Bologna is not as imperious and debauched by power and history as Rome, not as aristocratically elegant as Florence, nor as ridiculously picturesque as Venice.
However, it has a unique character, animated by the students of the oldest university in Europe. And to distinguish itself from Pisa, Bologna has two wildly leaning medieval towers.
Italians call it La dotta or ‘The Learned’ and La grassa or ‘The Fat’ because of Bologna’s preoccupation with food – intense, even by Italian standards. It is also called La rossa or ‘The Red’: brick dominates the beautiful landscape of the arcaded old town like gray marble in Florence. Then there is the taste for communist politics which, in the Italian way, in no way discourages the production of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ducati and many luxury foods.
Buon appetito: Bologna is known as La grassa or “The Fat” due to the city’s preoccupation with food
A hearty portion of traditional al ragu tagliatelle (file photo)
The spag bol is however as rare as the Swiss roll in Switzerland. The ‘bolognese’ sauce is still known as stew, enriched with chicken livers. And spaghetti is rarely the first choice of pasta to serve with.
You will most likely be offered tagliatelle. But the typical pasta bolognese is tortellini, handcrafted in a myriad of small shops whose regular customers display tribal loyalties to their favorite source.
Wine is not a regional speciality: the flat Emilian plain with its hot and humid summers and cold and humid winters is not good for the grapes. But the best Picnic Lambrusco types, if served cold enough, make great companions to a marbled piece of fatty, pink bologna sausage and crisp pane di semola or semolina bread.
Bologna is so synonymous with sausages, “baloney” entered English via America, although why the prized salsiccia should be identified as trash is unclear.
Although no major Italian city is devoid of treasures, the art of Bologna is well limited because its historical heritage derives more from medicine and industry.
Although 75 miles from the coast at Rimini, its mascot is Giambologna’s statue of the god of the seas (whose trident was adapted for the Maserati badge). The giant and boastful Neptune stands in his fountain not far from Piazza Maggiore, surrounded by lascivious sea nymphs.
To distinguish itself from Pisa, Bologna has two wildly leaning medieval towers – the ‘Due Torri’ (pictured)
Bologna’s great modern artist is Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) whose contemplative paintings of jugs and pots reflect the city’s preoccupation with good food. In dramatic emotional contrast is Niccolo dell’Arca’s infamous Compianto in the Church of Santa Maria della Vita. A must-see, this dramatic assemblage of life-size figures assisting the dead Christ is uniquely and shockingly expressive. And, being terracotta, it is red.
The historic center of Bologna is small and, as tourism is fortunately still at modest levels, the choice of central hotels is limited.
The choice of suburban hotels is vast, however, and they are — at all costs — to be avoided. The city’s glories are soon overshadowed by the tedium of lifeless 1950s housing, which is a severe test for anyone who thinks Italy is a taste of paradise.
Bologna’s mascot is Giambologna’s statue of the god of the seas, pictured, whose trident has been adapted for the Maserati badge
The statue of the city’s god of the seas stands in a fountain not far from Piazza Maggiore (pictured)
An absolute must-see is the infamous Compianto sculpture by Niccolo dell’Arca (pictured) in the Church of Santa Maria della Vita
The fanciest hotel is the Baglioni whose marble halls and grand piano might seem out of place with such a rugged city.
More intimate is the Commercianti, an ancient heap in an alley next to the Duomo. It’s quiet, cozy and idiosyncratic.
The best rooms have small terraces that put you almost a touching distance from the cathedral’s Gothic windows.
You can graze all day in the shops and bars crammed into Via Pescherie Vecchie and Via Drapperie: here you’ll find Tamburini and Simoni, temples of food where ham and cheese do to dreary customers what religion does to devotees elsewhere.
A small chain of reliable wine bars called 051, or Zerocinquantuno (the area code), serves salumi (charcuterie) and cheese plates in a pretty chaos at all hours.
Stay at the “intimate” Art Hotel Commercianti, an old heap in an alley next to the city’s Duomo (cathedral)
The best rooms at the Art Hotel Commercianti have small terraces that put you almost a touching distance from the Gothic windows of the cathedral.
Double rooms at the Art Hotel Commercianti, a hotel described as ‘quiet, comfortable and idiosyncratic’, are priced at £111
Perhaps, however, it is better to eat formally to feel the seriousness and solemnity of Bologna. Ristoranti Grassilli, a theatrical favorite with portraits to prove it, was founded in 1944 and doesn’t seem to have changed since.
Here you will eat tortellini with brodo, small pasta with broth and cotoletta bolognese. . . which, including veal, ham, cheese, eggs and breadcrumbs, can be compared to driving a Lamborghini in the dark without lights as a source of reckless danger to your well-being.
And an opposite to formalism? Recently, Massimo Bottura, the Damien Hirst of Italian cuisine, opened a country hotel, Casa Maria Luigia, between Bologna and its rival Modena.
After a few days in The Fat Red City, the air here is lighter and greener, but not without its complexities. Bottura’s signature starter, parmesan cheese from five different vintages, prepared in five different ways, took him 15 years to perfect. An Ai Weiwei triptych dominates the hall.
In three days you can do Bologna and come back fatter and satisfied. And how heartening, in uncertain weather, to find the airport named after Marconi, the Bolognese nobleman whose radio waves help keep us aloft, even if they are dangerously heavier than when we arrived. .