Sunday September 2nd 2018
Autumn seems to have come early this year. Either that or we are feeling the post-heat wave blues. Still, at least the organisers of the Moseley Folk Festival did not have to endure downpours over the weekend - the weather can make or break such an event. We had tickets for today but couldn't make it to the park until late afternoon. A pity as we would have quite liked seeing Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton. Their album "Wildflower Blues" is a lovely slice of alt.Country and Americana laced with folk and blues.
We entered the park as Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel were taking to the stage. Their set wasn't that bad and it formed the backdrop to us tucking into the veggie fayre on offer within the food stalls. This was washed down with some Purity UBU as the Warwickshire brewery have traditionally supplied the beer for this event. However, we had the last pints as they ran out of beer - and it wasn't even six o'clock! Not that there would be a riot - the crowd at the Moseley Folk Festival are a genteel lot and they help to make this annual event such a congenial affair. They probably have a sign stating "no stage-diving please as it will upset the karma of the Yoga sessions."
We found a good spot in front of the armchair brigade reading the broadsheets as the Deptford rhymester was doing his best. Meanwhile, some blokes were wheeling sack trucks of bottled beer towards the Purity bar. Warm beer in plastic glasses for the rest of the evening - not even the mighty UBU could rise above such a debacle. Not that they had UBU. Not even the Mad Goose. OK, we'll have a warm glass of Gold then. Admittedly, it was not up there with not being able to organise a piss-up in a brewery but somebody at Purity clearly failed to do the maths.
King Creosote were tremendous. It was 2005 before I discovered the Fife poet and general genius Kenny Anderson. Since then more and more of his CD's have been added to our shelving. He just has that knack of delivering a killer hookline with heart-rending lyrics. The band delivered some great material, some of which was from his superb album "KC Rules OK," a particular favourite of ours.
Teenage Fanclub headlined Sunday's roster of acts. Seeing a bunch of 50-somethings belting out their hits was a little disconcerting. Indeed, the bulk of the crowd at the front all looked like 50-somethings so I guess this could be coined dad-rock. But I am no spring chicken and can remember them stumbling - or jangling out of the Glasgow C86 scene. I witnessed them embrace the grunge sound of the early 90s before they flowered into a glorious hybrid of The Beach Boys and The Byrds. Their 1997 album "Songs From Northern Britain" was jam-packed with pop classics, an overload of heavenly jangly melodies. I suspect the band recognise this was the pinnacle of their career as they wheeled out plenty of songs from this album. Although, we adore "Songs From Northern Britain," we couldn't help feeling that this was like old denim-clad rockers watching Status Quo churning out their greatest hits. It was great fun but, equally, a little too nostalgic for comfort. Maybe bass player and founder member Gerard Love feels the same way as he is forging a new path for himself later in the year.
Wednesday September 5th 2018
We headed over to Nuneaton today as the town was hosting the start of Stage 4 of the Tour of Britain. Each year we generally try to attend stages held in the Midlands. However, this year was absolutely essential viewing as the recent Tour de France winner, Geraint Thomas, was riding. Moreover, his team mate Chris Froome was making a rare reappearance in the race. Indeed the Sky team, featuring Ian Stannard, Vasil Kiriyenka, Wout Poels, and Lukasz Wisniowski was one of the strongest line-ups for years. In fact, all the teams were packed with star names this year.
In my humble opinion there were two key reasons for the star-studded line-up. Firstly, the Tour de France was shuffled along the calendar to fit in with the World Cup. This resulted in a shorter rest period for those wanting to race in the Vuelta a España. The Spanish grand tour featured a particularly gruelling parcours this season so it was not suited to sprinters and breakaway opportunists. Secondly, the Tour of Britain boasted a punchy route which was ideal training for anybody thinking about the forthcoming World Championships at Innsbruck, a lumpier circuit than previous years and one that might finally see Peter Sagan relinquishing the rainbow jersey. Little wonder perhaps that Julian Alaphilippe, recent winner of the polka dot jersey in France, was gracing our shores. He was one of a long list of cycling luminaries to rock up on the car park at Nuneaton.
Most of the team buses parked up garnered minimal interest simply because almost everyone had come to see Geraint Thomas. There was such a crowd of fans gathered to catch a glimpse of the newly-crowned Prince of Wales, the organisers had erected safety fences around the team bus. Call us predictable but we too joined the scrum to meet the man of the moment. Besides, as you can see from the above image, we wanted to get our copy of G's autobiography signed. And, as you can see, we were successful in our quest. However, he will no doubt have a second edition printed to include his exploits in the yellow jersey.
Unlike footballers and the like, cycling fans can get to meet and speak to their heroes. And all credit to the Sky management who make sure the riders do greet the fans. Even Sir Dave Brailsford was signing stuff for cycling geeks. With everyone wanting a piece of him it must be hard to filter out the barrage of noise directed his way. However, when he was close to us his radar picked out our question regarding the welfare and recovery of their new super-talent Egan Bernal who crashed recently at San Sebastian. The Sky manager stopped in his tracks and took the time to show us a video he had received from Egan Bernal that very morning. The young Colombian, who has had to undergo dental surgery to repair a number of missing, broken and fractured teeth, had sent a positive short film complete with his new teeth. The fact that the manager shared this update with us, a pair of nobody's, speaks volumes about the team's PR and proactive approach and conduct with the general public.
Team Sky had set up a PA system through which they conducted interviews with their riders - nothing incisive of course, but all very good natured and a bonus for the crowd. The riders then circulated among the fans who wanted all manner of items signed, from shirts to hats and cycling helmets. I admit to being a snob roadie at times and it brought a smile to my face when I saw one guy obtaining the signatures of all the Sky team on a helmet purchased from Decathlon! So, if you spot a white B-Twin skid lid on e-bay it may have some provenance. We settled on getting a team card signed by all the riders plus, of course, the manager. The riders were both congenial and patient. G was lapping up the adoration and Chris Froome was an absolute gentleman. I don't think anybody went away without everything they'd hoped to get out of the gathering.
And then they were off, Team Sky were pedalling towards the start line and the crowd went in the same direction. We, however, went around the other team buses as the other teams seemed to be behind the Sky schedule. With riders still emerging from the buses and making last minute adjustments to their machines, we managed to grab a few moments with some of our favourites. Despite their rush to get to the start line, riders like four-time World Champion Tony Martin were still generous enough to answer questions, enjoy some banter and pose for photographs. We wished German sprint ace André Greipel all the best for today's predicted sprint finish - he duly delivered by winning in Leamington Spa. It was also great to meet Sylvain Chavanel who told us that this was probably his last race. The entertaining Frenchman has ridden the Tour de France 16 times during his illustrious career.
Rather than rushing to the start line, we made our way to the Malt Shovel to watch the neutral zone element of the stage. This was perhaps the last great moment for this dilapidated former Ansell's house, just one of many tatty-looking or closed pubs in Nuneaton today. Even the Crown Hotel near the railway station looked like it may never re-open. The town centre is seemingly suffering economic decline with retailers pulling out and a growing number of discount stores and charity shops taking their place. A sad note on which to end our morning in Nuneaton. Eschewing chain outlets, we spent a little in an independent coffee shop but it is hard to see how Nuneaton gained from hosting the stage. Most visitors seemed to disappear as fast as the peloton.
Monday September 10th 2018
Today, we went all trans-European and set off on a train journey in search of craft beers produced in the Piemont and Toscana regions of Italia. These ales would help fuel us during a cycling adventure around the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. Offsetting the carbon footprint from those who fly on budget airlines to cheap holiday resorts, we elected to travel by rail as, for us at least, it is a something of a green issue. However, travelling around Europe on trains is both relaxing and exciting. Rather than sitting in a pressurised metal tube breathing in everyone's recycled bugs whilst humming Lady Gaga's "I Want Your Disease," on a train you can actually stretch out, walk to the onboard café and, most of all, see sights en-route.
One drawback of travelling by train is Britain's piss-poor rail network. With no service running between the two largest urban conurbations at night, one has to endure an evening in the capital in order to board an early Eurostar service from St. Pancras to Paris. In a bid to brighten up our experience in one of the most filthiest and polluted cities in Europe, we undertook a perambulation around a few notable taverns, the one caveat being to remain within a relatively short distance from Euston railway station.
In order to dump our luggage at our hotel, we walked past the Northumberland Arms on King's Cross Road. It is a lovely structure located on the corner of Wicklow Street but the lack of any decent beer precludes patronage. On the plus side, the pub does have a nice signboard, though the illustration is something of a curiosity. I assume that the name refers to the Percy family of Alnwick Castle, owners of land and estate in London. However, rather than showing the arms of the family, the signboard features the Northumberland Coat of Arms, a crest based on the old badge of the county Sheriffs. The blue lion with extended tail is borrowed from the arms of the Percy family. The supporters are golden lions from the attributed arms of King Oswald of Northumbria. Incidentally, there were other Northumberland Arms dotted around London, the most famous being the pub later re-named The Sherlock Holmes.
One of the best pub interiors in this locality is that of the Scottish Stores, a tavern with many a tale to tell and only a matter of yards from Euston railway station. Another visit was essential as La Goddess du Vélo had not been in this famous old boozer and, like me, she was enchanted with the interior. Click here for more information on this pub designed by theatre architects.
Just around the corner from the Scottish Stores is Keystone Crescent, a surprisingly quiet thoroughfare lined with small houses that exchange hands for around £1.3m. Interestingly, I overheard a conversation on the train in which a relatively well-paid professional, probably on a six-figure salary, told his travelling companion that he had recently moved to Shrewsbury because the property prices in London had soared to unviable levels. This makes me wonder how those on lower wages can think about any form of existence without commuting miles from satellite towns in, say, Essex? Formerly known as Caledonian Crescent because of the nearby Asylum for Scottish children, Keystone Crescent, completed around 1846, has the smallest radius of any crescent in Europe and is unique in having a matching outer and inner circle. The thoroughfare's name was changed to Keystone Crescent in 1917.
There is another decent inn sign nearby in Northdown Street at the King Charles I. The sign shows the ill-fated king of England, Scotland and Ireland, whose quarrels with Parliament led to civil war and his eventual execution in front of Banqueting House. The lease of this vibrant community local with bags of character was bought in 2015 by local residents and loyal regular customers. As a result, the boozer with wood-panelled interior walls is free-of-tie and stocks four rotating cask ales. Time Out London stated that "if you had to describe what a pub was to someone from Pluto, this would do the job." So, a boozer worthy of patronage.
From Caledonian Road it is not a million miles to walk to Lambs Conduit Street at Bloomsbury, the motivation for the trudge being a pub featured in the CAMRA London Regional Inventory of Pub Interiors of Special Historic Interest. We only just made it in time as the pub closed shortly afterwards for "some minor structural repairs." Hopefully, this will affect the interior which, although not all originally part of this Young's house, makes for a most convivial drinking environment.
Formerly known as the Lion and Lamb, The Lamb is thought to have been constructed around 1720, the first mention of the house being dated 1721. The frontage was 'upgraded' in the Georgian period. At the splayed angle at the north end of the frontage there is a parish boundary marker for Saint Andrew Holborn dated 1831. The adjacent property has another marker for St. Pancras dated ten years earlier. Interestingly, a stone tablet beneath the pub's parish marker shows that the building was part of the Rugby Estate. The latter bears the date of 1876, suggesting work on the frontage took place during this year.
