Hundreds of you readers (well, two, to be precise) have asked for an alternative to Florence, just in case they’re stuck driving circles around that lovely cultural center trying without success to break into the old town itself (see my last blog posting).
If you don’t know Bologna (city, not luncheon meat), drive less than an hour north across the rich, green Appenine mountains to reach this urbane and welcoming historic city. (Overnighting suggestion: Villa Campestri, situated in the gorgeous countryside along the way.) When you arrive in Bologna, you’ll discover charm, culture, beauty, and half as much tourist congestion as you found elsewhere.
My first experience there was less than welcoming, through no fault of the city. My grad school buddy Mike and I were hitching down the Italian boot in February, and rain had drenched our clothing and our spirits. We couldn’t catch a break as we tramped through town and mistakenly took a road that brought us to a bleak industrial area with only the occasional passing truck. As night fell we were rescued by a trucker who took pity on two sodden walkers stumbling alongside the road. He deposited us at an outlying rail station, and the next local train took us over the mountains into Florence. We missed out on all the wonders I’d heard about the city, and I swore I’d be back to see what I’d missed.
Years later my wife and family and I have returned numerous times.
Bolognese life revolves around the Piazza Maggiore, framed by San Petronio basilica (the stone facing for its façade never completed) and the Palazzo del Podestà (the medieval law court built in the 13th century and remodeled in 1484). Directly across from the lively Neptune Fountain lies the tourist information office where you can pick up a city plan and a guide to the numerous cultural attractions of the city. And just up the Via Rizzoli are two colossal leaning towers from the 12th century which were once among over two hundred which graced this imposing city. If you’re feeling energetic, climb up 498 aged wooden steps to the top of the Asinelli tower for a panoramic view of the city.
Bologna is the heart of Emilia-Romagna, a rich agricultural region famed for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Modena balsamic vinegars, and that’s just for starters.
Funny story: my wife wasn’t a big fan of Parmesan cheese, never having discovered just how delicious the genuine article is. She’d been turned off by the American version shaken from the green can and never tried it again. So we once sat in a restaurant in the little town of Parma, and she asked me to express to our waiter in my rudimentary Italian that none of the famed local cheese should be added to her meal. Imagine the look we got from our male server.
Afterwards it occurred to me that the expression I had used–a mia moglie non piace il Parmigiano (my wife doesn’t like Parmesan)–can also express one’s distaste for any male citizen of Parma, il Parmigiano. And then I understood that look from the waiter. After all, could anyone not like the local cheese?
But…back to Bologna. This city’s culinary offerings will leave you full but wanting more. Two excellent restaurant choices are Mela, just off the main piazza, and Anna Maria, a trattoria a bit more challenging to find but always outstanding . Ask your hotel clerk to make reservations and give you directions. There is a daily market at La Piazzola and others scattered around the city center, and an enticing deli is never far from view.
Just wander freely up and down the arcaded streets. You’ll find plenty of inviting food stores and restaurants to lure you in. True Italian life and language is far more prevalent here than in the heavily-touristed city centers elsewhere. And of course—since this is an actual vibrant city center—you’ll find department stores, book boutiques, music stores and everything else for the shopper in you.
Bologna is a city made for living, not just touring. We love the rich red and ocher buildings , surprising parks of green, and the numerous arcaded walkways where locals stroll with their dogs as evening falls. Watch for courtyards and enter unsuspected worlds of beautiful architecture. The university is Europe’s oldest, so your evening walks will lead you past noisy bars with both student celebrants and music spilling out onto the side streets, giving the town a youthful vibe despite the obvious age and elegance of the surroundings.
Now get going. Visit once. You’ll be back.
Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon