Classic Bologna

This city in Italy is well-known for its arcades and beautiful piazzas
Cafes with a view of the Basilica of San Petronio
Cafes with a view of the Basilica of San Petronio

I&rsquod been on Italian soil for three hours and 47 minutes before I earned my first kiss. My friend Shobha and I were wandering &mdash a little dumbstruck &mdash around the Piazza Maggiore, Bologna&rsquos grand central square, in search of an art gallery where we were to meet others.

&ldquoEr, dové la... I mean... il er Fondazione del Monte&rdquo I asked an elderly man selling balloons on the corner of the piazza. He struggled to disentangle the strings of the helium balloons from the chair they were anchored to, before straightening up to tell us &mdash mostly by gesture of hand and bushy eyebrow &mdash the way.

&ldquoGrazie,&rdquo I said. &ldquoPrego&rdquo he shrugged. &ldquoCiao&rdquo I offered. &ldquoSì Ciao bella&rdquo he cried and before I knew it a friendly smacker was planted on my unsuspecting cheek.

We tottered off across the square &mdash or at least I was tottering. Less from the effects of the kiss than the high heels I had decided, in a moment of weakness, to wear. That&rsquos the problem with Italy. The minute you set foot on Italian soil, you think that by some kind of sartorial osmosis you will be infused with the unthinking stylishness of the natives, that you&rsquoll be able to see through opaque sunglasses, glide on six-inch heels, shrug like Don Corleone, purr like a Ferrari, accessorise like Dolce and Gabbana, ooze the oomph of Gina Lollobrigida.

All around me floated women in comfortable keds managing nevertheless to look like the pavement was their catwalk, whereas I winced like a castrati with every step. After that first evening, I made the best decision of my entire trip off with the high-heels, on with the sneakers. For Bologna is a city to be walked around, a city made for pedestrians, and comfortable shoes are the sine qua non of the whole experience.

The old city of Bologna is neatly demarcated by the ring road, an uneven hexagon where the city walls used to run, with a piazza at each of the 12 gates into and out of the city. Within the boundaries of this wall, the city is a maze of colonnaded walkways &mdash over 36km of them &mdash elegant squares, stuccoed houses with wooden-shuttered windows and ancient churches. I couldn&rsquot shake off the feeling that I was inside a jewel box, some cleverly crafted maze with a six-sided lid lined with sky-blue satin.

&ldquoThis city of arcades is and will always be the loveliest city in Italy in terms of its streets,&rdquo wrote Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt in 1878. Originally, these were wooden projections which simply (and illegally) extended the owner&rsquos house. They proved extremely popular so much so that the city&rsquos planners were forced to go from turning a blind eye on these encroachments to drawing up rules and regulations for their construction and upkeep &mdash that are still in force today. The shade is a blessing in the harsh heat of a summer&rsquos afternoon (when temperatures can soar to over 300C) a dry shelter from April showers or a winter walkway kept clear of the settling snow (January can go down to -20C).

At the administrative, historical and geographical heart of the city lies the Piazza Maggiore, a grand square bounded on each side by buildings of awesome weight and stature. One entire side is taken up by the huge Basilica of San Petronio. The church was designed in 1390 by Antonio di Vincenzo, and was constructed over the course of 250 years. Even then, it remained incomplete the lower half of the broad fa&ccedilade is carved with niches and statues, but the upper half of exposed raw brick has remained its present unfinished state for over 300 years.

I stepped inside the Basilica and was overwhelmed by the cavernous interior. It is a vast, echoing space, scented with the old spice of centuries of incense. On either side, votary candles stand sentinel in front of religious paintings and icons. The body of Christ, in its final mortal agony, is much in evidence. Forty-four metres up on the curved ceiling is a single painting a sun with long tentacle arms like some stranded jellyfish. There&rsquos a tiny hole in the centre which lets in the light from outside a single finger of sunshine that pierces the gloom and points to an exact place on the strip of metal inlaid into the stone floor. This sundial was designed by Gian Domenico Cassini in 1655 and the metal line is 1,600,000th of the circumference of the earth.

