As a person who LOVES Italy I’d planned to spend time there this year but was undecided on where to go. I recently read Kate Langbroek’s memoir Ciao Bella! – a wonderful and very poignant tale of her family of six leaving Melbourne to live in Bologna for two years. Kate’s descriptions of the city are wonderfully evocative and enticing, so after taking a direct flight from Preveza to Venice and then a fast train from Venice to Bologna – the decision was made.
Bologna is often overlooked when compared with Florence, Venice and Milan, which means it is not overrun by tourists. A plus for me! Located in the northeast of Italy, it is known for its UNESCO listed porticoes and medieval towers. It is also the location of Universita di Bologna, the oldest university in the western world.
Situated in the heart of the Emilia Reggia region, the city is most famous for its food. There is bolognese sauce of course – referred to here as ragu and used only as a dressing for tagliatelle, never spaghetti! The region also produces beautiful cured pork meats such as prosciutto, salami and mortadella. Unlike the awful fatty luncheon-meat we get at home, mortadella from Bologna is silky smooth and tastes superb. Tortellini is another Bolognian specialty said to be modelled on Venus’ navel and served in broth. Modena, the birthplace of balsamic vinegar and Reggio Emilia, where parmesan cheese is made are both nearby. In the heart of Bologna is the ancient Quadrilatero market, where fresh food stalls line the streets, and the shops are filled with local produce and wine. I am in foodie heaven!
Piazza Maggiore at the heart of Bologna is surrounded by the Duomo (Basilica of San Petronio) a very unusual and unfinished church, as well as museums and administrative buildings. It opens onto the smaller Piazza del Nettuno with the very impressive fountain at its centre. Neptune stands in the fountain surrounded by four lactating sea nymphs, water spraying from their breasts.
Opposite the fountain is the Biblioteca Solaborsa, the public library which was once a stock exchange and built over an archaeological site. The works can be observed through the glass floor at the centre of the library as well as from the basement of the building. It is a beautiful, cool space to sit and relax away from the heat of the city.
Day and night, the piazza is teeming with locals and tourists. At the moment it is dominated by an outdoor cinema screening a film each night at around 9.45pm. Entry is free and it is a very popular local event. The films are mostly old classics, but one night they screened part 3 of the Beatles documentary ‘Get Back’ so I went along. The film documented four days of planning and rehearsals prior to The Beatles’ famous London rooftop concert in 1969 and their final public performance. Every seat in the outdoor cinema was full as well as the steps of the church and other buildings around the piazza. At the end of the screening the rapturous audience stood and cheered.
The city’s arched porticoes are the defining feature of the city centre. End-to-end they are said to cover 38 kilometres. The first wooden structure was built in 1041 to support the expansion of the building’s upper floors. By 1288, and as the city’s population increased and buildings expanded, it was illegal to construct a new building without a portico and all existing buildings were required to add one. Throughout the middle-ages the porticoes were made of wood but by the 1500s most were rebuilt with bricks or stone. Under the porticoes the footpaths are surfaced in beautiful, coloured terrazzo or mosaic. In addition to their architectural significance and beauty the porticoes are a perfect protection from the sun and rain.
Bologna is also famous for its towers, originally built in the 12th and 13th centuries by wealthy families for defensive purposes. During that period there were around 200 towers with the tallest at 97 metres – this would have been an unusual and quite intimidating sight for visitors viewing the city for the first time from the nearby hills – somewhat like an ancient mini-Manhattan. By the end of 13th century most were demolished and today there are only about twenty throughout the city, the most famous being the two towers that dominate the skyline. Said to be built by two families competing to own the tallest tower, one of the buildings began to lean bringing their construction to a halt. Both still stand and are a very popular tourist attraction.
A few days ago I took the train to nearby Modena for a food tour. Coincidentally, our group of nine consisted entirely of Australians and New Yorkers, including an Australian family living in New York. We visited the local food market and tasted one-, two- and four-year-old parmesan cheese learning that almost every Italian home has a wedge of two-year-old parmesan in the fridge for grating on pasta. We tried gnocco fritto, a fried pastry pillow filled with air and traditionally dipped in your morning cappuccino. We tasted 12-, 25- and 50-year-old balsamic vinegar and learnt how it is made. We ate the small round local breads called tigelle, filled with cunza, a spread made from pork lard flavoured with garlic and rosemary and washed them down with a delicious local sparkling Lambrusco. We finished the tour with dessert – traditional Modena cakes accompanied by a small glass of walnut liqueur. Great fun!
Back in Bologna I was keen to try the traditional tortellini in brodo (broth) despite the still searing 35 degrees at 7.30pm. I went to nearby Trattoria dal Biassanot, recommended by a local, and ordered the tortellini in capon broth. The tortellini are tiny and filled with pork, prosciutto, mortadella, parmesan cheese and nutmeg. It was delicious. A later check online revealed that capon is castrated rooster. I will make tortellini in broth when I’m back at home as it is the perfect winter dish, but will opt for normal chicken as I’m not sure I’ll find castrated rooster at the local poultry shop.
Bologna has been everything I’d hoped for … and more. The high temperatures have made it difficult to do much exploring, even with the protection of the porticoes. However there is no doubt I will revisit this beautiful region of Italy, when the weather is a little cooler.
Looks wonderful Michelle – I can se why you are in foodie heaven!
Bologna sounds like a delicious destination
You write so beautifully Michelle. Your description makes me feel as if I’m there. Another amazing adventure