Going back earlier in time, the thoroughfare's name commemorates a water conduit laid along the street by William Lamb in 1577. As for the interior of The Lamb - much of the ground floor fittings date from the late Victorian era or early Edwardian years. The most notable feature is the snob screens on the servery, very rare feature inside public houses these days. Another unusual item is the polyphon which apparently is in working order. The walls are also lined with lovely prints of music hall celebrities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
We were greeted by the sight of eight handpulls as we walked inside the pub. Although, this is a Young's house, there are three beers from other parts of the country. The ales we tried were in good order. We drank them whilst soaking up the history of the place, a tavern apparently frequented by Charles Dickens and once the meeting place for Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Such literary giants should inspire anybody to wax lyrical about The Lamb but really the structure speaks for itself - this remains one of London's most treasured taverns.
Heading back towards Euston along Grays Inn Road, you can sample some more Young's beer by nipping into the Calthorpe Arms on the corner of Wren Street. Serving three Young's beers and a couple of guest ales, the recently-refurbished Calthorpe Arms has scooped the 'North London Pub of the Year' award on three occasions. I believe that the gaffer, Adrian, has been at the helm for almost 30 years so this is a boozer with some continuity. The corner pub is noted for reasonably-priced pub fodder of a decent standard. I wonder what lifelong fans of Young's beer think of their ale now that it is produced at Bedford?
I was drawn to the pub because of the Calthorpe name as it has a connection with Birmingham. The Calthorpe Estate here in London occupies a chunk of the parish of St. Pancras, land that once belonged to the Priory of St. Bartholomew in West Smithfield at the Dissolution, after which the manor was granted to Robert Fuller. It passed to Richard Gough in the early 18th century and, following his death in 1728, it was granted to his son Henry Gough of Edgbaston, who was created a baronet during the same year. Sir Henry Gough married Barbara, only daughter of Reynolds Calthorpe. The Calthorpe family developed this part of their estate in the 1820s. Formerly known as Wells Street because there was a path here to Bagnigge Wells, Wren Street was laid out in 1824, partly on the site of the old Blue Lion. The gardens on the opposite side of the street was formerly a burial ground for St Andrew's Holborn but closed for burials in 1850. The Borough Council converted the site into public gardens during 1885.
The pub's inn sign bears the name of Arthur Calthorpe. Born in 1865, Sir Somerset Arthur Gough-Calthorpe served as Admiral of the Fleet, commanding the Coastguard and Reserves during the First World War. He later served as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet and, following the war, was appointed British Commissioner in the Ottoman Empire.
The Calthorpe Arms became known nationally in 1833 when a policeman named Robert Culley was stabbed during the Clerkenwell Riot, part of a series of disturbances in which the working classes strove for recognition in a changing social order. On May 13th, a political meeting near the pub was declared illegal by the Government and the police were ordered to disperse the crowd. The actions of the police were reportedly brutal and some sought refuge in the Calthorpe Arms. The police entered the house and dragged men out by their collars before beating them with truncheons. It was during this melee that the policeman was stabbed, the perpetrator never being found, though the police suspected a man named Robert Tilley. At the inquest, held at the Calthorpe Arms, the jury returned a verdict that the stabbing was justifiable which attracted widespread attention of the press. The extraordinary aspect of the affair was that a section of the public hailed the jury as heroes. The men were subsequently presented with medals and cups.
Unfortunately, our evening ended with a terrible experience at the Queen's Head in Acton Street, a pub officially known to us as THE WORST PUB IN LONDON. Click here to read more about our visit to this dreadful place.
Tuesday September 11th 2018
We were up early to board the train to Paris before the dash across the French capital from the Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon. I had heard that this can be a nightmare but the connecting Metro line made it a doddle. The journey from Paris to Torino takes around 5½ hours, largely because of the meandering through the valleys of the Alps. The journey through France is very rapid with the train reaching speeds of 270kph. The views from the train afford good views of the landscape - I even got to see the Lacets de Montvernier from the comfort of a train seat rather than huffing and puffing through the hairpins!
We arrived in Torino at 8.30pm so we only had time to drop our bags at the hotel and walk through the city centre to a bar getting good reviews. Oro Birra on Corso Regina Margherita is just one of many craft beer pubs to open in Torino over the last decade. In the 1990s Italia was something of a desert in terms of craft beer. Slowly, a fledgling scene has mushroomed, accelerating around six years ago so that Torino now has some excellent brewpubs and craft beer bars dotted around the city.
Oro Birra, an independent pub, has six draught ales and a choice of over 120 Italian and global beers in bottles. We had already eaten on the train but should have waited because they have a good kitchen here that includes vegetarian and vegan dishes. Prices are very reasonable at around €13 for mains and only €5 for snacks. Incidentally, we later found out that Soul Kitchen is just down the road from Oro Birra. This is a highly-rated vegetarian restaurant. The modern interior of Oro Birra is arguably a harsh environment but this seems to be the popular choice for contemporary bar fitters in Europe. What is really warm at this bar is the faultless service. Two bartenders took time to explain the beer style and flavours of the ales on tap.
Wishing to try as many draught beers as possible during our trip, we opened our account with La Granda Black Hop Sun, a liquorice-laced coffee-tasting Black IPA with a great dry hoppy kick to finish. Clocking in at 7.0% ABV, this lovely ale is brewed by Birrificio della Granda who are located at Lagnasco in the Province of Cuneo to the south of Torino. The company have a long list of beers on their portfolio so seem to produce lots of one-offs rather than a core range. However, if any of them are as good as this dark ale then you need to seek them out for yourself. What a great start to our beer journey in Italia.
From the dark side we lightened up a little with an American Pale Ale brewed by Birrificio Artigianale Alba, a brewery established in 2014 at Guarene by two friends Alessandro and Alberto. Located to the south-east of Torino, brewing takes place at the foot of the Castello di Guarene. This 5.7% APA was something akin to De Ranke's Guldenberg but a more lightweight version. Featuring a sweet finish, this was a very pleasant, refreshing drink. Supping this, La Goddess du Vélo was inspired to drink the real deal and, as De Ranke's Guldenberg was on tap, she ordered what is an old chestnut for us. She had the last of the keg so it wasn't up to the usual standard. Things got back on track when we ordered Milva Imperial Red Ale, a fruity mellow number mixing American hops with caramel notes from the malt. This 6.6% ale is produced by Birrificio Argo based near Collecchio in the province of Parma. The brewery was established in October 2013 and has a core range of around seven ales.
Wow! We had a great first night in Torino and looked forward to spending a little longer in the city on our return journey. From Oro Birra we enjoyed a stroll back to our hotel in the late evening. We saw plenty of magnificient floodlit buildings, wide boulevards and walked beneath the pedestrian arcades made famous in the film "The Italian Job." I will come back to that crime caper later on in this blog.
Wednesday September 12th 2018
We arrived in Firenze at lunchtime, quickly dropped off our luggage at our bed-and-breakfast and headed into town for a quick meander before collecting our hire cycles. During a late afternoon and early evening ride we soon discovered that Firenze is one of the least cycle-friendly cities in Europe. There are very few cycle lanes in which to shelter from the busy traffic. This is understandable in the city centre which has retained much of its historic street layout. However, there are hardly any cycle lanes on the outskirts. We tried to use pedestrian crossings to get across road junctions safely but Firenze motorists do not stop for these. Indeed, even when you are halfway across they will still aim their car at you. The scooters and mopeds are even worse and will do anything to avoid delay, including riding on the pavement. The road surfaces are also very poor, particularly near the kerb where cyclists are riding but you daren't move out to miss a pothole for fear of being knocked off by a mad Florentine. The complete antithesis of cycling in Belgium, it is a total nightmare to negotiate the streets of Firenze.
In a bid to escape the Wacky Races in the centre of town, we headed up to the Medicean Villa of Poggio Imperiale and further up towards the Torre del Gallo. Most of the crowds head to the Piazzale Michelangelo for an elevated panoramic view of Firenze but, for a little effort, the rewards are greater uphill. There is a compromise at the Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte which also affords excellent views across the city. Besides, Piazzale Michelangelo is full of stalls selling tat and you risk having your eye out from somebody's selfie stick.
Video of Cycling down
from Piazzale Michelangelo
From Piazzale Michelangelo there is a nice gentle descent down to the River Arno from where you can pick up a number of routes into the city [see above video[.
Back into Firenze city centre we took a quick look at the Ponte Vecchio where couples risk a €50 fine for attaching a padlock to the railings surrounding the fountain-monument to Benvenuto Cellini. Legend has it that if lovers attach a padlock here and then throw away the key into the Arno River below, their love will last forever. To maintain the monument and prevent damage, the city authorities have now banned this practice. However, they should force every motorist to stand here and throw their car keys into the river. Essentially, the civic officials have allowed the car to ruin Firenze and there is no sign of them easing traffic congestion.
Our visit earlier in the year to Gent was revelatory because the Belgian authorities have given the city back to pedestrians and cyclists by restricting motorised transport and car parking. Firenze, on the other hand, is one massive traffic jam. It is perhaps no coincidence that Dante Alighier, il Sommo Poeta, hailed from this vision of hell. The city exists in Purgatorio and the only route to Paradiso is a complete rethink of transport policy. However, it would appear that Florentines would rather give up a vital limb or organ than relinquish their precious car or scooter. Aside from the historic streets being jammed, there is the noise and pollution. All in all, this makes the travel guide's description of Firenze as 'enchanting' a complete misnomer. The Lonely Planet guide even describes the place as "magnetic and romantic" which is a total myth - unless, of course, they remove the traffic. As Dante wrote: "Through me you pass into the city of woe."
Notwithstanding all of the above remarks about the traffic in the city, we eventually got to like Firenze. Based in the capital city of Tuscany for our holiday, we slowly found some enchantment amid the historic fabric of the place. The first good experience was on our first night when we headed for beers and pizza. Not just any beer and pizza mind you. No, we are talking about Berberè where they serve perhaps the greatest pizzas in Tuscany along with craft beers on tap. Sounds like a vincere-vincere situation if ever there was one. Actually, since they launched in 2010, Berberè has become a mini-chain with around eight branches in Italy. They have risen above the rest of the, er, dough because they use mainly organic ingredients and the founding brothers researched, studied and worked to understand the fascinating alchemy of fermentation. They achieved this by travelling all over Italy in search of the best products that each region afforded their grand mission of producing the perfect pizza.
In Firenze, Berberè is so on-trend they only allow customers to take up a table for one hour. The pressure this places on patrons detracts from what is a great gastro-beer experience. Seeing the pizzas made by hand in front of the furnace is great theatre during which you can delve into the craft beer choice on tap. From a selection of six we got quite excited by two beers in particular. Firstly, as we spent the previous evening in Torino, the city famous for forming the backdrop of "The Italian Job," how could we possibly resist a beer called 'Bank Job Bitter?' This 4.3% beer is actually from Leeds and made at Legitimate Industries. Who could top their description of this highly-quaffable beer: "This old traditionalist is just plain bitter. The wily old fox is sitting on a stash of Crystal malt and Caramalt, and he's just one last job away from hanging up his shotgun. He got in with the wrong crowd of Cascade, Chinook and Centennial hops, and now he's pointing a gun in your face and demanding access to the vault. Fill the bags."
