Trip to Bologna, Italy -
Due torri - the two towers, the cheese Parmigiano-Reggiano, Mortadella ham, the fountain of Neptune, Spritz, long sections of porticoes, the city and region known as “la grassa”, Piazza Maggiore, Mercato di Mezzo, Tamburini, fresh pasta such as tortellini for sale, covered canals, expensive drops of aceto Balsamico traditionale, Sala Anatomica, Etruscan artefacts, food tours – these are all elements of this trip report from Bologna and the surrounding cities (Modena, Ferrara and Ravenna) in region of Emilia Romagna in Italy.
Prelude and planning
We have been to Italy before and we have enjoyed out trips to Florence, Rome, etc. So when we looked for a short summer vacation it was natural for us to look at Italy again and this time we decided to go for Bologna and the area as it has a reputation for good food and not that many tourists. I sorted out the tickets and bought them online on the Lufthansa homepage and I had to pay about 5500 NOK (935 USD) for the tickets for both of us (round trip from Stavanger in Norway). To plan the trip I bought the Insight Pocket Guide for Bologna in order to get some information about history and what to see/do in the city and the surrounding area. It did give use some good information but it was not great in any way. I would have loved to see an eyewitness guide book for Bologna.
We decided that spending 9 days in just Bologna would be a bit much. Due to this we decided to spend the first few days without a car in the middle of town (Hotel Touring) to explore Bologna and after that we would move to Savhotel to make it easier to explore the region by car but still being close enough to Bologna to eat there at night. We booked a car from Avis in advance and as we didn’t get a convertible we went for a small car and had to pay about 140€ for 4 days.
The location of Hotel Touring in Bologna is great – located just a few minutes’ walk away from the Piazza Galvani and Piazza Maggiore. The city centre of Bologna is small enough to be covered on foot.
The hotel was only about 600 meters from the heart of Bologna, Piazza Maggiore so it didn’t take us long to get there – well, actually we were a bit distracted by shops as all had big signs announcing “Saldi” (sale). But we did try to follow a route described in the guidebook. Due to that we soon walked past the two towers, the market area, Piazza Maggiore, the piazza del Nettuno and so on. One major difference compared to places like Rome and Florence was the number of tourists – even at the major attractions there were hardly any tourist. Another thing that we noticed right away was the porticoes. Porticoes are roof structure over the pavements or walkways and there are lots and lots of them – apparently someone has taken the time to measure as it is claimed there are 38 km (23 miles) of porticoes in Bologna – that means that you are sheltered from the blazing sun in the summertime and from rain during winter.
How to get
We sat down outside the two towers to have an ice cream and a guy was standing there drinking white wine straight from a bottle. A woman that looked a bit tipsy walked past and I guess she asked if she could get a sip and he handed over the bottle. Obviously the lady was thirsty as she gulped down quite a lot of wine and the guy actually had to grab the bottle from her eventually ;-)
– or personal guide
Maybe you haven’t been to Bologna but I have to tell you that today it is a typical inland city. So does it make any sense having a statue of Neptune, the god of the sea, in the middle of the city? It turns out that back in the days, Bologna was actually filled with canals (and you can still find one or two if you know where to look) and they had a port connecting them to Venice. It is hard to imagine this when walking around in the streets on Bologna today.
We also walked into the Sala Borsa now the Biblioteca Sala Borsa – a multimedia library built on top of roman ruins. It is weird to think that this has been a stock exchange, an arena for playing basketball and now a library. When you walk on the glass floor you can look down on the roman pavement below. But really, who came up with the idea of using glass that gets scratched up when walking on it? It was hard to see through it due to all the scratches.
We also walked into the Basilica of San Petronio located on Piazza Maggiore. The first thing that I noticed when I came to Piazza Maggiore was this church as the entire front was covered up due to maintenance. Well, this is nothing new...I have experienced the same when coming to places like Milan, Berlin, Paris etc. In cities with lots of old building there will always be refurbishing going on so we might as well accept it. The Basilica of San Petronio is impressive as it is the 5th largest church in the world and I guess it could have been even grander. Some sources say that they ran out of money and some say that the Vatican didn’t want this church to compete with St. Peter’s basilica in Rome (see our Rome trip report) – whatever the reason was the construction was halted and hence the church does not have the traditional shape of a cross. But the first stone was laid down in 1390 so it is a church with quite a long history – from an engineering point of view one of the fascinating items in the church is the sundial designed by Cassini. The inlaid meridian line from 1655 is supposed to be the longest sundial in the world.
