Bologna: a place in Italy that you may not know
The city that entered the skyscraper bug in the Middle Ages and practically invented modern anatomy, continues to play with advantage.
Right in the heart of Bologna, in a huge open square in front of the church of San Petronio, is one of the craziest baroque pieces you've ever seen. It is a statue of Neptune pyramidal In the upper part is the ancient god of the sea, naked, with a voluminous Marxist beard. He has an outstretched hand, as if he were stroking the head of an invisible dog, and at his feet four squat cherubs crouch, each holding a fish as if it were a guitar. They rest below four unattractive mermaids, so hunched up that their chins rest on their clavicles. Jets of water spray come out of your breasts forming an unpredictable arch.
As art is so bad that it is good, and all the more strange because it is the symbol of a place that is farthest from the sea, inland, that an Italian city can be. But the people of Bologna love this statue: It is a meeting place for lovers, and that is where the happy students of the old university come to explode the bottle of prosecco, the Italian cava, on graduation day. I like it too: Neptune is just one of the many happy and memorable things this city has so little explored.
Bologna is known in Italy as 'La Rossa' for its leftist politics, its terracotta roofs and its scarlet painted blinds. This red coloration of the city is best seen from the top of one of the 12th century towers that dot the horizon as industrial chimneys. Nine centuries ago there were more than a hundred and they made Bologna a pioneer city in skyscrapers of the time, a 'medieval Manhattan', in the words of a historian. Now, they just stand around 20 of these giants, and only a couple of them can be visited. One is the Asinelli tower, which is next to his younger sister, the Garisenda tower. Together they are another symbol of the city. A third accessible tower is the 13-story Prendiparte, converted into a bed and breakfast of a single bedroom. It is one of the most authentic and romantic places to stay in Italy.
The curious Neptune of Bologna © Corbis
The spaces in which people live in the Prendiparte They are stacked on top of each other. Stairs lead from the entrance hall to the living room, to the bedroom, then to the kitchen and then to the dining room. On the cozy accommodation, with its sideboards and tables of the early twentieth century, come nine more floors, all of them empty in which there is a little feasible and very steep staircase of rickety wood. So the view from the terrace is won by sweat to go up and vertigo to go down.
But the fascinating view deserves the trip. It is the best place to watch the sunset. All Bologna is at your feet: the sheer line of corrugated roofs; people of tiny size, mostly discernible by the lines that draw their shadows; squares with chessboard floors and parks with planters; Solitary Basilica of the Madonna di San Luca, protective of Bologna, on its sacred hill, beyond the city walls. I thought I wouldn't want to make this dreaded climb more than once. But I found myself climbing to the roof every day, sometimes twice, because I didn't have enough of this panorama.
Bologna is equally remarkable at street level. In the center of the city there are long stretches of road covered by galleries, a consequence of the medieval urban planning of a piece of the city through which the buildings extended from the first floor and the projection rested on columns. All this makes the city look stately and protected. And that when sitting on the terrace of a cafe or bar, one can always manage to protect themselves from the inclement summer sun or a sudden autumn shower.
But you have to go inside to appreciate the best of the city. One of the reasons why Bologna does not receive more visitors is because it is too modest compared to incredible places that hide behind its beautiful facades. A good example is the anatomical theater hall of Archiginnasio, The former headquarters of the university. This beautiful 500-year-old room, covered by wooden panels, is a monument to the thought of the Enlightenment, a temple of science. Here, closely watched by medical students about to vomit, the first modern anatomists performed some of the pioneering explorations of what lies beneath the surface of the human body. For hygiene reasons they worked only during the cold months of winter, and each dissection was a marathon of 48 hours without stopping, both for teachers and for the audience. The most striking things about this impressive space are the spelatiTwo wooden carvings of two skinned men showing the subcutaneous musculature in detail. The room is open to the public, and it is as unforgettable, in its secular form, as the Sistine Chapel.
Medieval Manhattan © Corbis
Bologna is full of treasures in the shade. In the depth of Palazzo Poggi, part of the university, there is a science museum full of curiosities such as ship models, stuffed crocodiles, hearts and wax livers. In another part of the city, and at the other end of the spectrum of beliefs, is the striking sanctuary of Saint Catherine of Bologna, whose incorruptible remains, dressed in a nun's habit, are sitting for eternity on a golden throne in the convent where he served as abbess.
More visible, but easy to miss since it is a short walk from the center, is MAMbo, the modern art museum of Bologna. It is worth looking for, if only for the upside down world map upholstered in leather like a cartographic headboard upside down. Stay by the MAMbo until the last minute to match the appetizer: In the bar they prepare one of the best stuzzichini in the city - a wide selection of canapés and tapas that are served in all the bars to accompany the pre-dinner cocktails. This custom is something new in this part of Italy - it is something more typical of Milan - and it is another of the surprises of the city.
