Saturday, September 26, 2015

Bologna Italy ~ Recipe for a Good Life

Piazza Giuseppe Verdi
Bologna, Italy is home to the oldest university in the Western world and to a medieval architecture nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status.  It also enjoys one of the youngest urban populations on Earth. Nearly a quarter of its inhabitants are students. Over a 100,000 of them pulse through the heart of Bologna each day. It is an antique city vibrating with life.



Porticos abound in Bologna!
Palazzo della Mercanzia
Unlike Southern Italian regions famously congested by cars, walking is the most popular mode of transport in Bologna.  Forty kilometers (24 miles) of ancient porticos form a network of vaulted open air walkways throughout the city.  Casual meandering is a pleasure in hot summer sun or seasonal rain.

Energy soars in the evening when even major routes are open to only foot traffic and bicycles. Well past midnight, crowded cafes spill into the streets. Waiters strut between tables, enjoying the atmosphere as much as their guests. There is an entirely human rhythm here, including periods of absolute silence when the city seems to rest along with its people.

Night Life in Bologna

A Medieval City with Modern Sensibility 
  
I stayed at the Albergo Rossini 1936 near the entrance to the University district and close to the Piazza Guiseppe Verdi which is a natural gathering place for students.  Though the street noise was louder than some would like, for me it was an opportunity to bathe in the (often dramatic) music of the Italian tongue.  It is no wonder that Opera was founded in Italy. Rooms on upper floors of the hotel are quieter, facing an inside courtyard, but I chose to stay at street level.

My Room at Albergo Rossini 1936
Albergo Rossini is located within walking Bologna's best known sites and its rates are a bargain. Staff are professional and charming. The included breakfast is plentiful, satisfying and served in an attractive dining room. I'll stay there again on my next visit.


Bologna has three well deserved nicknames, La Dotta (The Erudite); La Rossa (The Red); and La Grassa (The Fat).  The origin of La Dotta is, of course, based on the University.  A long list of famous doers and thinkers have helped perpetuate the "La Dotta" moniker since 1088.

La Rossa has a more disputed origin.  The usual explanation is that Bologna earned this nickname from its predominance of red tile roofs. A more 
feasible origin, though, stems from its Communist political and economic affiliation which persists in some form even today.  Though he was expelled from the party because of his homosexuality, the writer and director Pier Passolini was a native of Bologna and remained an avowed Communist until he was murdered in Rome at the age of 53.

Of the three epithets, Bologna may be most proud of La Grassa.  As Massimo MontanariProfessor of Medieval History at Bologna University, affirmed in his book, Food is Culture, body weight was an obvious indication of wealth before it became the consequence of a fast food world.

Via Emilia in Modena
Bologna is the Capital of the Emilia-Romagna Province, a region of prominent "Comunes" originally connected by the Via Emilia, completed by the Romans in 187 BC.  Even other Italians acknowledge the preeminence of Emilia-Romagna cuisine.   In upcoming posts, I will highlight some of the Province's best-known cities, Parma, Modena, Reggio-Emilia, and Rimi.  There are options beyond imagination for food and wine tours of the region, though I took the plebeian route, using local trains.

Because of its reputation, Emilia-Romagna is brimming with a wide range cooking schools, especially in Bologna.  Careful research and clear personal objectives are in order for those who plan to attend one of these schools.  The experience can vary from spending an afternoon preparing dinner in a family home to investing six months toward a certificate in restaurant management. My desire was to recapture a childhood feeling for preparing handmade ravioli. Starting with this Washington Post article, I chose to attend a week long pasta course at Vecchia Scuola Bolognese, a ten minute walk from Albergo Rossini.  I will detail this adventure in my next post but, in short, it was an excellent way to immerse myself in authentic Italian culture.

Emilia-Romagna is one the richest cultural treasures on Earth. Even a veteran traveler could be overwhelmed by the opportunities.  The Bologna Welcome Tourist Office on the Piazza Maggiore is a great help in comparing, consolidating, and booking options, including travel.  Italian train stations can be hectic so I appreciated working out schedules, pricing, and advanced ticket purchase with a gracious English speaking assistant at the Tourist Office.

Tamburini
Gamberini
There are two cherished establishments that claim to be the oldest of their kind in Bologna, and both deserve top billing on any food lover's list, Tamburini - Antica Salsamentaria Bolognese and Gamberini Pasticceria. They are impeccable in every aspect. Their window displays alone may be enough to sate your hunger.

Tamburini Antica Salsamentaria

Gamberini Cafe and Bakery

Often overshadowed by Milan, the Fashion District on Via Luigi Carlo Farini is another alluring aspect of Bologna.  Exquisite window dressings are set in gleaming halls of inlaid marble, where all are welcome to glimpse the rarefied world of Prada, Gucci, Armani, and those other designers not lucky enough to be Italian.

Via Luigi Carlo Farini ~ Haute Couture District


This was my second trip to Bologna.  I first visited as a backpacker in 1977, three years before the deadly train station bombing, known as the Bologna Massacre, in 1980.  This may explain my impression of underlying tension there then. I shortened my visit to only a few days and remembered little about it other than the Two Towers.

So I arrived in Bologna this time with only modest expectation, planning to use it mainly as a base for exploration. Yet even after spending nearly a month there, I regretted having to leave. In fact, I now plan to return for regular extended periods. Bologna deserves to hold a patent on the formula for a good life. It already holds the recipe. And an unchallenged place in my heart.