High Speed Trains and Slow Food – Italy and France by Train Part 4: Foodie Florence

We arrived at Venezia Santa Lucia station with plenty of time to spare and quickly found our Italo train waiting to speed us off to Florence. Just in case the title of this tale doesn’t spell it out in large enough letters for you, I became a big fan of Italian trains on this trip.

Our Ferrari red AGV looked absolutely glorious in the midday Venetian sun.

Train: Italo Treno 9983
Depart: Venezia Santa Lucia 13:00
Arrive: Firenze Santa Maria Novella 15:05
Seats: Carriage 5, Seats 2 and 3 (Comfort Class)
Locomotive: Alstom AGV Top Speed 360 km/h

This time we had booked into Comfort, which was basically the same set up as the Prima Class carriage that we’d enjoyed earlier on our trip but without the low quality drink and snack run.

The fare also came out at a much keener price than Prima Class and as far as I’m concerned is definitely the best bang for buck on Italo’s speedy trains.

We clearly weren’t the only fans of this service as our train was ram packed pretty much all the way to Florence, but thankfully luggage space was plentiful and the 2:1 formation leather seating was spacious and comfortable.

Time flew by and before we knew it we were pulling into the terminus of Firenze Santa Maria Novella.

After having spent the previous few days in the happy go lucky tourist village of Venice, Florence felt like its angry inland sibling. The pavements were bumpy and every time we crossed the road it was every man, woman and child for itself. We bumped and bustled our way from the station to the NH Anglo American where we would be staying for the next two nights. That fifteen minute walk felt like an eternity. I can’t remember the last time I felt less welcome in a new city than during our arrival in Florence.

Hotel: NH Anglo American
Room: Standard Room
Status: None

When we arrived at our hotel, all the outside hostility from the locals quickly melted away.

Along with a wonderfully warm welcome at check in we also received a map, directions and some handy tips for navigating the city. The kind, young woman at the front desk even seemed upset that we’d already booked our restaurants for both evenings as she was keen to offer us some dinner recommendations. I thought she did a great job, and proved a fantastic ambassador for NH. This was our first ever stay at an NH property and from a service point of view I thought they were spot on the whole stay which was something we have since found at other NH properties we have stayed at.

We had booked a standard room for our stay which we found spacious, if not a little rough around the edges. Sadly such a sparsely decorated room doesn’t work well when minor details such as chipped paint and scuffed floors are visible.
The TV was in an odd place on the side of the wall, as that was where the aerial point had been installed, thankfully we’d not be spending much time in the room and even less time watching the TV.
We settled in quickly as we had made an appointment with a giant killer and we didn’t want to keep him waiting!

We walked back in the direction of the station and then headed towards the Accademia, which was about half an hours walk away from out hotel. Despite being a big city Florence felt like tourist central at every turn. Lots of people in tour groups fighting their way past one another with cars, bikes and buses determined not to stop. On arrival at the Accademia we found a huge queue. Thank goodness we had booked a time slot online in advance. We were sent down the street to door 51 to collect our tickets before heading to the pre-booked line where we got in pretty much right away. The signage to get in was not great but certainly a lot better than that at the Uffizi two days later.

To the best of my knowledge The Accademia is famous for just one thing, Michelangelo’s David sculpture.

It was truly a magnificent work of art to behold, especially when viewed alongside Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves; a series of sculptural works trying to break out of their stone blocks that lined the room where David was found.

Unsurprisingly, the museum was over-run with tour groups of all ages as well as numerous private guides making it rather challenging to enjoy the art. I have to confess I don’t remember much else about the Accademia other than should we revisit Florence many years from now, not to come back!

I think the photo above sums up the sentiment of the city rather well.
We passed by the beautiful Synagogue and Jewish Museum of Florence, sadly complete with a patrol of armed guards.
We then tried to enter some magnificent churches including the Basilica of Santa Croce which was unfortunately closed due to it being a little late in the day (this seemed to be a recurring theme).
We looped back into the touristic city centre on the lookout for a bus map and tickets, so we could make it to dinner. We did at least find the tickets, though the map proved elusive.

