Arched gallery near Marco Biagi Square, Bologna

La Rossa Bologna

16th September 2016

Neil Matthews introduces us to the stunning Italian city of Bologna, and corrects a long-held assumption along the way...

If The Good, The Bad and the Ugly – a favourite of street musicians in Bologna – had been shot in the city, the film might have been called ‘The Fat, The Learned and the Red’ – and it would definitely have been known as a tagliatelle, not a spaghetti, Western.

This relates to perhaps the most surprising of Bologna facts: Spaghetti bolognese, as we know it, does not exist in the city of its supposed origin. Ask for it in a restaurant here, and the waiter explains wearily that you mean tagliatelle al ragù – a hearty dish comes in a meaty sauce without the tomato content you might expect. Don’t be down-hearted, however; the food is worth the visit. Other local culinary specialities include tortellini in brodo (in broth), mortadella sausage and tortelloni in a sage and butter sauce. A note on pastas: tortellini are teeny parcels: much smaller than tortelloni.

Desserts are irresistible: the San Silvestro in Cantina, in Piazza Minghetti, whistles up as perfect a chocolate fondant as you’re likely to find. A gelato or two will sustain you through the hot afternoons. No wonder one of the city’s nicknames is ‘La Grassa’, or ‘the fat’.

The excellent cuisine comes with a side-serving of Italian theatricality. Owners sweet-talk you into their restaurants, over-worked waitresses wave their hands around and the occasional ‘tired and emotional’ diner stares into his dish as if he is about to kiss it – or plunge his face into it.

It is probably wise not to eat just before venturing into Bologna’s more outré museums, however. Along Via Irnerio, a few numbers down from the Botanic Gardens, the Anatomical Wax Museum may affect your digestion, or give you a nightmare or two. Carefully constructed models and drawings give an insight into late 19th century ideas on conjoined twins along with various other medical conditions and infirmities. The Museum is one of several which are part of Bologna’s university, the oldest in Europe. Although founded in 1088 it didn’t get a permanent building until the 1560s – and only then due to a Papal Counter-Reformation wish to keep a closer eye on intellectuals. The result was the Palazzo dell’ Archiginnasio. You get a small hint of early modern undergraduate life in the Anatomy Lecture Theatre, built in 1637, where students watched and learned from the dissection of corpses. The Lecture Theatre is decorated with statues of famous ancient and Bolognese physicians. Statues of skinned human figures stand ghoulish guard around the lecturer’s seat. There is also a small display about the first woman university professor Laura Bassi, who qualified in 1732 – almost a century before any British university admitted female undergraduates. Another lecture theatre got its name, Stabat Mater, after the first performance of the eponymous work by Rossini in 1842.

The university’s presence is the reason for Bologna’s second nickname of ‘La Dotta’, or ‘the learned’. But there are many other exhibitions and museums to see. The Museo Della Storia Di Bologna in Palazzo Pepoli tells the story of the city from Etruscan times, covering arts, science, music, culture and commerce. This very modern museum makes clever use of mirrors in recreating a Roman canal. The International Museum and Music Library at Palazzo Sanguinetti features beautiful frescoes, painted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Among its exhibits are the autographed score of Rossini’s Barber of Seville and a buccin – a very strange trombone with a dragon design.

For more curiosities, the Medieval Museum in the 15th century Palazzo Ghisilardi is a gem. Where else could you find a unicorn’s horn – actually, it’s from a narwhal – and a gold-plated copper and bronze statue of Pope Boniface VIII making a slightly unfortunate two-fingered salute?
The Museum of Modern Art, which uses the appealing abbreviation MAMbo+, makes much of the role of art in the political struggles of recent generations. Hence one of the reasons for Bologna’s third nickname: ‘La Rossa’, meaning ‘the red one’. Its prevailing politics have been left of centre for many years, and communists ran the place in the 1970s. Plenty of graffiti accosts you with radical viewpoints. But ‘La Rossa’ also derives from a more obvious source. Bologna’s medieval buildings surround you in shades of red, terracotta, pink and strawberry, especially in the historic centre.

The classic Bologna location in which to appreciate ‘La Rossa’ is in and around the university quarter. In Piazza di Porta Ravegnana stand the city’s two leaning towers. The taller Torre degli Asinelli offers the prospect of a panoramic view, if you have the nerves (and the knees) to climb its 498 wooden steps. Its neighbour, the Torre Garisenda, is not available to ascend… which is just as well, as it leans at an angle to make Pisa’s famous counterpart appear a model of geometric rectitude. A few minutes away, around the Piazza Maggiore, you can enjoy the odd spectacle of an unfinished church. The construction of the Basilica di San Petronio began in 1390, and revised 16th century plans would have made it larger than St Peter’s in Rome. But Pope Pius IV stymied the plan by commissioning the new university building on the eastern side. It is still the world’s fifth largest church, a remarkable combination of pink marble and plain brickwork. Also in Piazza Maggiore, the Palazzo Communale (town hall) displays a collection of paintings, sculpture and furniture – and a statue of Pope Gregory XIII, the man responsible for the Gregorian calendar. A few minutes away in Piazza San Domenico, the Basilica di San Domenico is the final resting place of the eponymous saint, founder of the Dominican order.

Connecting Bologna and its many piazzas and palazzos, are endless elegant arcades providing essential shade from the sun or shelter from rain. The story goes that they had to be tall enough to accommodate horses with riders passing through. The arcades sometimes act as impromptu Formula 1 substitutes as burly fathers in T-shirts and shorts wheel their infants’ prams along Via Indipendenza, the main street. On the streets themselves, the number of foreign cars, in particular Minis, may surprise you; a Revenge of The Italian Job, perhaps?

As well as its own attractions, Bologna has excellent rail connections to the rest of the Emilia-Romagna region and beyond. Regionale trains are
cheap and efficient by British standards. Freccia trains offer high speed, but dearer, intercity travel. Tickets for either option are easy to buy in bilingual machines at the station; announcements are in English as well as Italian. Half an hour north of Bologna, Modena offers fast and slow attractions: the Museum of Enzo Ferrari with plenty of classic cars and the story of Enzo’s upbringing and success, the home of the late opera singer Luciano Pavarotti and tours of balsamic vinegar producers. East of Bologna you can view extraordinary centuries-old mosaics in Ravenna, or go north to Ferrara and the Castello Estense where Lucrezia Borgia died in childbirth. For longer excursions or transfers, Florence, Rome and Venice are all within two hours or less, with Florence under an hour away by a faster train. The endless fascination of people-watching applies at the station, too, with rotund men pleading with the train drivers to let them finish their cigarette before boarding.

Thought it is smaller and less well-known to tourists than some of Italy’s other great cities, Bologna still offers the pleasures of a quintessential Italian city break. Whether exploring its churches or palazzi, enjoying a fine meal in a quiet piazza or observing the theatre of local life – whether you’re fat, learned, red or none of these things – a warm welcome awaits you.

Find Your Local