We also stopped by the Sala Anatomica in Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio. This used to be one of the buildings used by the university of Bologna and the Sala Anatomica was used for training medical students I guess with a table in the centre for dissections of bodies and seating all around it. The room is beautifully decorated but if you look closer you will notice that they stick to the theme of the room...hence the figures with no skin displaying the muscles underneath. I think this room is a replica as the original one got damaged during World War 2.
After this we took a walk through the food market and we got recommendations on where to go and which places to avoid and our tour ended at the two towers of Bologna. All in all I would say that the walking tour was very interesting and if you have time it is well worth the 13€ per person at least when we were walking around alone with our guide as it was very easy to ask questions along the route.
I have already mentioned the Italians love for coffee and one places to stop by is e.g. Zanarini on Piazza Galvani. We stopped by there several times and as we have short term memory, we went over to the counter and asked for the coffee. The barista just looked at us and said “You have to pay at the cashier first” while he was probably thinking “these ignorant tourists” ;-) But yes, if you just want to enjoy the coffee Italian style (meaning just having at the counter) you pay at the cashier first and then you get your coffee made afterwards. Zanarini also has a great selection of small and sweet artworks ;-). I also stopped by the Nespresso store to buy some capsules to bring back home – the store was basically empty but I guess it is no wonder when they can get coffee everywhere.
Italians can be quite lively when they speak – at least when they get into a heated discussion. We walked past one young woman one day and she was talking loudly on her cell phone and it seemed like she was having some sort of argument with her mum. We could hear long after we past her and I guess the rest of the people waiting at the bus stop got the hear the whole argument ;-)
to Etruscan time - Museo Civico Archeologico
In the basement of the museum there is an Egyptian department with mummies, mummified animals, sarcophaguses, masks etc. The collection might not be as grand as the Egyptian display at the British museum in London (or maybe the museum in Cairo) but it was still quite interesting. A visit the museum is well worth the money (well, it is for free ;-) but do remember to invest in an audioguide unless you know your Italian and can read the information in the museum. You can find more information about the museum on their homepage.
Go on a tour
with a Personal Food shopper!
Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of my favourite cheeses and when we went to Milan years back (see the Milan trip report) we actually thought about taking a tour but we never got around to it. So I was very excited to get to the factory and after getting into our white robes we were allowed in to see them working on the cheese that morning. I’m not go into detail when it comes to the process as Alessandro will give you all the information. But basically the milk is heated, they add whey and rennet (an enzyme from stomach of calves) and then the cheese is lifted out and put into their forms and taken through a salting/drying/aging process and after a minimum aging of 12 months it is inspected to see if it qualifies to be a Parmigiano-Reggiano. The cheese has long traditions and it seems like they have been making it since the 13th century. What I’m wondering...who came up with the idea of putting an enzyme from the stomach of calves to produce cheese?? ;-)
Anyway, Alessandro let us from room to room and explained the process step by step and we were also joined by Marko, one of the guys working at the factory. We even got into the “cheese bank” where cheese is stored from floor to ceiling and I guess there was cheese worth millions of Euros in
there. We also got to tap the cheese to evaluate if it was of good quality or not. To round it of we got to see a movie of the process and we got to taste
parmesan cheese, fresh ricotta (made that morning) and we got to flush it down with Lambrusco wine – the typical sparkling red wine that is typical for the region. Breakfast of champions in other words ;-) Before we left we also had time to stop at the “gift shop” – the shop selling cheese to the local farmers. And for once in my life I was happy that there was a gift shop towards the end of a stop. We didn’t really have any plans to buy anything but when we looked at the prices it was hard to resist - 1st grade Parmigiano-Reggiano was about 14€ pr. kg (about 8 USD per pound) which is a lot cheaper than back home of course. I think I can find cheese that is about 54€ per kg here at home!! As you might guess – I came out of the store with 4 big chunks of cheese :-).
