BOLOGNA (See accompanying photos under Portfolio menu)
Bologna – the food capital of the country of great food. I have read many times that, “it is a challenge to find a bad meal in Bologna.” So how can you screw that up? By going without a plan, which is what we did.
We are experienced travelers and we have learned many important tips to enhance our travel experiences. Tips like, buy a travel guide and read it, choose a few things that you want to see/do, have a couple reliable restaurant recommendations in hand and pay a little more if needed to find adequate accommodations close to what you want to see. This last tip has been added to the list in recent years as we now get tired about mid-day and want to go back to our room and put our feet up for a couple hours before we head back out for more sightseeing and dinner.
I don’t want to describe here where I think our heads were because our grandchildren may read this, but we pretty much spent an hour on-line finding an efficiency apartment and another half-hour looking at the train schedule, and when the day came we went. Maybe because all of Italy is now so close we felt we didn’t need the hours of preparation. Lesson learned – even if you feel like an Italian it is still necessary to research and plan if you want a good experience.
It wasn’t Bologna’s fault, the city is beautiful with it’s towers, fortress-like palaces, miles of porticoes and red-brick gateways. Piazza Maggiore is dominated by San Petronio, the principal city church, dedicated to St. Petronius, Bologna’s patron saint. It is one of the most monumental Gothic basilicas in Italy that would have been larger than St. Peter’s in Rome had the city not run short of funds (insured by a jealous Pope). Adjacent is Piazza del Nettuno that acts as the antechamber to Piazza Maggiore, and these two squares form the symbolic heart of the city, showcasing the political and religious institutions that define independent-minded Bologna. The square’s talking point is the Fontana di Nettuno, the huge bronze fountain to Neptune, sculpted by Giambologna in 1563. This masterpiece depicts the nude sea god surrounded by mischievous cherubs (who never wear clothes) squeezing water from the mouths of mythical dolphins while at the base four sirens are holding their breasts as water squirts from their nipples – no joke. Given Bologna’s troubled relationship with the papacy, it is no surprise the citizens delighted in the fact that Neptune was considered a profane, pagan symbol by the papal authorities. Should the area around Piazza Maggiore be all you get to see when in Bologna, it is still worth the trip.
I can say this with conviction because if we had not taken the city tour bus the first afternoon, we might not have seen much more. We managed to find an English guidebook in the Tourist Information office upon arrival, but it didn’t have restaurant recommendations. We found a better guidebook on our last day, but it was too late. We spent time inside San Petronio and climbed to the roof for the views. We toured the Palazzo Communal Palace and the collection of Communal Art. We checked out the interior of several churches on our pedestrian route that was entirely under ancient porticoes, so don’t think of going into umbrella sales in this city. There are over 26 miles of porticoes covering the sidewalks stretching almost continuously to the outskirts of the city. Each day we walked past another symbol of Bologna, Due Torri (the twin towers), harking back to the time when Bologna had 300 of them. We were not tempted to climb the 500 steps inside Torre Asinelli to see what, I am sure, is a breathtaking view if you have any breath left to take. The University of Bologna is the oldest in Europe, founded in 1088, and remains one of the country’s finest academic institutions to this day. We saw schools of different disciplines located all over the city. The rest of our three days we spent traversing the distance between our apartment in the University District, which was a 30 minute+ walk from the Piazza, and searching for places to eat. Bologna is the home of mortadella, tortellini (reported to have been inspired by a lover’s naval), meaty Bolognese ragu served over tagliatelle pasta or tucked between thin spinach lasagna sheets, just to name a few – and we wanted to sample it all.
I had read a restaurant review on Trip Advisor that said, “this is what I came to Bologna for.” I was sure we wanted to eat there, so our first night in town we spent almost two hours and much shoe leather looking for it. Unbeknownst to us we had passed it several times and, after asking a few people, we finally found it – a microscopic take-out place that was closed that night, even though the sign said it was open. We were so exhausted, and disappointed, that we settled for a really mediocre bowl of pasta at a chain pasta restaurant on the way back to the apartment. The next day, determined to do better, we went on instinct and happened into a superb lunch at Trattoria Leonida, an old establishment of white tablecloths and great service. (Click here to go to website.) Larry had his first really authentic Lasagna alla Bolognese and Semifreddo zabaione e caffe for dessert. I had the classic Tagliatelle al Ragu Bolognese and, of course, we enjoyed a great bottle of wine.
Since we had spent a goodly number of Euros on our grand lunch we decided to try a simple osteria for dinner that night. Our confidence restored, there was one not too far from our apartment recommended by the sheet in our apartment and reviewed on Trip Advisor as a good choice. We waited until fairly late to go there as we had to work up a second appetite. After several wrong turns we found it, but it was not at all what we expected. We knew it would be rustic and we had no problem with the long bare tables, close quarters and young clientele. But alas, the food was mediocre, uninspired, and lukewarm. Afterward I rechecked our resources only to find that the Trip Advisor review was several years old and the restaurant had since changed hands. The osteria was more recently, and accurately, described as a good place for students to get a decent meal for a cheap price.
I couldn’t believe we had managed to blow two of our three nights in Bologna on mediocre meals. They said it couldn’t be done, but we were doing it! So on our last day we went for the sure thing and for lunch went to the prestigious and highly rated Pappagallo, Bologna’s version of Sardi’s. (Click here to go to website.) Larry enjoyed his second outstanding Lasagna alla Bolognese and I tried the Cotolette alla Bolognese (veal cutlet) with a stack of crispy fried potato sticks and a great bottle of wine. We skipped dessert because there was one good thing about the long trek to our apartment’s. Close by we discovered Gelatauro that produces organic gelato touched with exotic flavors like jasmine and oranges. (Click here to go to website, then click on bunch of lemons.) They also hand make chocolates and organic cookies. I purchased a bottle of pure vanilla there as I can only get powdered (yes powdered vanilla) in Ascoli.
The next day at the Bologna train station we found ourselves sitting in the waiting room where, in August of 1980, a bomb ripped through killing 85 people. This episode is attributed to right-wing terrorism. The crater where the bomb went off has been retained and above it a stone memorial is on the wall where the names of all the victims are engraved. The clock on the outside of the building is stopped at 10:25, the time the bomb went off, in remembrance.
So we left Bologna, newly reminded of what we already knew about travel but somehow forgot. We spent the four-hour train ride to Ascoli discussing what we would see and eat next time we traveled to Bologna – the food capital of the country of great food. However, that will be after we visit Parma and Modena.