti for the office back home). And for our last night in Florence the Osterua dei Cento Poveri served us nicely, with their spaghetti with bottarga (mullet roe) being the best example of that dish I have ever tasted. Finally for Italy, there’s just the matter of ice-cream to wrap up, and our choice of gelateria in Florence was the Sicilian-run Carabé, just up the road from the Accademia. Spank’s choice of the Spirit of Sicily – a citrus sorbet - and a fruit salad ice-cream was very good, but I think my combination of a scoop each of apricot and almond ice-creams was even better.
Our return journey via Switzerland gave us a night in Basel, and another opportunity for some traditional Swiss food, provided by Restauration zur harmonie. My “Chnusperli” – deep fried perch with tartare sauce and fried potatoes – was a good Friday fish ‘n’ chips dinner, Swiss-style, while Spank’s rösti with two fried eggs was satisfying comfort food. We accompanied our meal with two small glasses of a presumably Swiss lager. Basel didn’t charm as much as Bern, but it did have its own appeal, and we spotted – but did not get the chance to try - a few local beers on sale, which we’d be keen to try if we were passing that way again in future.
And to wrap up, a brief, final mention of Firma Pickles, the burger and wine restaurant in Utrecht we’d first been to after our Southern Netherlands’ Christmas. The burgers – veggie and meat – and wine are great, as is the location. It was nice seeing it in Summer, and although there are no doubt other good places in Utrecht, with our limited time it fit our requirements very well again.
Which leaves us with our two-day journey back home - again, like our outbound route, including an overnight stop in Switzerland, this time in Basel. Booking through Loco2 has managed to swing us a decent deal on an SBB first class train ticket, and we overindulge a little on the at-seat food and drink service. I suspect it's the quarter litre of Swiss wine that makes it hard for me to get a handle on Basel initially: it seems to be just an accumulation of buildings with no real centre. But by the end of the day, I've realised that we've actually been in the centre all along, as we stand in Centralbahnplatz (possibly a clue in the name there) and observe a typically European city scene - a large old-fashioned station, trams whizzing along in front of it, hotels bordering the square it stands in. Our base for the day, the City Inn, is nearly one of those hotels - it's actually a contemporary design affair constructed inside the more traditional Euler, reachable by a special lift in the back. You end up getting the best of both worlds for your money - the modern comforts of City Inn, plus the old Europe trappings of the Euler.
We get another free travel pass as part of the hotel deal (good idea, Switzerland), so we stroll up to the main intersection at Aeschenplatz (looking at some of the architecture on the way) and then get a tram up to Claraplatz to look at dinner options in the old town (and accidentally stroll into the red light district on the way). Pretty much all of them are both meat-intensive and hellishly expensive. As we walk, we cross the river and track down the Tinguely Fountain, which is as delightfully ridiculous as it sounded when I first heard about it from John Walters on his Walters' Weekly radio show over three decades ago.
We eventually find a suitable place for dinner (see above). Sitting at a table outside Restauration zur harmonie, with not too much traffic on the road, it's all rather nice. After that, we just wander around looking at various sights - the cable-drawn ferry rides across the Rhine (sadly not open to the general public after 7pm, but fun to watch a private party indulging in one), the old city gate, and the loveliness of Basel station itself. We get back to the hotel, grab a green tea as a nightcap in the otherwise deserted Euler bar, and giggle as the pianist spots this and launches into Tea For Two. (Although I can't help but imagine her adding her own lyrics to the tune: "You're / too cheap / to buy a proper drink...")
Which leads us to the final full day of our holiday, and the realisation that we'll be eating each of the day's meals in a different country. Breakfast is a hurried continental affair at Basel station, before catching our train to Frankfurt. Again, Deutsche Bahn's reputation for efficiency is falling apart, with the seat reservation signs carrying all sorts of misleading information. But it's fascinating to notice a new trend in the part of the train with old-style six-seat compartments - kids are booking them out, bringing their own tunes and having parties in there. Lunch at Frankfurt station consists of fishburgers from the Nordsee stall, before getting on a train to Utrecht where the seat reservations have been lost completely, leading to all sorts of embarrassments when people have to be turfed out of their places. We manage to keep ours throughout, though. Once in Utrecht we head out to FA Pickles for a dinner of burgers and wine: as The BBG says above, it worked well in 2013, and continues to work well in 2015. From there it's two more trains to Rotterdam and the Hook, an easy transfer onto the boat, and a day's worth of cross-border dining wrapped up with drinks in international waters.
And at 5.30 the next morning, in the traditional Stena Line fashion, we get a loud blast of Don't Worry Be Happy over the ship's PA to wake us up, in good time to catch the bus replacing the broken foot passenger gangway, followed by the bus to replace the broken rail link to London. It's good to be home, I think. Being a monkey, and all.