The Bologna of my memory was elegant and delicious in so many ways. Here we were at the midpoint of a 23-day journey down the full length of Italy, somewhere between the Dolomiti Alps and hilly Le Marche, and stumbled upon this cosmopolitan and yet medieval gem that we almost skipped.
I don't even know where to begin to describe a city so full of history and culture, and perhaps more interestingly to myself, grand culinary traditions. Despite being reasonably well-known it is still largely ignored as a destination among casual tourists, most passing through on trains between obligatory whirlwind stops at Florence and Venice. Most would also pass by fabulous locales such as medieval Ferrara and Padova along the same train line, but I digress.
And we almost made the same mistake before realizing what a perfect homebase Bologna would make for exploring Emilia-Romagna's wealth of World-Heritage-worthy towns -- Modena, Ferrara and Ravenna. We considered splitting our three nights between Mantova and Ferrara, but at the end chose to stay all three in Bologna, next to the train station for the convenience of transport and still within a 20 minute stroll to Fontana del Nettuno and the heart of the city.
Between day-trip excursions we spent several half-days, as woefully inadequate as it now seems in retrospect, for exploring one of the largest and best preserved historical centres in all of Italy, and arguably the best one not already declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some say that UNESCO designation is only a matter of time given the city's plethora of historical legacies starting with its unique urban landscape of porticoes and its medieval university, in fact the oldest post-secondary institute in the Western world.
You can't help tiptoeing into these hallowed lecture rooms with utmost reverence for the 900+ year old temple of higher learning and its legendary list of faculty. Literature majors would follow in the footsteps of Dante, humanities majors in the shadow of Petrarch and science majors in the example of Copernicus, hopefully with happier story endings. With the walls still decorated with Renaissance frescoes as well as hundreds of emblems representing its graduates from centuries past, history looms overwhelmingly heavy for a first-time visitor like myself, let alone freshmen students.
While lecture halls scatter throughout the city among countless faculty buildings, the university's historic heart remains at the Archiginnasio Palace which now houses the largest public library in Emilia-Romagna alongside the 17th Century Teatro Anatomico, one of the world's oldest dissecting rooms for medical schools. No cadaver is dissected on this marble table anymore of course, but the Teatro still serves in an inspirational capacity to the university's army of 90,000 or so students.
My favorite hideout in town was the medieval complex of seven interweaved churches known collectively as Santo Stefano, located just a few minutes' walk east of the Archiginnasio. Most visitors come mainly for the 5th Century church of the Holy Sepulchre, but what I enjoyed the most, aside from the photogenic Romanesque arches and domes, was the tranquility of this ancient centre of worship -- chapels, courtyards and all.
The insulated climate inside the 4th Century chapel of Vitale e Agricola was a godsend as we coped with the last heat wave of the summer (33 degrees Celsius in mid September!). Even with its seemingly never-ceasing flow of pilgrims the complex was peaceful enough to serve as a free-entrance worship and recreational space for the locals.
Even more charming was the triangular Piazza outside of Santo Stefano, surrounded by an assembly of stately 15th Century Palazzi and largely used as a pedestrianized courtyard by the everyone from the neighborhood. It was the best place to people-watch especially during the early evening ritual of passeggiata when the senior folks sat and chatted passionately about football while the grandkids honed their dribbling skills around the Renaissance pillars.
But the one unmistakeable feature that separates Bologna from its Emilian neighbors is the endless rows of porticoes, made mandatory back in the Middle Ages while the likes of Modena started banning them. From Santo Stefano we could walk almost entirely covered in this all-weather shopping arcade, 40 km long and spread out over tens of city blocks, all the way back to our hotel nearly 30 minutes away.
Orientation in Bologna is simple even for first time visitors as the imposing landmark of Torre Asinelli, an astonishing medieval work of engineering, is practically visible for miles around. While the city once boasted more than a hundred such towers back in the 13th Century, today only 20 or so survive, many remaining in private hands and at least one bookable as an unconventional (and steeply priced) hotel.
At a staggering height of 97 m, Torre Asinelli is open to visitors willing to endure a dark and claustrophobic climb up 500 steps before being rewarded with the most stunning 360 degree panorama of Bologna. A downward view reveals the precipitously leaning tower of Garisenda, too dangerous to be open to the public as it leans even further than its famous cousin in Pisa.
