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October 17, 2009

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Relaxed, red-roof Bologna beckons with rich food and culture

La Dolce Vita (Italian for the sweet life) is one of the reasons why people are attracted to Italy. However, with many tourists overflowing the famous cities of Rome, Venice, Florence, Pisa and Milan, it might be hard to experience the real Italian culture here.

Centrally located in the region of Emilia-Romagna and often ignored by tourists is "the educated, the fat and the red" Bologna, an excellent basis for daytrips to surrounding cities. But with its well preserved historic center, two leaning towers, countless ancient palaces, longest arcades in the world and superb cuisine as the "food capital of Italy," Bologna is above all the perfect location to absorb the Italian way of life.

Like many cities in Italy, Bologna was founded by the Etruscans around 500 BC, who called the settlement "Felsina." About three centuries later, the city became part of the Roman Empire under the name Bononia. The traces of the former inhabitants can be found everywhere and Bologna is therefore considered to have one of the largest intact historic centers of all Europe.

The Via Aemilia -- one of the main roads in the Roman Empire -- made an important center of Bologna and is still running through the city. The Roman street plan can also still be discerned, with the Piazza Maggiore (large square) as the center of the city.

The Piazza Maggiore is surrounded by beautiful palaces, but is dominated by the San Petroni church, the world's fifth largest basilica. The building was supposed to outdo Saint Peter's church in Rome in terms of size. However, resistance of Pope Pius IV caused the completion to be hindered and as a result the church still remains unfinished, which is clearly visible from the facade. Despite this, the coronation of Charles V took place in San Petronio, the last imperial crowning by a pope.

Three nicknames

The different characteristics of Bologna are expressed through the three nicknames that the city carries -- la dotta (the educated), la grassa (the fat) and la rossa (the red).

The first one relates to the oldest university of Europe, officially established in Bologna in 1088. During the years, the university hosted famous scholars, like Dante Alighieri, the well-known Italian writer and Copernicus, who started his astronomical observations while studying there.

Nowadays, with the students counting for one fourth of the population, the university still puts a significant stamp upon the city. This is best seen in Via Zamboni, the street where the faculties were moved to in the Napoleonic era, with its students, cafes, bikes and in the beginning of the academic year also with papers and notices glued on the walls, arcades and even the bottle banks in order to advertise housing opportunities.

The other nickname, la grassa, relates to the Bolognese cuisine of rich dishes. The Bolognese sauce is famous all over the world, but in spite of the name you will not find this on any menu. Instead, here it is called al Rag?, the original sauce full of meat and vegetables that involves hours to prepare.

To dine like a local, start the early evening with an aperitivo -- a drink in a bar or restaurant served with some small bites. The sparkling wine Lambrusco is a specialty of the region, but also other types are a good choice in this wine country.

Later in the evening, head to a restaurant and taste some antipasti as an appetizer, followed by as well a primo piatto -- first course, typically a pasta -- and a secondo piatto -- second course, usually a meat dish. Finish with an Italian ice cream and a limoncello and when feeling in food heaven, you will remember why Bologna was called "the fat."

To understand the last nickname, climb the Asinelli Tower for an enchanting overview of Bologna and its rooftops which are all red, thus Bologna "the red." However, this is not recommended for students, since, according to a myth, a student that climbs the tower will never graduate.

With its 97 meters, the Asinelli Tower is the tallest of the so-called Due Torri -- two leaning towers in the center of the city and serving as one of the landmarks of Bologna. Being symbols of wealth and power, the Bolognese families competed in the middle ages with each other on their towers, with the height indicating their wealth. During the peak time of this rivalry, it is said that Bologna looked like a "forest of towers" with over 180 towers of which only 17 survived to this day.


Bologna was often involved in wars and fights. Walls therefore surrounded the city, with 12 entrance gates of which nine are remaining. With an increasing number of citizens and no one being willing to live outside the protection of the city walls, Bologna sought for new ways to accommodate these people.