If robbing the bank gave us an adrenaline rush the other beer took us into orbit. Based in Codogno in the province of Lodi, Lombardy, Birrificio Artigianale Brewfist launched Spaceman West Coast IPA as one of their core brands. The use of three hop varieties help deliver a bouquet of aromas in a robust beer laced with exotic fruit and citrus flavours delivering a long, bitter and fruity aftertaste. This rocket fuel could be the reason why former astronaut Mike Massimino once said: "You only have one life. You have to spend it doing something that matters." All that mattered to us tonight was drinking more Brewfist Spaceman in order to float off into another world! Sadly, weightlessness was not achieved after munching on the divine pizza topped with Roasted Eggplant, Tomato, Smoked Ricotta and Basil. But our one hour was up and we had to come back to earth anyway. Berberè is great but the countdown at mission control sucks.
Thursday September 13th 2018
Today we undertook an easy 63.5km cycle ride on flat terrain by transporting our bikes on the train to Pisa. We had already been extremely impressed by the Italian mainline service but the regional trains are also very good. The carriages are clean, they run pretty much on time and they are electric so there is no dirty diesels trundling around the countryside. Compared to the UK, it is also very cheap to travel by train in Italia. However, bikes do not go for free but it is only €3.50 for a ticket.
We started our ride by following the River Arno and along Via della Palazzina to the IX Reggimento Paracadutisti Incursori "Col. Moschin" Base, or 9th Assault Parachute Regiment complex. Because this is a training centre for Italy's special forces, you may have to blag your way through the gate. However, a friendly smile goes a long way but, if unsuccessful, you can cycle around to access the regional park of San Rossore, the former presidential estate near the mouth of the river Arno, which is partly used by the military for amphibious and underwater training. However, if you have ridden to the gate then a detour is a long way around because the E80 road is like a motorway and not recommended.
The Parco Regionale Migliarino San Rossore Massaciuccoli is lovely for cycling and you can ride through the pine forests and swamps that are home to some rare plants, birds and wildlife. Sadly, we did not see any wild boar and fallow deer but these creatures are quite secretive and tend to avoid cyclists. I couldn't quite figure out if the sound from some trees were unusual birds or some sort of cicada. I certainly saw some unfamiliar insects and a snake. This was also the first day in which the Toscana mosquitoes decided to gorge themselves on us. Despite wearing wristbands, sleeping with plug-in repellents and spraying ourselves during the day, we were covered in bites by the end of our holiday. La Goddess du Vélo had one particularly nasty bite that required antibiotics. So, if you are squeamish about flying blood suckers then Toscana may not be for you!
Video of Cycling in San Rossore
There is a visitor centre at the Parco Regionale Migliarino San Rossore Massaciuccoli but they close for lunch and there seems little signboard information in English. From here you can buy a ticket to wander off on one of the trails but I have heard that these are not well signposted so you may end up doing a bit of orienteering to find your way back. It is also possible to be driven to the sand dunes and coastline in a horse-buggy or a small ecological train for around €13.
Parco Regionale Migliarino San Rossore Massaciuccoli is also home to the L'ippodromo di San Rossore, a racecourse that seems to have seen better days but the venue continues through the efforts of local business people. The history of the course can be traced back to the early 19th century, a time when the King of Italy used the estate. The race season runs from late Autumn to Spring, the most prestigious race being the Premio di Pisa.
From the L'ippodromo di San Rossore we cycled eastward along Viale delle Cascine which runs right into the city. As you can see from this photograph of the road tunnel, it is not a pretty gateway into Pisa. In fact, one could easily fill a page of Pisa looking less that aesthetically-elegant. However, there is still an abundance of beauty to be discovered around the former Maritime Republic. The city's power and wealth in the Early Middle Ages financed the construction of buildings now recognised as some of the most important Romanesque structures in Europe.
Well, there is no avoiding the crowds ... when in Pisa for the first time you have to visit the Piazza del Duomo. Our approach was along Piazza Daniele Manin and through the Porta Santa Maria. I could not believe my eyes, a sight to truly behold. No, I am not talking about the Torre pendente di Pisa or the Cattedrale Metropolitana Primaziale di Santa Maria Assunta. No, the most incredible sight was the sheer volume of stalls selling all manner of Leaning Tower junk and souvenirs. It looked like one massive car boot sale with the traders all flogging the same tower-related tat. In other streets there were chancers peddling selfie sticks, the trade for which must have been brisk judging by number of them I had to dodge in the Piazza del Duomo.
What, no photograph of the famous tower? The structure, along with the cathedral and baptistery, is extraordinary but the Piazza was so heaving with people there was little opportunity to absorb and appreciate the aesthetic, or the possibility of reflection. Consequently, we soon escaped the mayhem surrounding the Torre pendente di Pisa so that we could explore other sights of Pisa. The great thing about this place is that almost every tourist remains in the Piazza del Duomo and seemingly few venture around the rest of the city, the bonus being we had the place to ourselves. Well, apart from the students arriving for the new semester at Pisa's prestigious university.
Dating back to the early 13th century and possessing one of the foremost Gothic façades in Europe, Santa Maria della Spina stands next to the River Arno on Lungarno Gambacorti. Originally built as a small oratory in 1230, the building was formerly known as Santa Maria di Pontenovo as it stood next to a bridge that collapsed in the 15th century and was not rebuilt. The current name refers to a reliquary supposed to contain a thorn from Christ's crown, once housed in this building before being transferred to the Church of Santa Chiara. The highly intricate marble exterior features statues by leading Pisane artists of the 14th century. As you can see from the above photograph, we had the building to ourselves because every other visitor was seemingly beneath or next to the leaning tower posing for photographs in which they are holding up or preventing the structure from collapse.
Another structure devoid of swarming tourists was the Guelfa Tower in Cittadella Vecchia, a legacy of Pisa's once-mighty maritime power and the centre of the Tramontana shipbuilding area. This was once part of an extension of the city walls and dates from the late 14th and early 15th centuries. During the Second World War the tower was largely destroyed by bombers of the Allied forces but rebuilt in 1956. Today, the tower plays an important role in the Luminara di San Ranieri city festival.
After an enjoyable meander around the streets of Pisa we headed out of the city by following a cycle path alongside the Medici Aqueduct of Asciano. The structure has the appearance of a Roman project but dates from the late 16th century. It was Cosimo I de' Medici, the second Duke of Florence and the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, that had the the vision and ambition to supply Pisa with a clean water supply from the mountains to the north-east of the city. However, it was his son, Ferdinando I, who realised the ambitious project.
Video of Cycling along
the Medici Aqueduct of Asciano
Designed by architect Raffaello di Zanobi di Pagno, who was succeeded by Andrea Sandrini from Siena, construction of the aqueduct started in 1592. With more than 950 arches and measuring some six kilometres in length, the aqueduct extended from Bottino di San Rocco in the Fonti Valley to the walls of Pisa. The project was completed in 1613 and the aqueduct continued in use until relatively recent times. Today, the structure remains as an important landmark and monument. Some work has been undertaken to hold the brickwork up and it leans one way or another in places. It makes for a great cycling route.
Cycling from Pisa to Lucca, at Asciano we headed north-west to San Giuliano Terme. From here motorists have the easy option of a main road that tunnels under the mountain. This is almost 1km in length and I do not recommend its use by cyclists. Intrepid two-wheeled adventurers can use the trails to go over the top or, if like us, you are on a leisurely holiday, you can stay on the flat and follow the course of the Serchio. This is a good way to get a flavour of the area, largely agricultural with a sprinkling of small villages. If it were not for the modern signs and electronic screen at the railway station for San Giuliano Terme, I would have thought it was a film set for a spaghetti western! However, the old spa town with Roman origins still attracts visitors seeking relaxation via the thermal spa waters.
The road to Orzignano is not too busy but we still turned right at the ancient Church of San Bartolomeo in order to cycle along Via Giacomo Brodolini Pappiana too pick up the cycle path alongside the river. Not long after joining the Serchio we found that the path went along the Ozzeri Canal. A little sketchy in places, partly because of repairs following the floods of 2012, the path rejoins the river near Colognole. It was only one this path that we saw a few other cyclists. We had hardly seen any other cyclists all day! The path winds around the course of the river all the way to Lucca. We had purposely come to this enchanting walled town on this date because, each year on September 13th, the town stages the Procession of Santa Croce, a candlelit procession forming part of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Video of Cycling along
the Historic Walls of Lucca
We had a mechanical on the way to Lucca so were behind schedule when we arrived at 5pm. However, with the candlelit procession starting at 8pm, we still had time to cycle on the ancient walls of the city. These were constructed as a defensive rampart but in Lucca, unlike other cities where they were pulled down once their significant role was lost, they were saved as a pedestrian promenade, the Passeggiata delle Mura Urbane. Locals and tourists stroll or cycle along the walls connecting the bastions to enjoy an elevated view of the city. Measuring just over 4km, the circuit is simply fabulous. Demilitarised during the Napoleonic period, the walls have several picnic sites or you can use one of the restaurants housed in former military buildings.
If I am honest, our schedule for the day was too ambitious and we did not have enough time in Lucca. Still, it is an excuse to go back one day! Next time around we would base ourselves here and spend a few days exploring the city on foot and cycling out to neighbouring villages. Evening train services back to Firenze are limited so we always had one eye on the clock. The buzz in the city prior to the Procession of Santa Croce was great. The buildings were all lit by candle or illuminations. However, with only twenty minutes before the procession was due to start from the basilica of San Frediano, a policeman came up and told us we could not stand and watch with our bicycles and sternly told us to "Go" which just about sums up the attitude to cycling in many parts of Tuscany. We could not lock the bikes and leave them as the hire shop in Firenze advised us that bike theft was so rife we should never take our eyes off them. And so we were snookered. We took umbrage with our harsh treatment and headed to the railway station.
Friday September 14th 2018
I must start the day by mentioning our bed and breakfast as our stay at Casa di Mina on Viale Evangelista Torricelli enhanced our visit to Firenze. The standard of accommodation in this beautiful 19th century Florentine villa was very good and the breakfast excellent. The dining room overlooks a typical Tuscan garden and is lovely. Lynda, our friendly host, was welcoming and provided useful and practical information on Firenze. Oh, and the neighbour has a lovely bulldog called Gaston who made a fuss of us each night as we returned in the dark on our bicycles.
This was a day for escaping to the countryside. Undertaking an undulating 72km cycle ride, amid the fields of the Chianti wine district, our aim was to enjoy a lunch in the old square at Greve, the principal town of the region that stretches south of Firenze down towards Siena.
There is always a little method in our madness and we chose today because it is one of three days during the week when the Museo del Ciclismo Gino Bartali is open to the public. How can we stay at Firenze and not visit this museum located just along the road at Ponte a Ema, the birthplace of a cycling legend. Despite the fact that his glory days were in the years leading up to the Second World War and into the early 1950s, his legacy endures among the people of Toscana and, indeed, throughout Italy. His extraordinary life, on and off the bike, coupled with his rivalry with Fausto Coppi, brought him adoration with the central and southern half of the country. The industrial north tended to side with his great adversary.
Video : Museo del Ciclismo Gino Bartali
Housing a range of historic bicycles, the Museo del Ciclismo Gino Bartali, displays and recounts the sporting achievements and humanitarian efforts of the man dubbed Gino the Pious. Entry is FREE and the welcome warm. Being two of only four visitors, it is hard to see how the museum remains viable. However, the collection is housed in a striking facility and a credit to all those who have made it possible. If you are not familiar with this sporting legend, look him up on your favourite online encyclopaedia - he led a remarkable life. As a bit of a cycling geek, I will simply focus on a few of the exhibits.