Torre Asinelli also leans but at a much milder 1.4 degrees, which is respectable for a gangly 900 year old medieval skyscraper that has survived multiple earthquakes, including two 5.8 quakes just north of the city in 2012. A westerly view from the top overlooks the 2000-year-old boulevard once known as Via Aemilia and connected with Ancient Rome, some 380 km away.
To the southwest Basilica di San Petronio glowed in the sunset amid the glory of its neighboring Gothic and Renaissance Palazzi, and in the background a monumental tunnel of porticoes, 4 km long and 666 arches in all, ultimately led to Santuario San Luca on the hilltop. Given this wealth of historical heritage, excellent food and very safe streets (I was never bothered once by vagrants after dark, unlike in Florence or Milan), I can't understand why visitor tend to come for business or academic conferences and not for vacation.
The setting of the sun also signified the start of our highly anticipated daily ritual.
Every Italian seems religiously proud of the local cuisine he grew up with, and rightfully so. But if you ask which region best represents the gastronomic traditions of such a broad and diverse nation, along with the passionate discussions that would undoubtedly ensue you can always count on the suggestion of Emilia-Romagna ending up at the table. Consider the king of Italian cheeses in Parmigiano-Reggiano, the king of vinegar in Aceto Balsamico di Modena, some of the most prized Salume in Prosciutto di Parma and Culatello di Zibello, and you get the idea. The promise of terrific regional food was half of my reason for visiting Bologna, and for three nights we went out to rub shoulders with the locals and sample the legendary local fare, from the cheap to the not-so-cheap.
MERCATO DI MEZZO
Via Clavature 12; one minute walk east of Piazza Maggiore.
Readers may wonder why I'm recommending a food court at a city spoilt for choices for its legendary regional cuisine. But the truth is -- this isn't America where food courts are disgracefully equated with artery-clogging portions of substandard grub -- this is Bologna of all Italian cities, where locals have such high expectations that mediocrity simply isn't tolerated.
Located barely 100 m off Piazza Maggiore, Mercato di Mezzo's prime location seemed to attract well-dressed business types in their happy-hour routine along with red-faced university students jovially enjoying their after-class glasses of wine. What united everyone however was a common Antipasto to be shared among friends at virtually every table, a selection of the best regional Salume and cheeses from the counter at L'Antica Bottega.
Now this doesn't mean that L'Antica Bottega's quality was head and shoulders above other Salumerie; in fact I have yet to come across a bad Salumeria anywhere in Italy, and outstanding Mortadella Bologna IGP could be found at neighborhood Conad or COOP supermarkets, at even cheaper prices (~1.2 Euros/100 g) especially when they're on sale. Yet one could easily see the appeal of this upmarket food court, bringing together wine bars, the Salumeria, Pasticeria, and even a Pescheria under one roof at the historic heart of the city.
The star attraction was a Tagliere of select regional Salume, cheeses and bread large enough to make a light meal or a very large picnic, for a very reasonable 10 euros. On this day we had Salame Felino, Prosciutto Crudo di Modena, some Coppa and Ciccioli, not to mention Bologna's own pride, succulent slices of Mortadella.
A couple wedges of Pecorino cheese, a few crumbles of intensely zesty Parmigiano-Reggiano, some radicchio and the local variant of Tigelle flatbread rounded up this filling Antipasto. Adding an order of deep fried calamari and shrimps from the neighboring stall of Pescheria del Pavaglione and a glass of local Pignoletto from the bar, this authentically Bolognese dining experience cost less than a 20 euro bill for two, with enough change left for gelato.
Bill for Two Persons
|Tagliere (from L'Antica Bottega)||10 Euros|
|Frittura di Gamberi e Calamari (from Pescheria del Pavaglione)||5 Euros|
|Glass of Pignoletto (from the wine bar)||2.5 Euros|
|TOTAL||17.5 Euros (CAD$24.5)|
That was just the cheap end of the local dining spectrum, after which we moved onto something more upscale and were rewarded with one of our best meals in Italy.
Via Guglielmo Oberdan 43/a; 2 minute walk north of Chiesa di San Martino.
If I'm asked to pick three memorable meals in Northern Italy, immediately coming to mind would be Il Bertoldo in Verona, Il Fantino in Modena, and this little trattoria located halfway between Bologna station and Due Torre. To be fair it is priced somewhat at the Ristorante range (2.5 euros for Coperto, 4 euros for a glass of house wine), but nobody should complain given the exceptional quality of dishes served.
