Seeing red in BOLOGNA: 2022/23

The arcades, or portici, of the Italian city of Bologna are the perfect shelter from the torrid sunshine and torrential rain that I experienced when I passed through the city on my way to and from Tuscany – once in August 2022 and then in May 2023. 

Bologna is a smallish city, with under 400,000 people, but the airport is the biggest in the region, and lies an eight-minute monorail ride from the central train station. Arriving at the station, I stumbled across the plaque in memory of the 85 people killed by a devastating bomb that blasted through the building in 1980 – an attack attributed to a neo-fascist group.

From the central train station, you can walk the entire city centre. However, beware of the cobbled streets, as they are unfriendly to the wheelie suitcase, especially when, on my return from Tuscany, I was trailing 23 kilos (500 pounds) behind me, weighed down by truffle sauce, honey, pasta, cherry jam, chestnut flour, books in Italian, and more. 

The red one. The learned one. The fat one 

Bologna has three nicknames: La Rossa – the red one, referring to the red hue of the buildings, made from local clay, and to the colour of the local politics; La Dotta – the learned one… Bologna is home to Europe’s first university, and its streets still resonate to the shouts and laughter of the city’s 85,000 or so students; and La Grassa – the fat one… given the fame of its cuisine

The city is capital of Emilia-Romagna, a region famous for its fast cars (think Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ducati) and its slow food (the birthplace of the Slow Food movement), as well as for Parmegiano-Reggiano (Parmesan cheese), Parma ham and Modena balsamic vinegar

Food is at the heart of the social culture in La Grassa, but finding memorable places that serve local, seasonal produce prepared creatively is surprisingly hard. Instead, the city’s eateries tend to focus on traditional, Bolognese fare. So, lots of mortadella (that bright pink cold sausage with white chunks of fat in it), tagliatelle al ragu (the origin of spaghetti bolognese) and lasagne. Vegetables are a side order – with a choice of boiled or fried. 

How to orientate yourself in Bologna

Not wanting to rely entirely on my phone, my two reference points in Bologna were the main square of Piazza Maggiore and the Two Towers, Le Due Torri

Piazza Maggiore, which dates back to 1200, is home to the Basilica de San Petroni. Surrounded by palazzi, the adjacent Piazza Neptuna is home to the 16th century Fountain of Neptune and its spurting mermaids.   When I was there in August 2022, Maggiore was filled by an outdoor film festival held in honour of controversial filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, marking the 100th anniversary of his birth in Bologna. 

The Two Towers, of Asinelli and Garisenda, were also built in the medieval ages, and mark the point where the ancient Via Emilia entered the city.  Take Via Ugo Bassi from Piazza Maggiore, heading east, and they stand – leaning – at where the road branches out to become Via San Vitale and Strada Maggiore. 

Restaurants in Bologna

Ristorante Diana – an old stalwart, considered the ‘temple’ of Bolognese cuisine. This is establishment – and a peaceful contrast to the babble of sounds, and movement of people, around the Tamburini deli, where you buy your mortadella and bread and then eat it with a glass of wine at Trattoria del Sole. 

“Why the name, Diana?” I asked the waiter. He did not know. In Roman mythology, Diana was the goddess of the hunter in Roman. And it was at Diana that I hunted down the local white sparkling wine of Pignoletto frizzante dei Colli Bolognesi, offered to me as an aperitivo – a far cry from the cheap, sweet red fizzy for which Emilia-Romagna was famous in the 1970s… Lambrusco.

The mortadella came as a Spuma di mortadella, cialda di parmiginao e pistacchio, a foam of mortadella with parmesan and pistachios wafers. I am not a mortadella fan, but it looked angelic … I nearly ate it all. Then came Lasagna Vecchia Bologna and a side dish of steamed vegetables. 

Caminetto d’Oro – a trattoria in an arcade off the Via dell’Indipendenza, which runs from the PIazza Maggiore to the central train station. Here I had an excellent Tagliatelle al ragu at lunchtime – more meat-based than my homemade spaghetti bolognese. The trattoria – a name given to less formal restaurants – was full of trimly dressed locals. 

 Via Con Me – a small restaurant with more character and colour, near the Mercato delle Erbe food market, always good for picking up some local organic fruit. The name comes from the 1980s song by Paolo Conte, known for his grainy voice. Here, I had a glass of Vite In Fiore by Francesconi Paolo, made from the white Albana grape, said to have been grown in the local region for over 2,500 years.  I must have been very hungry that evening as I have no pictures of the food after the gazpacho. 

Trattoria Osteria Buca Manzoni – Passing through Bologna once again in May 2023, I stumbled across this trattoria for lunch  – a very good tortellini with grilled vegetables. A casual place. Full of locals. it too is near the Mercato delle Erbe, which is perfect for stocking up on seasonal, organic fruit.

Gelato, coffee, natural wine in Bologna 

Il Gelatauro – one of the world’s top 25 places for ice cream, according to The Financial Times. Founded by Calabrian-born Gianni Figliomeni in 1998. It was closed all three times I was in Bologna – either in August or on a Monday.

Coffee is good in Italy, Full stop. I always go for a caffè normale – small and black. My favourite place to frequent in Bologna was Bar Pasticceria Santo Stefano – a bar like many others but on the quiet Santo Stefano street, and with well-healed locals scattered among the tourists at the outdoor tables. The street – one of my favourite in Bologna – leads down from the Two Towers to the Basilica Santuario Santo Stephano – a cluster of 7 churches overlooking a square. 

Enoteca Historico Faccioli – back in the more central part of the city, I stopped for a glass of local, red Sangiovese by Noelia Ricci. It’s a friendly place that also serves lunch on some days of the week. Round the corner is one of my favourite Bolognese fashion stores, Otto B – for men and women.  Alternatively Vineria Favalli, in Santo Stefano street, specialises in ‘artisanal’ wines. 

Don’t forget the art!

On my last morning, I dropped into the (nearly empty) Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna to catch up on the 16th century Mannerist movement for which Bologna is famous, and which came in the wake of High Rennaissance. The name, Mannersim, comes from the Italian word maniera, which meant ‘style’ in the sense of elegance, as well as “rarefied complexity and artificiality”.  Leading the movement in Bologna was Prospero Fontana, whose students included his daughter Lavinia Fontana, who went on to became a favoured portraitist among the great families of Bologna.  

Where to stay in Bologna

Hotel Accademia – an 18-minute walk from the central train station, on the edge of the university district, this three-star hotel was perfect for me.. easy to get to, high ceilings, friendly staff, quiet (despite the street noise from the students).  Remember, old houses in Bologna do not have lifts (I left my 23-kilo suitcase on the ground floor and just took up what I needed to my room), and I preferred going out for breakfast, to Santo Stefano street. 

Some 60 trains a day go between Bologna and Florence, just 35-40 minutes away… see my blog post on Florence.

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