There are many different ways of getting to know a city. One of the best ways is to have a long-term relationship with it. Bologna for me has been an enduring friendship beginning from when I was a small child. I met a wounded and suspicious city, just after the terrorist attack that stopped the hands of the central station clock at 10.25 a.m. on 2nd August 1980. At one time, I thought that we might be in love and I lived there for a while. The city was cheerful and fashionable. The “Grande Bellezza“ [The Great Beauty], with its super soft double “z“ and a touch of workers‘ revolution in the air made it simply intelligent. It all fell apart. But we stayed good friends. With its mortadella sausage without pistachios, tortellini pasta in broth when it‘s cold outside, and porticoes that provide shelter above your head, Bologna always finds a way to be forgiven. There‘s nothing that can‘t be cured with a good plate of food here. And Lambrusco, of course.
For us Italians, food is in our DNA. We love it and we‘re always finding ways to talk about it, even at the dinner table. The heritage of some recipes can even become grounds for controversy. To give just one example, never dare to tell a Bolognese that tortellini were born in Modena. Tortellini: fresh pasta, which legend has it takes its shape from Venus‘s navel. If you want to see the legend in the flesh, pay a visit to number 1 Via Caprarie, where you‘ll find Tamburini, an old Bolognese delicatessen, the Mecca of tortellini. We find ourselves in the medieval district of historic food shops, where I love to get lost despite the fact that I know every last stone.
In the Quadrilatero district between Via Clavature and Via delle Pescherie Vecchie, between Piazza Maggiore and Piazza della Mercanzia, the Old Market used to flood the streets with smells and the shouts of traders encouraging ladies to buy goods at their stalls. Today the shops in this beautiful neighbourhood have reinvented themselves, opening up counters and windows onto the street to serve quick meals and wine to the throngs of people perched on improvised stools. The Emilian equivalent of a rambla in Barcelona, it‘s impossible not to get involved. For a taste of what the neighbourhood used to be like, check out Osteria del Sole at 1/d Vicolo Ranocchi, which has been a restaurant since 1465. This place is a secret passage that takes you back in time. Photos on the yellowed walls, deafening voices and real tavern prices, still make it the most picturesque place in the whole city. Not far from the crowds, in Via Clavature, Il Calice and Rosarose – Bistrot Bolognese are among Bologna‘s best-loved restaurants. Cured meat platters are a must in Il Calice, while couscous and salads to eat as you chat with friends are the speciality of the second. These two small restaurants opposite each other remind me of the dance parties in director Pupi Avati‘s films, in which the boys on one side of the room watch the girls on the other side, who pretend not to notice them.
Having explored Bolognese gastronomy, it‘s time for a break. Naama Cafè is a corner of Marrakesh in a small eclectic and multi-ethnic area in the middle of Bologna. Under the portico of 31/B Via Guglielmo Oberdan, next to a shop selling erotic items, the scent of mint, cardamom and pistachio baklava will make you forget for a moment that you‘re in Italy.
During a trip to Bologna you‘ll need to factor in a few extra kilos. I fight the guilt with long walks under the arcades, between boutiques and art galleries, among accordion players and the man sitting on a corner of Via Massimo d‘Azeglio, who ekes out a living by inviting passers-by to make a chess move in exchange for a donation. Shopping in Bologna goes by two names: L‘Inde le Palais and Ratti. These boutiques are for the graceful and elegant sgnàure [ladies] who stroll along the cobbles in their high heels without batting an eyelash. L‘Inde le Palais is worth a visit for its selection of designer clothes, of course, but above all to admire the luxurious display cabinets on Via dei Musei.
After having my fill of haute couture, I often fancy looking for just the right vintage accessory in the city markets. The historic La Piazzola market is known as “Montagnola“, just like the park. It doesn‘t really matter what it‘s called; it‘s a unique place that retains the feel of an old flea market. La Piazzola is located on two sides of Piazza VIII Agosto: on the flat side you can find clothes, shoes, bags and the entire stock of failing shops, where with a bit of luck you‘ll find some great hidden bargains. In the upper part, which climbs up past the gate of the Montagnola park, are the vintage stalls. It‘s here that I spend entire Saturday mornings haggling over the price of a fur hat or a Chanel jacket from the 1970s. For vintage lovers, Leonarda, a second-hand market run by the Piazza Grande Association, is also worth a visit. Hipster taste and noble soul: the proceeds from Leonarda go to charity, which is yet another reason to shop here.
I‘m not the type of traveller who normally chooses to stay in a chain hotel. Tourists often prefer to trust well-known names, but in so doing they risk missing out on immersing themselves in the local culture and as a result the very nature of travel. The Baglioni in Bologna is the exception that proves the rule. At the Grand Hotel Majestic “già Baglioni“ you can admire one of the frescoed rooms with some of the greatest historical and artistic value and interest in Bolognese civil building. Frescoes by Agostino and Annibale Carracci decorate the hotel restaurant, housed in a majestic sixteenth-century room in the ancient Palazzo Ghisilardi Fava. Some of the underground rooms even include intact parts of the Roman Decumano Minore, a street dating back to 187 BC that runs below the current Viale Manzoni.
When all this luxury begins to slightly go to my head, I resume my walk under the porticoes of Via Ugo Bassi heading towards Via del Pratello to experience a vibrant Bologna full of life. There are no chic locals here, no glamorous drinks and women with stiletto heels, but a cross-section of young and alternative life that is only found here and in those northern European cities that really are home to a melting pot of people. Graffiti on the walls and draught beer bring cheer to the long road in the Porto-Saragozza district full of university students, but also of forty-year-olds not accustomed to wearing jackets and ties. You only have to choose between Altotasso, a restaurant offering jazz music, biodynamic wines and elaborate cocktails, Al Pradel, an historic bar with music and table tennis, the perfect choice for an evening with friends, or perhaps Tarcaban Cafè, where you can eat soup and smoke hookah on a cold winter evening.
Whether you choose the luxurious Bologna with her sixteenth-century decorations, the city of ragout cooked over a hot stove for hours, or the Bologna of garages with live music, know that she‘ll always remain in your heart and that you’ll become great friends.
di Veronica Gabbuti