Oberdan's theme was everything Bolognese from the Parmigiana to the Ragu to the Pignoletto. We started off sharing an Antipasto of Parmigiana di Melanzane, ubiquitous all over Italy with different peasant variations but elevated to extravagance here at the birthplace of Parmigiano-Reggiano with a copious, pillowy layer of this sharp and unmistakeably nutty cheese lavished on top. Laden with artery-clogging richness for sure, though it was certainly one of the best Antipasti of our trip.
For Primo it was THE classic of all Italian classics, a local favorite imitated and bastardized all over the world as Spaghetti in Meat Sauce -- except the locals would never perform the sacrilege of pairing Ragu Bolognese with Spaghetti whose rounded and smooth surface simply does not pick up sauce very well. Our Tagliatelle al Ragu Bolognese, pictured above in split-portion, came with a characteristically thick and rich sauce that wasn't exceptional by itself until the addition of the one ingredient that would put the exclamation mark on any Emilian dish. As any local already knows since childhood, genuine, aged Parmigiano-Reggiano simply makes everything better.
The theme of rich, traditional Bolognese dishes would continue with our Secondo of Guancialino di Maiale, or baby pork cheeks, stewed slowly in a sauce of artichokes into a tender, buttery texture as if the Antipasto and Primo weren't fattening enough. In the context of such calorific recipes it's not difficult to understand Bologna's nickname of la grassa -- I would have gained 10 pounds too had I stayed here for a couple more weeks.
We finished with another creamy concoction in the form of Panna Cotta, which had us stuffed to our throats after sharing the three earlier courses. With Antipasti and Primi priced mostly under 10 euros and Secondi in the mid teens, prices were very reasonable for an authentic multi-course meal at one of Italy's gastronomic capitals. My only regret was not having enough time in Bologna, as I would have loved to try their Lasagne Verdi on another visit.
Bill for Two Persons
|Parmigiana di Melanzane||9 Euros|
|Tagliatelle alla Bolognese||9 Euros|
|Guancialino di Maiale in Umido con Carciofi||14 Euros|
|Panna Cotta||5 Euros|
|Glass of Sangiovese||4 Euros|
|Glass of Pignoletto||4 Euros|
|Bottle of Water||2.5 Euros|
|Coperto 2.5 x 2||5 Euros|
|TOTAL||52.5 Euros (CAD$73.5)|
LA CORTE DEI GHIOTTONI
Via Jacopo della Quercia 2/2; five minute walk to the north of the train station.
One evening we returned from an excursion to Ferrara and needed a restaurant in the vicinity of the train station. As the extremely popular Trattoria da Via Serra was out of the question without prior reservation, we settled for our second choice of La Corte dei Ghiottoni for a seafood dinner.
For Antipasto we shared a Zuppa di Polpo e Ceci (pictured above in half-portion), a chunky stew of tender chickpeas and young Mediterranean octopus that came out quite good, but not as spectacularly fresh and savory as some of the other Zuppe (Il Bertoldo again comes to mind) we had on our trip.
A better dish was their signature Spaghetti allo Scoglio, available only in two or more portions and overloaded with heaps of fresh clams, mussels and red shrimps. To be frank the seafood still wasn't the absolute freshest and most flavorsome compared with seaside Veneto or better yet, Salento, but nobody should expect that in landlocked Bologna. Still the pasta soaked up the savory juices of the molluscs very well and I did thoroughly enjoyed this dish, particularly that giant mound of seafood served.
At 14 euros per person I thought the Spaghetti was somewhat of a steal, and when factoring in the free Antipasti of Crostini upon arrival, free Contorno of vegetables and a half litre of house white for just 5.5 euros, our seafood dinner turned out surprisingly affordable. Our final bill of 50 euros did not include Dolce, but then there was a decent Gelateria right next to our hotel anyway.
Bill for Two Persons
|Zuppa di Polpo e Ceci||10.0 Euros|
|Spaghetti allo Scoglio x 2||28.0 Euros|
|Vino Bianco della Casa 1/2 Litre||5.5 Euros|
|Bottle of Water||2.0 Euros|
|Coperto x 2||5.0 Euros|
|Crostini al Pomodoro e Squacquerone||FREE|
|TOTAL||50.5 Euros (CAD$70.7)|
As mentioned we strategically booked our three nights near the train station, in fact right across the street at the four star Hotel Mercure Bologna Centro, on sale somehow for just 77 euros a night. It was ideal for our day-trips to several impressive yet underrated destinations nearby, to be covered in the next series of posts.