Unspoiled Bologna, Italy

I hesitated on whether to write this post as sometimes you don’t want to spoil a good thing. While the hoards of tourists head to Venice, Florence or Rome, Bologna remains the untouched, real Italy.

May 12, 2012

I arrived on a Saturday afternoon after a long flight from the United States and was wondering whether there would be little to see or whether Bologna would be an untouched treasure. Untouched treasure doesn’t begin to describe Bologna which is filled with historic towers, churches and museums.

The centro storico (historical center) is just a short cab ride from the airport through winding, restrictive streets. Tourists will immediately notice the red roofs and some of the very left leaning politics and graffiti which both contribute to one of the city’s nicknames, “La Rossa” (or the red one). Bologna seems almost to be a mix of old and new as with the University of Bologna being filled with students and the ancient architecture, Bologna is a blend of cultures. English will not help you much in Bologna and I was glad I had taken three lessons in Italian, so I knew a few words.

After getting my bearings, luckily, my hotel was very close to Le Due Torre (the two towers) which rise high above Bologna and are one of the city’s main tourist attractions.

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The taller tower, Torre desgli Asinelli, is open to visitors, while the shorter tower, Torre Garisenda, is skewed at a scary angle and is closed to visitors. I initially started to climb Torre desgli Asinelli, but didn’t do well with my fear of heights. The stairs climbing into the tower are extremely narrow and if you are claustrophobic, two people will barely fit on one step. Some of the stair case is exposed and I lost my nerve going up, but if you like heights, the top of the tower should have an amazing view of the city rooftops.

After losing my nerve at the Torre desgli Asinelli, I headed over to Piazza Maggiore and the surrounding area was closed to traffic over the weekend. Two impressive palaces, the Palazzo Comunale and the Palazza del Re Enzo, both built during the 1200-1300s, occupy prominent positions on the piazza.

Unfortunately, both of these buildings are generally not open, although, the Palazzo Comunale (or city hall) does have a museum, the Museo Morandi, on the top floor which will give visitors a view inside the palace and across the piazza. When exiting the Palazzo Comunale, be sure to turn left as there is a sign commemorating several Bolognese families who died resisting the Germans in World War II, some in that exact spot. It is sad seeing all the black and white photos of the many killed.

The Palazza del Re Enzo is not open to visitors but there is a tourist information office on the ground floor next door at the Palazzo del Podesta. As Bologna is unspoiled by tourists, getting information (particularly a good map) is difficult.

My map from the tourist office only had major streets labeled, but luckily, I quickly got the hang of the area around Piazza Maggiore, as Bologna is compact and easy to navigate. Truthfully, I enjoyed the lack of information as I felt as if I had the city to myself.

In the far corner off the Piazza Maggiore is the Piazza del Nettuno whose main feature is the Fountain of Neptune (Fontana del Nettuno). This was sculpted in 1566 and apparently when this statue was originally presented, some of the locals wanted to cover it up because the sculpture is somewhat revealing. I had to laugh that visitors can walk right up to the statue with very few other tourists, while children were playing in the fountain. Unlike Rome where visitors almost have to fight to get near certain fountains, there couldn’t have been more than five or six other tourists at the Fontana del Nettuno.

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From the Piazza del Nettuno, I wandered into the Basilica di San Petronio which is one of the world’s largest churches. Keep in mind that in Bologna, other than restaurants, many things (including the churches) will be closed from roughly 12:30 to 3:00ish for lunch as this is “the real Italy”. I made it into the Basilica just after lunch and was amazed by the size of the church.

From the outside, the church does not look like much and most of the front was covered for renovations. Inside are spectacular chapels and enormous ceilings. While construction on this church was begun in the late 1300s, rumor has it that Vatican blocked construction funding in the 1500s because the church was expected to be larger than St.Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Be sure to explore the “nooks and crannies” of this church as several chapels line the right and left church walls. Once again, very few tourists were inside and I was lucky enough to stumble upon a mass being conducted in one chapel with singing, which echoed through the church’s excellent acoustics. Be on the lookout for the sundial which runs down the eastern side of the church. I had some trouble finding this at first, but the plastic on the floor protecting the sundial will give visitors a hint of its location. Also be aware that in traditional Italy, the churches are very conservative. On entering the Basilica, a sign stating “No Foto” will greet visitors and the church does have a dress code. Bare shoulders or shorts above the knees are forbidden, caps must be removed and demonstrating affection (the sign had a picture with a couple with their arms around each other) is not accepted.

