“Spaghetti Bolognese? Pah – there is no such thing! Here, we serve a ragu on tagliatelle, never on spaghetti.” And what if you happen, by accident or ignorance, to serve your bolognese sauce on spaghetti instead of tagliatelle? “Then you go straight to hell!”. Thus spake Simona, our Bologna city guide for the afternoon. If I had been in any doubt as to how seriously the good people of Bologna take their food, Simona had certainly clarified things for me. And who can blame the Bolognese – they live in the capital city of Emilia Romagna, a region of Italy that has given birth to such iconic delicacies as Parmiggiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. A certain degree of seriousness about food is almost a requirement.
Up until a few weeks ago, my principal experience of Bologna was rushing through the airport en route to the tiny village of Zibello where my sister-in-law is from. Little did I know that Bologna is a city of many faces and many names: “the fat one” (la grassa) in reference to its meat and cheese-heavy cuisine; “the learned one” (la dotta) in reference to its famous university; or “the red one” (la rossa), originally referring to the colour of the roofs in the historic centre, but later also connected to the city’s status as a bastion of socialism and communism after World War II. Today, Bologna is a handsome, liveable city of red-brick porticoes and colonnades; home to one of the oldest universities in Europe; a culinary mecca; and a proclaimed UNSECO City of Music. On a recent trip arranged by the Regional Governments of Emilia Romagna, Lombardy & Veneto I was lucky enough to be able to spend an afternoon and an evening exploring the city on foot and hearing about its history and culture from Simona. Together with my companions Tom, Claire, Tom and Marion, I set off from our centrally-located hotel after a quick sandwich lunch and a fortifying espresso to explore.
Bologna is a city of both obvious and hidden charms. On the obvious front are the many square brick towers; and on the hidden front are the rivers and waterways that used to criss-cross the city and turn it into a facsimile of Venice. Sadly, most of these waterways have now been relegated to subterranean passages with only a few remaining visible in the old town centre. It is, however, possible to take a tour of some of these hidden worlds. A more obvious charm is the city’s love-affair with porticoed pavements. There are almost 40km of covered walkways in Bologna and all of the city’s social life seems to take place under these graceful porticoes, from lovers’ embraces, to old men playing dominoes, to simply watching the world go by. When an influx of 2000 university students in the 12th century caused a housing shortage, the city’s solution was to allow extra rooms, overhanging the streets, to be attached to existing buildings, thus increasing the square footage of houses without increasing their footprint. As I said, the Bolognese also have a fondness for fortified brick towers, built centuries ago by wealthy families for protection in case of an attack, but also as a show of wealth and power. One of these, the Torre Prendiparte, has been restored and now operates as a hotel for those seeking something a little out of the ordinary.
From there, our walk took us to the Piazza Maggiore, the central square of the city around which many of its principal buildings are situated. The focal point is the slightly scandalous bronze fountain featuring a larger-than-life and very much naked Neptune – which seems very tame today but caused a sensation in its time. Flanking this on one side is the Palazzo de Podesta, built in about 1200 as the seat of the various functionaries of the commune of Bologna. While the side facing the Neptune fountain is fortress-like, the facade that faces the Basilica of St. Petronio is a graceful colonnade housing shops. The huge Basilica itself is also interesting – the Catholic church ordered building stopped when it started to rival St Peter’s in Rome; and because money was diverted to Bologna university, the marble cladding on the facade only reaches about a third up the building’s facade. Facing the Palazzo Podesta on the other side of the foundain is the Palazzo d’Accursio (or Palazzo Communale), a building started in 1287 which has served variously as a private residence, the seat of local government and a stock exchange (Sala Borsa). After World War II the Sala Borsa was used as a basketball court (the hoops are still visible!), but in 2001 after extensive renovation is was re-opened as a multimedia library. I felt a huge affinity for this as it reminded me of the Feathermarket Hall back in my hometown – a building that was constructed as a station, later used as an ostrich feather market, and is now a concert venue! I loved the soaring, painted ceilings and the delicate balconies; I loved the money vaults in the basement that remind you of the building’s previous use – but mostly I loved that you could look down through the glass bricks of the floor into the Roman and Etruscan ruins on which much of Bologna is built.
