Our first trip to Bologna was in 2005. I was left with the question: How can such a beautiful city allow itself to be covered in so much graffiti?
This past April we decided to see what 7 years had done to the town, and I’m delighted to report that it has cleaned up its act to a remarkable degree! Alan grew up in New York during its most graffiti-intensive years, and has seen it go from those days to the surprisingly clean city it is today. Bologna seems to be following in New York’s footsteps. Whatever laws/penalties/punishments they’ve instituted have resulted in the central part of town being almost totally graffiti-free. While there’s still some as you get to the outer edges, having seen what they’ve done so far gives me a great deal of optimism that we might find it completely graffiti-less on our next visit.
The point is that graffiti is like tattoos: instead of seeing the whole town (or whole person), you only concentrate on the graffiti (or tattoo). With this distraction out of the way, we had a wonderful time leisurely enjoying the riches of this refined city – and it does have more than its share of riches. Literally. Its provence of Emilia Romagna is one of the richest in Italy. Bologna has none of the chaos of a Rome or Naples, and it’s a joy to meander through the town, window shopping in its fine shops and peaking through gated entrances to see the beautiful courtyards on the other side.
The elegant buildings would be considered gorgeous on their own, but making them even more inviting is the fact that many have open porticoes over their sidewalks, protecting the pedestrians from sun, rain or snow. When I say there are “many” – I mean MANY. There are 25 miles of porticoes, and you seldom see 2 blocks with the same details.
Bologna has 3 nicknames: La Rossa — The Red, for its left-leaning politics; La Dotta – The Learned, for its academic heritage; and La Grassa – The Fat, for its incredible food culture.
La Rossa: I won’t talk politics. Let’s just say, however, that their brand of “Communist” post-war policies have lead to their being one of most prosperous areas in Italy, as I mentioned before.
La Dotta: The University of Bologna was the first in Europe (1088), which is not a surprise, because they set the standards for the term “University”. Today’s students come from all over the world and are responsible for the town’s more intellectual, yet less stodgy atmosphere.
La Grassa: Ah…..here’s where Alan and I sit up and take notice. As focused as Italians are on their local cuisine, they will almost always grudgingly give Bologna and Emilia Romagna the nod as the Food Capital of the country – which is about the highest praise possible.
When you look up Italian cities in guidebooks, Rome will have its Roman remains and Church inspired art treasures. Florence is all about the Renaissance. Siena is Medieval. Venice is water and the riches gained by being a nautical power. Bologna? If it’s mentioned at all – it’s mostly about FOOD.
So many of the Italian imports we enjoy in the US come from this region: Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma from Parma – an hour away; Balsamic vinegar from Modena – 40 minutes away; and from Bologna itself, mortadella, (which we’ve dumbed-down to a mere shadow of the original and changed the name to baloney), tortellini, and the tomato and meat pasta sauce that we call Bolognese. The Bolognesi themselves simply call it ragu. As you can imagine – they take their food VERY seriously, and since we do, too, it was a perfect match.
When you think food, don’t just think restaurants. Their food markets are legendary and can rank above churches as must-see sights. In a country as obsessed with food as Italy is, Bologna takes it to another level and makes it into an art form.
What tourists there are in the town seem to be Italian. Most trains going north from Florence will at least pause at the Bologna station, but that pause is about all the time that most foreign visitors give it as they continue on to either Venice or Milan. And it’s hard to argue about that if you’re on a quick 1 – 2 week vacation and you’ve always wanted to take a gondola ride, or see The Last Supper. However, if you have a few days to spare and would enjoy immersing yourself in a lovely, cultured atmosphere where food is king, you can do no better than Bologna. Our friend Brian calls it “the city Italians keep for themselves”. Most people on vacation say that they want to eat in the restaurants or have un caffe’ where “the locals” go. Well – consider this a chance to visit the town where “the locals” go.