Bologna, capital of Emilia-Romagna. A soaring sea of beautiful red. The kind of red you’ve never seen before. But I’ve seen it in pictures, you cry! Yes, you may have. But son, to see it in the flesh. To see it with your own eyes. To stand before the city in all its glory and witness it. Well, that is something else entirely.
The Piazza Maggiore, a sprawling plaza lined with arched colonnades, cafes, medieval and Renaissance structures such as City Hall, the Fountain of Neptune, and the Basilica di San Petronio is but many treasure amongst a symphony of others.
it is also a city of two intriguing halves. One side is a hard-working, high-tech city located in the super-rich Po valley where suave opera-goers waltz out of regal theatres and into some of the nation’s finest restaurants.
The other is a bolshie, politically edgy city that hosts the world’s oldest university and is famous for its graffiti-embellished piazzas filled with mildly inebriated students swapping Gothic fashion tips.
This is a place where a little bit of everything dances together intimately. So unique and captivating it’s impossible to ignore.
To learn more about the city that steals your heart The Atlantic Dispatch spoke with Bologna native and Sociologist Valentina.
Bologna is my city and a piece of my heart
“La Rossa, la Dotta, la Grassa. The red, the learned, and the fat – Bologna has many epithets. Red, because of the glowing red brick of its medieval buildings, but also because of the city’s history as a stronghold of the Italian Communist Party. Learned, because Bologna’s university is the oldest in Europe, boasting Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio among its past students. And fat, because Bologna is famous for its gastronomic excellence like tortellini and tagliatelle or mortadella. Bologna is my city, and a piece of my heart.”
It’s true, the University of Bologna is the oldest University of Bologna (founded in 1088) existing university in all of Europe and is undoubtedly one of the most respected. During the Middle Ages, scholars from all over Christendom flocked here to pursue their intellectual inquiries.
The University now houses a vast collection of Medieval art and illuminated manuscripts from this period. Some of the University’s most famous students throughout history include Dante, Petrarch, Erasmus, and Guglielmo Marconi (who invented radio technology).
It’s not just the university, the gastronomical excellence, or the political history that makes Bologna such a marvel. it’s also just how visually striking it is. “Bologna has more than 50 kilometres of Porticoes, which are incredibly unique.” adds Valentina . Indeed they are. Inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site the porticoes have become private and public locations where people can socialise and trade, an open-air salon symbol of Bologna’s hospitality.
As Valentina points out though Bologna isn’t just its city centre. “There is the Church San Luca Sanctuary. It may be far from the heart of the city, but it is connected to the city centre by a road, starting from Porta Saragozza that unwinds for four kilometers from the porticoes In years gone by people used to walk to the Church from the porticoes on a Sunday.”
The San Luca, located on Colle della Guardia, has long been the symbol of Bologna as well as a place of religious worship for centuries. Another symbol of Bologna is of course its famous towers.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, over 100 towers were built throughout Bologna, making for an urban skyline that almost resembles modern-day Manhattan. Today, only 22 remain. One of the possible explanations for the vertical construction craze is that rich families used the towers as a symbol of wealth and status, as well as for defensive purposes to guard their land. Some of the smaller structures were built as dwellings.
After the 13th century, some towers were demolished, others collapsed, and many were destined for different uses, such as residential or commercial buildings, or as prisons. The last demolitions occurred in the early 20th century, along with the 14th-century city walls. Of the towers that remain today, the most famous are the “Two Towers”: the 320-foot Asinelli The Tower and the truncated Garisenda Tower, both of which are leaning.
Heaven is the smell of Mortadella at the Piazza Maggiore
“To get to know the city,” Valentina says, “you have to walk it if you want to discover it. From Montagnola Park through Via Indipendenza you reach Piazza Maggiore, the heart of the city. Then there is the fountain of Neptune and the towers.
Visiting the university is a must and then onto Strada Maggiore. Find your way to the Basilica of Santo Stefano (mostly known as complex of Seven Churches)and let yourself be seduced by the smell of mortadella in the back of Piazza Maggiore along the Markert amongst charming old shops of flowers and delicatessen.”
I love Breakfast in Maggiore Square
It would be possible for me to say that Italian food was invented in Bologna. Now, that statement technically wouldn’t be entirely accurate. However, as we eluded to earlier, its gastronomical excellence is something to behold. “I love to have breakfast in Maggiore Square and breathe in the city. ” Valentina says. “Watching the world go by, and people walking to reach their jobs or seeing tourists taking pictures and admiring my city.”
Bologna is a true taste of Italy and its restaurants and cafes are a veritable feast. Whether it is Sette Tavoli, Grassilli, or Mozzarella, there is an abundance of choices. Valentina opts for Osteria del Podestà in the city centre which is famed for its fresh handmade pasta.
Their cafes are just as enticing; Aroma Caffe is widely regarded as serving up the best coffee in Bologna. Cafe Rubik, with its outstanding food and its charming decor of old cassette tapes in rows on the wall, provides the music – usually, French classics – and it’s the perfect soundtrack to accompany its delectable coffee.
Now its time to say goodnight
You have embraced the city. You’ve held it tight throughout the day and night. You have walked its beautiful streets and admired its intensely. You have wondered at its historical magnitude and drank it dry. You have experienced food and now it’s time to say goodnight. Where though in Bologna should one rest their head?
If you’re feeling generous, then look no further than The Grand Hotel Majestic Già Baglioni. It is Bologna’s only 5-star hotel and the very definition of elegance. In such a historic city, it’s of little surprise that this hotel is part museum, with a section of an old Roman road below the 18th-century building, which you can visit.
The Al Cappello Ross would be my personal choice. Not many hotels can boast a passion for hospitality that dates back to the 12th century, but Al Cappello Rosso is not an ordinary hotel. Following in the tradition of a tavern with guest rooms, this boutique hotel has 33 rooms and 10 apartments – each individually designed by famous artists and stage designers. The tavern below – the Osteria del Cappello – has been serving traditional Bolognese dishes since 1375, and if you fancy taking a taste of Italy home, this foodie-friendly hotel even features a gourmet shop.
Then there is the tiny Casa Fluò Relais, which sits between the city and the countryside and is a true Bolognese home from home.
it offers a truly authentic local experience, where rustic chic lends charm to the four guest rooms. Start each day with a regional feast of home-made cakes, freshly baked bread, and local produce from the hotel’s farm.
So there you have it. That is Bologna. The girl who puts on a long dress and dances with you until the early hours of the morning. Then, the next day sits with you on the pavement eating pizza with a beer in her hand, watching the world go by. She is everything.