The many faces of Bologna (our family weekend in Emilia-Romagna, pt. 1)

Some of my most treasured memories are the family car trips around Europe that we used to take every year while I was growing up. No destination was too far. We would drive for hours, munching on treats bought in shops and gas stops on motorways and playing silly games, such as the one my sister and I excelled in, “who can put more flips in their mouth”. While we would stuff our faces with flips, choking from laughter, our parents would comment that we are crazy. These trips, our European adventures, were times of bonding and spending quality time together, always filled with great amounts of laughter and fun.  

After two years of not traveling, it was so exciting to be able to do it again – to travel to some European destination, by car, in the company of my (this time – extended) family. So, in October 2021, ready for creation of some new memories, my parents, my sister, my husband, Oliver and me rented a van and embarked on a short but sweet weekend getaway to Italy. More specifically, to its northern region Emilia-Romagna.

We took off very early that Saturday morning. We were all in great mood and looking forward to our weekend together. The pandemic made us appreciate anew things we took for granted before, and we were such happy campers when we made that first stop after crossing the Italian border and had that first cup of Italian coffee in almost two years, stacked enough chocolate, gummy bears, chips and – inevitably – flips to last a week and tasted some fresh Italian paninis. After some four hours of pleasant driving and frequents stops, we arrived to Bologna, checked into our hotel, freshened up and were ready for the day of strolling around the city, enjoying the sights, culture and food.

Emilia-Romagna is a region located in North Italy, covering mild rolling hills between the Po river and the Apennines. It has been highly populated since ancient times and is today, thanks to agriculture and industry, one of the wealthiest and most developed regions not only in Italy but in entire Europe. Bologna, Ferrara, Modena, Rimini, Ravenna and Parma are just some of the many towns with great historical, cultural and artistic heritage that help place this region in top lists of best tourist destinations in Europe. Last but not least, the region is a foodie paradise – it seems as if almost all the tastiest and highest quality Italian products comes from there: pasta, ragú, mortadella ham, parmigiano cheese, prosciutto, aceto balsamico, Lambrusco wine… and the list goes on.

Bologna is the largest and capital city of Emilia-Romagna and the seventh most populated Italian city. For centuries, it has been one of the most important and historically most developed urban centers in the region. Venice is La Serenissima, Genova is La Superba, Rome is la Città Eterna and Bologna? Well, this city boasts not one but four adjectives referring to its greatness and complexity: La Grassa, La Rossa, La Turrita and La Dotta.  

La Grassa – the “fat” Bologna

Bologna has earned this nickname due to its hospitality, and of course, its delicious food, which, in this region particularly, is an important part of culture. Many of the best known traditional Italian products and recipes originate from Bologna, for example the world-famous Bolognese sauce, or ragú, as the Italians call it. As a great fan of the dish, I couldn’t wait to try the original ragú in its hometown and I have to admit, the one I tasted was really exceptional: silky, well-seasoned, thick, with just the right ratio of meat and vegetables. It was served with tagliatelle, as is the “proper” Italian way (and not with spaghetti, as the rest of the world usually does it).  

La Rossa – the “red” Bologna

Originally, this nickname referred to the red color of buildings prevalent in the city center. Later on, it was related to the city’s long history of leaning towards the political left. During the Holy Roman Empire, Bologna was a free commune. From the 12th century, as its industrialization developed, there was the rise in workers’ movements. Bologna also had a communist city government continuously for more than 50 years, from 1945 to 1999.

La Turrita – Bologna of many towers

It is estimated that during the 12th and 13th centuries, Bologna had as many as 180 towers. These were built by the wealthiest families as a symbol of power as well as a defense system. Over the centuries, many of these towers were torn down or collapsed, with only 24 of them remaining today. Many of them are hidden between buildings and much shorter than they were originally, but there are some that survived and turned into symbols of the city – namely, the Two Towers, Torre degli Asinelli and Torre dei Garisenda. They are located on Piazza di Porta Ravegnana and are a very popular tourist sight. Torre degli Asinelli is the taller tower, 92 meters tall, while Torre dei Garisenda is 47 meters high and leans much more precariously.

La Dotta – the educated Bologna

Bologna is the home of the oldest university in the western world – University of Bologna, founded in 1088. During the Middle Ages, scholars from all over Europe came to the University to pursue their intellectual inquires, and some of the most famous students through its history include Dante, Petrarca, Erasmus and Guglielmo Marconi. Today, the University attracts many international students and the population of Bologna grows from around 400,000 to over 500,000 when classes are in session.

We enjoyed strolling around the city center, through its pleasant streets and porticoes. Bologna has around 38 kilometers of porticoes. Building of these covered arcades began in the 11th century with the purpose of creating upper stories to add more living and storage space over the shops and businesses on street level. In the 13th century, new porticoes had to be tall enough for riders on horsebacks, and adding height also added to the elegance of the arches. Porticoes in combination with the terracotta color really make the city seem warm and inviting, a place you want to visit and stay in.  

Piazza Maggiore is a large pedestrian square in the city center, surrounded with some of the most monumental and important buildings in the city: Basilica di San Petronio with its unfinished facade and armed guards, Town hall, Portico dei Banchi and Palazzo del Podestà (Governor’s Palace). Adjoining this square is another landmark of the city – Piazza del Nettuno with the Neptune Fountain created by Giambologna in the 16th century. The fountain was built by Tommaso Laureti from Palermo in 1563, and later it was decorated by Giambologna. It is one of the symbols of Bologna and has become a part of popular culture, as the logo of car company Maserati is based on the trident held by the god Neptune on this fountain.

Building of basilica San Petronio began at the end of 14th century with the goal of making it bigger than St Peter’s in Rome, which was never achieved. Since 2000, relics of Bologna’s patron saint are placed in the church interior. The entrance to the basilica is heavily guarded by the police because of several terrorist threats that were discovered and thwarted in the 00’s.

From Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nettuno, we continued our stroll down Via Rizzoli, a street with two thousand years of continuity. It is the stretch of the Roman street decumanus maximus (main west-east street) connecting Piazza Maggiore with the Two Towers. That Saturday afternoon, it was brimming with life, a real river of people going on their ways in this beautiful historic area of the city. Street performers were doing their thing, cafés were full of people of all ages, there was music and the atmosphere was wonderful. We decided to rest in the small square underneath the two towers to enjoy the bustle with a cup of delicious coffee.

We concluded our day in Bologna with a quick visit to some shops and a wonderful restaurant Leonida just off the Via Rizzoli, where we enjoyed great food (such as the authentic tagliatelle al ragù) and good wine. A lovely way to end a beautiful Italian day!

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