Bologna – la dotta (the learned), la rossa (the red), la grassa (the fat)
Named a European City of Culture by the European Union in 2000, Bologna is most famous for its historic university, founded in 1088 and the oldest in all of Europe.
The city is also well known for its unique architecture, with beautiful porticoed streets, but aside from all these attractions, many Italians agree, that this is where to go for some of the best cooking in Italy.
History and art
Bologna was a Villanovan and Etruscan centre (4th-6th century B.C.), then it became Gallic and, in the 2nd century B.C., it was both a Roman colony and a Roman municipality. The Romans’ arrival gave a new boost to the growth of the town, which took the name Bononia. In the Middle Ages the village became a free commune and reached the climax of its power in 1249, with the triumphant Fossalta battle, when King Enzo, son of the emperor Frederick II, was taken prisoner. In the 16th century, after the alternation of various Signorie, the town was finally included into the Papal State, but it succeeded in keeping its own ancient magistracies, first of all the Senate, and then also its own ambassador in Rome. In 1889, with a new urban development plan, Bologna gained a new layout and new palaces and so the town appearance slowly became the modern aspect of today.
Today Bologna is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, with a population of 400,000, a region of fertile plains, beautiful mountain scenery and a stretch of coastline that has long been a mecca for clubbers and sun-worshippers. It is also known for the cultural and material affluence of its other historic cities such as Modena, Parma, Ferrara and Ravenna.
Although all roads might lead to Rome, they almost certainly pass through Bologna on the way. On a plain between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Coast, Bologna has always been a strategic city. But it was also the city’s propensity for free thinking that invaders wanted to control. Bologna has always been the Italian residence of pioneering thought, earning it the soubriquet, Bologna la dotta (the learned). Around the same time as Bolognese physicist Guglielmo Marconi, was discovering radio, Bologna became the birthplace and home of the Italian political Left. Already dubbed la rossa (the red) for its famed red buildings, Bologna’s second nickname gained a more figurative meaning.
Porticoed Bologna street
In the charming old town centre, which is one of the best-preserved in Europe, you can find ancient palaces and churches, rich in works of art, which bear witness of the cultural importance that Bologna has had throughout the centuries. With streets like embroidered cloth, threaded with the arches of continuous colonnades, the heart of Bologna is a giant cloister. Under processions of classical columns and in the shadows cast between the half-moons of its winding alleys, the city inspires a combination of intimacy and wandering, revealing her secrets to the unhurried visitor. Above and behind the chiaroscuro porticoes Bologna is a rose-red city of churches and palaces, lasting testaments to the architectural flattery bestowed by the papal and civic forces that vied for control of the city. Striving for immortality, these patriarchs commissioned lavish chapels, frescoes and tombs, creating in the process one of the most influential schools of Italian art and bequeathing to the city a litter of monuments and masterpieces and remain in good condition and accessible.
Rich in art and history you can visit it with great pleasure – yet it is not on the most common tourist routes, so you are more likely to be walking the streets with locals. To start a visit of the town, begin from Piazza Maggiore, it is the centre of the Bolognese universe and it changes according to the time of day. In the morning, it’s a square of crossing paths as people hurry to work, to the lecture theatre, to the bar, to lunch. By the afternoon, it has begun to hold its public: huddles of old men; children chasing pigeons and as you continue into the Piazza it opens up and the size can be appreciated. Here you find the beautiful San Petronio Basilica, which was begun in 1390. Then you can admire King Enzo Palace and the Nettuno Fountain – this baroque masterpiece was erected in 1640 and looks its best when a sunny sky shows it off against the red-orange buildings behind. It is a dark marble statue of the Sea god with trident who is poised above four sea-goddesses. It is the focal point of the city and there are always a few teenagers sitting at its base. Palazzo dei Notaio and Palazzo Comunale or d’Accursio (the Municipal Palace). A visit also to the arcades of Pavaglione and Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, the old university’s seat is a must, its interior is rich in history.
