Journey to the sauce

Journey to the sauce

Home to Bolognese, Parma ham and the oldest university in Europe, bountiful Bologna is one of Italy’s best-kept secrets. By Nick Dall

Wedged between Milan Florence and Venice, the northern city of Bologna is overlooked by a good many visitors to Italy. Since medieval times Bologna has had two nicknames. La Dotta, ‘the learned one’, which is a reference to the famous university, and La Grassa, ‘the fat one’, because the food is just so good. Those who do include it on their itineraries fall in love with a region that is steeped in cuisine, culture and history.

First things first

Like all Italian settlements, Bologna is built around a central square. Head to majestic Piazza Maggiore and take a seat on the steps of the cathedral to watch the world go by. The scenes are universal – students hurrying to lectures, elderly ladies walking small dogs and children feeding pigeons – but the medieval backdrop is decidedly and intoxicatingly Italian. The mere thought that Copernicus and Petrarch once rushed across the same piazza on their way to lectures is hard to shake…

Once you’ve grown tired of the human pageant (which may take a while), take a step back to appreciate the quirks of the building whose steps you’ve been sitting on. Construction of the hulking Basilica di San Petronio began in 1390 but, despite the efforts of a succession of architects, the cathedral remains incomplete. All this history is writ large on the basilica’s facade, where gorgeous peach-hued Gothic lower sections give way to an altogether more menacing upper level of dark bricks. Inside the structure, there’s an enormous sundial, which was instrumental in understanding the shortcomings of the Julian calendar and resulted in the creation of the leap year. In Bologna, science and religion have always been uneasy bedfellows.

To market, to market

Tucked away in the alleys behind Piazza Maggiore is one of Bologna’s brightest fresh-produce jewels, the Quadrilatero market. It’s an open-air affair, which – save for the addition of some exotic bananas and mangoes – has fortunately changed little since medieval times. Bologna is the undisputed culinary capital of a food-crazy nation, and the variety and quality of the food on display is mind-boggling. Massive joints of prosciutto hang from the rafters, luscious crimson tomatoes tumble out of pallets, and fish swim in aerated basins of water. The market opens early and closes ate, but it is at its most atmospheric in the evening, when a glow suffuses the entire quarter.

It’s the kind of place where absolutely everything you buy is exceptional, but there are still a few standouts. La Baita, Bologna’s finest cheese shop, is amazing all day long (try the black Parmesan!), but at lunchtime it transforms into an informal restaurant serving up local favourites such as frittata di verdura, a vegetable omelette par excellence. If it is pasta that you are after, Paolo Atti & Figli has been making true Bolognese tortellini (those glorious meaty parcels modelled, as legend has it, on Venus’ navel) for well more than a century. And, of course, you can’t go to the Quadrilatero without sampling the mortadella from Salumeria Simoni.

The twin towers

Considering the amount of eating you will be doing, it’s a very good thing that everything in Bologna is easily walkable. From the Quadrilatero, return to Piazza Maggiore, taking a turn past the impressive Fountain of Neptune, before wandering down the elegant, arcade-lined Via Rizzoli. In a small piazza at the end of this street you’ll find two towers: one tall and stately, the other short and wonky.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, wealthy Bolognese families became so obsessed with building towers that at one point there were as many as 180 of them in the city. These days, that number has dwindled to around 30, including the iconic Asinelli and Garisenda towers at the end of Via Rizzoli. For the best views in town (and some much-needed calorie burning,) go up the 498 steps to the top of the Torre Asinelli, which, at 97m, is almost twice as high as its more famous cousin in Pisa.

Beyond city walls

Bologna is such a wonderful city that you may never want to escape its 800-year-old walls. But the towns in the surrounding province of Emilia-Romagna harbour some of Italy’s most splendid culinary treasures. Modena, a mere 40 km away, produces the legendary Aceto Balsamico di Modena, the world’s best balsamic vinegar. While Parma is home to not one, but two gastronomic heavyweights: Parma ham and Parmesan (although the very best Parmesan comes from nearby Reggio Emilia). If time is short, you can sign up for a day tour that takes in visits (with tastings) to producers of all three products and also includes a stop at the Ferrari museum in nearby Maranello, the spine-tingling home of the Scuderia.

But in all honesty, the wonder that is Emilia-Romagna warrants a slower and more careful examination. Renting a car for a couple of days will give you time to walk through the majestic Modena home of world-famous tenor Luciano Pavarotti and to pay a visit to both the Ferrari and Lamborghini museums. It will allow you to go on one of the complimentary Parmesan factory tours arranged by the local tourism authority, and will also mean you can stop by at the magnificent renaissance palaces in tranquil Ferrara.

Take your time

Better still, block off an entire week to marvel at the patchwork of farms and villages that scatter the region. To visit places such as brooding Mantua, the malevolent medieval gem where Virgil was born, and to seek out other local delicacies such as culatello di Zibello (a prized cold cut made only in the village of Zibello) and Lambrusco, the once-mediocre sparkling wine, which has been given a new lease on life in recent years.

Slowing down will also give you a chance to truly appreciate the masterful mosaics in the seaside town of Ravenna. The gold, emerald and sapphire adornments on the city’s churches are considered the greatest achievement of the Byzantine empire. The city boasts no fewer than eight Unesco World Heritage sites, which makes it the brightest jewel in Emilia-Romagna’s very sparkling crown.

Like any proper Italian meal, Bologna and its surrounding countryside are best savoured slowly and on an empty stomach. As they say in Italian, buon appetito!

Photography: Alamy, Gallo/Gettyimages, Istockphoto, Shutterstock, Unsplash/Bogdan-Dada

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