The region of Emilia-Romagna covers a huge slab of northern Italy that stretches from Piacenza in the far north-west down to the Adriatic resort town of Rimini. Along the region’s southern border, the Apennines begin their long march down the spine of the peninsula, but fully half of the region’s 22,000 square kilometres is covered by the wide, flat plain of the southern Po River valley. Along the Via Emilia, the ancient Roman road that runs from the north-west to the south-east, are dotted some of the most famous cities in Italy – Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Imola, Cesena – while to the east lie the equally storied cities of Ravenna and Ferrara.
And at the heart of the region is Bologna, its bustling and energetic capital. Stepping out of the railway station, the contrast with refined and elegant Turin could not have been more stark. The city we had left just a few hours ago, much further north and sheltering beneath the Alps, was enjoying balmy spring weather; Bologna, on the other hand, was already sweltering. As our taxi took us up the Via dell’ Independenza for the short ride to our apartment, it was also obvious that this was a much grittier, down to earth sort of place.
The first thing you notice, as soon as you step outside the railway station, is the colour of the buildings, shading from a near-pink to a deep terracotta, and which give the city one of its three monikers – La Rossa, or “The Red One”. The colour preference dates back to the middle ages, as do the 38 kilometres of porticoes that line the streets; originally they were built by decree of the city authorities in order to provide shelter for visitors to the city – merchants and pilgrims and the like – and so they had to be a minimum of six feet deep. Over the centuries the original wooden structures of the porticoes were replaced by stone arches, which today provide shade and shelter from the sun and rain for the Bolognese as they bustle about their daily business. And bustle they do – this is a busy city that has a sense of energy about it that is quite different from the languid pace of Turin or the chaotic tourist crowds of Florence.
Part of that energy derives from the ubiquitous presence of young people. Bologna, the home of the world’s oldest university, hosts some 82,000 students and nearly 3,000 academic staff, and gives it the second of its three nicknames – La Dotta, “The Learned One”. Students are everywhere, not just in the north-eastern quadrant of the historic centre where the university itself is located, filling the cafes, walking or cycling the streets, and enthusiastically joining in the various protests that erupt from time to time in this left-wing city. Compared to the other major cities we’ve visited, Bologna feels incredibly young.
When they aren’t studying or making good-natured mayhem in the streets, Bologna’s students, like students everywhere, supplement their income by working in the city’s restaurants and bars, where the source of its third label, La Grassa (the fat one), is proudly celebrated in a rich culinary tradition that draws on the agricultural wealth of the Po Valley. Most famous of course is the sauce that has been adopted world wide as the chief component of the dish that is variously called “Spag Bog” or “Spag Bol” (though as one quickly learns here, that dish is a bastardised version of the real thing, which is a meaty ragu served with tagliatelle, never with spaghetti). But Bologna is also home to tortelloni and its miniaturised cousin, tortellini, as well as mortadella, a rather fatty sausage akin to luncheon meat.
Our apartment has, over the last three weeks, provided the perfect perch from which to observe all these aspects of Bologna’s character, and more. We’re on the second floor of a building that has a wonderful view across to the brick pile of the medieval Palazzo Re Enzo, below which there is a constant stream of people crossing the eponymous piazza, watched by the occupants of the outdoor tables of a cafe that shelters beneath the walls of the palazzo. Further to the right is the big open space of the Piazza Nettuno, named after the statue of Neptune in its centre, currently covered in scaffolding undergoing restoration. To the right again is the massive structure of the Palazzo Ragione, the town hall, which also dates back to the middle ages. Out of sight, just behind the Palazzo Re Enzo, is an even larger square, the Piazza Maggiore, flanked on two sides by wide porticoes that are home to yet more restaurants and cafes, and on the third side by the vast blank front of the Duomo. So we are right in the middle of it all, which, when I made the booking on AirBNB, seemed to be perfect.
But I should have remembered my cardinal rule when booking apartments – never book somewhere directly on a piazza. The view might be enticing, but invariably there is a lot of street noise, particularly in Italy, where sleeping seems to be an optional activity for most Italians. So it proved for this place, compounded by the fact that the Via Rizzoli, one the city’s main thoroughfares, runs directly below our building, rumbling all day and late into the night with the sound of cars and buses. And no-one mentioned the popular bar right outside our front door, which operates until the small hours of the morning seven days a week.
Still, these small inconveniences notwithstanding, the location has proven to be outstanding. We are in easy walking distance of two or three good supermarkets, and just behind the Piazza Maggiore there is a tangle of narrow streets in which we can buy fruit, vegetables, meat and all sorts of other goodies from the various vendors jammed in among the restaurants and cafes. The city brims with museums and art galleries, as well as the usual swag of churches and chapels, and though the historical centre of the city is quite large by Italian standards, virtually every major sight is within a twenty minute walk. There’s also a very pleasant park that is about fifteen minutes away where we have enjoyed late afternoon walks and a nice cheap lunch at a lakeside restaurant.