For this reason, the 40 kilometers of arcades that Bologna is now famous for were built. On top of the arcades the adjacent buildings were enlarged, while underneath they served as covered sidewalks where people are sheltered from rain, snow and sun.

The 666 arcades that lead up the hill just outside the city center to the Madonna of San Luca Sanctuary are the longest in the world. According to a legend, the image of the Madonna was brought down to the city when heavy rains threatened the harvest and suddenly at that moment the sun appeared in the sky.

From then on, each year the icon is carried to the city of Bologna and in order to protect her, the arcades were built in 1657. After the 3.5-kilometer walk up the hill, starting at Porta Saragozza -- the southwest city gate -- one will have a pleasant view over Bologna and the Apennine mountains. It constitutes a perfect afternoon activity, since during 1pm and 3:30pm most shops in the city are closed.

Other must-sees include the Museo Morandi, a museum dedicated to the work of the Bolognese painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), who specialized in still life.

Director Federico Fellini showed works in the famous Italian movie "La Dolce Vita." Also the Santo Stefano Basilica, which is formed out of four churches constructed in different periods and connected to each other, cannot be missed in a Bologna visit. The complex holds the tomb of St Petronius, the patron saint of the city and is considered to be the most ancient monument in Bologna. In the warm evenings, the triangular square in front of this building turns into a meeting point for the younger citizens who gather there for a drink and a chat.

Italian culture

The Italian culture tends to be rather relaxed, with "domani domani" (tomorrow tomorrow) as an often heard saying when something has to be arranged. However, the traffic in the streets can be hectic and the Italians are passionate in their conversations, with the accompanying expressive body language.

In the fun and pleasurable city of Bologna you can get away from the tourist crowds that are often present in other cities and it is still possible to meet local people, practice your language skills and feel like an Italian. Practicalities

When visiting Bologna, try to avoid August, since most Bolognese leave the city and head to the beach. Most shops and attractions will be closed during this month.

The main airport of Bologna is Aeroporto G. Marconi. When coming from another destination in Europe, it is worthwhile to check flights from low-cost airlines to the nearby city of Forli.

As Italy's main railway junction, Bologna can also be easily reached by train with all important national and international lines passing through it. There are straight connections to and from Florence, Rome, Milan and Venice.

Walking is the easiest way to explore the city. However, the bus is a convenient way of transportation for longer distances within the city.

When spending a longer time in the area, consider a visit to the nearby picturesque towns of Parma, Modena and Ferrara. Suggested itineraries DAY 1:

Wander around the palaces at the Piazza Maggiore and visit the San Petronio church. Afterwards, admire the fountain of Neptun and get a quick glimpse of the Roman and Etruscan foundations of the city through the glass floor within the adjacent Sala Borsa -- the building of the old stock exchange that now houses the public library. To get an idea why Bologna is called the "food capital of Europe," walk then through the little streets east of the Piazza Maggiore which hosts the local food market. After a slow food lunch, head to the Two Towers and climb the Asinelli Tower. When you made it all the way up and down, you certainly deserved an ice cream from Gelateria Gianni, if you are able to make a choice between the wide range of different flavors. Finish the day with an aperitivo and dinner in the pedestrian area of Via del Pratello, boasting numerous restaurants and cafes.

DAY 2:

Start the day with a visit to the Santo Stefano complex of churches before heading to the Porta Saragozza in order to climb your way up the hill to the Madonna of San Luca sanctuary for a beautiful view of Bologna. Like elsewhere in the city, the 666 arcades will protect you during the walk from the hot summer sun or from rain and snow. Head back to the Piazza Maggiore and, after a lunch, visit the Museo Morandi or spend some time on shopping in the stores from Italian designer labels. In the early evening, try to book a ticket for the opera or walk through the old Jewish ghetto and the university street Via Zamboni. Finally, enjoy again the superb Bolognese cuisine before you say goodbye to this beautiful city as a real Italian: "Ciao Bella!"


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