The best way to get to know Bologna is definitely by foot – the historic centre is a limited-traffic zone – immersing oneself between its porticoes that, extending for 40 km, earned themselves a place in the UNESCO list of world heritage sites to protect.
For fans of ‘the Learned, the Red, the Fat’ (la Dotta, la Rossa, la Grassa), Bologna marries the charm of a student town, so to speak – the birthplace of the first European university – with a taste of the good life, which may be stuffed tortellini or a plate of pasta, made by the pasta maker D.O.C. ‘until you see San Luca’, overflowing with ragù sauce.
Bologna the Learned brings us to the city’s ancient origins, with its long-ago birth in 1088 thanks to its founder, Inerio. The oldest structure in the Western world, this wonderful Studium started as a free, lay organization of students that used a cooperative model in which the alumni personally chose and financed the teachers, through a fundraising system known as collectio.
Currently, the university is comprised of 11 schools and 33 departments, with more than 80,000 students. Imagine the wonder of those seeing this place for the first time: the halls are still intact, the frescoes and decorations are full of history and the columns could tell the stories of a thousand adventures.
Around every corner, there is a small mystery to discover: an inn with chequered tablecloths where big pots of passatelli are boiling and cutlets alla Petroniana are frying, a glimpse of the Two Towers, Garisenda and Asinelli, which along with the dell’Orologio, Prendiparte, Galluzzi and Azzoguidi Towers form a complex of Medieval skyscrapers to make the modern ones in Manhattan jealous, or – climbing the stairs of some historic building – a rare view of the Bolognese hills.
Known around the world as one of the most prominent symbols of the Bolognese tradition, the Two Towers are strategically located at the Via Emilia city entrance. The Asinelli Tower, built between 1109 and 1119, is almost 98 metres high with an inside stairway formed of 498 steps, completed in 1684. It’s little sister, the Garisenda Tower, stands at only 47 metres high. The smaller tower, with a marked overhang of 3,22 metres due to premature erosion and a loss of foundation, was cited by Dante, who compared it to Antaeus looming over him in Canto XXXI of The Inferno.
Near the Piazza Maggiore, visit the Sala Borsa. A cultural centre of Bologna, boasting a generously stocked multimedia library; this is one of the habitual meeting places for the Bolognese people. The open spaces and ancient buildings will seduce you at first sight!
Bologna is a city whose key word is ‘large’: the Basilica di San Petronio, the fourth-largest church in Italy even though it was never completed, has towered over the Piazza Maggiore since the end of the fifteenth century.
Neptune’s fountain – a gift to the city from Giambologna – waves his trident close by, while the Archiginnasio with its 35,000 manuscripts vouches for the university’s culture and knowledge, which finds its true home here, among the books, the examples of early moveable type printing and seventeenth-century models of the Anatomical Theatre.
After spending a morning admiring “the Learned”, it is time to be tempted by Bologna “the Fat” with all of the culinary delicacies that it offers to tourists and locals alike. Return to the Piazza Maggiore and start wandering the streets through the historic city market known as the Quadrilatero. By day, let yourself be carried away by the seasonal fruit stalls, the fresh fish or wonderful salami. Taste mortadella, cheese and tortellini, and don’t forget to sample a few desserts.
As soon as the sun sets, those seemingly innocuous little streets among the fruit and vegetable stalls reveal their hidden nightlife, full of bars and trattorias, where the Bolognese like to spend their evenings sipping a glass of good wine.
In the city centre, try the tortellini from Osteria Bottega, so pleasant during cold winter days. If these don’t whet your appetite, dig into some cutlets alla Petroniana: breaded veal, fried and then simmered in capon broth; an irresistible sin!
For more first courses, let yourself be charmed by the lasagnette with a sauce of guinea fowl and vegetables offered by the young chef of Vicolo Colombina. You will leave the restaurant sorry that you didn’t order a second serving!
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