Above all, though, it is the constant activity going on right outside our front door that is most fascinating. The Bolognese really do make use of their outdoor public spaces. The Piazza Maggiore, for example, has been converted for the summer into a huge outdoor cinema and performance space, where they have a mini-film festival that runs for a couple of months. And in between, there are rock concerts (we’re not so pleased about those) and classical concerts. Pretty much by chance we found ourselves at one of the most moving concerts that I think either of us have ever experienced. The performers were the orchestra of the Teatro Pubblico di Bologna (the city’s opera company) conducted by their director Ezio Bosso, a rather remarkable man who is suffering from ALS, a type of motor neurone disease. His physical frailty is obvious – the illness has paralysed him from the waist down, his fingers and wrists are swathed in bandages, and his speech is halting. Yet when those fingers touch the piano, and when he is directing the orchestra, he is a man transformed, the face projected on the huge screen is close to ecstasy, and the orchestra responds to produce beautiful, beautiful music. Watching all this was both moving and humbling, and it was clear from the reaction of the audience that Bologna is in love with him.
The Bolognese, mind you, are like most Italians – a pretty excitable lot. It takes nothing for a flash mob to appear, as we witnessed one evening when a bunch of lads wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with a white ‘V’ (about all we could see from our window) came along the street and halted in the piazza, chanting at the top of their voices some phrase over and over again. Then we heard the sound of dozens of horns from Vespa motorbikes as they went up and down the street. Ah, we thought, someone has won a soccer game somewhere. But there was more to come; in no time at all the crowd had swelled to what looked like a thousand or so people, all very excited, chanting away, singing songs, even lighting up flares. The Vespa riders stopped going up and down the street and abandoned their bikes on the side of the road to join in the fun, as did virtually every other passer by. It was all very good natured, and after a while the whole crowd moved off to some other part of the city, leaving the piazza as calm as if nothing had happened.
And the cause of all this commotion? Not a soccer match at all – it seems that the local basketball team had just won an important match that put it back up into the A-league for that sport! If that’s how excited they get over a basketball match, I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like if it was about something the Italians take really seriously, like football. One other footnote – despite the size of the crowd, there wasn’t a policeman or Carabinieri in sight. Nor were they needed – the crowd, though excited, was entirely and completely happy.
Real protest, with a hard political edge, does happen here though. Bologna’s famous red plaster has also harboured for much of its post war existence a different kind of redness – that of the Communist Party, which dominated its government until the election of a right-wing mayor in 1999; today the city’s council is dominated by PDI, Italy’s centre-left party. Over our four weeks here, we have probably seen half a dozen demonstrations, a couple quite large, but most fairly small, being staged down in the piazza. Regardless of the size of the demo, they share two characteristics: they are noisy (Italians cannot, it seems, do anything without an awful lot of shouting) and they are for the most part fairly well behaved.
Robert wouldn’t forgive me if I completed this post without talking a little about the city’s art experiences. There are of course the usual array of churches and chapels that are home to many fine frescoes, and there are several excellent traditional galleries that exhibit Gothic, Renaissance and Mannerist art of the type that we have become familar with over the last six months, but Bologna also has a very fine modern art gallery, called MAMBO (Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna), where Robert discovered the work of a local art hero, a gent named Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), who lived in an apartment in Bologna with his sisters for his whole life, devoting himself to painting still lives and landscapes around the house that he built in Grizzana, a hill village outside Bologna. The painter exercised such a fascination on Robert’s mind that he undertook one sunny (read hot!) day to go and make the pilgrimage to the country house, which is today decked out as a museum. Splendid idea, except that, as it turned out, the railway station was down in the valley, and the walk to the house took two hours, all uphill; when he got there, the place seemed to be closed! Robert, however, is never deterred by such trivialities, and after asking some friendly though surprised locals, he managed to find the curator of the museum who not only opened it up for him, but drove him back to the station. Another example of the generous nature of Italians once their sympathies are engaged.
My little word-counter tells me that so far I’ve written some 2,000 words in this post, and I find myself wondering quite how to summarise this city. Perhaps I can’t – for sure there are any number of glib paragraphs that I could write, but I can’t help feeling that this multi-layered, very Italian city somehow defies simple categorisations. It’s gritty and down-to-earth, while at the same time culturally sophisticated. Its public architecture is imposing and a little austere, but the tangle of lanes in the old city harbour street scenes as pretty as anywhere in Italy. Italians know it well and regard it with affection, yet it is a city that relatively few non-Italian tourists put on their itinerary, other than as a way-stop or connection point. That, indeed, was its main attraction to us, and we have used it as a hub to visit the many and varied cities of Emilia-Romagna (the subject, I suspect, of another post) – but we have come to share the Italians’ regard for this place, and though it is time for us to move on, I feel sure we will look back on our sojourn in Bologna with fondness.