I’ve always wanted to see Bologna, an Italian city I knew very little about except that they call it the Red City because of the colour of the terracotta roofs and the birthplace of the world-famous Bolognese sauce or Spaghetti Bolognese.
I never thought I would ever see it, so out of the way and quite far from the more popular cities we usually visit such as Rome and Venice.
But life works in mysterious ways. While driving the more than 1,800 kms route from our home in Hungary to our place in Sicily, taking the autostrada Bologna – Ancona, we made the snap decision to stop in the Red City to spend the first night of a 3-day driving trip. Nothing was pre-booked but we were able to get internet access through our pocket wifi router. We booked our hotel about fifteen minutes before getting there and with our GPS system , found the address without any hitch.
It was still very much the low season, 19th of April, so we were extremely lucky to find this 3-star hotel, breakfast included, priced as low as 30% the high season rate, and reading the framed certificate “Best Hotel in 2014” proudly displayed at the Reception desk, I immediately imagined a wider room, a complete set of toiletries and softer towels, but – lo and behold – what blew our minds was the large hydro-massage bath, perfect for our travel-tired muscles and the buffet breakfast the next day which made us so full we never had to stop for a coffee break until past lunchtime. All this for just, guess what, 40euros! And oh, there was also the free parking and, being the low season, leaves a lot of empty spaces in the carpark.
After a quick rest, we went to the Citta Storica by bus (1.50euros one way which you can buy at the ticket machine inside the bus). It was late afternoon of Sunday, the locals just starting to come out for their passeggiata and evening apperitivi and I thought, what a best day and time to see the city at its fashionable glory as you know, Italians love to dress up for their walk then gather around the table – al fresco – with family or friends, enjoying a chat, small bites and wine.
In five hours, we have discovered quite a lot about Bologna that made us wanting to go back!
(1) Bologna like Venice sits over a network of canals though only a few now remains as most of them have been buried or paved over when the city started its rebuilding efforts after the war. These canals were constructed from the 12th century and their purpose were to provide water for drinking, sanitation and to run the mills needed by factories (silk weaving, wheat grinding) which eventually helped make the city one of Europe’s major industrial centers.
(2) We noticed a lot of students hanging out in the narrow streets, sitting in the piazzas, striding under porticoes, sipping, dining or picnicking on pizza so I suspected right away that this is a University town. And rightly so, the oldest University in Europe was founded in 1088, creating in the city a culture of knowledge.
(3) It was totally and utterly mind-blowing to see these towers so high. I never imagined skyscrapers were already built in Medieval times.
The towers of Bologna, rising as high as 60 meters, were built for defense purposes and as status symbols. As many as 180 towers were thought to have been built in Bologna from the 12th century but only 20 remains. The two most prominent ones, the Two Towers, are the landmark of the city.
(4) What really caught our attention are the many porticoes lining nearly every street and boulevard of the city. I haven’t seen anything like it!
What makes Bologna unique is its characteristic porticoes or sheltered walkways that spans 38 kilometers. Built from the 1100s, they link practically all streets and palazzis to protect the growing population from both bad weather and the scorching sun while going shopping or doing their daily business. As these porticoes are considered an attribute of ‘outstanding’ universal value, the city has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
(5) Food! This city must be the capital of the Aperitivi! I thought I have seen the most generous buffet of aperitivi in towns such as Pozzollo or Palermo (both in Sicily) but they now look miniscule as compared to the bountiful selection of nibbles in Bologna. Many bars compete for customers so they try to “outpig” each other, leaving the latter spoiled for choice. For 8euros per person, you get a drink (we had Negroni) and “as-many-visits-as-you-can” to the buffet table. Shame that the wheel of parmigiano (photo above) was totally scraped out!
Bologna has earned many gastronomical labels: City of Food, the culinary capital of Italy, “La Grassa” (the Fat One) being the heart of Italian cuisine and the list of foods originating in Bologna are “spaghetti bolognese”, Parma ham, parmigiano (parmesan cheese), Bologna sausage, the list goes on.
(6) Another striking characteristics of Bologna is the colour red present in almost all historic buildings. This is because, in medieval times, old terracota bricks were used in building the facades and terracota tiles for the roofs. And as if this is not enough, it is also the birthplace of Italy’s Fascist Party.
Indeed, when I saw the city for the first time, I thought of Venice right away, not so much for the canals but more on the mindblowing historic center! It’s like walking back in history. I want to live here! I thought. It has all the things I could possibly want! gastronomy, medieval architecture, culture (it was designated City of Culture in 2000), the arts, the crowd, its photogenic nature. I could walk all day, everyday, and still, more hidden and secret corners to discover so I promised myself, I shall go back and when it does happen, I will amble around particularly in the famous Piazza Maggiore which we foolishly missed!