Many historic cities have been so gentrified that the only real remnants of their pasts can be found in museums or behind closed gates with expensive ticket prices. Bologna is different.
It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to picture horse-drawn carriages clippety-clopping down the cobbled streets or long-robed monks rushing up the sky-high towers to ring the morning bells. Around every corner you are transported into a past reality, and it is really quite exciting.
Bologna feels real; it feels lived in and loved. Locals gather underneath the porticos drinking coffee, religious processions coat the city in sweet aromas and restaurants are alive with music and the clinking of Prosecco glasses. It’s text-book Italy through and through.
Unlike its more popular counterparts, such as Florence and Venice, Bologna has managed to lay low and largely escape the tourist train. But it’s beauty is no less and its charm exceeds.
I spent 24 hours exploring Bologna on a stop through on my way to Siena. That’s not long enough to know a city, but it’s certainly enough to know that I liked it. It was also enough time to try the famous bolognese, check out some local bars and climb 489 uneven stairs to the top of a Medieval tower for a bird’s eye view. In fact, I enjoyed the city so much that I subsequently missed my connecting train to Siena.
Home of Bolognese
What I am learning to love most about Italy is the incredible influence these places have had on our lives no matter where we are from in the world. Whether it’s parmesan cheese, gelati, a venti-sized Starbucks Frappuccino — or everyone’s favourite, the pizza. Italian culture is part of our everyday lives.
For most of us, Bologna is synonymous with what we know as bolognese, and what they often call ‘ragu’. An important fact if you are looking for it on a menu!
However, for true foodies, there is an important distinction between bolognese and ragu. While both are meat-based sauces, bolognese is thicker and typically served with wider-shaped pasta like lasagne, whereas ragu is served with spaghetti-like pasta. The difference may be subtle to the casual foodie, and you can largely rely on the chef to choose the right sauce for your dish, but an interesting fact none the less.
Of course, I didn’t miss this opportunity to try the famous sauce, which dates back to the 15th century. In fact, it was a must-do in my short time there. However, do note that it’s not just the tourists that are looking for great food experiences. After much online sleuthing, we made a list of several authentic, ‘hidden’ restaurants we wanted to try—and when we arrived, they all turned us away because we didn’t have a reservation. This could have been a Sunday thing, but if you have your heart set on a specific restaurant, there’s no harm in making a booking ahead of time.
Fortunately, we managed to get a seat at Ristoro Del Meridione., an adorable trattoria not far from the historical heart of the city.
We were surrounded by locals enjoying a family lunch and the restaurant was beautifully decorated with fresh herbs, walls of wine bottles and had a bright, yet cosy atmosphere.
I ordered the lasagne al ragu, and I had zero complaints… other than that I could have eaten three of them.
Sadly, there wasn’t much time to try out more food, but even the pastry I ate at the train station was fresh and delicious. That’s always a good sign.
THE CITY OF TOWERS
Bologna has a fascinating history, which I can only touch on in this article, but one thing that stuck with me was the history of the towers, or ‘Torres’, in the city.
Between the 12th and 13th century, the city had up to 180 towers, which are said to have been built by rich families both as a show of bravado and for defensive/offensive purposes. While only 20 can be seen today, they still dominate the skyline, overshadowing everything that has been built since.
The two most iconic towers in Bologna are known as well, ‘The Two Towers’. Asinelli Tower and its little sister Garisendi Tower are the symbols of the city and really quite spectacular. One of the first things you’ll notice is that they are both leaning — Garisendi considerably more so than the other. In fact, it leans further than the one we all know in Pisa and is the tallest leaning Medieval tower in the world.
The two imposing towers were built between 1109 and 1119, and these days you can climb the 498 steps to the top of Asinelli, which begrudgingly I did! You need to make a reservation online in advance, and tickets cost €5.
It’s a long, narrow, vertigo-inducing journey to the top — and I took off every layer legally possible along the way. But there are regular platforms if you need a break.
Once we reached the top of the 97.2m high tower, the views were truly worth it. The terracotta rooftops, ancient cobbled streets and bustling piazzas were seen in all their glory. Yes, you had to wait your turn to get a glance out of the viewing points, and there was not an inch to move on the small platform, but I’d be naïve to expect anything different.
TABLE WITH A VIEW
We’ve all heard the horror stories of being charged an extortionate service fee for enjoying an espresso or glass of wine in St Mark’s Square in Venice or within 500m of any iconic Rome landmark.
But, this is something we did not find in Bologna. After a total depletion of energy after climbing the Asinelli Tower, it was time for a Prosecco (a regular naughty treat of mine since arriving in Italy).
We sat in one of the beautiful piazzas and soaked up the atmosphere of buskers and busy people rushing by, surrounded by fabulous Medieval architecture. The prices were very reasonable and the service was, well, very Italian.
Travelling can be very go-go-go, but it’s these extended sit-downs where you sit back and let it all sink in and go: ‘wow, I’m in Italy right now’. That’s really what you’re paying for.
Bologna was a city that I felt I could live in. You’re not surrounded by souvenir shops or inflated prices. The endless porticos and buildings dripping in history are hiding infinite gems that I would love to explore. Next time I miss my train, I think I’ll stay a little longer.