In Michael's Words...
That was my reaction to finding out the location of my #fwtripswap weekend. I immediately had visions of pasta, cheese, wine and rolling hills dancing through my head. After getting my boarding pass and proceeding through security, I took a moment to open my envelope and see what else was inside. A regional travel guide and multiple printed sheets, including the previously posted optional itinerary greeted me. I saw that my Saturday morning and afternoon were prearranged, but the remainder of the weekend was left to my own ambition.
The flight was an easy hop from London, and purchasing a €20 Bologna Welcome card at the airport was key! I know what you are thinking, most of these cards are just a way to make money on unsuspecting tourists, but I used the card the entire weekend. It also includes two complimentary passes on the shuttle bus from Bologna's Guglielmo Marconi Airport to the city center, which is otherwise only serviced by expensive taxis.
I landed in Bologna on Friday afternoon and checked into the Hotel Metropolitan, which is a short walk from the shuttle stop and right off of the main via dell' Indipendenza. My room was not available yet, so I dropped my bags off, grabbed the camera and set off on foot. The hotel manager also let me know that it was Italian Labor Day.
Because of the holiday, most museums and stores were already closed or closing early. Therefore, I decided to explore two of Bologna's central religious institutions: the Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro and the Basilica di San Petronio. The Cattedrale is on the main avenue, so I could hear the large church organ being played all the way from the sidewalk. The music made the visit extremely special, and I took a moment to sit and soak in the frescoes and tall archways. With an ornately carved bottom section and a basic brick upper half, the Basilica is an imposing structure right off of the Piazza Maggiore. Apparently the building plan originally called for the Basilica to rival St. Peters in Rome. This plan was halted once the Pope found out and forced them to scale the design back, hence the two contrasting exteriors. Once inside, you are struck by the cavernous open space and red brick interior. The church has 22 chapels and the world's longest meridian line, which tells the day of the year based on the casting of the suns rays through the ceiling and onto the floor.
The Piazza Maggiore was being set up for a large national concert that evening so I followed the crowds down Via degli Orefici, which is lined with the cities best markets and cafes. Each window beckoned me with wheels of parmigiano reggiano and parma ham. The Tamburini market looked like a solid bet with it's wood carved windows overflowing with fresh produce and prepared foods. My intention was to buy gifts and take a lot of pictures, but I immediately spotted a queue forming in the back of the store and went to investigate. Tamburini also houses a cafeteria in the back which connects to the space next door for additional seating and outdoor cafe space. The cafeteria cooks up all of the treats being sold in the front of the shop: mozzarella and fresh tomato salad, olives, cheese plates, cured meats, fresh tortellini, tagliatelle, vino on tap and roasted vegetables. I grabbed a tray and got in line.
Following my feast I wandered the old town and market streets while the sun set, working off the marathon runners meal I had just ingested. I decided to head back to the hotel and get situated in my room before it got too late. That evening, I had a small snack from the corner cafe and wandered back down Indipendenza to listen in on the Labor Day Concert.
Today was my prearranged half-day food tour. The tour, Taste Bologna, began at Caffé Terzi, where we were treated to a vanilla filled croissant and a pistachio cream espresso. Note: most croissant in Bologna are filled with something, always ask if there are no listed signage! After coffee, we visited a small market which makes their tortellino and tortelloni by hand throughout the day. We were told they sell up to 60 kilos on their busiest holiday.
Our tour then brought us back to the market streets were we toured the city's most famous bread bakery, cured meat stall, fish monger, cheese shop and oldest tool shop. Antica Aguzzeria del Cavallo opened 1783 as a metal grinding and weaponry store. It now sells all manners of cooking, carving, cutting and baking utensils. I picked up an adorable olive wood and brass ravioli stamp. Now I just need to learn how to make fresh pasta...
While in the market my tour guide was purchasing food for our lunch at Osteria del Sole, one of the oldest osterias in Bologna. Out of over 3 dozen officially licensed osterias from the 16th century, del Sole is one of only two still open. It keeps things simple and only serves beer and wine. Make sure you bring in your own water. The Osteria oozes charm and is filled with locals who all surround the bar and get into heated conversations, tell dirty jokes or gossip. It felt like you were invited to a family reunion, because almost all the patrons were locals.
After lunch we toured the university area and ended with a gelato tasting at Cremeria Santo Stefano. I had the vanilla with lemon zest, chocolate orange blossom, mango and the caffe bianco. When the tour ended late in the afternoon afternoon, I walked back to the city center stopping along the way at the basilica Santo Stefano (home to the Sette Chiese ("Seven Churches").
I then queued to climb the Torre degli Asinelli for sweeping views of the city. The Torre is 97 meters high and was built in 10th century. The torre has survived two large fires and being used as a prison for multiple years. Today you can pay €3 and climb the internal wooden staircase to the top for a full 360 degree view of the city.
I retired to the hotel for an early evening nap before exploring the university area where local students setup shop in the main piazza, open container drinks in hand. I stopped at Pasta Fresca Naldi for a take-away dinner of tagliatelle and tortellini in beef broth. This small cafe makes everything fresh in the back and serves the pasta in plastic containers with your choice of sauce or broth (the traditional way to eat tortellini in Bologna).
I woke up in the morning and enjoyed breakfast at the hotel before the long trek to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. The Sanctuary is located 3 kilometers outside of the city under a long portico 666 archways long. Fun fact. The city of Bologna has over 45 kilometers of porticos and the longest single connected portico in the world. The walk is almost entirely uphill, which I did not mind because of the amount of pasta I have ingested up until this point in the trip. Once you arrive at the top, you are treated to views of surrounding Bologna, including rolling green hills, beautiful villas and gardens. Be prepared for the trek to take upwards of three hours.
On the walk back I stopped and queued for the M.C, Escher exhibit at the Palazzo Albergati. I have never seen his works up close before and was surprised with how many iconic pieces they had available to view. I also went to MAMbo, the Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna, along with the Museo Morandi, Cinema Lumiere, Parco del Cavaticcio and a few graffiti murals before stopping at the hotel.
Dinner that evening was at the Trattoria Anna Maria, the archetypal Italian mamma greets you at the door and has been serving the cities best food for the past 26 years. My walk home included more gelato before showering and packing for my morning flight.
I had an amazing time in Bologna, and pretty much consumed my body weight in pasta. I only wish I had taken advantage of day trips to the surrounding food producing areas of Parma or Modena on Friday when I first arrived. It would have been perfect given how quiet the city was during the public holiday. The two days following would have provided ample time to see the city. Next time!