Last night, we arrived in Bologna, a city bathed in beautiful red / orange architecture. Compared to New York’s grey hue, Bologna is a city as vibrant as it is delicious – in fact, Bologna has three common monikers – la dossa, la rossa e la grassa. Of those, we’ve experienced two – la rossa (the red) and la grassa (the fat – due to the amazing food!). We weren’t able to enjoy ‘la dossa’ (the educated, an homage to the city’s history as a famed university town).
Honestly, this city has been one of the most joyful experiences I’ve had recently – every new sight is familiar but enhanced, as though the whole city is living in a max-saturation color filter; all of the food is not only fresh, but casually perfect in a way that leaves the eater both nostalgic for their last bite and eager to try the next.
It was already dark when we arrived, but there was an interesting ‘festival’ going on across the city called Lightin’Bo, which essentially projected different lights / images of dancing across different facades.
Despite not being able to enjoy the sights as well in the dark, we did enjoy a delicious introduction to Bologna’s food scene: a small restaurant called Cesarina, located near the Saint Stefano church, and had an unreal introduction to Bolognese food.
Together, we sampled the delicious Sangiovese wine, a sampler of three artichoke preparations (including an artichoke flan, which was an incredibly concentrated taste of artichoke heart; grilled artichoke Romagna style; and artichoke with a butter sauce), tortellini en brodo (in broth), three pastas (a delicious tortellini, lasagne with bechamel sauce, and delicious ragu), as well as a traditional Bolognese dessert which includes a cake flavored with raspberry liqueur, and covered in vanilla / chocolate custard. It was incredibly delicious and certainly did not disappoint.
Afterwards, we walked back to the hotel and passed one of Bologna’s famous towers, all lit up with the colors of the Italian flag.
This morning, we awoke bright and early to see more of this beautiful city. We spent the morning walking in a giant circle around the city, enjoying the various churches; then, we spent the afternoon on a DIY-food tour of some of the city’s best bites. Essentially, you could think of it as a ‘la rossa’ tour and then a ‘la grassa’ tour of Bologna.
Part 1: La Rossa (and honestly, Bologna should have a nickname relating to it’s many churches…)
Let me be frank – this city has an amazing array of churches, each of which has its own unique architectural and decorative features (as is probably true of any city in Italy). What makes Bologna’s different is that ‘golden hour’ (i.e., the time at which the sunlight is just perfect for photos) seems to be enhanced to last nearly all day, given the spectacular orange and red exterior hues of all buildings – even the churches! Our first church was the Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro, which is has beautiful interior architecture and is located just across the street from our hotel.
Then, we continued to the central square of Bologna, and visited the immense Basilica di San Petronio. Unlike Il Duomo in Milan or Florence, the exterior facade isn’t fully marble, which adds an interesting architectural appeal.
Inside, light pours in softly, creating some interesting shadows; this is a theme in Bolognese architecture it seems.
Afterwards, we explored the square a little bit, wandering among the throngs of tourists. If you look closely, you’ll notice something especially amusing about the fountain and ‘sources’ of water.
We then made our way to the Santuario di Santa Maria della Vita, one of Bologna’s most historic churches (it’s even included in the ticket to the medieval museum / exhibit). It also featured an exhibit of navity figures carved over the past century or so.
Then, it was over to Chiesa San Giovanni in Monte (a normal-looking church, I’m not showing photos of the most ‘basic’ ones), followed by a picturesque walk among the porticos over to the Basilica di San Domenico.
The porticos are really quite nice, and the light filters through them in a very ethereal way.
The Basilica is quite impressive outside and occupies quite a large square. Inside, it has some beautiful touches, like what appear to be Venetian-glass chandeliers.
We then circled back into town, wandering through the colorful winding alleyways along the way. I’m super impressed by the city’s ability to both maintain and modernize these historical buildings; its clear they’ve adapted them when necessary (even the towers below are now B&B’s in some cases) or added little markers helping wanderers understand the buildings’ past lives.
On our way back into the center of the city, we visited the Basilica di Santo Stefano, which is known as the ‘seven churches’. These include the Basilica di Santo Stefano, Basilica dei protomartiri San Vitale e Sant’Agricola, Abbazia Santa Stefano, Chiesa della Trinita o del Martyrium and a couple others. It’s a bit austere, but certainly pleasant to walk through.
Then, we walked back towards the main square, where we began part two of our walking tour of Bologna: the food tour!
Part 2: Bologna la grassa ((well deserved – Bologna is the capital of the Emilio-Reggiano region, and on the train ride in we heard city names like Parma (of the Parma ham, and prosciutto di parma), Reggio (Parmesanio-Reggiano cheese), Modena (of the balsamic vinegar), etc.)). Tomorrow we explore more of the region – stay tuned!