In Piazza Maggiore you can see Palazzo Banchi too, dominated, in a spectacular way, by St Maria della Vita’s Dome, a church that encloses the beauty of a dramatic sculptural terracotta group: the Pietà di Nicolò dell’Arca. Walk along Pescherie Street, Clavature and Drapperie Street streets which were all consecrated to the Arts and Crafts guilds. A very special characteristic of Bologna are the Torre Degli Asinelli (two towers) which were built in 1100 and for an overview of the city, climb the worn wooden staircase on the inside of the taller of Bologna’s two leaning towers. Seen from below, this looks a bit like one of those never-ending staircases Escher liked to draw – from the top, though, the grand plan comes into focus, especially to the east, where four long, thin roads slice through the terracotta roofs with mathematical precision.
via Caprarie, Bologna
If you keep walking, always under the beautiful arcades, you will arrive in Zamboni Street, where you can find the Giuseppe Verdi Municipal Theatre and Santa Cecilia Church. Santo Stefano Church is set at one end of a pretty cobbled square, Santo Stefano is not one church but several, fused over the centuries into a sort of one-stop spiritual shop. Veined alabaster windows fill the Byzantine church of Santi Vitale e Agricola with a glowing orange light; next door, the 12-sided Chiesa del San Sepolcro, with its Roman columns and central tomb of Bolognese patron saint Petronius, feels more pagan temple than Christian shrine. Don’t miss the architectural complex known as Chiesa delle sette Chiese (the Seven Churches’ Church), that shows its monumental Romanesque style and the ravishing harmony of its aristocratic cipolin marble pillars. At last, the arcades will lead you past Porta Saragozza (one of the ancient town’s gates), to the Arco del Meloncello, from which you can go on, as far as Colle della Guardia, at the foot of the St Luke’s Blessed Virgin Sanctuary, protectress of the town.
Where to shop
Most of the Italian designer names – (Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Furla to name a few) are on Via Farini behind Piazza Maggiore. For High Street Fashion Via Indipendenza, off Piazza Maggiore, is lined with stylish clothes boutiques and irresistible shoe shops. Carry on the search for the perfect outfit on via Ugo Bassi and via Rizzoli. Bologna is so well known for its food that it’s only right you should take some home with you. Tamburini on via Caprarie 1 is a small delicatessen selling the region’s specialities such as freshly made tortellini, local cheeses including parmiggiano-reggiano, a selection of hams and balsamic vinegar from nearby Modena. The local Bologna food markets are fascinating places. Visit the daily street market just off Piazza Maggiore in via Clavature, via Pecherie and vicolo Ranocchi. There is also an excellent indoor food hall on via Ugo Bassi which sells fresh local produce
Bologna la grassa (the fat) is the cradle of the good cooking, which is certainly reflected in the love of life of its inhabitants. Particularly famous and loved are some first courses, above all tortellini, tortelloni and tagliatelle. These tagliatelle are the simplest but, at the same time, the most typical dish of the Bolognese gastronomy. The classic sauce, which is matched to this kind of pasta, is the ragù di carne alla Bolognese (meat sauce), but you can taste it also with many other sauces as ham, tomato sauce, mushroom sauce, with truffles and also with shellfish, only to mention some possibilities.
Walking through the porticoed streets of Bologna provides visitors with a comprehensive tour of the city’s greatest culinary accomplishments. Displayed in store windows throughout the city centre you will find a treasure trove of handmade (fatto a mano) golden pastas. Bologna also offers a wide array of regional specialties – hanging from the ceilings of butcher stores (macelleria) are legs of prosciutto, ready to be thinly sliced and incorporated into a variety of local delicacies. Then there’s Bologna’s famous mortadella loafs.
These are just a few of the specialties waiting to be discovered in the Bolognese restaurant scene. Check out La Braseria in the heart of the historical centre of Bologna, a traditional trattoria offering fine dining in a casual and comfortable atmosphere. Begin with an antipasto plate, the components of which will be chosen by your waiter, then move on to primi piatti – tagliatelle con ragù, perhaps a meat dish, maybe Bolognese cotoletta, a delicious fried veal cutlet with a thin slice of prosciutto cotto and fontina cheese and try a contorno (side dish) of roasted potatoes. If you have room, dolce – mascarpone served with freshly backed biscotti. A shot of espresso to conclude. Or perhaps Meloncello – a local favourite, specializing in osso buco, or if you prefer they have many appetizing pasta selections. Ask for two or three pasta dishes – three small portions (tris) or two portions (bis) – a great way to sample some of the delicious pastas.