But of all the hidden pleasures of Bologna, My favorite is a work of art hidden in the back of the church of Santa Maria della Vita. Here is an amazing set of life-size terracotta figures from the 15th century that represents the friends of Jesus Christ around his body about to be buried. Each figure is frozen in a moment of excruciating pain. Bent in agony, the mother of Christ looks as if she had been punched in the solar plexus. Mary Magdalene, with a silent scream on her face, runs to the corpse of Jesus and seems about to throw herself on him. San Juan de la Cruz, strangely funny, dramatically supports his chin on one hand. As a whole, the scene is full of emotional truth. Dissect the human psyche exactly as the anatomy theater did with the human body and what Bologna does now with the people who visit it: it gets under the skin.
The Bologna Museum of Modern Art © MAMbo
WHERE TO SLEEP
PRENDIPAR TOWER. Only for two people, it has neither television nor wifi, as a good romantic retreat. When you arrive you will find the oak table prepared for breakfast the next morning and the well-stocked fridge, also with wine. Serve yourself (Piazzetta Prendiparte, 5;HD: from 280 €).
IL DEV FIORI DI SETA CONVENT. The Convent of the Silk Flowers is a small and charming boutique hotel located in a quiet corner of the south of the city, a short walk from the center. It worked as a convent until recently and still retains that atmosphere of silence. The rooms are minimalist, but the breakfast room, in what was once the nun's chapel, has a scalloped ceiling of stars and a painted Christ in the highest niche (Via Orfeo 34/4; HD: around € 117).
GRAND HOTEL MAJESTIC. The only five stars of Bologna is blatantly traditional. The entrance is presided by uniformed goalkeepers and there are gigantic and ostentatious sofas in all the rests. The hotel is proud of the dazzling history of the place: Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra stayed here, same as Paul McCartney and Lady Di (Via Indipendenza, 8; HD: from € 315).
Playing cards at Osteria del Sole © John Cullen
WHERE TO EAT
In Bologna you will not find spaghetti Bolognese anywhere. The meat sauce they call ragout It takes little or no tomato and is always served with tagliatelle, never with spaghetti.
PAPPAGALLO. A good place to try the traditional cuisine of Bologna and Emilia-Romagna. Its name means 'carrot' and it is a very popular institution for Bolognese since the 50s. They prepare tortellini in brodo like nobody else, but better than don't ask for the five course tasting menu unless you're a real pasta freak (Piazza della Mercanzia, 3; two people, around € 130).
OSTERIA DEL SOLE. It is a 550-year-old restaurant where food is not served. Buy your picnic at a market next door and take it to this bar, where they will serve you a scratchy wine and a knife to cut the bread. It's a fantastic place -Buffalo Bill spent a great night here, they say, in 1904- and, we do not know how, it seems to have circumvented the current anti-smoking laws (Vicolo Ranocchi 1 / d; tel. +347 968 0171; about € 5 per person plus wine).
ALL'OSTERIA BOTTEGA. This modest and unpretentious place is almost impossible to find if they do not take you because it is at the end of a promising street, near the city walls. But it is probably the best restaurant, and the most homemade, in which I have ever eaten in Italy. Start with the mortadella, served with ripe pear and prosecco, and then choose what you want. Sauteed potatoes have no comparison (Via Santa Caterina, 51).
Eggplants and stuffed pasta in Via Con Me © John Cullen
WHERE TO TAKE A CUP
LE STANZE. A fashionable place in the former private chapel of the Bentivoglio family. The faded saints on the walls look with slight disapproval of the serene Buddha who rests on the bar. The place fills at night, but it's perfect for a quiet coffee running away from the heat of the afternoon (Via Borgo di San Pietro, 1).
CAMERA TO SUD. A lovely bar in disrepair in the heart of the old Jewish quarter. Have a dark wine or beer and Browse the paperback and political literature books. If those young people in the corner seem to be plotting a revolution, it is probably because they are doing it (Via Valdonica, 5).
MERCANZIE LOUNGE BAR. A small bar full of people overflowing to the street. Its free buffet is possibly the best in the city center. Once, the poet Dante Alighieri was close, waiting for the beautiful women who pass by. Seven hundred years later, it hasn't changed much (Piazza della Mercanzia 2 / a).
* You may also be interested ...
- The other Bologna plan
- The oldest (and funniest) university cities in Europe
- Florence, for the love of art
- Venice Guide
- The decalogue of the Italian appetizer
A drink in Mercanzie Lounge © John Cullen
One of the arcaded streets of Bologna © John Cullen