The museum has this 1948 Bianchi Folgore, made by the world's oldest bicycle manufacturing company based in Milan. This model was built in the factory's racing department. Note the famous Campagnolo two-lever "tipo Corsa" gear, an agile and dynamic system but one that forced the cyclist to turn around in order to change gear, an often dangerous manoeuvre in the midst of racing. Oh how we are spoilt these days with our push-button electronic gears! Here there are rods going up alongside the chainstay with levers at the top. The manoeuvre involved releasing the tension of the wheel in the frame and pedalling backwards whilst adjusting the tension before tightening up the wheel again.
This Corsa model dates from the 1930s and was produced by Giuseppe Bianchi who started making bicycles in Firenze in 1904. The bike is fitted with Vittoria gears manufactured by F.lli Nieddu in Turin. The steering column had a lever with leverage connecting it to a chain tensioner below. Whenever the cyclist wanted to change gear, he or she would work the lever to increase or decrease the angle of the chain tensioner so as to alter the tension of the chain, then back-pedal and push or pull the chain with the right hand to make it go up or down a speed. The mechanism had the advantage of working even when covered in mud and it allowed the cyclist to change gear without getting off the bike.
The museum has a large collection of cycling jerseys worn by Gino Bartali and other great cyclists. I particularly like the Maillot Jaune of Lucien Van Impe from 1976, the year in which he won the Tour de France. Pictured above is the World Champion's Rainbow Jersey of Bartali's great rival Fausto Coppi.
After a highly enjoyable visit to Museo del Ciclismo Gino Bartal, which incidentally has the cleanest toilets in Tuscany, we were inspired to jump on our bikes and break the World Hour Record. Or more precisely, we wobbled off in the direction of Grassina and the olives groves of San Gersolè-torre Rosse. We then headed south along gentle rolling hills, including Monte di Meccoli.
We rolled into Impruneta, a town famous for clay extraction and the production of red terracotta. Sadly, the Piazza Buondelmont is one big car park which detracts from the view across to the Basilica di Santa Maria, erected on the site of pilgrimage during the Middle Ages. Featuring a 13th century tower, the Basilica features a portico built following the plague of the mid-17th century. The building houses a renowned treasure, that of the Impruneta Virgin, a panel painting from the 12th century depicting a Madonna and Child, surrounded by numerous stories of miracles. The museum also displays the Impruneta Cushion, once the property of Bishop Antonio degli Agli. Dating from the late 14th century, this is thought to be one of the oldest-known pieces of European patchwork.
Video : Le Bolle to Greti Cycle Descent
The road progressively rolls after Impruneta and one is increasingly immersed in the Chianti region. With bunting and flags erected for the September fair, Strada in Chianti was preparing for their annual celebrations of sports and games where the five districts of Borgo, Martellina, Palagione, Poggerino and Ruota Cappellina compete for the honour of winning Ceccio dell'Orcio. From Chiocchio there is a nice climb up to Spedaluzzo during which I encountered three British blokes riding with what looked like very heavy panniers. These were the only genuine touring cyclists we saw all week which is rather odd. In fact, we saw very few road cyclists throughout our holiday.
Friday September 14th 2018 Cont'd.
Following the climb to Spedaluzzo the Brits looked pretty fatigued. The 30 degree heat, coupled with the weight of their bikes, was taking its toll. We stopped to chat for a minute or two. The good news for them was that, following another climb at Le Bolle with Castello Vicchiomaggio to the south-west, there was a nice descent down into Greti. They set off before us and I filmed our gentle roll downhill. At the end of the video clip you might glimpse their three bikes parked on the roadside - they had clearly spotted a bar and sought solace with some beer!
Prior to visiting Greve I had seen a photograph of the town's medieval piazza but was still flabbergasted at the ugly nature of the place as we came in via the main road. This superstrada is, of course, something of a by-pass for the old narrow entrance to Greve. Motorists passing through on the SR222 would think the town was a bit of a dump. In fact, the Lonely Planet guidebook states that Greve is "not picturesque" and that "most of the architecture is modern and unattractive." However, turn right into the historic town and it is another place altogether. The statue of the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano overlooks the cobbled Piazza Matteotti and this lovely scene is redolent of Greve's pastoral days of yore. In more recent times, the town has grown and become the principal settlement in the Chianti wine region. In addition to its world-renowned wines, the area is also a centre of olive oil production. Cycling through the region, we felt that the landscape was equally divided between vineyards and olive groves.
Video : Bistro Falorni in Greve
If you visit on the fourth Sunday of the month the piazza throngs with the Il Pagliaio organic farmers' market. On the second weekend in September the town's square also hosts the Chianti Classico exposition in which a vast number of stalls showcase the best local wines. However, this was a relatively quiet Friday afternoon, though Greve was still pretty busy with food and wine dominating the trade in the stores beneath the arched loggia. There are plenty of cafés and restaurants in Greve but our choice for lunch was Bistro Falorni, largely because they have a decent choice of vegetarian options. The bistro was opened in 2013 but only as an extension to a business steeped in history - though not so veggie as it was founded as a butcher's shop in the early 19th century by Lorenzo di Angelo. It was his grandson, Giuseppe di Michele Falorni, who opened the shop here in Greve during 1844. The family-run business has grown into an institution in Italy and their famous cold meats and other provisions are exported to around 60 countries. Stocked to the heavens with cheese and wines, the shop is an incredible sight.
Bistro Falorni is self-service in terms of ordering inside. However, you nab a table with a good view of the piazza and relax as they bring you a lovely meal and local wine - or, in my case, a rather excellent artisan beer. Priced very reasonably, our vegetarian lasagne was most tasty, the bread divine. La Goddess du Vélo is more of a wine buff than me and ordered one of the local Chianti. I believe they have a massive selection from which to choose. Meanwhile, I delved into the Lucrezia, a 6.0% saison-style beer produced by Birra dei Borgia brewery in Civita Castellana. Founded in 2015 by five partners, the company's plant was built by the brewer Stefano Gavazzi. He and his partners seem to have hit the ground running as their beers are gaining a good reputation in Lazio and beyond. This particular beer was really good, refreshing, fragrant and bright. I was so glad to find it here at Greve in Chianti. The beer transported me on a voyage of discovery equal to that of the bronze man stood a few yards from us.
After a hearty lunch with wine and beer it would have been nice to have a gentle roll-out from Greve in Chianti to get back into the rhythm. However, the next destination on our itinerary was Montefioralle. There is only one way to the hilltop town billed as one of the most beautiful villages of Toscana with a medieval atmosphere - yes, the clue is in the word hilltop. This photograph of Via dei Buondelmonti makes it look rather easy but, believe me, this is a tough climb, especially when your belly is laden with lunch and beer! Oh, and the ice cream. Didn't I mention the Chianti flavoured ice cream at Bistro Falorni?
I am not sure if this video clip demonstrates how difficult the climb is. Admittedly, I was on a heavy hire bike and I only had a 25 tooth sprocket but I found it a real grind to haul the machine up to the summit. You can see I am all over the place and making it a hard slog. The couple walking downhill towards the end of the clip did at least applaud and shout encouragement because they could see the gradient for themselves. The footage only shows a few short segments but it is 2.3km of hard effort to reach Montefioralle. However, the uphill toil is worth it because the charm and allure of the settlement's cobbled streets are truly enchanting.
Despite its difficulty, the cycle climb amid vineyards, olive groves and fig trees is rather compelling. The height of the ground also proved irresistible to those engaged in the wars between Florence and Siena so a castle was built as a stronghold. The defensive walls have not completely survived but at one time they were an octagonal shape with four gates. The strategic importance of the fortification waned with the fall of the Sienese Republic. Lined with quaint stone cottages, the narrow cobbled streets follow the walls of the castle. Marked by a vespa and the letter V, one of the houses in the circular street is thought to be the birthplace of Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer and cartographer who, following his discovery and mapping of the 'new world,' has his first name adapted into what we call the Americas.
Anybody who did not eat at Greve in Chianti but worked up an appetite to reach Montefioralle will be satisfied by a couple of small restaurants in the village. March sounds like a great time to visit because Montefioralle hosts the Festa di Fritelle in celebration of the Feast Day of Saint Joseph. On this day, the local inhabitants gather in the small piazza to cook their renowned fritelle, or fritters, in a giant pan which are served with a glass of Chianti Classico.
There is a short descent from Montefioralle before the road goes up again, this time skirting around Monte Fili. This road affords great views across the region with a really nice view of Montefioralle from an elevated position.
Once over Monte Fili there is a nice descent on a quiet lane before the road goes up again to join the Strada Provinciale 118. From here the road is undulating for a while before a great descent at San Fabiano into Le Quattro Strade. Indeed, anyone following this route back to Firenze will be travelling mostly on flat or downhill runs. Consequently, all the previous hard work and effort of climbing hills is rewarded here. The above video clip shows a few of the gentle descents to be enjoyed en-route. As Tony the Frosties tiger once said: "It's g-g-r-r-e-e-a-t!"
After cycling back to Firenze we headed towards Via Pisana to Il Bovaro, an established brewpub close to Porto San Frediano. Massive wooden and metal doors hang in the gateway of this 14th century entrance into the city. In fact, when the French conquered the Italian peninsula, King Charles VIII made his entrance into Firenze through this gate in 1494. He should have made a note of the height of the doors because four years later he died after accidentally striking his head on the lintel of a door at the Château d'Amboise.
Opened in January 2000, Il Bovaro is a brewpub with the brewing plant fully on show inside the building. Whilst sipping beer, it is rather nice to see the plant in which it was created just a few metres away. The brewer Daniele Venturi has fine-tuned his beers over two decades and apparently offers around six core beers though only two were on sale during our visit, both of which were quite pleasant. They were not beers we would totally rave about but they were still refreshing and served in good order. They are seemingly brewed with a sound ethos and great passion. I wanted to try their Ruat, a strong bock but this was not available. Still, we were not too disappointed - this is a rare chance to drink in a brewpub in Firenze.
Named after a Bernese Mountain Dog, Il Bovaro is set within a historic building and is an agreeable environment in which to eat and drink. Service is most friendly and contributes greatly to the visitor experience. Simple wooden furniture with tiled floor and a painted ceiling of some charm. We sat close to a confessional box, the curtain of which I simply had to draw back to see if a priest was having a sneaky glass of beer. The menu is very reasonably priced and the portions hearty. Indeed, we ordered far too much food as we thought we were ordering snack-sized meals so did a mix-and-match hotch-potch. However, this simply made us look like our eyes were bigger than our bellies!
We pedalled a very short distance from this brewpub to a brewery tap - amazing. If anybody had said that a few years ago they would have been laughed out of Firenze. However, the city is now an emerging hotbed of craft ale outlets. Il Bovaro were brewing early doors, around 1997-8 but it took a while before the citizens of Firenze realised how good the 'new' beers could be. No longer did they have to put up with Peroni or Moretti and wine drinkers could start to get excited about hops and barley just as they did with grapes. The new wave started as a slow burner but is gaining momentum.
Located at Via dei Serragli 44r, the Archea Brewery Tap opened in Oltrano [the southern side of the river], a part of Firenze that is becoming a hip and happening place to be. We spent more evenings in this locality than the centre of Firenze because there are really good pubs and restaurants to be found here. Oltrano was formerly a bastion for the locals but tourists are lured across the water in search of the buzz. As you can see from the chalkboard [above] this place has a great range of beer. However, we made a resolution to sample the so-called homebrewed ales. As far as I know these are produced in Ripalimosani which is a long way south of Firenze. The contract brewer is thought to be Birrificio Sannita. There may be some slight disappointment that the ales here are not brewed out back but this is compensated by the fact that they are really good beers.
