Last Saturday, we decided to take the train to Bologna for the day, the largest city of the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy. Filled with good food, beautiful churches, and a vibrant population, it made the setting for an absolutely perfect day of exploring. But why visit Bologna, you may ask?
It’s got the oldest university in the Europe.
Established in 1088, L’Università di Bologna is one of the oldest universities in the world. Even today, Bologna itself feels like one huge college town, with various faculties dispersed throughout the city. At night, the piazzas and streets were packed with all kinds of young people meeting up with friends. But this also means that you can easily stumble upon old public libraries, still serving as study spots centuries later.
From 1563 to 1803, the first official home of the university was the Archginnasio, which now contains the main city library. Its hallways are covered with the over 7,000 coats of arms of former students.
The Archginnasio also houses the beautiful Anatomical Theatre, built in 1637 to house some of the first cadaver dissections. Butchers used to come to the lectures to help cut up the corpses.
The university also means that Bologna has traditionally been one of the most liberal cities in Italy, with strong history of political activism. In fact, as we walked around, we came across a protest in front of the Justice Building .
And, of course, street artists have their own political message to make.
It’s the best city to walk around in the rain.
Luckily, we arrived in Bologna on a stunningly clear day. But if it were to rain, we would have been set. Porticos cover almost every sidewalk in Bologna, and the wide walkways contrast with the narrow sidewalks I must squeeze through in Florence.
It’s a gastronomic capital.
Bologna, and the larger region of Emilia-Romagna, is the birthplace of lasagna, tortellini, parma ham, parmesan, tagliatelle, basaltic vinegar, and––of course––bolognese sauce. The rich and hearty dishes that Americans often associate with Italian cuisine are native to this region, and the two restaurants we visited didn’t disappoint. For lunch, I had some handmade torteloni; for dinner, I went with the classic tagliatelle alla bolognese. (Regarding restaurants, I highly recommend Tre Santi and Quadradimezzo.)
It’s cheap to visit.
By train, Bologna is only an hour away from Florence, and our round-trip tickets cost us less than 20 euros. Once there, we visited churches, wandered streets, and visited public buildings, which meant we paid only a nominal amount in entrance fees.
The main squares were filled with all kinds of street musicians––and music is the best kind of public good there is!
Getting lost is an adventure within itself.
We had a list of places we wanted to see, but we also left some time to wander through the streets, explore alleyways, and then try to figure out we were on a map. But this enabled us to discover things we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.
The best views are from up high.
Bologna’s skyline is dominated by two tours––Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda––which are among the few survivors of the original 200 that once towered over the city. The story goes that two rival families competed to build the highest tower, with construction beginning in the 12th century.
Today, you can climb the Torre Asinelli, which at 318 ft (97 m) is the fourth highest tower in Italy after those in Cremona, Siena, and Venice. We climbed over 500 steps of this narrow, slightly leaning tower to get to the very top––and oh, that view!
When you don’t know the history, it’s sometimes just as fun to invent it.
I tore out pages from my guidebook to bring along, but often we would we wonder about the stories behind other buildings or statues that we came across.
Take the above statue. When you don’t have access to Wikipedia, sometimes you have to do with your own storytelling, like about the time when Thomas Jefferson visited Bologna and subsequently scandalized the public by writing risqué romance novels. Later, the city decided to commemorate the visit by building a statue in his honor. (After all, he kind of looks like TJ, doesn’t he?)
Of course, even the guidebook can’t always help you. According to my guidebook, the Abbazia di Santo Stefano contains a basin with Lombard inscriptions from the 8th century. However, we weren’t quite sure what basin contained the inscriptions, so we took pictures with both.
There’s art everywhere.
Speaking of which, churches contain some of the great treasures of Italian art. Where else can you ponder the works of Renaissance greats for free?
San Petronio is gigantic, touring above the main square. But my favorite church was San Domenico, a grand airy church begun in 1221 to house the body of St. Dominic after his death. The inlaid wood panels in choir area were spectacular, each portraying a different scene from the bible in mesmerizing detail.
The Sanctuary of Maria della Vita contained some stunning terra-cotta statues of the Compianto sul Cristo Morto.
Anywhere is great with the right people.
Overall, I had a wonderful day exploring Bologna––ducking into courtyards and savoring every bite of my pasta. But the truth is, what really matters is finding the right people with whom to explore.
Next Saturday, it’s off to Arezzo to tour its famous antique market. But that’s more for next time!