Our goal was to sample a variety of Bologna’s best bites, which typically include cured meats, cheeses, fresh veggies, and the occasional regional favorite pastry or other delicacy.
We wandered back towards the Plaza Maggiore, where we then ducked into an alley for our first bite – a mortadella, mozzarella, and tomato / arugula sandwich a Mo’ Mortadella stand.
It was unbelievably good – it feels like a disservice to describe it, given the number of words needed, but essentially, the meat was warm and salty, the cheese was moist and flavorful, and the fresh ingredients added a good offset to lighten the sandwich. For less than 10 Euros, this was certainly one of the best bites we’ve had so far.
Then we continued to our next stop, a delicious Florentine style sandwich shop nestled on a busy street downtown. We were met by two younger guys, who prepared a delicious sandwich after a couple amusing translational issues regarding the number of ingredients per sandwich (we got to choose four ingredients for the sandwich, but accidentally conveyed we wanted four sandwiches, each with only one ingredient – can you imagine a mushroom-spread-only sandwich?). Regardless, it was a great bite.
Ultimately, we enjoyed a great focaccia sandwich including a Florentine specialty salami, porcini mushroom spread, arugula, and fresh, local pecorino cheese (which is delicious, and much richer than its hard counterparts!). Of course, we washed it down with an Aperol spritz!
Next, we wandered towards our third stop – yep, another sandwich joint, this time specializing in piadina, a flatbread sandwich which I may dare liken to a local Romagna quesadilla, in that its grilled and includes melted cheese. To get to this store, S’farina, we had to walk through the ‘market’ in town: Mercado del Elbe. There were some beautiful food stalls showing off Emilio-Romagna’s best meats and veggies as we walked in.
My soul cries every time I see a fresh, rotund Emilio-Romagna artichoke for $0.40, when I pay ~$3.50 an artichoke at Whole Foods for the world’s oldest and seemingly least decadent specimen from New Jersey somewhere at home. I digress.
After this bite, we continued on, actually passing over our next intended target in the old Jewish quarter of town. Instead, we happened upon something which wasn’t on our list: pizza.
However, we knew we had to have it (especially after seeing the Eat, Pray, Love screenshot on the door – who can resist pizza which compares itself to the pizza in Napoli which forces Liz to buy a bigger pair of jeans?).
To the dismay of our waiter, we ordered one pie to share – clearly, everyone deserves a whole pizza to themselves here in Bologna. Honestly, this was great pizza – and, the crust was so thin, that even after 3 sandwiches, we still had room to enjoy it! We finished up and headed back towards the main square.
We knew we had to cut the food tour short, given the time – we had heard there was one view worth seeing in Bologna, and we had to make the ‘train’ up to see it – and thus, we found ourselves queuing for a tourist train heading up the mountain to the Basilica Santo Luca, which is a viewpoint from which to see the city of Bologna. As we waited, I grabbed some photos of the main square.
The ride up the mountain was a bit ‘scenic’ and provided a little bit of Bologna’s history – for example, taking us through the third wall to the city.
Finally, after a variety of twists and turns (and passing folks who looked like they wished they’d paid ~5 Euro each to ride the ‘train’), we began seeing our target: San Luca. The story goes that someone in the 11th century had received a vision while at the Haggia Sofia that they should build a church on a hill near Rome; they found a monk who knew someone who knew someone in Bologna who knew the hill, and thus, this church was founded.
The church provides an amazing view over the city of Bologna; we even arrived in the real ‘golden hour’ to grab some sunset photos. Amazingly, you can actually walk up to the Church – you have to walk through a series of 666 porticos to do so (we laughed at the number, given the site’s holy history). The views were beautiful.
I’m also a sucker for a cool photo op, so I took some nice shots through the massive open arches of the church.
After this, we headed back into town on the San Luca Express ‘train’ (I pity the cars behind us, slowly going down the mountain…) and enjoyed dinner at a very well-rated restaurant around the corner from our hotel. Of course, we had to try the Tagliatelle ragu (what they call Spaghetti Bolognese here), along with caprese salad, a delicious octopus dish, and pasta with broccoli rabe. All were delicious.
Of course, we ended the meal with a delicious Italian treat – some kind of pastry from Napoli, which included a delicious cream and some kind of liquor pore (as with most decadent desserts here!). They also dropped off a bottle of limoncello for us to enjoy as we wished until the bill was paid.
Needless to say, Bologna has awakened the senses and is a standout on this trip so far (and honestly, a standout to me in Italy from previous memory).