The bar has a unique flight with which you can sample four ales before diving into your favourite. Or maybe you can try four more! The flight costs €12 so it is not the most economical way to discover new beers. In fact, this is a good time to have a whinge about Italian beer-pricing policy. In most places we ordered half-pints which is a curiosity in itself as they have seemingly ditched the metric system for dispensing beer. Because we were delving into 'strange' beers, we ordered half-pints as tasters. In the Archea Brewery Tap a pint was €5 but a half-pint was €3.50! This was the general rule wherever we travelled in Italia. I put up with it rather than spoil the holiday but this pricing policy pissed me off no end. It is totally discriminatory and a complete rip-off! There, got it off my chest. To return to a positive note, whilst each of the Archea beers were excellent, one stood out. The Bock was sensational. A 7.8% beer of wildly exciting flavour. As a result, we returned to this bar on two more occasions.
There are some really good features of the Archea Brewery Tap. The general vibe is one of positive charm and the friendly atmosphere is omnipresent. The guys behind the servery are helpful and cheery. The dog-friendly interior is a pretty good drinking environment where chess and board games are played. The only downer is the soundtrack of hard rock. Although it is anything but, this and the smoking shelter out front, conveys that the place is something of a biker pub. However, don't be intimidated for this is a must-visit bar offering a tremendous beer experience.
Saturday September 15th 2018
We changed our plans for today - we still went to Siena as planned but we decided to take the train rather than a cycle ride. We would have been pushing our bikes around the streets all day and annoying everybody at the same time. It is not a cycling destination except, that is, for one day of the calendar when the Strade Bianche finishes in the Piazza del Campo. One of the great spectacles of the cycling calendar, this is a brutal race for tough riders. In 2018 Belgian hard case Tiesj Benoot literally wore the race as he came home covered in white mud to win in great style.
I did regret not having a bike on which to tackle the steep climb of Via Santa Caterina, a narrow cobbled street where the pro peloton puncheurs often slug it out to gain a few precious metres and enter the city at the front of the race. We went to have a look at the street and found that it would have been almost impossible to attempt the climb on a bike. Via Santa Caterina was fairly full with pedestrians, tourists and people on guided walks, making any attempt to cycle unimpeded a greater challenge than the climb itself. Still, it was nice to be stood on the ground where we have watched great battles over the years during televised coverage of the race.
There is, of course, another racing spectacle that takes place in the Piazza del Campo. Indeed, I would love to be in the square when the famous Palio horse race is held because the fanatical locals overflow with passion. If you are not familiar with the race then check out the short film by Rick Steves which explains how and why the event is held.
Like my blurb on Firenze, there is no need for me to describe Siena in any detail as countless travel writers have committed reams of paper or built websites entirely dedicated to this remarkable city boasting some of the finest Gothic architecture in Europe. We did spend some time in the tourist hotspots such as the aforementioned Piazza del Campo, the Piazza Salimbeni and the Piazza del Duomo, all of which are quite magnificent. However, we also spent a little time looking at some of the lesser-known sights and endeavoured to find a few hidden secrets. For example, whilst everyone was gathered in front of the façade of the cathedral, we were around the side trying to find the Sator Square, a square 2D palindrome thought to be a covert symbol for early Christians to express their presence to each other. It was funny finding the square as another Italian visitor, a resident of Paris these days, was trying to find it for ages before he suddenly noticed us pointing at it. An affable character, we chatted for a while about life, the universe and whatever.
One could spend an entire week finding plenty of intrigue and interest in the narrow streets of Siena. There is symbolism or cultural references every few steps. We found this bronze statue in Casato di Sotto close to the offices of La Nobile Contrada dell'Aquila, one of the 17 districts that fiercely compete in the Palio. The street, typically dark at floor level due to the height of the buildings, is of some importance and largely dates from the 14th century. The street once featured dwellings and workshops of merchants and artisans belonging to Siena's upper middle class.
We wandered through narrow streets, down steep ramps and steps to drop down to Piazza del Mercato where there is a restaurant with more than one vegetarian option on the menu. There are plenty of restaurants in the tourist hotspots but we had heard good things about La Finestra, a family-run restaurant overlooking a market square. The piazza is characterised by a 19th century loggia dubbed "Tartarugone," or "Big Turtle," but also offers an alternative view of the Palazzo Pubblico.
La Finestra has some history in itself. The restaurant's vaulted ceilings made me curious so I asked the friendly host about the building's previous use. He told me that it was formerly used as stables. How this ties in with the steep steps down to what looks like a dungeon hole is a mystery. These apparently lead beneath the market square.
La Finestra is nicely appointed and offers typical Toscana dishes along with some Sienese specialties. So, the menu consists of dishes based on mushrooms and truffles. We enjoyed a very tasty veggie ravioli. We enquired if the restaurant sold any artisanal beers and were politely told that they didn't go in for any of that nonsense. I find this odd in a place that is proud of their local food specialities - why not complement them with a regional beer? I had to endure a fairly bland Birrificio Angelo Poretti Luppoli Originale, a 5.5% lager that tastes of, well, a good number of fairly nondescript lagers produced by global giants. This Italian brewer was slowly mopped up by Carlsberg in the last quarter of the 20th century. La Goddess du Vélo sensibly ordered from the local wine list.
There was no need for dessert at La Finestra because we fancied an ice cream and we had a hot lead for a place that sells great gelato. I guess this is a good time to mention that at home I very rarely eat ice cream. Drinking beer is bad enough for my waistline and cycling times on Strava so adding ice cream into the mix would probably be the ruin of me. Yes, I will have the odd bit of ice cream and some are more pleasant than others. It is not neccessarily the most expensive ice cream that is the most enjoyable. On this trip however I learned that some gelato is so magnificent that, if I lived in Italia, then I would end up the size of a double wardrobe.
Of course, each Toscana town has a great number of gelato outlets, most of which simply buy the product wholesale. Consequently, my recommendation is to ONLY buy from the true artists of the trade and where you can actually see the ice cream being made in front of you. These are the gelateria artigianale, creators of life-enriching exotica - in a cone! Another top tip is to ask a local where to buy the best ice cream - or more precisely, where do THEY buy their gelato? The odds are that they will not direct you to a glittering kiosk in the main square but advise you to head into a small back street or alley where the indigenous folk are forming an orderly queue for the real deal.
La Vecchia Latteria is housed behind an unassuming shop frontage at Via San Pietro 10 where, inside, there is magic afoot. This is where two brothers, Fabio and Francesco, create and concoct ice cream that will send you to another plane. The only issue is what flavours to select as they all look delicious. One local said "Il cioccolato è fantastico!" This proved to be absolutely bang on. And wow, the ice cream here is really creamy. Made with fresh and organic ingredients, this is truly gelato fantastico.
Armed with a gelato one can then resume a tour of Siena and have some fun. We wandered around the city and looked at as much as we could in the timeframe we had.
We arrived back in Firenze with the last of the evening light. The street market on Via Maso Finiguerra was still open for trade. Located in what looks like a mixed ethnic quarter of the city, this market features plenty of arts and craft stalls with many of the traders manufacturing all manner of goods. This is a pleasant way to peruse unusual gifts during the evening. As ever, I was drawn to an unusual bicycle. Well, bicycle and trailer. I have not seen a bike being used as a mobile book shop before and considered it quite a charming novelty. Chapeau to the proprietor!
We crossed the River Arno on the Ponte Amerigo Vespucci which affords one of the best views of Firenze at sunset. The bridge was named in honour of the aforementioned explorer and cartographer thought to have been born at Montefioralle in 1454. We wandered through the Porto San Frediano and continued a short distance to Diorama, a relatively recent addition to the craft beer scene in Firenze.
This bar is pretty small, much like a tiny British micropub. Unfortunately, we had the place to ourselves so the atmosphere was non-existent and the chap behind the bar was not up for conversation. During a busy session the place would have been a much better experience. Still, there is much to commend about Diorama. The kegs change regularly so there will always be something unusual to sample. Alternatively, you can delve into the bar's selection of bottled ales from around Italia and the international market. You can enjoy these in a simply furnished bar, the walls of which are adorned with a modest breweriana collection.
One of the more regular bottled beers available at Diorama is Brasseria della Fonte's Robust Porter and this was just the sort of dark beer I was in the mood for. As you can see, the bartender's pouring action suggests that he should be sent on a traning course. I had to take it from his grasp to try and salvage the remainder of the bottle. Brasseria della Fonte is based near Pienza, a Toscana town almost midway between Firenze and Roma. Growing their own hops, the brewery produces an extensive range of beers with water from an on-site spring. This all sounds great so what is the beer like? Well, on the basis of this Robust Porter, it is pretty good. Utilising a variety of malts, it is quite a complex ale that delivers a punchy finish via its warrior hops. Roasted dark chocolate flavours permeate throughout this very pleasant porter.
We rounded off a full day of sightseeing and piling on the calories by enjoying a nightcap at the Archea Brewery Tap where we emptied their keg of Double Bock just a little bit more. What a fruity action-packed beer, quite apposite given the day we had enjoyed.
Sunday September 16th 2018
We were back on our bicycles today, the plan being to visit the hilltop town of San Gimignano. We were up and at 'em early so had a bit of time to cycle around Firenze before everyone had finished their breakfast.
Video : Firenze Sunday Cycle Tour
Although we did a lot more, the above video of a few locations captures Firenze on a quiet Sunday morning. If you think there are lots of people about then you should see the city in mid-afternoon when it is rammed with tourists. This is a good time to venture around the place. By the way, in the video there is a statue of Michelangelo's David but, although it stands on the site of the original, this is a replica. The genuine statue was moved to the Galleria dell'Accademia in 1873. Tourists queue for hours to see this amid a frenzy of camera photography. Our blasé approach was to bin the queues and ride our bikes. The replica is flanked by Baccio Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus. There is a bronze version of David at Piazzale Michelangelo and, if you want to start ticking them off, there are more replicas in far-flung locations such as Copenhagen, Marseille, London and New York.
Our Sunday morning cycle tour headed towards the vicinity of the railway station and we found ourselves in Piazza Indipendenza which hosts a weekly flea market and bric-a-brac sale. I am quite a sucker for these as, unlike everyday shopping, you just never know what you will find. I loved these cinema or theatre seats and if I could have carried them on the train I would have crossed the stall holder's palm with some serious euros. His English was as good as my Italian so I could not ascertain the venue from which they originated but, wow, they totally rocked.
You may notice in the photograph above that my legs have some red marks. I actually ended up with 20 mosquito bites over the holiday. Despite wearing anti-mozzie wristbands and spraying our skin a couple of times per day, the Toscanao mosquitoes gorged themselves on us. La Goddess du Vélo had to be prescribed antibiotics as one of her bites was fairly 'orrible. If you are susceptible to these pesky little things then perhaps Toscana is not the best place to visit.
We cycled to San Gimignano from Poggibonsi, the historic town with the hilltop Fortezza di Poggio Imperiale built by Giuliano da Sangallo between 1488 and 1511. The Gothic-Romanesque Church of San Lorenzo was the seat of the meeting between Charles VIII of France and Girolamo Savonarola in 1495. The building was damaged during World War 2 during which the Baroque altars were lost. The interior features a painting by the Firenze artist Neri di Bicci. The church also houses one of the best works by Francesco Botticini, depicting the Resurrection of Christ.
