If you ever enjoyed bologna as a kid, thank Italy’s pork powerhouse Bologna. This elegant city, steeped in history and known world-wide for its kilometres of porticos and pair of leaning towers, is also famous for pasta, pork products like mortadella (the original bologna) and gelato. Fifteen years ago, Bologna was a hidden treasure beloved by locals. Now tourists from around the world flock here to eat and delight in its architecture, history and lively culture. Here are some highlights from a recent trip.
Hire a Guru Guide: Though walking anywhere in Bologna, along grand avenues or through narrow side streets, is a delight on your own, hiring a guide injects a sense of history and takes you to hidden bits of the city you might miss on your own. While they’re free you’re encouraged to tip.
Tower Tower: Towering over the city centre are two massive towers built by noble families, each vying to outdo the other. At one point they were almost the same height but obviously something went wrong. It seems the Garisenda family not only built their tower on shifting soil but they chose a lousy architect and the tower leaned from the start. At one point nearly 15 meters was lopped off for fear it would collapse. The 97-metre Asinelli tower, meanwhile, was actually raised in the late 13th century as a beacon to communicate with the countryside. Feel free to climb the 498 steps for (I hear) a fabulous view. Of Bologna’s original 100 towers, about 20 remain.
Hidden canals: Our guide Jason pointed to an iron ring attached to a building on a narrow street and asked us to guess its use. Answer: Tying up your boat! Apparently this street and others in the city were once canals, which were covered over as the city grew. Catch a glimpse of the Reno Canal by walking down Via dell’Independenza from the historic centro and peeking through a window in Via Piella. You’ll think you’re in Venice!
Sexy landmark: The bronze figure of Neptune, a gift from Pope Pius IV in the mid-1500s, is the city’s central meeting place and starting point for tours. Surrounded by women spurting water from their breasts (which is really hard to un-see), the naked god rules Piazza Maggiore. His three-pronged trident became the symbol of Maserati cars, another Bologna masterpiece.
Religion rules: The facade of Bologna’s Basilica di San Petronio has to be one of the ugliest in Italy. Yet architects in the early 1500s envisioned such a splendid, massive monument the Pope began to worry it would overshadow the Vatican in Rome. Not only did he stop the project immediately, which saw workers downing their tools leaving the marble facade and some stained glass windows unfinished, but he had a building constructed next door to prevent the Bolognese from expanding it as planned. That building, the beautiful Archiginnasio, soon became the first university in the Western Hemisphere. Also worth a visit.
Santo Stefano: Of the seven churches built on this sacred site over the centuries, four remain, including the original church from 200 AD. Which is in shockingly good shape considering its age. The two courtyards, especially the cloister that once formed part of a monastery, provide a welcome relief from the busy city, especially during the 35C days of summer.
Torre dell’Orologio – A visit to the top of the clock tower, located in a municipal building in Piazza Maggiore, is well worth a visit if you can handle the winding staircase, which takes you past the workings of the clock up to a terrace with a fantastic view of the city, including some of the surviving towers. Buy a timed ticket at the Bologna Welcome Centre across the street. It’s a rather convoluted process but worth it. The tower is particularly beautiful at night.
Eat Pasta: Emilia Romagna is famous for homemade pasta fresca, so indulge! For a light lunch, choose bite-size rings of beef, pork or ricotta-filled tortellini in a delicate broth. For a change try the giant version, tortelloni, which may be filled with pureed squash or ricotta and served in a tomato or cream sauce. The city’s chefs also created lasagne. The meatiest sauce is bolognese, a rich tomato and meat ragu often served over homemade tagliatelle. Even the mayor of Bologna wants tourists to know that Spaghetti Bolognese does not exist!
I Portici: Bologna’s elegant porticos, which run almost 40 km in the city centre alone, have been designated a UNESCO world heritage site. They not only protect passersby from the weather, but they were once used for socializing and trade. Every block flaunts a different architectural style, from functional to exquisite with soaring arches and painted ceilings. The longest portico is the 4-km stretch from Porta Saragozza up to the sanctuary of San Luca, overlooking the city and nearby hills. It’s fun to take a taxi up to the top then walk back into the city. Stopping for sustenance and gelato, of course.
Glorious Gelato: Since Bologna is home to the world-famous Carpigiani Gelato University, you can be sure that you’re getting the real thing. Choose cup or cone and the number of scoops you’d like and buy your ticket at the cash. Then stand in front of the glass counter deciding which colourful mounds of creamy deliciousness to choose. It will probably be the most difficult decision you make all day.
Affettato Misto: To salute the region’s porcine artistry, you must order a plate of Emilia Romagna’s famous cold cuts, sliced (affettato) wafer-thin. At bar 051 (Zerocinquantino) in the open-air fruit and veg market we crowded around a tiny bar table for a board of prosciutto cotto (cooked) and crudo, mortadella and salami, a few chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano and pecorino and small flat buns called tigelle.
Imbibe: To end a day of sightseeing, pop into any bar for a ridiculously cheap glass of bubbly Prosecco with a bowl of potato chips. Another famous export is the Aperol Spritz cocktail made with herbal Aperol liqueur, Prosecco and a splash of soda, garnished with an orange slice.