“You’re going to Bologna?”, I thought my Italian colleague said. I replied that I wasn’t sure. “It wasn’t a question”, came the response. Even in Italy, there are food towns and then there are food towns. Even in an Italian region filled with place names that conjure phantom flavours on the tongue, Bologna is most definitely a food town.
My colleague, a proud Sicilian, upon hearing I’d be visiting the Emilia-Romagna region named a dozen places I should visit solely to try the local specialities. Food, it seems, can break down even Italian regional rivalries.
Bologna is the epicentre of Italy’s culinary heartland. It also has a lot of students, so you can eat well for reasonable prices across the city. Stuffed pasta, especially tortellini, is a classic of the city’s osteria and trattoria, the traditional places for simple, tasty food. Mortadella, began its culinary journey in 14th century Bologna, and is still delighting taste buds today. But it’s lasagna bolognese and tagliatelle con ragu that have made Bologna a household name.
The maze of streets in the Quadrilatero area exemplifies Bologna’s devotion to food. In other cities this might feel like a tourist trap, not here. Once home to butchers, bakers, locksmiths and cobblers, today it’s filled with delicatessens, food stalls and restaurants. You could spend days grazing in this buzzing quarter and need more time for Raviole di san Giuseppe, a ravioli made with sweet dough and fruit condiment. Bologna deserves it’s nickname, La Grassa – the fat one.
Another city market has also been transformed into a foodie paradise, and a long lunch of local specialities in Mercato delle Erbe was just reward for hours exploring Bologna’s fascinating streets. If food is one of the draws of Bologna, the city has many other charms to make a couple of days pass by all too quickly. It has a wondrous medieval centre, the historic streets lined with buildings famed for their colonnaded porticoes, and it’s home to Europe’s oldest university.
The university was founded in 1088, and over 80,000 students add to Bologna’s vibrancy. They also give the city a contradiction: one of the most prosperous places in Italy is also one of the most left-wing. The red roof tiles merge with the city’s politics to give it the nickname, La Rossa – the red one. This hasn’t stopped students clinging to ancient superstitions. Those who climb the medieval Torre Degli Asinelli, or walk across the middle of Piazza Maggiore, will fail to graduate.
We arrived in Bologna after the short drive from Brisighella, the mountains giving way to the rich agricultural land of the Po River valley that provides the raw ingredients to fuel Bologna’s culinary greatness. As fate would have it, we arrived just in time for lunch. It didn’t take long to find an outdoor table close to the 15th century masterpiece that is Piazza Maggiore.
It was Sunday and there was a relaxed vibe as we wandered through this buzzing square into the huge Basilica di San Petronio – an immense church that houses the world’s longest indoor meridian line dating from 1655. More controversially, it’s home to a 15th century fresco of Heaven and Hell by Giovanni da Modena.
The depiction of the horrors awaiting sinners makes for pretty grim viewing, but one feature has twice in recent years made it the target of bombing plots. It shows the Prophet Muhammad being tortured by Satan – something that wasn’t unusual in medieval Europe. We left religious dogma to others and went off to explore the rest of Bologna.