We bumped into several of Poggibonsi's pixelated sculptures [see above] that are dotted around the town. The iron figures formed part of the 2004 "Making Space/Taking Place" art installation but remain in Poggibonsi as permanent exhibits.
Well, we couldn't cycle around Toscana without undertaking some Strade Bianche so turned off the main road towards Canonica. On a quiet Sunday we thought we would have the white dirt road to ourselves. Unfortunately for us, a wedding was taking place at a small chapel along this road. The traffic conveying guests to and from the church created so much dust we quickly started to look like race veterans from vintage cycling photographs!
Video : Cycling in San Gimignano
Once back on tarmac things were a little easier getting up the hill to San Gimignano. The above video was shot whilst I rode through the town gate of Porta San Giovanni, along the main street of Via San Giovanni, and up to the main square of Piazza della Cisterna. Please note that no pedestrians were hindered during the making of this video as I rode at snail pace so that I did not disturb others. This is part of my general rule of pedestrians first, cyclists second. The video ends with us enjoying ice creams from Gelateria Dondoli - more on that orgasmic experience in a moment. First, a little on the town and the street in which we cycled to the main square.
The relatively small walled town of San Gimignano, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is famous for its medieval architecture and fourteen extraordinary towers that can be seen for some considerable distance across the Toscana landscape. Incredibly, San Gimignano once boasted 72 tower-houses, erected by the town's patrician families as symbols of their wealth and power. Coupled with its Romanesque and Gothic architecture, San Gimignano is a remarkable place.
Acting as a main artery for San Gimignano, Via San Giovanni is lined with boutiques and restaurants. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance era, this thoroughfare was well trodden by pilgrims on their way to Rome and the Vatican. Along the street there is an important frescoed tabernacle with the Madonna and Child and a holy bishop. Dating from around 1510, this is thought to be the work of locally-born Sebastiano Mainardi.
San Gimignano's tourist attractions on Via San Giovanni include the Museo della Pena di Morte and the Museo della Tortura. We had to chuckle because it would seem that most large towns in Toscana have a Museo della Tortura - there seems to be such a morbid fascination with suffering they should all be cyclists. Via San Giovanni was actually outside of the ancient city, the Piazza della Cisterna being within the old fortification. The remains of l'arco dei Becci is a tangible remnant of the old wall. The triangular plan of the Piazza della Cisterna has remained constant since the 13th century and was traditionally used as a market place and an arena for both festivals and tournaments. Located in the centre, the 14th century cistern from which the piazza takes its name, is capped by a travertine octagonal pedestal. Today, many visitors use the steps of the cistern as seating when they enjoy an ice cream from Gelateria Dondoli.
We had heard about Gelateria Dondoli before our visit to San Gimignano. To be honest, I was a little sceptical about the hype. How could the ice cream here be so much better than anywhere on earth? The gelateria, dubbed the 'laboratory of taste,' is where Sergio Dondoli creates ice cream that has become famous throughout the world and is featured in every good food guide to roll off the press. The master of his trade, he has 'scooped' the World Champion award. Using the very best and, indeed some exclusive ingredients, his most-loved creations are Crema di Santa Fina [Cream with Saffron of San Gimignano and Pine Nuts] and Champelmo [Pink Grapefruit and Sparkling Wine from Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG]. Between us, we had both of these, along with strawberry and banana-based concoctions that blew the fuses on our tastebuds. I thought I had tasted the best ice cream ever at Siena but this is just off the scale of awesomeness. The only disappointment is that life will never be quite the same without tasting another Dondoli Gelato. Surely, no other ice cream on the planet will come close.
Following a fabulous day at San Gimignano we made it back to Firenze in time to pedal into the increasingly bohemian area of Santa Croce. Located on Borgo La Croce, close to the corner of Via della Mattonaia, Birreria Art.17 offers a fine selection of craft beers from Toscana and further afield in Italia. Zeno, the owner, chose the name as a reference to Article 17 of the Italian Constitution which establishes the right to meet peacefully and without arms. Widely travelled within the world of craft ales, he has established a place where many unusual beers, seasonal offerings and tap takovers ensure the 'liquidity' of its trade. During our visit the taps were dispensing Lager, Gueuze, IPA, Stout, Pils and Weißbier. So, I guess, that if punters cannot find something they like here then they simply do not like beer!
Brewed at Campodarsego to the west of Venice, the CRAK Mundaka proved to be a refreshing drink. Light yellow in colour and featuring Simcoe and Citra hops, this fragrant ale with hints of mandarin and pineapple is a good session beer at a mere 4.6%. We stepped up the ABV a little by ordering the Three Fourteen brewed by Marcus Hjalmarsson at Brewski, his microbrewery based at Helsingborg in Sweden. This is a hazy yellow fruity IPA. Like the Mundaka, there is a hint of tropical fruits before a pleasant hoppy kick. So, two nice beers in a bar that is more like an English pub than most in Toscana. Oh dear, on our way back to our B&B we managed to find ourselves sucked back into the Archea Brewery Tap for more of that Double Bock.
Monday September 17th 2018
Well, our time in Firenze was coming to an end. We had spent so much time zipping around other parts of Toscana that we hadn't really done the city justice. The plan for today was to use our bicycles in the morning for a meandering tour, have a nice lunch and then spend the afternoon and evening on foot. It was a good plan well executed. Once again, we were determined not to spend forever and a day in queues and ventured to places where tourists were few and far between.
After being bollocked for attempting to ride our bicycles in the Giardino di Boboli, we rode up to the Liceo Artistico Statale di Porta, or the State Art Institute of Firenze. Located just outside the Porta Romana, the Institute is housed in the former royal stables of the palace of Palazzo Pitti, residence of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. The building houses an important collection of over 3,000 plaster casts, some dating from the Florentine Renaissance. The Institute also contains a significant library of some 15,000 volumes. I believe it was the first day of a new term when we rolled up as there lots of fresh-faced urchins hugging and kissing friends they had not seen all summer. We wandered into the lobby where there is a replica figure from the Fontana dei Dioscuri, a fountain set opposite the Palazzo del Quirinale at Roma. The grounds in front of the former stables is in rather a state but I believe that these are going to benefit from a major refurbishment. Tourists spotted in this location : 0
After meandering into town, we fancied a coffee so here is my top tip. We went into the tourist information office close to the Battistero di San Giovanni and asked the women working behind the service desk where THEY go for a coffee. The answer was surprising in that they recommended Caffè Scudieri, the swankiest place with a great view of the Baptistery. They have been serving coffee and cake here since 1939 and are something of an institution in Firenze. But here is my tip - if you sit down for a coffee it will cost you €5 and the service is notoriously churlish. This is for the tourists but we joined the locals who stand at the counter where the coffee is ground and prepared. Here it is a mere €1.40 for a great coffee. There is an array of mouth-watering cakes and buns in a glass counter. The tradtional morning treat is Schiaccata alla Fiorentina, a traditional sugar-dusted flat cake. So, whilst visitors to Firenze were paying through the nose for sitting at the terrace, Tourists spotted standing inside this location : 0
After the most excellent coffee we did do a touristy thing because we simply had to witness the Mercato di San Lorenzo with its zillions of leather sellers. We are completely bamboozled as to how so many shops, stalls, boutiques and market traders turn a profit because it would seem that every second retail outlet in Firenze is selling leather goods. We were not wishing to buy anything but simply wanted to look at the trade. My advice to those walking through the crowded market would be to hang on to the leather purse you already possess! Our tactic for avoiding our pockets being emptied was to walk through with our bicycles as everybody tends to leave a space around you. Not that you can avoid the stall holders. I imagine that the experience of walking through the market is similar to that encountered in the lesser-developed world. Almost every trader is in your face virtually begging you to look at their goods. Firenze has a quite a heritage of leather making. Moreover, the sale of luxury goods was boosted no end when Guccio Gucci established his famous business on returning to his hometown in 1920. I am full of top tips today because if you are intending to visit Firenze to buy some authentic, high quality leather goods you should visit this website as a matter of priority. Failure to gen up on the business before your visit could be lead to a first-world dilemma.
From the Mercato di San Lorenzo we rolled the short distance to Piazza di San Marco where, as you can see from the above photograph, I seem to be lying in a flowerbed to capture La Goddess du Vélo in a shot featuring the church and statue. The church is the Basilica of San Marco, once part of a large religious complex including a convent. The latter was converted into the Museo Nazionale di San Marco and houses many treasured artworks. The neoclassical façade of the Basilica of San Marco is dated 1777-78, though the origins of the church extend back to the 12th century. Of particular note is the decorative bas-relief on the upper tier which is topped by a tympanum and iron cross. The monument in the centre of the square commemorates General Manfredo Fanti, a soldier and leader in battles for the country's independence and unification. With most people queuing to see David at the nearby Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze, tourists spotted in this location : 0
Cycling with the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze to our right, we pedalled along Via Cesare Battisti to the splendid Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. The centre of this Renaissance square is dominated by the bronze Equestrian statue of Grand Duke Ferdinando I. The work of the Flemish sculptor Giambologna, this monument was cast in 1602 using bronze from captured Turkish cannons. The square also features two fountains with fantastical figures, the creation of the late-Renaissance sculptor Pietro Tacca. The square takes its name from the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, which itself was named after a painting depicting the Annunciation. Another important building here is the Spedale degli Innocenti, one of the first Renaissance works of Brunelleschi and the first orphanage in Europe. Featuring a nine bay loggia decorated with terracotta tiles, the building has tabernacle windows above each semicircular arch. The hospital closed in 1875 and now houses a small museum of Renaissance art.
Cycling along Via della Colonna one can enjoy the gardens of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale or, if you have a few hours to spare, you can wander around the former 17th century palace built for Princess Maria Maddalena de' Medici, and view the diverse collection of Etruscan, Roman, Greek and Egyptian artefacts. Or, like us, you can continue cycling around the city in the sunshine. Our next stop was the La Sinagoga di Firenze which is under armed guard these days - a sign of the times in which we live. One could ask how much progress we have made, particularly as the doors of the Holy Ark still bear scars inflicted by Fascist bayonets. The Synagogue was built between 1874 and 1882 to designs by Mariano Falcini, Professor Vincente Micheli, and Marco Treves. Combining traditional Italian and Moorish styles of architecture, the structure is of travertine and pink palmetto stone. The building was centrally planned, with a great dome and towers topped by horseshoe-arched domes. The central dome is sheathed in copper, which has turned green. In 1944 Italian resistance fighters thwarted an attempt to destroy the building by German troops and local fascists. Nearly 80 years later, the building is still being protected by Italian troops. Possibly intimidated by this armed presence, tourists spotted in this location : 0
We cycled around Piazza Massimo D'Azeglio where we were drawn to the unusual glass canopy of Hotel Regency, a merger of two elegant properties that were erected in this once exclusive neighbourhood. Many of the villas around the square were built for ministers who came to Firenze when it was made the capital in the mid-19th century. Borrowing from earlier art nouveau styling, in 1932 interior designer Tito Chino decorated what would later become Hotel Regency. Cycling around this neigbourhood affords a glimpse into a more recent chapter of Firenze's complex history. Tourists spotted in this location : 0
Notice that in visiting these locations we managed to avoid the crowds. It is possible to explore Firenze without being in a queue. These are just a few locations we enjoyed during an extensive tour of the city's streets, most of which have plenty of interest, even beyond the collar of the ring road. However, all this pedalling and sightseeing made us hungry so we headed to Il Vegetariano at Via delle Ruote 30 to try the grub at Firenze's original veggie restaurant. The café opened in 1981 and most Florentine's laughed and gave them a few months. They are now serving a third generation of their original customers!
Oh, how we wanted to fall in love with Il Vegetariano. Sadly, the chemistry wasn't quite right. I suffered some teenage memory trauma as this felt like school dinners. We arrived a few minutes before the café opened and had to join a queue of locals taking a break from their studies or the office. Then the dinner lady comes and opens the door. All the regulars know the school rules so nabbed their tables before joining a queue at the till. Being in the first form, we lost a few places in the pecking order as we tried to figure out the score. The meals are outlined on a chalkboard so you do need to know a few key Italian words and phrases to work out what the dinner ladies have prepared, remembering to write your working-out in the margin. You then have to deal with a rather gruff bloke at the till, pay in advance, take a ticket, and then queue up again at the salad bar. You then have to collect your cutlery - by this stage, we half expected aluminium beakers for our drinks.
Because there is a large salad array we thought we would get some of this when our lukewarm quiche was slapped in front of us but to our dismay there wasn't even a lettuce leaf. And there's the rub ... this place seems to have maintained their original ethos of serving food to their own social club. Outsiders are expected to figure everything out for themselves. In other words, there is absolutely no customer service, no prefect to offer a guiding hand.
Still hungry after our moderate slice of quiche, we ordered some puddings by going through the whole queuing rigmarole again. The pear crumble was served exactly how my old dinner lady used to plonk it on my school tray. Surprisingly, she didn't ask me if I wanted pink custard! Sadly, we do not qualify for free school dinners and somehow managed to run up a bill of almost €50. Next time we'll bring our own lunch box!
Il Vegetariano does have a small selection of artisanal and/or organic beers on offer so I delved into the dark side by ordering the Ökokrone Black, a Schwarzbier brewed by Härtsfelder Familienbrauerei Hald based at Dunstelkingen in southern Germany. The brewery, which can trace its history back to 1664, was acquired by Friedrich Hald in 1916. The family-operated brewery is committed to organic farming and this bio beer's name underpins this philosophy. Given its sound credentials I wanted to like this beer as much as I wanted to like Il Vegetariano. Sadly, it was a flat experience in more ways than one - the beer had no head at all. I assume that there was a hop shortage during the production run and all I got out of this was malty caramel flavours with a hint of dark bread. Not good bread though, more like the bland bread served with the soup at Il Vegetariano.
Monday PM September 17th 2018
After lunch it was time to return our hire bikes and undertake two walking tours of Firenze. Just before the holiday I finally got around to buying a smartphone. Tired of seeing people staring at social media sites on their screens instead of enjoying their own life, I had been putting this off because I felt a phone would offer little to the sort of activities we undertake. How wrong I was. This was the first trip in which I utilised some of the excellent apps that make sightseeing and holiday experiences much easier. Consequently, travelling on public transport was more straightforward, mapping made finding locations a doddle and, with sites like Happy Cow, finding food we could eat was a cinch..
By far and away the best app for this holiday was on Hidden Florence, a virtual guide taking visitors on a unique tour of the Renaissance city through the eyes of a late 15th century wool worker. Enriching our experience of Firenze, this is absolutely wonderful and, for those bodies and organisations that have the vision and finance, is the future of heritage tourism.
GPS technology opens up more avenues for the tourist using such an app. With Hidden Florence it is possible to navigate the streets of Firenze in a novel way, even with a period map, all with a narrative from Giovanni the wool worker who shares vivid tales about his stamping ground during the late 1490s. This was put together by Fabrizio Nevola and David Rosenthal in conjunction with Calvium, a mobile technology company. Click on the video above as the project team explain how they worked together on this app. In short, DO NOT visit Firenze and not undertake this FREE guide to the city. Oh, how I wish I had the funding to do a similar thing on pubs in the Midlands.
Following in the footsteps of a 15th century wool worker one gets a sense of what life was like in Firenze during a period when many of its notable buildings were being constructed. Some places are of greater antiquity. A fascinating building featured on the tour is the Oratorio dei Buonomini di San Martino. A charity founded by Antonio Pierozzi, who later became Archbishop of Florence, was moved to this building in the late 15th century. He is portrayed above the door of the church largely funded by Cosimo 'the elder' de' Medici.
Antonio Pierozzi summoned twelve men to help those Florentine families that had fallen on hard times but were ashamed to ask for charity. The Confraternity of the Buonomini di San Martino continues its work to this day. When the Buonomini find themselves in extreme need of money, they light a candle on the main door. The Italian expression 'essere ridotti al lumicino,' [literally, to be reduced to the candle, in other words to be stony broke] derives from this custom. The frescoes inside the building are thought to have been painted in the 15th century by an artist from Domenico Ghirlandaio's workshop. The ten lunettes all refer to the stories of San Martino and his charitable works.
I am not sure which is the best gelato in Firenze, though I believe Gelateria La Carraia at Piazza Nazario Sauro would get a lot of votes from the locals. However, we were some distance from that location during our walk in which we happened to pass a branch of Grom near the Duomo. This is part of a large chain but it is one with a pretty sound philosophy in that they claim to make ice cream like it was back in the day and it is produced without the use of flavouring, artificial colours, preservatives or emulsifiers. Grom also has a seasonal menu with monthly specials. Based in Turin, the business is relatively young, being founded in 2002 by Federico Grom and Guido Martinetti. However, when I got home I was a bit disappointed to learn that in 2015 it was bought out by Unilever. Not that we knew this when we walked in during our tour. I do have to say, however, that the gelato was really good, the pistacchio in particular being outstanding.
Just a few metres away from Grom there was another fascinating element of our tour. At Via dello Studio we could see stonemasons in the workshop where the traditions of Renaissance art is being upheld. The work is painstakingly slow - I have no idea how long it takes to complete one statue. But it is here that many of the works found in the Cathedral were created or restored.
Watching stonemasons at work is thirsty work and it just so happened that we happened upon a bar called King Grizzly. I stuck my head in to see if they had any decent beer and, oh yes, they have! They even have two handpulls - a first for us on this trip where everything is in kegs. There was even an advert for Bières La Rulles, an ace brewery from Belgium. Clearly we had dropped lucky. The young chap behind the bar was friendly and ran through the beers on tap. It was a very good choice and we both dived into the Triplexxx brewed by Croce di Malto at Trecate to the west of Milano. The brewery was established following an inspirational trip to Belgium. After honing their craft for a number of years they produced their first commercial ales in 2008. The Triplexxx is really good. Three different malts and three hop varieties are combined in this honey-laced spicy amber ale. Shall we have another? Oh, why not? Especially, as they are playing a great reggae soundtrack in the bar.
Between the Piazza di Santa Croce, with its beautiful church, and the Ponte alle Grazie, is the Beer House Club on Corso dei Tintori. This was perhaps the most disappointing bar that we visited in Firenze, though we did enjoy a good beer. We expected much more, particularly as it was supposed to serve 12 craft ales on tap. They did have some on offer but the whole place was one big advertisement for Pilsner Urquell. Most people seemed to be here for the burgers anyway! The waiter was friendly and courteous but the chump behind the servery was as miserable as sin. Mind you, I did pick him up for extreme short measure as the large head on my beers resulted in only two-thirds of the glass having liquid. If I am going to pay nearly €4 for a half-pint then I want to be served a half-pint.
On a positive note, the Freeride West Coast IPA was pretty good. This beer is produced by the Birrificio del Ducato microbrewery based near Soragna between Piacenza and Parma. The brewery was founded in 2007 by Giovanni Campari and Manuel Piccoli. The pair bumped into each other three years earlier at a beer event in Parma and struck up a partnership with a mission to make great beer and conquer the world. Scooping many industry awards, the brewery has gradually expanded its range, production and workforce. West Coast IPA, pale orange in colour, has aromas of mango and tropical fruits, grapefruit and bitter orange. The hops provide a pleasant bitter finish. This enjoyable IPA clocks in at 5.2% and is quite moreish. Oh, gone on then, we'll have another - and fill it up this time!
Tuesday September 18th 2018
We took the efficient train service from Firenze to Torino for our connection to Paris. But what's the hurry? Let's go home tomorrow and have an afternoon in a few of Torino's craft ale outlets and brewpubs. Checking into our hotel near the Stazione di Porta Nuova, we ventured out into the afternoon sunshine.
Upgraded and renovated in 2009, the railway station is well worth exploring. After three years of construction work, the terminus was opened to the public in 1864. The name is a reference to a city gate that stood nearby. Viewed from across the road at Piazza Carlo Felice, the façade, with its large arched section in the middle, is an impressive sight. Inside there is a room designed as a first-class waiting room to accommodate the royal family when waiting to board the train. The room features frescoes by the locally-born painter Francesco Gonin.
Navigating around Torino is easy as the city is largely a grid plan. We quickly grew to like the place as we made our way around admiring Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-classical and Art Nouveau buildings plus, of course, the rationalist architecture of the 1930s. We have determined to come back here in the near future for a more detailed exploration of Torino's urban fabric. One of the features of Torino is the larger number of parks and green squares dotted around the city. We headed to one of these for our first brewpub destination. Or so we thought! Birrificio La Piazza faces Giardino Aiuola Balbo, a green space created in 1834 followed the demolition of the walls in the Napoleonic era.
We headed to Birrificio La Piazza thinking it was a brewpub but it would seem that this is a second outlet of the brewery that was established in 2004 at Piazza dei Mestieri. The brewery was part of a larger multifunctional project aimed at providing vocational training for young students. However, this still operates as a business but one in which students gain practical experience for a future career. Profits from the various enterprises, including the brewpub in a former tannery, generates income to help achieve the objectives of the project. So, in terms of a brewpub, we were in the wrong location. However, we fully expected to see the beers produced at the old tannery here at Birrificio La Piazza on the corner of Via dei Mille and Via Accademia Albertina. Indeed, their website suggests that beers with art-inspired names such as Renoir, Chagally, Klimt and Turnerly were on sale in both outlets. Actually, I think some of them are available in bottles but the six taps here were exclusively devoted to beers produced by Il Birrificio Artigianale Soralamà, a microbrewery located to the west of Torino at Vaie.
On reflection, we probably thought that this was simply a tap takeover but the shelves were also heaving with Soralamà bottles so perhaps the project was having some sort of production issue. To clarify the situation and report accurately on this bar, I did e-mail Il Birrificio Artigianale Soralamà but they did not respond. Whatever the reason, and particularly as we prefer draught beers rather than bottled ales, we were going to have a session of the Vaie beers. And, as it turned out, we had a terrific time. The core business of Birrificio La Piazza is seemingly centred on the restaurant which has a good reputation for quality and is dedicated to matching dishes with beer styles. There is a small bar for drinkers and, as the place was very quiet during the afternoon, we had this to ourselves.
The taps at the servery all featured small chalkboards with tasting notes for the Soralamà beers - very helpful when deciding what to order. The Golden Ale at 4.5% was pleasantly refreshing though a little thin. Still, a good warm up for the much tastier Bitrex Common IPA which, at 6.2%, has more bite. This pale yellow to golden ale has mild citrus notes and gentle tropical flavours. There is a slight hop kick at the end but quite tame when compared to the new generation of punchy IPA's. The star of the show was a bock called Wow, a double malt bright ruby beer, fermented with three red spices. There are pleasant malt and caramel overtones within this fruity beer with a medium body. This 5.8% ale, like the full range of Soralamà beers, benefits from the purity of the mountain water flowing into the Val di Susa valley. Moreover, the brewery is committed to its connectivity to the environment and using locally-grown ingredients.