Back outside, the grand piazza is bathed in late afternoon sunshine. Ahead is the Palace of the Podestà. It&rsquos the perfect place to stop for a sip of nerve-tingling espresso, or a glass of wine tables and chairs are set out under the broad arches. Parts of the building date back to 1200, and it was originally designed as a meeting place for the town&rsquos assembly. The bell tower at the top of the building contains a huge bell, weighing 4,700 kilos

To one side is a smaller square &mdash Piazza del Nettuno &mdash which takes its name from the huge, fanciful fountain at its centre. Neptune, the king of the sea, stands with his trident and shows off his muscles in the centre, surrounded by chubby-thighed babes (putti) and rather matronly mermaids proudly spouting water from their bronze nipples. The statue was sculpted by one of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance, Giovanni da Bologna, affectionately known as Giambologna, in 1566. It&rsquos a perfect perch for watching the world go by.

To the south of the Piazza Maggiore is a maze of delightful little lanes that crisscross and intersect as you wend your way southeastwards towards the arterial road of Via di Santo Stefano. The traffic is light, and polite, and many of the squares pedestrianised. The pavements are dotted with tables and chairs outside small caf&eacutes food halls display huge fists of ham, and hunks of cheese in their windows. Wandering around the city, it&rsquos easy to guess how Bologna got one of its nicknames &mdash Bologna la Gasse (&lsquothe fat&rsquo) &mdash and the restaurants highlight the local specialities the famous &lsquobolognese&rsquo (or ragù) sauce of mincemeat and tomato served not (as you&rsquod think) with spaghetti, but with tagliatelle cured pork products such as prosciutto, mortadella and salame and snowdrifts of grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese.

The hazel trees were showing their first leaves of spring &mdash as though their branches were strung with a hundred lime-green fairy lights &mdash and the apple and cherry trees were thick with blossom. Just to add to the enchantment, some unknown tree was shedding its seeds, its tufts of cottony seedheads glittering in the warm air as though it were just beginning to snow.

I found my way finally to the complex of seven interlinked churches, cloisters and chapels known as Santo Stefano. The central Church of the Crucifix was built when the Longobards ruled the city, just 750 years after the birth of Christ. It in turn was built over a pagan temple dedicated to Isis, the Egyptian goddess. Over the centuries more parts were added, and now it is a cluster of buildings, containing the headless remains of Saint Petronius, one of the city&rsquos patron saints. You can walk around the beautiful cloisters, where the upper floor is still lived in by Benedictine monks. This is said to have been one of Dante&rsquos favourite places when he visited the city.

Outside the church is a beautiful piazza, shaped like a kite and cobbled, and from here you can appreciate the chequerboard pattern of brick on the outside of the church, and the ubiquitous terracotta roof tiles (that, along with its strident left-wing politics, give the city its other nickname, Bologna la Rossa, &lsquothe red&rsquo ). The heavy scent of incense inside the gloomy chapel gives way to the light, flowery hint of wisteria outside, wafted from the clusters of violet blossoms that drape themselves along the balconies. Like so much of the city, the houses lining the piazza are coloured in soft, warm tones of blusher, eye-shadow, foundation and lip-liner the palette of a professional make-up artist. The matte finish of the plaster gives the walls a sort of powdery quality, as though the stone would be as warm and responsive as skin.

I wandered down the main street, the Via Dell&rsquoIndipendenza, window-shopping and people-spotting. I stopped at Pategonia, one of the city&rsquos most famous gelaterias. Different ice-creams are set out under the glass counterpane in a sumptuous array, folded and sculpted like carelessly piled up swathes of silk. In a delicious agony of indecision, I finally plumped for fruiti di bosco (fruits of the forest) frozen yoghurt simply divine. 

I&rsquod discovered Bologna the fat, and Bologna the red but what of Bologna the learned The city earned this moniker for housing the oldest university in Europe. The university &mdash still a thriving centre with over 1,00,000 students &mdash dates back to 1088, although even before then, Bologna was a thriving centre for the study of law. It was also the first university in Europe to appoint a woman &mdash the brilliant scientist Laura Bassi, who was made professor of anatomy in 1732 at the age of 21, was given a chair of philosophy two years later, and spent the next 28 years of her life at the university lecturing on Newtonian physics (and bringing up her eight children). One of the university&rsquos most famous current professors is the novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco.