Why did we need to master the intricacies of the local buses in an easily walkable city you may ask? Well, someone had gotten a little overexcited when booking dinner and the restaurant I’d booked for our evening meal, Da Ruggero was anything but a brief stroll from the centre of town. Although Google Maps made it look like a simple, short bus ride from our hotel, Google Maps also did not know the correct bus numbers or stop names and we lost a lot of time waiting in the wrong place before we realised that the 370A bus was in fact the same as 37 bus. Luckily we finally caught our bearings and realised the start of this particular bus route was the main train station and once we found the right spot to catch the bus and carefully counted the stops, our restaurant for the evening was not hard to find at all. For those of you like us who are too cheap to take a cab, please also be aware that the buses don’t run that late, so be careful as it’s a long trek back to town, especially if you enjoyed a drink or two with your meal! Though with the size of the portions your waistline might welcome the late night stroll.

Anyway, we exited the bus, crossed the road and were warmly welcomed into the restaurant. We were given a pleasant table at the back of the lively dining room. Not only was the restaurant full, they were also doing a brisk trade in take away. Da Ruggero felt like a real local spot as other than us we heard only one other English speaking table in the restaurant. Unlike many of the restaurants on our trip there was also no English menu but our charming waiter was more than happy to translate for the few items where we needed help. After a whole day surrounded by other tourists from across the globe it was pleasant to feel like we were in a “proper” neighbourhood restaurant, assuming that such a thing even exists.

To begin we were offered a small amuse bouche of some rich, minced-beef bruschetta.
For our starter we shared an antipasti plate of cured meats sliced freshly to order from the deli counter.
We enjoyed a carafe of house wine to complement our meal.
Anne-So opted for the giant meatballs with a side of spinach.

Although it probably isn’t obvious from the close up photos, portions were large by almost anyone’s standards, unless perhaps you live in Budapest! We noticed that the table opposite had ordered the roast beef, which was a huge succulent looking slab of meat and one of the few times we suffered from food envy this trip.

Somehow we found room for dessert and I had some rather potent Vin Santo with biscuits which left me quite merry.
Anne-So enjoyed a slice of the rich chocolate tart.
We finished off our meal with a much needed espresso!

We toddled back to the bus stop and a short while later our bus arrived dropping us near the hotel. What a great meal to end the day and help to slowly win back my faith in Florence.

The following morning we were up early again by our usual holiday standards and were keen to make sure we had time for a good breakfast at the hotel.

There was no way I was rushing breakfast as I knew every last bite would be building up my strength for a morning of panoramic views and the stair climbing to go with them.

Though from a British point of view what we would call sausage and bacon is not what is served anywhere else in the world. Happily filled with sugar, caffeine and saturated fat we walked to the Duomo like an overweight pair of Duracell bunnies for our 09:20 climb to the roof. Unlike in Milan the weather that morning was stunning. The sky was clear and blue, the temperature pleasant.

After doing St Pauls Cathedral earlier in the week and reading some Trip Advisor horror stories Anne-So had decided to leave me to make the climb alone. To cut a long story short, if you don’t like heights, crowds or have even a hint of claustrophobia you probably won’t want to do the climb to the roof of the Duomo. Though I suppose if you don’t like crowds I’m not sure how you made it to Florence! I’d also recommend booking a slot online as the only thing that looked more unforgiving than the climb was the queue for those without a ticket.

Most of the steps barring those at the very end were not particularly steep and there were plenty of spots where you could take a quick rest if you were feeling tired. Finally, the views from the top, especially on a day like we had were spectacular. This was finally my chance to enjoy the beautiful Florence that everyone raves about.

Heading down was much easier and after a quick stroll I was finally able to call through to Anne-So to find out what she’d been up to.

It was then time for my second climb that morning, Giotto’s Bell Tower. Whilst the views are very similar to what you’ll see from the roof of the Duomo, you gain a fantastic view of the cupola of the Duomo from the top of the bell tower. The climb felt much less forgiving than the Duomo, though that might have been my creaking knees struggling with a second climb, not long after the first. Thankfully the hike to the heavens was split up with plenty of space to sit down at the numerous lookout points on the way to the summit.