From there, we wandered over to the Archiginnasio de Bologna – once the home of Bologna University but now also housing a library. Bologna University is the oldest in Italy, founded in 1088, but the faculty was only moved here about 500 years later. The building, completed in the mid-16th century, is a feast for the eyes and is arranged over two floors around a pretty courtyard. The walkways around the courtyard with their graceful vaulted ceilings and ornate decor echo the porticoes outside, and the walls are covered in a gigantic collection of over seven thousand beautiful coats of arms, each indicating a student’s name and home country or city. We were led up the graceful staircase to the first floor where the anatomical theatre can still be seen. This beautiful amphitheatre-shaped, wood-panelled room was built in 1637 and is centred around a dissection table which could easily be seen by students from all the tiered seats. Allied bombs caused severe damage to the room in 1944, but it has been faithfully restored using pictures and paintings of the intact theatre. Before we could leave the Archiginnasio, we had one more stop: an appointment with a cameraman in the courtyard for a short interview – here is a video clip of Tom sounding very urbane, and me flicking my eyebrows about like a loon. Sigh.
But enough of the history of Bologna – I was keen to get better acquainted with the city’s famous food culture. One of the best places to do this is in the Mercato de Mezzo orQuadrilatero, a rambling street market occupying a network of ancient narrow streets just east of the Piazza Maggiore (Via Clavature, Via Pescherie Vecchio and Via dei Orefici). Much like the City of London, the names of many of these streets recall their ancient tenants – the blacksmiths, goldsmiths, sheep butchers, fishmongers and upholsterers. Today, the area is still full of small cafes and bars where you can take a break from shopping in the area’s impressive array of fresh produce stalls, fishmongers, and delicatessens. Here, at last, I caught a glimpse of everyday Bolognese life. Old men with gnarled nicotine-stained fingers arguing over tiny cups of coffee; stallholders gesticulating to make a point in the way that only italians can; and people on their way home from work debating the merits of the dozen types of tomatoes on sale, or stopping to pick up some sliced prosciutto to eat with their aperitivi. The perfume of roses from florists mingled with the unmistakeable smell of dozens of cured hams hanging in the delis; the colours of the tomatoes seemed more intense than any supermarket back home could ever produce; and the melodic rise and fall of Italian conversation swirled all around us. It’s not hard to see how one might fall in love with the place.
And when you’ve had your fill of shopping, do as the Bolognese do and pop into the Osteria del Sole, a local institution has been around since 1465. Wedged in between other, smarter shops with an unprepossessingly scruffy entrance, it’s the kind of place that tourists would usually pass by without a second glance. Inside, the room is similarly a little srcruffy with wobbly tables and mismatched chairs, over-brightly lit (as Italian bars often are!), and full of locals who will regard you suspiciously from behind the bar. But persevere. Not only is the place stuffed with pictures and artefacts that make up a virtual time capsule of decades past, but the wine is also very reasonable (house wine can apparently be had for €2 per glass). However the most unusual thing about the Osteria is that it is BYO: not bring your own booze, but bring your own food! I was astonished when the family seated next to us cracked open their picnic and enjoyed cheese and ham from the market outside while sipping wine purchased at the Osteria, but evidently it’s the done thing. Sadly, we had dinner coming up so no picnic for us – but we did manage to polish off a rather lovely bottle of dry red Lambrusco – surely one of the nicest drinks made in this part of Italy.
Another surprising fact about Bologna is the fact that it is a musical mecca – so much so that it was named a UNESCO City of Music in 2006. More than 110 organisations in the city are active in musical research, training, production, event organisation, radio programming, event management and the sale of musical products, but at the time of our visit it was all about the jazz. Bologna has apparently had a long association with jazz music and Paolo, the man whose brother started it all, took time to come and chat to us on the Strada del Jazz. This street lined with many jazz bars has been selected by the city to highlight its jazz heritage by adding Hollywood-style stars dedicated to jazz legends: Chet Baker’s was unveiled last year with Miles Davis being added this year. Apparently Paolo’s brother served in the RAF and lived in London, returning to Bologna after the war with a suitcase full of jazz records. He organised the Bologna Jazz Festival (Italy’s first) in 1958, prompting artists such as Baker and Davis to visit – Chet Baker even lived in the city for a while. Their presence and mentoring did wonders for the developing Italian jazz scene and although the jazz festival is no more, on the weekend we visited there was a Strada del Jazz programme of musical events taking place in venues across the city.
