Have you ever really wanted to visit a city and have it turned out to be nothing like you expected it to be? Don’t you hate when that happens? Bologna, Italy was high on my wish list. I’d been to Italy a few times, but never seemed to be able to fit the Emilia Romagna region into my itinerary.
Last spring I finally planned an entire trip through northern Italy, focusing particularly on Emilia Romagna. I wanted to go because of its history, culture, and reputation for producing the best food in Italy.
Any trip I take begins long before I step onto a plane. Part of the fun is doing my research. I thought I knew much about Bologna. It has three nicknames, 666 archways, and several culinary claims to fame including mortadella, salami, and pasta. Tortellini is the city’s signature pasta. Or, as it is affectionately known due to its shape, Venus’s navel.
What I didn’t know until I got there was that Bologna is a loud, masculine city. Nearly all of my expectations about this city were shattered. I expected to love this city. I didn’t. I expected it to be old and charming like Siena. It wasn’t. The only expectation I had that didn’t disappoint me was the food.
Nicknames for Bologna
Bologna is known by several nicknames: La Dotta, La Grassa, and La Rossa. The educated, the fat, and the red. The oldest university in Europe is in Bologna which earned the city its La Dotta moniker, the educated. Bologna is famed for its food products and its cuisine. Thus, La Grassa, the fat, is a second nickname the city wears, referring to its famous pork products and pasta. La Grassa also hints at the dangers lurking if one eats too much of these products.
The famous statue of Neptune is adorned with women with water jetting out of their breasts. Max Hartshorne photo.There are different explanations for why the city is called La Rossa. Guidebooks will tell you the term refers to the red roofs and brick architecture. Locals, however, proudly assert the name comes from the city’s political tendencies which historically have always leaned left.
Based on my experience, I am offering three new names. Il Forte, il Maschile, and Il Delizioso: The loud, the masculine, and the delicious.
No one I knew who had been to Bologna had mentioned that it is the loudest city imaginable. I live close to Manhattan and have been to Times Square hundreds of times. On its loudest, busiest day New York City is a whisper compared to Bologna.
There’s a hot mess of traffic and construction. But every city has those. The most offensive noise culprits are the street performers who are pervasive throughout the city. Seriously. Street performers are ubiquitous.
Loud street performers are sometimes annoying in Bologna. Tina Gordon photo.
There are bands, acrobats with megaphones, dancers with boom boxes, and men in medieval costumes shouting as they reenacting brutal events replete with whips and hair shirts. And they are all loud. Very, very LOUD.
They drown out traffic, construction, church bells, and conversation. Loud. Mix in the constant groups of young men who roam the streets and hang out all over the city, and you have the perfect formula for an earsplitting, macho city.
I do appreciate that the college town atmosphere brings a certain energy to this medieval city. But it also contributes to its raucousness. Il forte. The loud.
I don’t know where the women students hang out, but it’s not in the streets. There is way more obvious testosterone here than even Rome, which previously held my record for most masculine city. I don’t mean that in a good way. Bands of boys roam around here in large groups. They are out until the late hours of the night. It is one of the few cities I’ve been where I never felt completely safe.
Further evidence of the maleness of Bologna is the Fountain of Neptune (Fontana di Nettuno) at the rear of Piazza Maggiore in the heart of the city. A bronze Neptune stands in naked splendor at the top of this huge statue. Beneath him are naked women seated, legs open, holding their ample breasts which squirt water into the fountain. Some say if you look at the statue from a certain angle, Neptune’s outreached hand is lewdly suggestive.
As if I needed further proof, I discovered that even the trees in Bologna are phallic. I have a photo to prove it. And so I determined the second nickname should be il Maschile; the masculine.
Hanging proscuitto at Tamburini, in Bologna.If my expectations were smashed due to Bologna’s noise and macho tendencies, at least my foodie soul wasn’t disappointed. Ah, il Delizioso. The delicious. Some say it’s the micro climate. Some say it’s the traditions of food production and cooking that have passed down through the generations. Whatever the cause, the foods in Bologna are everything everyone says.
Several blocks from Piazza Maggiore,a stroll through the food markets is tantalizing. Fresh fish, fruits and vegetables, and lovely meat and cheese emporiums abound. A local favorite is mortadella, a pork product marbled in fat. There are countless salamis.
I did my utmost to sample them all. My favorite is parma prosciutto. It is melt in your mouth delicious and I can happily eat it every single day with melon or by itself. The local cheeses are also irresistible.
My cheese of choice is the aged parmigiano-reggiano and it too is spectacular. A few pieces shaved off of the wedge washed down with a glass of local wine and I am content.
I attended a balsamic vinegar tasting at one of the local shops. We were privileged to taste balsamic that had been aged twenty-five years! It cost forty-five euros for a small bottle. It is thick and syrupy and utterly amazing. You would not waste this treat on a mere salad, trust me.
But I’ve saved the best for last. Tamburini is a food emporium where you can purchase products to cook yourself or purchase delights already made. As much as I love to cook, if I lived near Tamburini I doubt I’d ever cook again. I would eat their take-out every single day of my life.
It’s fresh, it’s delicious, it’s indescribably good. The only problem I had was deciding what to buy. I never knew there were so many kinds of fresh pasta. My favorite was the calamari salad which was so delicious it enabled me to forgive the city of Bologna for being the letdown it was. So there in the markets, amongst the parmesan cheeses, the multitude of tortellini, and the hams hanging over my head, I chose Bologna’s third nickname; il Delizioso. And don’t even get me started on the regional wines.
Bologna is a study in contrasts. It is old and yet it is extremely new. Fashion, expensive stores, and lovely hotels abound. The noise and testosterone will keep me from coming back. But the food made me oh so glad I had finally come.
Tina Gordon is addicted to writing, travel, and food. She has a blog (www.teethetrav.travellerspoint.com) where she shares her travels, her best food experiences, and some recipes. She is currently working on a young adult novel called Hardscrabble Road and planning a trip to Provence.
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