I doubt I would have survived my university years without ‘spagbol’, or spaghetti bolognese as it was known to more sophisticated undergraduates. If you can slice an onion, open a tin of tomatoes and boil water, you’re 90 percent of the way to dinner. At the time, I was unaware that a traditional Bologna ragu didn’t contain tomatoes, an ingredient that appears to have been an addition of US troops returning from the Second World War and trying to recreate the tastes of Italy.
Remarkably, for a city that is a household name around the world thanks to its signature dish of tagliatelle and meat sauce, it’s a bit of a tourism backwater. Despite having a wonderful historic centre, complemented by a vibrant cultural life and a reputation as a culinary superpower, Bologna only just scrapes into the top twenty most popular Italian cities for foreign visitors. Still, if Bologna has an inferiority complex, it’s not obvious.
We had given ourselves two days to explore Bologna. It was immediately clear that you could spend a week here and still want more time to get a feel for the place. The medieval core of the city is reasonably compact and good for walking and it was possible to see a lot, but there was so much more we wanted to see. The city radiates out from the magnificent Piazza Maggiore, which pulsates with life at the very heart of the city.
This 12th century square, flanked by medieval churches and palazzo, not to mention the rather extraordinary Neptune Fountain, is the perfect spot for coffee and people watching before heading off to explore. One of Bologna’s most famous features is its 38km of arched porticoes, covered walkways that provide shelter from rain and sun almost everywhere you go in the centre. They came in very handy one evening when it poured with rain.
A short walk took us to one of Bologna’s outstanding sights, its very own leaning towers, the Due Torri. Built in the 12th century, they were once part of a medieval cityscape that boasted around 180 towers. Only a handful survived into the modern era, and the Due Torri have become global symbols of the city. Asinelli tower is the tallest at 97m, while the Garisenda tower is a mere 48m tall, looking up at them is a dizzying experience.
You can climb Asinelli tower for spectacular views, but COVID restrictions meant they were closed. We meandered onwards towards another of the city’s great sights, the complex of Seven Churches of Santo Stefano. Sitting in the delightful Piazza Santo Stefano – a prime location for aperitivo and people watching – these 12th and 13th century churches are steeped in legend, including a vague Holy Grail myth. They were also closed the day we visited.
Another extraordinary group of churches was open. The Basilica di San Domenico contains the tomb of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order, known as the Hounds of the Lord. The tomb is famed for its exquisite carvings including three statues carved by a 20-year old Michelangelo. The popularity of the Dominicans saw this area grow into a massive religious complex in the 13th century. The Basilica interior is extravagantly decorated.
The streets around this area are tightly packed, but head south and you quickly reach Porta Castiglione, one of the old city gates leading to the Giardini Margherita, Bologna’s most popular park and home to the botanical gardens. We’d planned to have lunch in Vetro, a restaurant in a former greenhouse, but it too was closed. The gardens were pleasant to stroll through on a warm autumn day, but it did mean we still needed a venue for lunch.
Back in the city the eating options are endless. This was our final day in Bologna and we headed to the atmospheric streets of the former medieval market in the Quadrilatero for a selection of local delicacies. Bologna would make a great base to explore the surrounding region, and we’ll definitely be back to explore more of this wonderful city.