Once again the view was well worth the effort of the climb. Unlike the Duomo heading down was a little tricky in places as often there was only one way in and out of a space.

Slightly exhausted I met Anne-So at the base of the bell tower and we rested together in the Baptistery, enjoying the beautiful ceiling whilst reading all about it in our guide book.

Feeling suitably inspired we headed off for lunch to a little spot called Salumeria Verdi, a sandwich spot filled to the brim with meat, cheese and a wide variety of American college students. Whilst you could enjoy a cold beer or fresh glass of wine with your meal we chose to stick with water and stay hydrated.

Happily filled we headed back to the Duomo area to visit the museum. I have to confess I was not looking forward to the Duomo Museum in Florence, most of the time these types of places feel like add-ons to justify the price of plumping for the combined admission ticket to the full suite of ‘attractions’ and are often filled with antiquities the likes of which you could find nearly everywhere and anywhere or are so obscure that only the most scholarly experts would find them even remotely interesting.

Whilst the façade may have been a replica, the doors on display were the golden originals.

The museum also contained some quite special sculptures from Donatello. It was amazing how he carved such thin, natural cloth folds, emotive expressions and at times quite frightening eyes from stone. We didn’t think we’d spend long at the Duomo Museum but we actually really enjoyed it.

The museum had one last surprise for us, a beautiful view looking up at the Duomo.

After a hard hour or so of sightseeing we thought we’d earned ourselves some gelato, so off we went on a merry detour to find one of the more well renowned offerings the city had to offer.

We spent a few moments with the tourist throng enjoying the statues of the Loggia dei Lanzi.
We took a quick peek at the fountain of Neptune…
Almost gate-crashed a police outing!
And then thought about a ride on Jan Fabre’s Searching for Utopia – which at least shifts us nicely onto the next paragraph!

We loved the gelato from Grom in Venice and after all that walking it was high time to try out some quality Florentine gelato at Carapina. We queued behind some indecisive ladies and a local getting a tub full before it was our turn.

Sheltering from the shower whilst window shopping we made it out the other side unscathed and enjoyed walking the back streets in search of atmosphere on the way to Santa Croce where we’d hoped to visit the previous day but were thwarted by the late hour.

It was strangely hypnotic to the point that when either Anne-So or I say, “Santa Maria” then we are instantly transported back to this church and the little old lady chanting away.
They also had an amazing booth for the priests which wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Tate Modern, or even humming with menacing intent in a David Lynch movie.
We left the Santa Maria del Carmine and unfortunately our luck had turned for the worse because once again it turned out Santa Croce was closed to visitors as we arrived on the large piazza in front of the church.

Sometimes you wonder if something is truly meant to be, and our second night in Florence was that kind of night. Our reservation for Sostanza was at 21:00 and with the restaurant being just a short walk away from the hotel it should have been easy to find, but you know sometimes when life throws you lemons, you find you have an allergic reaction to lemonade! Hopefully by admitting to our mistakes, you dear reader will not make the same ones and instead enjoy a meal where the only drama served up is a dose of comedy scowling from the waiters:

