I recently took a two-week trip to Bologna. This was a much-needed sustained break after a couple of years of almost non-stop 7 days a week work. One of the down sides of being restless and creative is the demands people sometimes place on you, coupled with an inability to say no. Well, ‘no’ is definitely becoming part of my vocabulary now. Especially if it buys me time to enjoy life!
Perfectly positioned on the fertile plain of the River Po, Bologna nestles at the foot of the Apennine hills across which and to the south lies Florence. Within easy reach by train lie Padua, Modena, Ferrara, Venice, Ravenna, Parma … it reads like a list of medieval and renaissance powerhouses.
Nothing had prepared me for the scale of Bologna. Yes it is a large modern city. But that aside, it is a large early medieval city which demonstrates the extent and depth of the wealth in this region at that time between the turn of the first millennium and 1400, and out of which sprang the European renaissance.
A delight for walkers
The siting of the city, coupled with a rigorously enforced policy of pedestrianised streets at the weekends, ensures that Bologna has extraordinarily clean air by most standards. That was certainly the case when we were there in early Autumn.
To reach the hills to the south and south west of the city, just head for the Piazza san Mamolo which marks the gates at the southern end of the city walls, outside which was built the substantial Church of the Annunciation, decorated with a frescoed colonnade.
The fact that a lavishly endowed church could be built outside the city walls says a lot for the stability of the area during the medieval and renaissance period – and as history shows us, stability is a major contributor to wealth creation.
I digress … as you walk on, leaving the church behind you, you climb into the hills by well marked paths using a couple of the streets to the right. Osservanza will take you to the dilapidated former palace of the Napoleonic Governors of Bologna, Villa Aldini (see below), while the right hand leg of the Via san Mamolo which peels off after the village green will take you to the beautiful landcaped park of the Villa Ghigi. The two villas sit on hills facing each other, both with spectacular views over the city.
Walking in the City
Bologna is renowned for its miles of collonades. Originating in the large wooden tree trunks used to support the projecting story of city houses, they gradually formalised into arcaded walks providing protection from the intense sun of summer, the hard chill of winter, and the spring and autumn rains … though we encountered no rain whatsoever during our two weeks there, just balmy, warm sun.
Society, Culture & History
The Bolognese are a fiercely independent lot, yet incredibly welcoming and accomodating too. There is a justified pride in their city and all it has to offer – from a vivid nightlife (the result of a young population), great food, to cultural offerings like high quality theatre and opera at affordable prices. There’s very little distinction in pricing between ‘smart’ restaurants or street-corner eateries where the locals hand out, and that’s a mark of the ‘democracy’ of food too, everyone deserves – and gets – good food at roughly the same price.
Perhaps this sense of independence and fairness arises from the fact that for the last four hundred years, pretty much every power in the region, as well as the Austrians and the French, have had a go at taking over, and usually failed. The Bolognese are perfectly happy doing things their way thanks, and their way is fair shares for all.
You have little choice BUT to walk within the old city. The streets are lined with collonades, within which nestle shops, delicatessen, banks, bakers, gelatteria and more.
A subject close to my heart, food in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy is, well, fantastic. There is the rich balsamic vinegar of Modena, the savoury yet almost fruity Parmesan, delicious Mortadella, Parma ham, white butter, Tortelloni, and of course the famous Taglietelle in Ragu (which has rather crudely become Spag Bol) … added to which is a vast range of seasonal veg and fruit, with delicious bread and pasta. And don’t forget the gelato. Bologa is known as ‘La Grassa’ or ‘The Fat’ for a reason!
The Mercate delle Erbe is the best bet for seasonal veg, salad and fruit and also has some ace cheese and ham emporia, alongside briliant fresh pasta makers. There are also some great cafes where you can east well for a reasonable price.
The Mercate delle Centro sits within the Quadrilatero sector – four interlocked streets in the heart of the city. Here you’ll find upmarket produce and finished goods like pastries etc. Pricey and aimed very much at tourists, but also very good.
Gelato is Bologna’s finest gift to the world in my opinion. There are two excellent gelatteria – Cremeria san Stefano and Cremeria san Francesco – each majors on seasonal flavours though one errs towards experimentation and more unusual ingredient choices. I’d recommend Cremeria san Stefano for classic style and high quality, while Cremeria san Francesco has a more experiemental but equally high quality approach. Both are close to churches of the same name.
I’ll let the pictures do the talking. Bologna is brilliantly situated for trips out from the city to others nearby, within an hour or so we found ourselves in Florence, Parma, Venice, Ravenna …