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By evening, I was looking for someplace to eat and would recommend browsing the shops along Via Caprarie, which is in the area called the Quadrilatero. Bologna is known for its food including inventing both tortellini and bologna. There are lots of pasta and pork shops (the pork shops, called La Salumeria, basically mean a salami shop or delicatessen) where hams line the windows. I ate at a shop called Tamburini, located on Via Caprarie 1. The owners of Tamburini operate both a salumeria and a wine shop so I stopped for a glass of wine and a snack.

The wine shop has outdoor seating around barrels and as the weather was fantastic, I loaded up on a glass of wine and a large plate of meats and cheese. The meats were extremely fresh and I could have easily eaten another plate. I can see why Bologna is also nicknamed “La Grassa” (or the fat one–basically, a full belly) as the food is delicious. The owners of Tamburini were very helpful and some were fluent in English.

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Sadly, there may also be some beggars along Via Caprarie (or in this general area) as the locals are coming to shop for food. I saw one beggar chased with a broom by a shop owner which was a little tough to watch.

If you are in the Via Caprarie/Quadrilatero area, be sure to also stop at Paolo Atti who have windows filled with freshly made tortellini (their baked goods are tasty too) and a shop called Eataly, which is a bookshop with cafeterias serving pastas and wine on several floors.

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Eataly’s slogan is “Eataly is Italy” and locals were stopping in the evenings for a glass of wine and pizza.

I ended the evening stopping at a church in the University Quarter, the Oratory of Saint Cecilia which was magical. Like most churches in Bologna, visitors will be greeted by a sign “No Foto”, forbidding photos inside. Some evenings, the Oratory will have one hour concerts where attendees basically make a donation as to what they wish to pay. Most people were donating five euros and I was lucky enough to see an opera concert with both a soprano and alto, who were dressed in evening gowns and obviously professional singers. The music is classical and with an 1881 grand piano at the front of the church, the church has regular concerts.

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I was excited that most of the attendees were local which is always a big positive. Following the moving concert, the locals were shouting “Bravi, Bravi!” during curtain calls. This concert is something I will remember for years to come.

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May 13, 2012

After spectacular weather on Saturday, the weather Sunday was rainy and windy. The front desk clerk at my hotel looked at me and summed it up saying “Today—horrible!” as I ventured out in the rain.

I headed back to Basilica di San Petronio as the interior of this church is so spectacular. Churches in Italy open early and the Basilica was open before 8 a.m. I was lucky to walk into the church which was again celebrating mass and I think I may have been one of about three tourists.

I could spend hours exploring this church as the size is massive and each chapel is so different. Lighting a few candles helped brighten the gloom as the church interior was dark and quiet with the storm.

Walking in Bologna is not too difficult with the rain as the city is filled with covered archways. With the pinks and reds of the archways and the dark, rainy sky, the contrast is fantastic.

Heading onward, I walked to the Abbazia di Santa Stefano, which was built in the 11th century. While this was initially a series of seven churches, today only four remain. The chapels and courtyards were like being in another century and it seemed strange stepping back into the streets after being inside. These churches were very dark with the rain but the courtyards remained fairly bright.

On Sunday mornings, there is an antique market outside the churches and I felt sorry for the vendors as rain was blowing into their stalls.

As it was approaching lunchtime, everything was starting to close for a few hours. I decided to make one splurge on lunch and headed to a restaurant, Osteria de’ Poeti, which is housed in a 14th century wine cellar. This restaurant was amazing. Italy is a country where restaurants may just be a door on the outside but inside are hidden delights. I was immediately greeted with a cheerful “Buongiorno signora”. It was Mother’s Day in Italy so the restaurant was packed with Italian families. I was excited that a glass of prosecco (which is a sign of welcome in Italy) and some meatball appetizers were brought to my table along with a whispered “on the house”.

Nothing is free in Europe so I was shocked by this kind gesture. I ordered a glass of red wine, pasta with ham and asparagus as well as an apple tart and cream for dessert, which was beyond delicious. Everyone in the restaurant was very friendly and seemed happy to see a tourist.

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Luckily, with lunchtime over, the weather had cleared and I walked to the Basilica di San Domenico, just down the street from the restaurant. On the outside, the Basilica doesn’t look like much and it was depressing that something so historical had some walls decorated with graffiti. Inside, however, is a completely different story and like the other churches in Bologna, the inside of the Basilica di San Domenico is impressive. Built in 1238, the church includes an elaborate, decorative tomb in the San Domenico chapel.

I was looking around the tomb when a fellow American walked up to me and whispered “Inglese?” to double-check that I spoke English. There were some bones behind the tomb and even with the language barrier, priests inside the church are happy to show visitors the tomb. This church also has all sorts of “nooks and crannies” with various chapels along the walls. For a small donation, visitors can also visit the choir in the pulpit. I don’t know how else to describe the inside of the church other than to say the murals and paintings are spectacular. Apparently, Michelangelo did some carvings when very young of some of the angels around the altar. Be sure to also visit the interior courtyard of the church which is peaceful and filled with bright rose gardens. Once again very few tourists were inside the church (I would say no more than ten) and it was a delight to be able to really explore the Basilica without battling masses of tourists.