We got back in the car and drove to a place called Villa San Donnino to look at how balsamic vinegar is made. This is another fascinating product that I like and I was looking forward to see how it was made. At the house we were met by Davide (the owner) but he let Alessandro take us the attic to explain the balsamic vinegar making process – we are not talking about any kind of balsamic vinegar by the way. We are talking about Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena...phew, quite a mouthful that name. As the Parmigiano-Reggiano, the balsamic vinegar is also a 100% natural product. Basically to make the vinegar you just have to boil grape juice and put it in barrels and store it. Sounds simple of course but the juice is put into a series of different sized barrels (called a “batteria”). As one season passes by some of the liquid has evaporated and they top up the barrels by starting with the smallest one. This is topped up by using the next barrel in line and so on. In the end you also have to add new boiled grape juice to top up the largest barrel. And after 12 years you can take out 10% of the smallest barrel and send it to the consortium for approval any maybe they will accept it. So making balsamic vinegar the old fashioned way does not seem to be a money making machine...more a hobby to keep traditions alive.
Once again we got a detailed description from Alessandro and once again we got to visit the gift shop to test out some products. And once again I was tempted to buy of course ;-) We came out of the store with a 14 year old vinegar and 30€ per 100 ml (which is about 90 USD per cup) so this is not the kind of vinegar you sprinkle generously over a salad. I was joking to Nikki when we walked out that this bottle is going into the vault :-) The villa on the estate is actually a bit famous as the movie “1900” by Bernardo Bertolucci featuring Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu was filmed there. This is the private home of Davide but we got to take a look at some of the rooms in the house and it is quite stunning to see a private home with frescoes in the hall! The only sad thing is that there is quite a busy road not far from the house. You can find more information on this page.
We moved on once again and the next and last stop was Corte d’Aibo vineyard and agriturismo located outside Bologna. When driving up the vineyard we came across a deer standing in the middle of the small road that we were driving on. As we got out of the car we were met by a small, fat dog that seemed to be thrilled to have guests. Alessandro just referred to the dog as “mortadella” (referring to the thick sausage typical for Bologna). The land around the farm reminded me a bit of the landscape in some places in Tuscany and it was beautiful. We got a short tour of the vineyard and got some information about the wine production there before we moved in to have lunch. The lunch was simple yet delicious – we started with some pasta in a tomato sauce and then we had cold cuts of ham (parma ham, coppa, salami etc) and cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano, ricotta with honey (and pepper?) etc) and it was rounded off with some sweet stuff. Along the way we also got to taste a bit of the wines that the place can offer and we could buy wines as well. See the Corte d'Aibo homepage for more info. After dessert and some grappa we were slightly tipsy and moved to the car to drive back to Bologna. I think we were back at the hotel about 3.30 PM.
The tour with Alessandro turned out to be one of the absolute highlights of this trip. He has a lot of passion and knowledge about the food and it was great fun being in his company. It seems like he gives a lot of himself in this tour and hopefully people appreciates this. If you are interested in food then the tour is highly recommended! Send my regards to Alessandro if you take the tour ;-) The tour was 95€ per person (about 120 USD). You can read more about the tour and book your tour on http://www.italiandays.it/
Nazionale di Bologna – National art gallery
roadtrips – Modena, Ravenna, Ferrara
We did get a bit of panic when we started driving as the hotel street was not in our GPS. But by checking the hotel website we found a street nearby that we could use as a target destination. And in case you are wondering...having a GPS is highly recommended when driving in Italy. After dumping our bags at our new hotel we decided to visit Modena and we plugged in a street in the GPS and drove out of Bologna. It didn’t take long before we saw some ladies in challenging outfits along the road – I had heard that there are lots of “working girls” in this area but I guess I didn’t expect to see it in broad daylight. We choose to take the scenic road and not the toll road but the landscape was not as beautiful as in Tuscany in my opinion. When getting closer to Modena I saw a big SUV in my rear view mirror and he was driving in an “Italian way” if there is such a thing ;-) He was overtaking lots of cars, squeezing in when he had to and he was smoking and using his cell phone. When we stopped at a red light we all of a sudden felt a bump in the car! It turned out the guy in the SUV had rear ended us and we had only had the car for like 3 hours! But luckily there was not any damage to our small Fiat Punto – I guess the guy just forgot that an automatic rolls forward if you don’t step on the break.
We only spent a few hours in Modena – after parking the car we walked to Piazza Grande to check out the Duomo and the bell tower as these are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. But once again we were met by a church that was covered in scaffolding and it was not easy to get a proper impression of this building dating back to 1099 AD. And the bell tower was completely covered due to ongoing restoration I guess. We were in Modena on a Monday and it seemed like a lot of things were closed – maybe the summer vacation had started already for some ;-) So all in all, we didn’t get that much out of the visit to Modena.
