Our adventures this week take us back to one our favorite countries. Italy. We have been there a few times and each visit brought us to different towns and regions. This time, in 2007, we explored Assisi, Bologna, Perugia & Torino. But that was not the whole trip. This was one of our most adventurous trips to date: Paris, Grenoble, Annecy, Bologna, Perugia, Assisi, Hvar (Croatia) and ending up in Torino. It was a culinary feast . . . . wherever we ended up with memories to last a lifetime. Come join us in Bologna!!
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Bologna was our first stop in Italy. We’d boarded a train in Annecy, France at 9:46 AM, changed trains an hour later in the border town of Chambery, and arrived in Bologna at 5:45 PM. Quite the long day of travel. We were a bit confused about the distance from the train station to our hotel. But fortunately, Bologna’s train station features a tourist information office with an English speaking guide. We found the office easily, and left a few minutes later with a good map of Bologna and bus directions to our hotel in hand. After lugging our luggage across the street, we hopped on a 15 minute bus which dropped us off less than a block from our hotel, the Hotel Giardinetto. The Giardinetto was the cheapest accommodation of our entire trip, boasting only one star, so we were more than a little concerned about its quality. Thankfully, our concerns were misplaced. This is a perfectly comfortable, clean, air conditioned hotel and, surprisingly, had the biggest and best bathroom of any of our lodgings on this trip. Relieved and pleased with our accommodations, we decided to take advantage of the long Italian Summer days (we had a few more hours of sun ahead of us) and take a walk into town. We pulled out a map, asked the desk clerk to circle the hotel and the historic center on it, and started off. Within mere minutes, four themes established themselves which would recur throughout our stay in Bologna:
1. The hotel is located just outside of the Eastern end of the city center. As such, every evening, including this one, when we walked into town for dinner, we were walking West, and therefore directly into the setting sun. Even with sunglasses on, this proved both challenging and unpleasant. There was, however, a strong mitigating factor:
2. Bologna’s famous arches cover almost every square meter of the city’s sidewalks, offering shelter from both rain and sun. Additionally, they lend character to the entire city. Throughout our many walks in Bologna, we frequently commented to each other on what a great idea these are.
3. Almost everything was closed. This is true of most of Europe during July and August, but Bologna was almost eerily deserted. In the evening, we often observed several minutes between cars passing even on the major thoroughfares. Of the businesses that were open, at least two thirds were foreigner owned. Fortunately for us, our hotel was in a largely Pakistani and Bangladeshi neighborhood with a higher concentration of open stores and restaurants than any other we visited. We nick-named the main street of this neighborhood “”Paki Street”” (it’s real name is “”Via San Vitale,”” but ours was easier to remember) and we transacted most of our business there. As an added bonus, many of these folks spoke excellent English.
4. The city center is virtually littered with historic buildings. One can scarcely walk a block without passing a building with a plaque on it ascribing it’s origins to a particular family in the middle ages and stating when and by whom it was restored. Initially we were astounded by the number of 600-1100 year old buildings still in use. Eventually, though, it became sort of a running joke: “”Hey, look! Another historic building!”” Our walk that first night took us into the historic center, past a huge number of historic buildings, historic towers, and squares. And we rarely had to leave the shade of the arches.
We walked passed the famous “”Two Towers,”” but decided to hold off on climbing the 95 meters of stairs in the Asinelli Tower. Instead, we stopped and had our first glass of Italian wine at a small Enoteca in the historic center. It was here that we got our first hint of a wonderful Bolognese tradition which ended up providing our dinner the following two nights. Apparently, most of the bars in Bologna offer free food with the purchase of a drink. The friendly waitstaff at the Enoteca offered us a plate of prosciutto and cheese, but it was early and we thought we’d have to pay for it. So, we turned it down and after finishing our first prosecco in Italy, we wandered off in search of a restaurant for dinner. During our search, we stumbled upon Piazza Maggiore, the city’s huge main square. The Basilica of San Petronio, which takes up almost the entire South end of the Piazza was, of course, closed. But the square itself provided us with a good half hour’s distraction. About a half an hour of wandering later, we found a small pizzeria, and settled down for our first Italian pizza of the journey, accompanied, of course, by some more Italian wine. It was all quite tasty, but really nothing to write home (or blog) about. Mildly disappointed, we headed back to the Giardinetto for a much needed night of rest.
The following day, we did the pilgrimage to San Luca, just outside the city. This was a hell of an adventure and deserves its own entry for a later date. For now, suffice to say that by evening we’d walked around 12 km (about 8 miles), seen some beautiful places, and were exhausted. It had been a hot day and we’d done our best to stay well hydrated. Nonetheless, by this point, we were parched. Luckily, we were very close to a bar we’d passed the previous evening and decided to stop in for a beer. As it turned out, this was one of Bologna’s many college bars. Since we were there in the summer, it was peopled primarily by graduate students. It was a large space, with a long, well polished bar. But what caught our eye was the buffet situated next to the bar. The food looked delicious, and people were just going up and helping themselves. Upon closer observation, what was actually happening was this: every person who bought a drink received a plastic plate, a knife and a fork, and was free to help yourself to the buffet! We were delighted. we ordered a Leffe Blonde and a Stella Artois (yes, belgian beer in an Italian bar), and we each made three trips to the buffet. We’d had a very tasty dinner for the price of a beer. Walking around later, we realized that not only was our experience at the bar not unique, it was, in fact commonplace. Apparently, virtually every drinking establishment in Bologna offers a similar deal in an attempt to attract the cities myriad college students. I wish these places existed around NYU when I was a student there.
The following day, in addition to our usual rambling around town, we visited the Bologna Jewish museum in what had been the city’s Ghetto. As expected, the museum was quite informative, and therefore at once infuriating and depressing. Apparently, our people were expelled from and then invited back into Bologna on about a half dozen occasions since the middle ages. Further, the historic synagogue was destroyed during WWII never to be rebuilt. There is, once again, a small Jewish community in Bologna, with a modern synagogue. However, it is in a remote part of the city that we weren’t able to visit.
We did, however, return to Piazza Maggiore to see the inside of San Petronio Basilica. We had, by this point, seen many churches on this trip, and this was a standout.
For one thing, San Petronio is the fifth largest church in the world. It’s size is truly awe-inspring. For another, the inside is painted in light colors with dark accents (very rare), giving it a very airy feel. These, combined with frescoes and stained glass of exceptional quality, made this an extraordinary experience, even for seasoned church visitors like us. By this point, we were quite quite hungry. So, once again took advantage of Bologna’s free-food-with-a-drink tradition for our dinner. This time, we hit two different bars, and got to sample a larger variety of local dishes. We then headed back to the hotel to pack for our next destination: Perugia