The last, but not least, of Bologna&rsquos claims to fame is its towers. Unlike San Gimignano, 116km to the southeast, most of Bologna&rsquos towers have disappeared they have either collapsed, or burnt down, or were bombed during the war, or were simply demolished to make way for urban development. At the height of tower-mania (in the 12th and 13th centuries) the town bristled like a medieval Manhattan, with up to 180 towers. Of the 22 that remain today, the two main towers &mdash the stupendous Asinelli (97m) and its shorter, leaning twin the Garisenda (48m) &mdash have come to symbolise the city. Goethe thought the Garisenda was an abomination (&ldquoThe leaning tower is a disgusting sight&rdquo) whereas Dante was inspired to include it in his Inferno. The Asinelli is the highest structure for miles around &mdash a full 24m taller than the Qutub Minar.

Tall towers, grand squares, ancient churches, cherry blossom, homemade ice-cream, stupendous wines, delicious food...but what about the romance Where was my gentle knight Well, if you&rsquore looking for grand passion, perhaps Bologna&rsquos not the place for you. But if you are content with the more playful charms of flirtation, Bolognese men win hands down. According to the 18th-century French travel writer and linguist, Charles de Brosses, Bolognese ladies &ldquoare excessively bold, pretty enough, and witty rather than flirtatious&rdquo. The bold and pretty witty women who I was lucky enough to meet there were more than happy to leave the flirting to the guys.

Bologna may be many things to many people &mdash fat, red, learned, towering &mdash but to me, from the first kiss to the final farewell, the city shall always be Bologna the flirt.

The information

Getting there

It&rsquos possible to fly into Bologna&rsquos airport via hubs of various European airlines &mdash London (British Airways), Vienna (Austrian), Frankfurt (Lufthansa), etc. If you&rsquore already in Italy, there are hourly trains from Rome (3hr30min/&euro42 one-way). Trains also run from Milan (1hr30min/&euro25 one-way).

Getting about

The buses that ply around the city centre and outskirts are plentiful, clean and relatively cheap. The simple ticket system allows you to ride as far as you like for &euro1, as long as it is within an hour. Bologna was the first (and only) city in Italy to introduce entirely free public transport &mdash a short-lived, but nonetheless laudable, experiment in socialist living.

Where to stay

Budget accommodation is hard to come by, especially during trade fair time (the city hosts several major international fairs every year). Accademia ( and Centrale ( are reputable two-stars that offer doubles from &euro75. Or try the slightly cheaper Panorama ( The Orologia is an attractive higher-end hotel (from &euro180, while the Grand Hotel Baglioni is the city&rsquos poshest (from &euro280

Bologna the fat

Good food abounds in this town, considered by many to be Italy&rsquos centre of gastronomy. Walk into most caf&eacutes and osteria and you&rsquore likely to be served reliably delicious local dishes, such as lasagna and other forms of pasta such as tortellini. For a gourmet meal, try any of the following Diana (roasts), La Colombina (Bolognese specials), Trattoria Gianni (tortellini), Da Bertino (peasant-style food), Broccaindosso (antipasti), Ristorante al Pappagallo (lasagna and turkey breasts baked with parmigiano).

Bologna the musical

The musical history of the city is as rich and varied &mdash and alive &mdash as its history of visual arts. Bologna&rsquos reputation for handmade violins, violas and cellos is renowned among Western classical musicians the world over. Regazzi violins are considered to be among the finest in the world. This was also the place where composers such as Farinelli, Scarlatti, Rossini, Wagner and Brahms perfected their craft. And if your tastes lean towards more contemporary forms, several trendy bars and caf&eacutes around the Via Dell&rsquoArte area feature live jazz performances on most evenings. Particularly recommended are the Cantina Bentivoglio and the Bravo Caffe.

Bologna the fast

Enzo Ferrari &mdash legendary racing driver, and founder of the famous company &mdash had a long association with Bologna. In fact, the first race that he ever witnessed as a young boy was along the Via Emilia in 1908. Ferrari has its factory in nearby Modena, along with other household names such as Lamborghini, Maserati, Malaguti and Ducati, and the black prancing horse insignia is almost as common as the twin towers of Bologna on key chains, pen stands and other souvenirs.

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