Ferrara on the other hand, had more to offer. Ferrara is about 50 km northeast of Bologna and it didn’t take us long to drive there. Right by the old city walls there was a huge parking place and it was great to not have to drive around to find parking in the streets. It only took us a few minutes to walk to Piazza Cattedrale but once again it was not as picturesque as the portrayed by the guidebook. They were doing roadwork and hence there were lots of fences. But we did stop by the church called Cattedrale and the façade is quite detailed and beautiful. I’m not sure that I agree with the guidebooks statement about the interior being disappointing.
We also walked over to the d’Este Castle (Castello Estense). The castle has been restored and after crossing the moat we paid the 10€ each for the entrance. We walked from room to room and there was information in both Italian and English. The only “problem” is that there was quite a lot of information so it was hard to cover it all. In the old kitchen one of the employees came over to me and started explaining the kitchen history...in Italian of course. Yet again it would have been great with a babel fish – in the end I just had to say “Sorry, I don’t understand anything of what you are saying” We also checked out the dungeons, the view from the orange tree garden and the view from the torre dei Leoni (lions’ tower). Some of the rooms had beautiful ceiling decorations and they had installed mirrors on the floor at an angle to give you the opportunity to study the ceiling without having to break the neck – that is quite brilliant and I think this is the first time I see it. We (read Nikki) even had time for some shopping in Ferrara before we had to get back to the car to drive back to Bologna.
The following day we decided to visit Ravenna and this small town which in renowned for mosaics, is located about 80 km (about 50 miles) south east of Bologna. We took the scenic route once again but the landscape was not really that exciting. When we came towards Ravenna we had plotted in a parking place that look suitable – but when we reached our destination we didn’t see any parking! And if you have been driving in an Italian city you know that it can be a bit stressful – all of a sudden the GPS was nagging “Recalculating. Make a u-turn”, we were forced to drive one way streets and it felt like we were driving right through the historic city centre of Ravenna. So when we all of a sudden saw a garage with a parking sign, we stopped and handed over our keys. I didn’t think they had valet parking in Italy ;-) All this driving in circles and across town had left us totally dizzy and we had major problems getting oriented to our whereabouts in this small town. But after studying the map...well, actually I whipped out the GPS, we found our way to San Vitale and Gallia Placida.
San Vitale is a 6th century basilica and we had to pay 8.50€ to get access to both the basilica and the mausoleum Gallia Placida next door. When we walked into the basilica I started looking at the artwork in the ceiling and I was convinced for a while that it was painted – but look closely and you will see that this is actually mosaics and it is beautiful. When we walked out of the church to check out the Mausoleo de Gallia Placida I was stopped by a young Italian guy and he wanted to see my ticket. He said something to me in German and I replied that he had the wrong country. His face then lit up and he asked “How do you say I love you in your language”. I could of course not resist joking about this so I told him I was flattered but I was not like that ;-). But I told him the line in Norwegian but then he seemed very disappointed as he pointed out “but it is the same as in Danish”. So you girls out there...beware of the young Italian Casanova outside the Gallia Placida ;-). Outside the Gallia Placida I think it said that you were only allowed to be in there for 5 minutes and no flash when taking photos. But it seemed like people were ignoring both – so it is not exactly like visiting “Last supper” in Milan ;-) According to the guidebook the mosaics in this tiny little building is some of the finest ever made. I don’t have that much to compare it to but the mosaics are spectacular.
It is only a short walk to another interesting place: Domus di Tappeti di Pietra (carpet of stones). Under a 14th century church they have found a mosaic floor of a classical Roman villa – how amazing is that? We paid 4€ each for the entrance and also took an audioguide to get some more info. It is really quite spectacular. We also stopped by the Duomo before we had to get into the car and start our journey back home – once again we had trouble finding the way but after going a couple of circles around town we got onto the highway ;-)
If you want to drive the main highway the speed limit seems to be 110 km/h (about 70 mph)and there is a fee. We paid about 4€ driving from Ravenna to Bologna.
Time to go back home
Some “useful” tips
Feel free to check out the next section: Eating and drinking in Bologna :-)