Rotting oak and ragu

“So this is the real Italy,” my brother said, as we stood on the tallest of Bologna’s two towers, savouring the sights of the medieval town below.

Red terracotta roofs stretched off into the distance, broken by the steeples of numerous churches and smaller towers built in centuries past.

To this point we had been in Milan and Alessandria (a small town just south of the northern capital), arriving earlier that week for our cousin’s wedding. With only one night in Milan while suffering from the 36 hour journey from Australia, and with Alessandria being a relatively new city, this was Lachlan’s first sight of the Italy he had seen on postcards and in movies.

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With the skies blue and the August sun bright, we were grateful for the slight breeze cooling us at the top of the Asinelli tower, 498 narrow wooden steps high.

Looking down we could see the top of the smaller tower, the Garisenda, leaning at an inordinate angle. The winding streets and narrow alleys led our gaze through the city. Walking through those same streets could be alarming, especially in the University District at night, where our hostel was. Drunk students and homeless addicts would yell and throw bottles, while on street corners there was every drug imagineable available from dodgy youths with plastic bags. Graffiti lined almost every wall of every building in what used to be a Jewish grotto.

And I loved it. Bologna is a fucking fantastic city.

Alarming, dirty and downtrodden in places, there is also a curious charm and a sense of history that is hard to ignore. Unlike many tourist metropolis’ in Italy catering solely to the foreigners’ dollar (I’m looking at you Florence), Bologna felt lived in and loved.

Rotting oak pillars cut down and shaped in the 12th century supported buildings just as old, while flawless brick mosaics such as those in the Basilica de Santo Stefano were perfectly preserved on the walls of the Church’s serene courtyards. Bologna is definitely a city of contrasting beauty, at least in the old town we visited most.

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And yet the architecture may not even be the city’s greatest attribute. That honour may have to go to the food of the region. The old Italian tradition of Antipasti (starters) must be near perfected in Bologna. Boutique restaurants and wine bars line many of the cobblestone streets, tables spilling out onto the pavements and roads filled with every Italian cold meat and cheese you could imagine. Always accompanied by a glass of light Italian wine or beer of course (Sangiovese and Birra Moretti are my preferences respectively).

From a lazy afternoon there diners may head to an Osteria (a small restaurant, traditionally for the common folk) for a bowl of Tagliatelle al Ragu (that’s spaghetti bolognese in english, but don’t call it that there). Tortellini, Lasagna or Gramigna are also common choices for Primo Patti, or the first course.

For seconds a local favourite is Friggione, a sauce made with onions, olive oil and tomatoes and eaten with bread. Plates of meat and vegetables, veal cutlets and Polpette alla Bolognese (meatballs) are also loved.

For the young and the students however, when a cheaper dinner is needed or a night of drinking is ahead, apperitivo is the way to go. Bars often offer a buffet of tapas like dishes, often included in the price of a drink (you may pay one euro more, or there will be a separate charge for a plate). It is a great way to sample a huge range of dishes in a social atmosphere.

Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca

If you want to escape from the bustle of the tourist centre, the walk to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca is a must. Situated on a hill to the south-west of the city, the basilica (which has been present in some form since the 12th century) is well worth the 666 steps it takes to get there. For the more adventurous (or for those who don’t like to use maps and get lost like we did), you can also take a two-hour hike through the hills outside Bologna to reach the site. It is probably the best way to see the city from up high, aside from the two towers in the centre.

For lovers of food, history and architecture (and let’s face it, that’s what most people who come to Italy look for – the place is bloody full of it), Bologna is an incredible stop. Our three nights were enough to see the main sites, even with a few small hangovers from the pretty active nightlife.

Go, eat and appreciate a beautiful town without the same crowds of the tourist meccas.

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