Bologna, Italy: Conversations and Blogs

Bologna, Italy: Conversations and Blogs

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

A scoop of gelato in downtown Bologna. photos by Max Hartshorne
A scoop of gelato in downtown Bologna. photos by Max Hartshorne

The following passages appeared in Readuponit, Max’s blog about travel, conversations and interesting people. The articles below were published in June 2007 after a visit to Bologna, Modena and Ravenna Italy to visit art, architecture and culinary sites in the region.

Bologna: Bustling at 12:30 am in the City Center

Bologna is well known in Italy as a center — a center geographically, a place where nearly all railroads and major highways intersect, in short the center of it all. Yet to Americans, few even know about this city. One person we told thought we were going to Germany when she heard the name.

Last night we hopped between osterias, beginning with a little hole in the wall called Olindo Faccioli, where we sat in the back in a big square table. This place has been here since 1924, the son of the founder brought us lambrusco and little puffs of fried dough and breadsticks.

Outside a protest against Facisism was marching by, led by carabineiri, mostly young men and women tatooed and following a man on a truck yelling into speakers, alternating with rap music. Our wine bar was right next to one of the city’s towers, these lean precariously and have many legends behind them of how they were built and paid for.

The city was bustling on this the longest day of the year. In the huge San Petronio basilica there is a tiny hole in the ceiling. On this day a beam of light spreads across a path marked on the floor, all the way down to the end. On a wall there is a fresco that depicts Mohammed naked and about to be eaten by the devil, a rare depiction of he who is not supposed to be depicted. Would-be bombers were foiled a few years ago when they tried to bomb this the fourth largest Christian church in the world. Now one must enter through a check point, and the evocative fresco is surrounded by fences.

We walked the busy narrow streets as scooters whizzed past and ended up at an outside table at Il Cantinone, a friendly place where we had pasta and absurdly large plates of salad. Pasta here is so al dente, I found out that it isn’t just how they cook it, it’s that they use a harder grain. So good, god the pasta is so good, we sat out there and finally walked home at 12:30. People were still sitting and talking politics in the square.

A Day of Dance and Culture in Ravenna

Today’s journey was on a crowded back road to the lovely town of Ravenna, near the Adriatic coast. Since it was Saturday, the autostrada was crowded so our driver chose to take us through small towns from Bologna.

Model outside the Ferrari Gallery in Maranello, Italy
Model outside the Ferrari Gallery in Maranello, Italy

Ravenna once had more than 200 churches, we learned from our beautiful raven-haired guide Paola Golinelli. Now there are far fewer but the round church of St. Vitale was particularly striking. The frescoes here date back to the sixth century, they are very detailed and show hundreds of colors way, way, up on the ceiling and the high walls.

It was hard to believe these intricate designs, showing biblical tales and local gentry and clergy, still stand out so brightly. We craned our necks as Paola used a laser pointer to show how the bodies of the people were depicted, so unlike later mosaics which made people look stiff and one-dimensional.

Later we had lunch at the sunny caffe Grand Italia, and it was once again simple and delicious–small calimari stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes, parsely and breadcrumbs, a pasta with walnuts, clams, zucchini, and fresh tomatoes with mozzarella.

We had a date at the Alighieri Theater to see Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Based loosely on the classic of the same name, and using an allegory about the British Royal family, the wordless dance performance was remarkable…you can’t believe how much acting and emoting you can do without saying anything. The hall was packed with dressed up young and old Ravennians, who loved the exciting show and applauded wildly at the end.

Dancing in the Piazza Maggiore, Bologna

Last night we experienced true Italian culture. Sitting in the Piazza Maggiore, the huge square in the middle of Bologna, we enjoyed a program of ballet and modern dance. After one of our group was introduced over the loudspeakers as being a ‘guest from CBS News London’ and the aisles filled to overflowing with spectators, the lights came down and the sounds of classical music began.

Matthew Bournes 'Swan Lake' a wildly funny dance performance in Ravenna based on the English Royal Family
Matthew Bournes ‘Swan Lake’ a wildly funny dance performance in Ravenna based on the English Royal Family

Before the show we met the director of this prestigious group, Frederic Olivieri, who is from France and has lived in Bologna since 1997. He has taken his professional troupe to the world’s major cities, and will be in Bejing for the Olympics next year. This performance was of the students in the Accademia Teatro alla Scala, tomorrow’s stars some of whom will join the pros in the years ahead.

It was inspiring that so many people here pack a performance for dance. And the dancers were lovely, the gestures, the graceful lines, the artistic flow using their bodies to show emotions. I’ve never been a big dance fan but this one really struck me. It was simply beautiful and the litheness and grace of the young men and women kept us riveted.

Then we retired to a pizzaria for an eleven o’clock pizza and some beers. The pizzas here all come solo–no sharing of pies–and they aren’t cut up. My anchovie and fresh mozzarella version was perfect and nobody complained about my little fishies.

This statue of Neptune is famous because at one time the Pope wanted to cover up the God’s privates…and he didn’t like these squirting mamas either. But today, Bolognese like to have it all show, so no censorship is allowed and the water sprouts from these moms on all four corners below the great god. Just next to it a water fountain constantly fills water bottles for thirsty visitors.