  • Mistake One – The Location: Sostanza was the restaurant down the grim looking, closed off alleyway, the one you’d have second thoughts about walking down late at night when in a foreign city.
  • Mistake Two – Cash Only: When you can spend 70-80 Euro on a full meal you’d expect a restaurant to accept card payments, Sostanza didn’t. As we were a little early and potentially a few Euros short of cash we headed round the block, in the wrong direction to find a bancomat.
  • Mistake Three – I Assure You They’re Open: Just because the door doesn’t want to open doesn’t mean they’re shut. After the circling around for the cash point and now slightly late for our reservation I was struggling to get the restaurant’s door to open. It turned out the door had not been greased since Sostanza had last been redecorated which I’d imagine was probably around the same time they first opened for business.
  • Mistake Four – Authenticity: Just because somewhere looks local and rustic it doesn’t mean you’ll find any locals there. Other than the surly looking staff, who I think were putting on a little bit of an act, we didn’t hear a single word of Italian the entire night, nor see a word of it in print.
  • The Final Mistake – The Food: After all the above we were worried we’d walked into a tourist trap and that the food might not be up to scratch. I’ve never been happier to be wrong!
Our menu for the night.
We started off with some pasta; mine with butter sauce, aka penne with a fresh lump of butter on the top. However, by the time the generous grating of parmesan was over and a liberal grind of black pepper added, I had a perfect plate of pasta.
Anne-So had a lovely meat sauce atop her perfect plate of penne.
We made the brave decision not to have Sostanza’s famous butter chicken and instead opted for the Fiorentina steak. It was a lovely cut of beef cooked to a perfect medium which we paired up with some famous Tuscan white beans in tomato sauce.
Thankfully the wine and food had massively improved our mood and we enjoyed the company from a talkative Canadian couple who were seated next to us. At least we got a glimpse of Sostanza’s famous butter chicken, wishing we had both a second stomach and a second bank account to treat ourselves to a portion.
There was still room for dessert, isn’t there always! We shared some strawberries and a slice of meringue cake, both very good indeed.

We headed off into the night happy as can be. Was Sostanza worth the hype? After two excellent old timey trattoria meals this was perhaps my least favourite. For me I will never forget Valenza in Turin. Perhaps if we had done the trip the other way round it would have been different. Either way, another day and another amazing dinner.

Our final morning in Florence began with the same selection of breakfast items as the previous day. Whilst a good breakfast in a quality five star hotel can be an unrivalled experience that keeps you happy and full well beyond lunch time, the buffets at the more middle of the road places soon become tiring. The egg and waffle chef and the fresh orange juice machine we enjoyed at the Hilton had gone, the freshly made items at the B&B absent.

Instead I finished my morning with Nutella on toast and made a tired shuffle towards the espresso machine. I sorely missed the morning smell of five star hotel coffee.

We checked out from the NH and headed towards the Uffizi. With it being such a glorious day we took the scenic route by the river.

Sadly we could not take in the view as we had a time slot for the museum. In fact such was the demand we had to book two adjacent time slots as we could only purchase single tickets despite booking a number of weeks in advance.

We found door three where we collected our tickets and like many others were shocked by the large queue that we had to join for admittance to the galleries. Feeling pretty frustrated it was time for a good old fashioned passive aggressive bit of British complaining. Even though we had pre-booked we still had to queue for about half an hour to get in, though those who had failed to book faced a two hour wait.

So, how was the museum? The Uffizi contained a collection of amazing art in an over-crowded environment. Unfortunately for me the museum was spoilt once again by large tour groups clogging up the famous works, often two or more groups of thirty plus at a time along with some rather vocal guides.

When we were away from the groups the museum environment was excellent, with its sculpture lined corridors and luxurious rooms. The route through the Uffizi wass also a touch confusing, not helped by the process of refurbishment at the time of our visit. One thing not mentioned in our guidebook was the bonus of some beautiful and largely unobstructed views of some of the best sights in Florence.

Another thing that didn’t help was by the time we had collected our tickets, queued up and made it up to the exhibition space we had around two hours to enjoy the art, rather than the three hours we’d planned for. In an ideal world we’d have shelled out for an audio guide and enjoyed the galleries at our own pace for a good half a day or more. Unlike the Accademia the Uffizi is a 100% a must visit spot in Florence if you have even the slightest interest in art and history. Additionally, the works on display were varied not just one renaissance piece after another. Whilst as a museum experience the Uffizi is not perfect, the quality of the works on display make it worth the pain of the crowds.

We headed back to the hotel at pace to catch our trains to Vernazza for the Cinque Terre. So far this trip we had been spoilt with magnificent high speed rail from Canterbury through to Florence and it was now time to brave a mish-mash of more local flavours!

High Speed Trains and Slow Food – Italy and France by Train

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