Bologna, Italy – Beauty Without the Beastly Crowds
Alessandro greeted me with a huge smile. ” Hello! Welcome to al Bricco D’Oro.” I laughed and smiled back. “How did you know to speak to me in English? I asked. “From the way you look,” he said. “It is our business to know.”
I had arrived in Bologna just a few hours earlier, exhausted by 18 hours of travel from Thailand. All efforts at a nap had failed, and I finally gave up and headed out to see the sights and fill my belly. Instinctively, I headed for Piazza Maggiore, the main square and cultural heart of the city. Surprised by the lack of crowds, I wandered around the square, examining the Medieval palaces that surrounded it on three sides. Palazzo d’Accursio, a Renaissance wonder with a stately crenelated tower, is home to the Town Hall. A couple of tourist-filled cafes in Palazzo Podestá and Palazzo Banchi beckoned, but I passed by in search of a more local eatery.
A few blocks behind Piazza Maggiore, I found what I was looking for. An obviously local crowd sat around a handful of tables scattered on the sidewalk in front of al Bricco D’Oro. I peeked inside. As if paying tribute to its name, the interior was flooded with warm golden light and glass cases displayed delicious looking desserts and entrees. Alessandro and his girlfriend, Barbara, waved me in, helped me choose a vegetarian meal, and for the next couple of hours made me feel like I’d found a home away from home.
While sitting in the back room sipping coffee, I eavesdropped as Alessandro spoke with great courtesy to a stooped, elderly woman who was obviously a regular customer. I understand enough Italian to know he was inquiring about her health and her family. “You are a very kind man,” I said when she had gone. “Allora, this is a local bar that has been around fifty years,” he said. “All our customers are regulars. Most come in every day for a pastry in the morning or a beverage after work. We are one big family.” “So this is your business?” I asked. Alessandro explained that he had worked at al Bricco D’Oro for years, learning how to run the business from the family who started it. Just a month earlier, he had bought the bar. “You must come to our grand opening this Friday!”
It wasn’t the last time I would feel so welcomed in Bologna. At Gelateria Meloncello, I was swooning over scoops of chocolate chip ice cream and coconut Gelato one afternoon when I heard a woman begin a conversation with the word “Allora.” The word seemed to pop up in every other sentence, and I was curious about its meaning. When I inquired, the woman sat down next to me and patiently explained that it is a very versatile word that can mean so, then, well, or even OK. It is often used to start a sentence, and in these cases might be compared to the American use of “umm.” I spent the rest of the evening practicing speaking (to myself) like an Italian. “Allora, attraversiamo la strada.” (So, let’s cross the street.) “Allora, quale bella città.” (Well, what a beautiful city.)
And Bologna is truly a beautiful city. Medieval porticoes cover almost every sidewalk in the historic center, and around every corner is another lush park or pretty square. To choose between the many things to do in Bologna during my short four-day stay, I turned to the website Bologna Uncovered, which is dedicated to the Emilia-Romagna region, of which Bologna is the capital. The site is a labor of love by native Bolognese Silvia Donati, who spent five years in Los Angeles organizing trips to Italy for American travelers and earning a degree in journalism before returning to her hometown. These days, she promotes Bologna to lovers of Italy. Not only did she provide valuable advice, when I emailed her to say I was in town, she kindly agreed to meet me for coffee on my very first morning in the city. Yet another example of Bolognese hospitality!
Allora, armed with Silvia’s recommendations, I set out to discover Bologna. I returned to Piazza Maggiore and stepped inside Basilica of San Petronio, an immense, unfinished hulk of a building that was never intended to be a church. I averted my eyes while passing all the designer shops along the Pavaglione, a charming brick-paved lane that runs alongside the Basilica (there is no room in my tiny suitcase for any more clothes, designer or otherwise). Behind the church I found an elevator that whisked me up to the top of a church tower for a spectacular view over Bologna.
I ducked into the Teatro Anatomico of Archiginnasio, which was the first official seat of the University of Bologna. Its stunning inner courtyard and sculptures would be enough to recommend it, but the Archiginnasio offers another very unique feature. The very first ever dissections of the human body were conducted in its Anatomical Theater, and visitors can view the marble slab where the studies occurred for €3 (about $3.35 USD).
In Italy, it is considered sacrilege to eat dinner any earlier than 8 p.m., so I waited until the sun was setting before proceeding to the Quadrilatero. In Medieval times, this warren of narrow lanes was home to many craft guilds of the city, including the fishermen, goldsmiths, painters, and butchers. There is no map marking the precise boundaries of the Quadrilatero, but my nose told me when I had arrived. Fishmongers, sold out of the day’s fresh catch, were hosing down display cases on one corner. Further down the street, I popped into a shop where enormous wheels of cheese stood in the front window and clerks were pressing samples on shoppers. Wooden stands set out on the streets overflowed with gorgeous fresh fruits and vegetables, and hole-in-the-wall shops offered every imaginable variety of pasta, fresh made according to strict traditions.
Considering that Italy ranks as one of the world’s best countries for food, it’s no surprise that the Quadrilatero was among my favorite things to do in Bologna. I finally settled on a cafe tucked between the shops, where my server explained why Bologna is called the “city of food.” You’ve heard of Bolognese sauce? Yep, it originated Bologna. Tagliatelle, long, flat ribbons of pasta that are similar in shape to fettuccine, were also first served up in Bologna. In fact, the local Chamber of Commerce guards the official recipe for the filling of tortellini and the correct measure of tagliatelle (typically about 0.25 to 0.375 inch wide).
On day three, I wandered aimlessly. I took a luxuriantly long coffee break in the city’s second most popular square, Piazza Santo Stefano. I strolled the length of Via Francesco Rizzoli, ending at Due Torri, the two, pencil-thin twin brick towers that soar above everything else in the city. For a brief moment I considered walking up the 498 steps to the top of the Torre Asinelli, but then, thankfully, sanity prevailed. Instead, I returned to Piazza Maggiore and plunked down at one of the open-air cafes for a heavy dose of people watching. Bolognese life played out in front of me as I salivated over a slice of Bologna’s famous Rice Cake.
On my final day, I decided to walk off all the calories I’d consumed during the previous three days. Just outside the historic center, I located the entrance to the world’s longest arcade a 2.5-mile long covered walkway with 666 arches, leading to the Santuario della Madonna di San Luca. With numerous stops to “enjoy the view,” I reached the top in about two hours. The trek was definitely worth the effort. Not only is the church beautiful, its hilltop location provides sweeping vistas of the rich green rolling hills that surround it.
By the time I retraced my steps to the city I was exhausted, but I had one last stop to make. I popped back into al Bricco D’Oro, kissed Alessandro and Barbara on both cheeks, and wished them great success in their new business. They begged me to stay, but I didn’t want them to neglect their regular customers for a tourist they might never see again. The next morning, I wheeled my suitcase toward Bologna Centrale Train Station. It was market day and the crowds were thicker than usual, but still no comparison to the masses that have taken over better-known Italian towns. When the station came in sight, I turned and glanced longingly down Via dell’Indiendenza one last time. My four-days stay in this lovely, unspoiled city had been much too short. Allora, I thought, I’ll be back.