Whilst drinking our beers, we salivated over the evening menu that featured a few dishes suitable for vegetarians. Birrificio La Piazza does however serve a daytime snacks menu and we partook in a couple of tasty plates accompanied by freshly-cooked crisps. There was a very friendly woman running the bar during our visit. With limited English, she tried her best to talk to us throughout. Before we left I used my translation app to thank her for the kindness she had shown to us, at which she poured two complimentary liquers made with hops. These were quite divine. A lovely conclusion to a very enjoyable visit.
We wandered across Giardino Aiuola Balbo passing the monuments to Daniele Manin, a statesman regarded as a hero of Italian unification, and Eusebio Bava, a general who fought in the First Italian War of Independence. We crossed the road and walked through the neighbouring Giardino Cavour which features a monument to Carlo di Robilant, the locally-born diplomat, general and politician who, as ambassador to Vienna from 1871 to 1885, was a key figure in the Triple Alliance. We made our way to the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele I, named after the man born in the Palazzo Reale di Torino but exiled in Sardinia before his realm was reconstituted by the Congress of Vienna in 1814. I took the above photograph overlooking the weir on the River Po with the bridge to the right. This scene will be familiar to anybody who has watched the 1969 heist movie "The Italian Job," as it is the weir across which a police car chased three Mini Cooper cars loaded with the stolen gold.
We decided to take a bus from Piazza Vittorio Veneto to save time getting to our next pub. The large square was named after the battle that marked the end of the World War One on the Italian Front. One of the largest squares in Europe, the Piazza is an impressive sight. The tower seen in the above photograph is that of the Mole Antonelliana, a building originally constructed as a synagogue in the mid-19th century but in the new Millennium has served as the Museo Nazionale del Cinema. The bus promised by Google's app didn't show up. We started to check on other timetables when a local woman, detecting our dilemma, tried her best to help with bus routes and times. This kindness was typical of many encounters we experienced during our holiday. But the guy we would really like to praise, as if we were on BBC's Saturday Live with the organ riff from The Enchanters "I Wanna Thank You" playing in the background, is the coach driver who, on looking at the map location where we wanted to go, told us to get on board, refused payment, and then dropped us off as close as he could to our destination - what a total star!
As it turned out, our efforts to patronise Birrificio Torino on Via Parma were in vain because, due to duff information, we found the brewpub closed. The bar opens at 19.30hrs and there are no daytime opening hours, even at weekends. A tadge disappointing as this looks like a nice place to drink. Opened in 2001, Birrificio Torino was opened in 2001 by a group of friends who wanted to revive the proud tradition of Torino's brewing industry. With limited opening hours and limited production runs, it would seem that they have no ambitions for global dominance. However, they seem to be doing what they do in a very efficient and professional manner.
Bizarrely, despite not being open for business, a ground-floor window was wide open. This allowed me to take the above photograph of the servery and part of the interior, all rather like a beer hall than a pub. However, it looks pretty good, notably the beer advertisements on the walls and the marble-top counter and table tops. The brewery's plant is on display and the owners claim that only water, malt, hops and yeast go into the beers - in other words, no additives are used. Birrificio Torino produce a modest portfolio of brews but their prized treasure is the 6.8% Rufus, a ruby red double malt ale that was awarded the "DLG" German Agricultural Society Silver Medal, an honour that for over 120 years establishes the professionalism and the goodness of the product. Birrificio Torino also serves a varied menu of reasonably priced meals. We'll have to come back here on a future trip to Italia.
In an attempt to get our pub tour back on track we headed to Corso Regina Margherita to jump on a tram to San Donato. At least all the online pub guides indicated that this brewery was open on Tuesdays. We were quite excited by the sound of Birrificio Black Barrels because it is a combined shop and brewery with cantina. The shop stocks specialist and limited editions beers from around the world. Meanwhile, the brewery has 12 oak former wine barrels used to age experimental and unusual beers in collaboration with other breweries. The beers are aged for three months and then bottled or sold in the cantina. The Black Widow sounds particularly mouth-watering as it is a strong stout, aged in the aforementioned oak, and flavored with Amaro San Simone, a traditional Piedmontese herbal and aromatic liqueur. I am talking about what the brewery offers rather than what we tried for ourselves because the Black Barrels is, according to the neighbouring hair dressing salon, closed on Tuesdays. What a disappointment!
Time was marching on and the clock was ticking down on our chance to visit Lo Sfuso, a craft beer shop close to Stazione di Porta Nuova in Via Pastrengo. The blinds come down at 8pm and it was now heading towards 5pm so we took a bus and the metro to hotfoot it across the city. We were quite chuffed that, in one day, we had travelled by train, coach, bus, metro and tram. Thankfully, we can confirm that this place is definitely open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 8pm. We can also thoroughly recommend a visit to this exceptional beer haven. Opened in 2011 by Fabio Garigliano, this beer shop stocks around 300 first-class beers from Italia and beyond. A knowledgeable and passionate beer sommelier, Fabio has hand-picked each of the ales so they are all worthy of your taste buds, the only problem being what to choose!
Now that's what you call a tap takeover! Actually, I was messing around pretending to pour a beer for this photograph when Fabio caught me in the act. The draught beers are kept in a separate area to the main seating room so, with the limited number of seats taken, we were alone in the adjacent interior space. Not that we were alone too often as Fabio is a good host and circulates the rooms ensuring all of his customers are happy.
Fabio is eager to share his encyclopedic knowledge of Italian craft beers and will advise on which bottles to order. When I told him I was in the mood for a dark ale, he recommended a bottle of Imperial Ghisa. This 8.5% Smoked Baltic Porter, is dark and intense. A quick whiff presents the smokey and toasty scents of the ale featuring coffee, bitter cocoa and toffee fragrances. The full-bodied fruity ale has quite a chocolate character. A most enjoyable beer produced by Birrificio Lambrate of Milan. Indeed, the name of this beer refers to a term used by the folks of Milan for traffic officers because, back in the day, they wore black uniforms and top hats. Apparently, this gave them the appearance of cast iron tubes of German stoves being sold in Milan during the mid-19th century. A good back story for a fine beer.
Although I was loving the Imperial Ghisa, we were keen to try more Italia beers so we shifted to La Granda Missis IPA. I believe that, since 2013, Fabio has been involved in the label designs for this brewery based in Lagnasco to the south of Torino. The dudes at Birrificio della Granda are passionate about their products and even grow their own barley. La Granda Missis IPA is well-hopped as an Indian Pale Ale should be. The light amber ale is quite fruity before the punchy hops give your taste buds a whack with a baseball bat. The brewers are so hip they even have a song with which to pair the beer, in this case it is former Smog frontman Bill Callahan's "Eid Ma Clack Shaw," perhaps proof that these guys dream up beer recipes in their sleep.
Following our warm-up on the bottled beers, we switched our attention to Fabio's beer lines. After all, he had Super, a Belgian Abbey-style beer by Le Baladin brewery of Piozzo, also to the south of Torino. This is the hometown of Matterino "Teo" Musso, the farmer's son and brainchild of this beer enterprise. A man with a deep sense of topophilia, his hometown is where his heart is, though he did stray in his youth before marrying a dancer at the Monte Carlo Opera. Together, in 1986, they re-opened an old abandoned tavern in Piozzo which literally became an outpouring of Teo's passion for craft beers and music. The tavern was named Le Baladin [storyteller in ancient French] but it was another decade before the brewery was born. Following trips to Belgium, two beers were produced and, in a bold move, the Blonde and Ambrée ales replaced the 200 global beers on sale in Le Baladin. It took some time for his regular customers to grow accustomed to his vision but, following recipe refinements, he won them over. Production was increased, new plant installed and good marketing has resulted in Le Baladin beers being sold across Italia. The indefatigable Teo Musso has also opened bars in some large towns and cities. And the beer? The Super Baladin is something of a flagship beer for the brewery. Clocking in at 8.0%, it is a beer inspired by the ales produced by Belgian Abbeys but with a unique twist. The amber beer has aromas of tropical fruit, banana and marzipan. Belgian hops deliver a solid punch and there is an aftertaste of almonds. In keeping with the spirit of Le Baladin, there is a quirky video for this beer.
More great tastes were to follow at Lo Sfuso because Fabio, who held his nerve by keeping his powder dry until he finally unleashed the devastatingly explosive Xtra IPA by Birrificio della Granda. The bottle label and pump clip, designed by Fabio, features hops being fired from a futuristic weapon, a perfetto phenomime, or visual onomatopoeia, as this beer delivers a mighty hoppy hit. With a full keg of Xtra IPA Fabio could take out half of Torino with this deadly weapon. However, a polizia patrol car was on standby to ensure that only patrons of Lo Sfuso were in danger of an overdose. However, the secret of this amazing beer is that the brewer at Birrificio della Granda went to the very edge of tastebud limits and balanced the beer with a packed greengrocer's shop of tropical and citrus flavours to create a magnifico ale. Fortunately for our heads, Fabio has to close Lo Sfuso at 8pm otherwise we would have ended up in a terrible state. As it was, I had to be dragged away from the taps! If in Torino, be sure to call into this magical beer emporium.
And that was it for visiting pubs in Italia. A craft beer desert a decade ago, we were surprised by the number of new breweries and beers that have emerged in recent years. A thoroughly enjoyable holiday in terms of sightseeing, beer and ice cream! The diet starts NOW.
Friday September 21st 2018
We visited The Weighbridge at Alvechurch today for a bit of a family get-together. To be honest, there are not that many great pubs just outside the sprawl of the south Birmingham conurbation so we have met here a couple of times as the beer is kept in very good order. The building was once the weighbridge office of the old wharf since converted into a marina and boatyard. In more recent times the office became a private club until, in 2002, it was opened to the general public.
For many years the pub has been run by John and Jayne Humphreys. At first John, a former welder in the boatyard, used to pull pints in the evening after his day shift. He has since joined Jayne, a former contract caterer, on a full-time basis. Naturally, John runs the bar and Jayne is in charge of the kitchen. The food is pitched at the cheap and cheerful end of the market but most seem happy enough with the menu.
It is the quality of the beer for which the freehouse is rightly noted. John knows how to store and serve good beer. Consequently, The Weighbridge has been bestowed with several CAMRA awards. Generally, the bar serves Tillerman's Tipple, brewed by Weatheroak Ales of Studley, along with Bargee's Bitter produced a little further away at the Kinver Brewery. In addition, the pub offers several guest ales, many of which are sourced from other brewers in the Midlands. Church End, Wye Valley and Hobson's are popular. On two weekends during the calendar, The Weighbridge also hosts a beer festival. This is staged in a marquee to the rear of the building.
Now for the bad bit. The Weighbridge has received some alarming reviews on sites like Trip Advisor. If it were only one person making a complaint or leaving a bad review it could be considered a one-off. However, several customers have made a point of highlighting the ill treatment they have received in this freehouse. The stream of bad reviews suggests a pattern here at The Weighbridge. There are comments such as "Quite the rudest hosts...," "The bar staff have all the charm of a thrown brick through a window," "Very rude bar man," "The landlord and some of the staff are the rudest, most miserable inhospitable people you could ever meet," "So unwelcoming both from the staff and the customers," "Nice pub but the landlord is very unpleasant," "attitude of the landlord was totally unacceptable," and "I have never met such rude staff." This catalogue of unfavourable comments is an indictment to the way The Weighbridge is seemingly operated and that the good beer should be matched by good manners.