On exiting the Basilica, it’s only about a five-minute walk to La Sorbetteria Castiglione, which has the reputation of being one of the best ice cream (gelateria) stores in Bologna. I had to try the due fragola (only because I knew the word for two and strawberry) which melted in my mouth. One word of caution is the restrooms have key locks. I am embarrassed to say that I couldn’t figure out how to unlock the restroom and was stuck for a few minutes. The staff was trying to help me in Italian and I didn’t know much more than “Parla inglese?”. It makes a funny story now but was definitely embarrassing at the time.

As evening approached, I again headed to the Oratory of Saint Cecilia for another concert as a local pianist was performing. The music was just as good as the night before and the enthusiastic crowds were again shouting “Bravi, bravi!”. The murals in the church, depicting the life of Saint Cecilia, combined with the classical music is fantastic in such a historic setting. I can’t recommend this church enough.

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May 14, 2012

Monday morning was cool and clear and all the terraces at my hotel, the Best Western San Donato, were open for fantastic views of the two towers of Bologna.

I headed for the church, the Metropolitana di San Pietro near Piazza Maggiore.
As it was Monday and people were headed to work, the church was packed for morning mass. Tourists were allowed to quietly walk around the outside perimeters of the church but any talking or photos were strictly forbidden. Once again, the murals in the church were stunning and other than locals, there were very few tourists around.

From the Metropolitana, I headed back toward Piazza Maggiore to buy some postcards. As Bologna is not really set up for tourists yet, the tabacchi (or tobacco) store, marked by a “T” is the best place to buy postcards. Stamps are available at the tabacchi as well. I was searching for a mailbox and a local kindly ran up and pointed out some mailboxes by the Palazzo Comunale.

I couldn’t resist one more visit to the Basilica di San Pietro as the church and the various chapels are all so different. Once again, there couldn’t have been more than ten tourists inside and most visitors were locals. The size of this church and the huge ceilings leave me almost speechless. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to construct this church several centuries ago.

On weekdays, outside the Piazza Maggiore on the street Pescherie Vecchie is the weekly produce market, which is operational in the mornings and evenings (and closed for lunch). If you are looking to eat cheaply, there are stands and stands of brightly colored fruits and vegetables with an assortment much better than what you would find in a supermarket.

I had to break down and get some fresh cherries, which were juicy and fresh. Also lining this street are more cheese shops, pasta shops and delicatessens.

Near the Piazza Maggiore is the Biblioteca Comunale which basically translates to mean the community library. Vibrant murals line the hallways—some of which have been faded by the strong Italian sun. When visiting the library, be sure to stop by the Teatro Anatomico, which frankly was creepy. During the Inquisition, body dissections were held where a priest could intervene. Looking at the dark wood walls and the small, cold marble table, I shivered thinking about what had happened in that room in the past.

I also spent my last day in Bologna walking around the University Quarter, where the University of Bologna is based.

This university was founded in 1088 and is the oldest in the world. When entering the University Quarter, it seems strange going from a more traditional Italy to an Italy covered in graffiti with various political slogans like “Tutti Liberti” (liberty for all). In talking to one lady, apparently tuitions are roughly 2,000 euros which is a big expense for families. Unfortunately, the prospect of jobs in Bologna after graduation is not good as the job market is tough in this part of Italy.

As evening approached, I headed to the bar at my hotel to sit on the terrace to watch the sun set on my last evening in Bologna. For five euros, I could have a cold Italian beer along with a free plate of potato chips, pistachios and fresh olives.

I was touched that all the tables except mine had a bright red table-cloth. The barman insisted that I too have a table-cloth as this was considered a sign of respect. Sitting out on the balcony, I could hear a student band with guitars and kazoos, who were first-rate. Everyone sitting on the patio had a big grin listening to the music.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

As I headed to the airport, I was very sad to leave Bologna. It happened to be close to my birthday and the immigration officer looked at my passport and asked in English whether I had a birthday soon. He then wished me a “Happy Birthday” in Italian which was very sweet.

Bologna is a city undiscovered, welcoming, filled with vibrant reds, oranges and pinks, and an example of the true Italy.

I was worried at first whether there would be enough to see and discovered instead that I didn’t have enough time. With fantastic sights, delicious foods and very few tourists, Bologna is a hidden secret and a great example of what Italians call “the good life”. I hope that Bologna will stay as it is and not be overrun by tourists in years to come, as the city is a true hidden gem.

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