One of these events was live jazz being played in a number of restaurants, including theBravo Caffé where we headed for dinner. This was our first chance to sample some of the city’s typical dishes, which include amongst others mortadella (a heat-cured sausage made of finely ground pork mince and 15% small cubes of pork fat); tagliatelle (flat ribbon pasta); and tortellini (little twisted pasta crescents traditionally filled with meat and cheese, and said to resemble the navel of Venus, no less!). We had a set menu which consisted of: papardelle with zucchini, zucchini flowers and ham (€10); meat tortellini in brodo(€12); shoulder of veal stuffed with spinach on potato cream (€14); zucchini flan on warm tomato sauce with crisp julienne zucchini - the envy-inducing vegetarian option (€7); a tangle of truly outstanding crisp tempura zucchini batons; and crême caramelfor dessert (€6). The winner dish of the night was without doubt the tortellini, which still haunt my dreams – the secret that we non-Italians miss is evidently boiling them in broth, and not overcooking them! Both the feather-light zucchini flan and the tempura zucchini came a close second though. To drink, we had a bottle of Giovanna Madonia ‘Tenentino’ Sangiovese IGT (€15) – a typical red wine of the region made with Sangiovese, considered the king of grapes in this part of the world. Other popular local reds include the dry Lambrusco which we had earlier, made from indigenous Lambrusco grapes and a perfect match for the rich local cuisine. Local white wines are made from Malvasia, Trebbiano and Pignoletto grapes (the latter made into lightly sparkling wines seldom seen outside Italy).
As I drifted off to sleep in my hotel that night, listening to faint music floating up from the streets below, my only regret was that we had to leave in the morning – so many tortellini, so little time.
There are lots of bonus pictures available in my Flickr album of our Italian trip (and more to be added!). For another perspective on Bologna, you can read what my lovely fellow-travellers Claire, Marion and Tom wrote here and here and here and here. Stay tuned for the next leg of our journey when we explore the city of Ferrara.
We flew on British Airways which operate a number of direct flights per week from London Gatwick airport to Bologna, with fares ranging from about £90 to £200 for a return flight. EasyJet and Ryanair also operate regular flights from Gatwick.
We stayed in the Hotel Metropolitan, conveniently located a short walk from the Piazza Maggiore. This 3* hotel has recently been renovated to a high standard and the public areas and breakfast room now have a miniamalist Far Eastern flavour. Standard rooms start from about €95 per room per night and there is WiFi available.
Via dell’Orso 6
Tel. +39 (0)51 229393
GETTING FED & WATERED
Osteria del Sole
Vicolo Ranocchi 1D
Tel +39 (0)347 9680171
Via Mascarella 1
Tel. Tel. +39 (0)51 266112
GOOD TO KNOW
The Bologna Welcome card is a special card for visitors sponsored by Fondazione Carisbo, the Chamber of Commerce of Bologna and the Municipality of Bologna. Costing €20 and valid for 48 hours from first use, the card provides:
- Free admission to all the Genus Bononiae historical buildings: Ex Church St Giorgio in Poggiale, Oratory of St Colombano, Church of St Cristina, Church of St Maria della Vita, Pepoli Palace, Fava Palace, Casa Saraceni, Church of St Michele in Bosco
- Free admission to the following city museums: MAMbo (Modern Art Museum of Bologna), Morandi Museum, Archaeological Museum, Medieval Museum, Municipal Art Collections, Museum of Music, City Museum of Risorgimento
and Museum of Industrial Heritage
- Either 24 hours’ free public transport or free BLQ shuttle bus to/from Guglielmo Marconi airport in Bologna
- Free, unlimited wi-fi in town;
- Special offers and discounts at the main tourist services and over 200 nightclubs, shops, restaurants, spas and leisure
It is also possible to book a number of themed tours via Bologna Welcome (the city tourist office) such as tours of the Ferrari or Lamborghini factories; a number of food and wine-themed tours in and around Bologna; or even a cookery course where you can learn to make your own tortellini.
DISCLOSURE: This was a press trip organised and paid for by the Italian government and the Regional Governments of Emilia Romagna, Lombardy & Veneto, as part of a project to promote tourism in the earthquake-hit areas of Bologna, Ferrara, Rovigo and Mantova, all named Unesco World Heritage sites. Other than the trip itself, I received no payment to write this post and all opinions are my own.
In other news… this week we mark another milestone in our Plate to Page story. We’ve been working on our sparkly new website behind the scenes and putting together a brand new workshop for 2013. We’ve worked hard and there were many frustrations, highs and lows but in the end we rocked it. The Plate to Page website is looking hot – isn’t it?
We’re absolutely thrilled about our fourth workshop taking place in May 2013 in Dublin, Ireland. Mark those calendars! From 10th – 13th May 2013 we’re taking the From Plate to Page workshop to the beautiful rolling green hills of County Meath, Ireland. You’ll find all the details to the workshop in our Ireland announcement page. And if you’re wondering whether the workshop is right for you, just read what our past participants have said about our workshops!