Often overlooked in favour of Northern Italy’s other big hitters (Florence, Milan and Venice, I’m looking at you), Bologna is an underrated gem which, dare I say it, I much preferred to its northerly neighbour, Florence.
Over the centuries, Bologna has acquired three rather apt nicknames: la dotta (or ‘the learned’, for its university); la rossa (‘the red’, in reference to the terracotta-hued porticoes and buildings, and the city’s left-wing political scene); and la grassa (aka ‘the fat’, a nod to its rich cuisine – and a big draw for my travel pal).
We had but a day to see the sights, so after a quick pit stop at Forno Brisa (Via Galleria 34d) for a mid-morning snack we beetle off towards Piazza Maggiore. Fontana del Nettuno’s sea nymphs spurting water from their, erm, orifices, has us in fits of giggles.
Each side of Piazza Maggiore is bordered by an imposing structure: Palazzo d’Accursio (a fourteenth-century palace turned town hall, fine art museum and library); Palazzo dei Notai (the notaries’ headquarters, whose coat of arms features three inkwells with goose feathers); Basilica di San Petronio (which is dedicated to the city’s patron saint, and remains unfinished – on the outside at least – to this day); and Palazzo dei Banchi (a pretty, Renaissance-style façade).
We amble round the corner to Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, which is home to the Università di Bologna’s Teatro Anatomico (Anatomical Theatre). After a loop of the courtyard to take in the coats of arms which decorate the walkways, we head upstairs. Fun fact: there are around 6,000 coats of arms in the classrooms, corridors and stairwells, each commemorating a former master or student.
The Teatro Anatomico suffered considerable damage during World War Two; what visitors see today is a post-war reconstruction. It’s both macabre and mesmerising: a slab of white marble takes centre stage, surrounded by exquisite craftsmanship. There’s floor-to-ceiling wood panelling; sculptures of doctors from ancient and modern (at the time of construction, at any rate) standing in alcoves; and spellati (‘the skinned’) figures flanking the reader’s lectern.
Down the corridor: the Sala dello Stabat Mater, a large classroom decorated with friezes and frescoes (and, you guessed it, more coats of arms).
We scout out Simoni Laboratorio (Via Pescherie Vecchie 3b), a delicatessen which serves up gourmet sandwiches and platters of cured meats and cheese, for lunch and eat our sarnies in Piazza Maggiore. Laurence still has a pasta-sized pocket in his stomach waiting to be filled with a dish from Pasta Fresca Naldi (Via del Pratello 69c), ten or so minutes’ walk from the main square. There’s a little wait, as it’s cooked to order, but Laurence assures me it’s well worth it.
We round off our lunch with gelato in chocolate cones from Cremeria Cavour (Piazza Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour 1d/e). Yum. (I would go back to Bologna just for more of that gelato.)
A trip up (one of) Bologna’s iconic Due Torri is next on our agenda. Torre degli Asinelli – the taller of the two, and the only one open to the public – and Torre Garisenda were built between 1109 and 1119, and used for signalling and defence during the Middle Ages. 498 steps later we’re at the top, Bologna sprawling out beneath us.
We potter over to Basilica di Santo Stefano – also known as Sette Chiese, as it’s not one church but a complex of seven – for our fill of churches, cloisters and . . . cats. (Well, just the one, but it was ever so cute curled up on a pew).
We grab a gelato at Cremeria la Vecchia Stalla (Via Santa Stefano 14/a) – it’d be rude not to try at least a couple of gelaterie – and venture inside a couple more churches, one white-washed and plain, the other its polar opposite. (Sadly, my memory falls short here and I can’t recall for the life of me which church it was.)
Dusk falls; it’s time to pick up some snacks and head to the airport. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Rome, Florence and Bologna – and hopefully it won’t be too long before we’re next in the land of pizza and gelato!
- Entry to the Teatro Anatomico, which includes the Sala dello Stabat Mater, is €3 (as of October 2019). Check the Bologna Welcome website for current opening hours.
- If you want to pay in cash (rather than via the app) for the Due Torri, buy your tickets at the tourist office in Piazza Maggiore; it’s €5 for adults or €3 for students (as of October 2019). Check current opening hours on Le Due Torre’s website.
- From Stazione Centrale, it’s only a thirty minute bus ride to Aeroporto di Bologna. Check the Aerobus website for current timetables.