Bologna three ways
As home to the world’s oldest university, this northern Italian city is La Dotta (the Learned One). For a food culture recognised by a famous pasta sauce, it’s the Fat One – La Grassa. And there are two reasons for Bologna’s third designation of La Rossa or the Red One: its terracotta-rich architecture and a rather rebellious history. Bologna doesn’t conform.
For instance, I thought it must have been some urban myth that the 4km uphill colonnade to the grand church, the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, comprises 666 arches, the devil’s number. Yet the chap in the tourist office quotes the statistic with no hint of irony. After all, San Luca’s colonnade provides not necessarily a religious experience. The view from its hilltop terraces is glorious, and many locals run up it just for the exercise.
Bologna has maybe 50km of these colonnades. They are decorated with frescoes and other ornate features, so they can make gallery entrance fees superfluous. In fact, to be blown away by art, visit any church. The San Pietro Cathedral stands out for its grand interior, while the Basilica di San Petronio is less decorous but you can appreciate the individual beauty of its many small internal chapels.
On Via Zamboni, the Basilica di San Giacomo Maggiore is a long church lined with spooky crypts on each side and where trompe l’oeils high on the walls mirror the windows next to them.
The old city’s streets radiate from the centre, and you constantly find yourself back at the central square, Piazza Maggiore. On its eastern side, the Archiginnasio Palace has a modest entry fee for its Anatomical Theatre. Its wooden construction is unusual in a city of marble, stone and plaster, especially given that for a few hundred years it was used for classes in dissection.
Student life flavours Bologna. The north-eastern quarter rings with youth, and in any cafe or bar there’ll be as much a variety of languages and accents as pizza and pasta. But that pasta won’t be “spaghetti bolognese”, because here the meaty sauce is termed ragu, and the noodles used are flat taglietelle. Every restaurant will also have tortellini in broth. And the antipasto platters are wondrous, with prosciutto, salami and mortadella sliced wafer-thin.
For the sweeter stuff, Zanarini near the Archiginnasio Palace has pastries of exquisite delicacy and flavour – do try the zabaglione cake.
Bologna makes sense as a base for more of Italy’s bigger-ticket cities. Just two hours from Rome by fast train, its accommodation is great value, and you can easily make day trips to the likes of Florence, Venice and Milan.