“Tortellone Testarossa” Is What We Call It

Today we drove over to a neighboring city that, like Bologna, doesn’t get enough attention

Ferrari's home is Manzarella, the next town over from Modena, where Lamborghini resides.
Ferrari’s home is Manzarella, the next town over from Modena, where Lamborghini resides.

from American travelers. That city is Modena, where Enzo Ferrari began making his classic sports cars in 1947. Like the market for private jets and oversized luxury vacation homes, the business of expensive cars is booming. And the branding alone makes Ferrari a legend of the market, not just the track.

We joined the legions scooping up die cast metal replicas of the great cars, and picked through the $40 hats and $35 tee shirts in the Ferrari store. Everything was the requisite racing red…from the buses in the lot to the shirts on the baristas at the cafe.

We met a man outside of the plant who works on the Ferrari’s wiring systems. He said his favorite old one was the Enzo, which is no longer made…and when we asked him what he drove, he shook his head and sadly admitted to piloting a Fiat, (owner of Ferrari) not a Testarossa or the 599, his current fav.

That name came up again when we climbed a winding road up a mountain in our van to visit the lovely La Noce restaurant. Here Georgio Muzzarelli presides as cellar master of a balsamic vinegar empire. The meal was exquisite…I must say it surpassed even the three-star Michelin chef in Burgundy. That’s because of the 60-year old balsamic that he doled out in eyedropper portions over the parmesan and the bread. Plus the simplicity and freshness.

Muzzarelli had a new menu item up his sleeve. His wife had made a large tortellone, almost like a 4″ ravioli of fresh pasta, and it was served with a dollop of their sour cherry jam and was filled with parmesan and ricotta. He asked us for suggestions for names for this new creation on the menu.

Politicking the streets, in a piazza in Bologna. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Politicking the streets, in a piazza in Bologna. photo by Max Hartshorne.

We decided that ‘Tortellone Testarossa’ fit the bill. That’s red head tortellone. We sipped the fizzy but dry Pignoletto Frizzante, a white, and helped ourselves to a few more drops of the 25-year-old balsamic on the table.

It’s settled. Dining at La Noce with the simple menu of sliced pork, a sauce of aged balsamic and a crisp salad beats anything we’ve had so far or for me, even the famous French chefs. And we hope our name sticks too!

You Never Get Wet in Bologna

No matter what the weather is doing, strolling the sidewalks of this ancient city is a breeze with the covered porticos on all the major boulevards. The city is filled with 100,000 students and many of the streets are too small for a car to pass by. At twelve midnight we walked home and the cafes, restaurants and streets were filled with people. On a Wednesday night!

Tuesday June 19, 2007
Journalists Talk About the Hot Topics in the News

Last night we drove out of the center of Bologna to the sprawling offices of a local newspaper chain called QN, where they publish many tabloid newspapers that serve different cities in Italy. Our hosts ushered us into an opulent executive board room, where we saw all of the newspapers and books that are printed here. I asked Stefania Dal Rio and Pierluigi Masini about the issues that concern their readers the most.

Journalists talk about the issues of concern in Bologna at a newspaper office.
Journalists talk about the issues of concern in Bologna at a newspaper office.

Pierluigi paused and answered slowly in English. He told us that on October 14, eighteen of the left wing parties here will try to coalesce into one. This is a big step, trying to assemble this diverse group into one unified party.But the issue that grips most people here is crime, and safety in the streets. Immigration has severely affected Italy, he said. North Africans, Albanians and other Eastern Europeans have descended on the region bringing a different way of life–and more street crime.

“There are ten nations represented in my kid’s school,” he said. “They bring their way of life and their cultures here, and there are problems. “Twenty years ago, we would leave our keys in the door in Bologna, today never. This used to be the safest city but that is not true any more,” said Stefania.

The mayor in Bologna is an up and comer who is making quite a splash. He is Sergio Cofferati, a former trade union boss who is bringing the issue of safety up day after day. “He is the first leftist politician to do this, and people are taking notice,” they told us.

I asked them about whether their papers have seen the declines in ads and readers that we see in the US. He said that the readership remains strong, but is not growing. The competition is fierce–there are four free daily papers, and nine papers in all covering Bologna. They publish many different tabloids and all use the same outer section but inside ‘the heart of the paper’ is a local news section about a particular city. We toured the newsroom and met the managing editor, who showed us photos that would be in the next day’s paper: they were of terrible graffiti vandalism that has desecrated local churches and a museum.

The papers here don’t print as many stories about gossip or Hollywood, they focus more on issues and politics. I asked them about Italian TV. “It is unwatchable, there is nothing, no content” said Stefania. One of the journalists commented that the papers here are serious, while the TV programs are full of fluff and scantily clad women. Bologna is a political city, people like to read about the issues. The papers are serious but the TV programs are not.

June 20, 2007
Bologna Welcomes Us with the Sound of Scooters
We have reached our destination, the hotel Al Capello Rosso, in the center of Bologna. We were beat from the trip so slept for a while but now the second wind is coming and we’re off to meet some folks who work for the local newspaper.

Our tripmates are distinguished. Joe from the Boston Globe whose stories I’ve read in their Sunday magazine. A man named Frank who carries a big video camera and works for CBS. Another fellow named Stephano who writes for a US Italian language paper over in Jersey. And of course Max and Cindy from that well-known and well traveled website called

So far Bologna has been much more full of motorbikes than the bicycles that dominate Copenhagen. Here is is scooter-ville. The center of the city has two famous towers that lean and dominate the sky. We’re about to head out now that I’m almost done with the laptop chores for the day.

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