Bologna – complete guide to the secrets of the city

Street of House Isolani

I first visited Bologna in one of my first trips abroad. I remember that I liked it so much, that I declared I would move there one day. Nine years later, after visiting more countries and even more cities, there are several where I would like to live, for at least a while, but I still don’t have second thoughts about Bologna. Maybe that’s because I feel I could live “la dolce vita” in this town. It is not as touristy as other places but has just enough visitors to make the city vibrant, the population is young and fun, the food is delicious and the rain does not seem to make it miserable. Besides, in Bologna I never felt the rush to run from one touristic point to another, the city is beautiful as a whole and perfect for long walks to look around.

Bologna la gorda, la rossa, la dotta, la turrita

Bologna is a city of many hats and as such, it has several nicknames. It is known as Bologna “la gorda, la rossa, la dotta, la turrita”. Each of these refers to a special social aspect.

Bologna la gorda – the fat one

Emilia Romagna traditional food

The food that made the city famous is not the healthiest one and is not a mere reflection of the Mediterranean diet.

Bologna is the place where mortadella has been cooked for more than 500 years out of pork meat mixed with high-quality fat from the throat and a blend of salt, white pepper, peppercorns, coriander, anise, pistachio, and wine. It is highly appreciated and the European Union granted it the Protected Geographical Indication.

Another dish that Bologna claims are the tortellini. Their origin has long been disputed between Bologna and Modena. The original version also contains mortadella. We’ve tried Balanzoni with ricotta and mortadella and I can assure you that they deserve every penny.

I’m sure you’ve eaten spaghetti bolognese before. Don’t dare to ask for it in Bologna. They would never serve you this because no bolognese thinks that the Ragù sauce works with spaghetti. Better ask for Tagliatelle or Gramigna al Ragù and a glass of wine to accompany the dish.

Bologna la rossa – the red one

Bologna la rossa

For a lot of time, I’ve thought that this is because of the color of the rooftops seen from the top of the tower in the center. This theory still stands, but I’ve heard there is yet another reason for this. Bologna was the capital of anti-fascist Italy. During the war, it was at the heart of the Resistance movement and a stronghold for Italy’s Communist Party for several decades after that.

Bologna la turrita – the one with towers

It had 120 in the past and 22 are still standing. Two of them are famous, the Asinelli and Garisenda. Both of them are leaning, but Garisenda is said to lean more than the tower in Pisa. For 5 euro, you can climb to the top of the Asinelli tower and check those orange-red rooftops I’ve mentioned. Nine years ago, you could just go over there and climb the 498 steps. Today you have to reserve your spot at the Tourist  Center or online in advance. There is a superstition that if you ever pass between the two towers/climb at the top of Asinelli and have not graduated yet, you never will.

Bologna la dotta – the learned one

University of Bologna Anatomy

Due to the Archiginnasio, the first seat of the University of Bologna and the oldest university of the Western world, founded in 1088. Before the Archiginnasio was built, lessons were held in private or rented houses, in religious venues and sometimes on the squares. The two-story building remained the seat of the university until 1803. Make sure you peek inside the gorgeous and fascinating Teatro Anatomico, where corpses were dissected for the first scientific studies of the human body.

University Graduation

Today, it seems like a lot of the Italians pass between the two towers, as very few graduate. We’ve been there during the graduation season and there were only about 10 students that had just graduated. Our guide said that this is such a rarity nowadays that if you graduate from university you are already called a doctor, after only 3 years of superior studies.

The day of graduation, your friends and family will make you wear silly clothes and do even sillier things and sing you “Dottore, dottore, dottore del buso del cul, vaffancul vaffancul”, which means “Doctor, doctor. You’re just a Doctor of the a-hole. f* off, f* off. Even if this is such a big thing in Italy, you should not still think much of yourself, but stay on the ground.

Bologna, the city where you don’t need an umbrella

Porticoes of Bologna

I don’t know if this is real, but I’ve called it this for the past nine years and this is my blog, so I can call it like this. Today the historical center of Bologna has more than 40 km of porticoes, plus the 4 km route to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Luca. Thanks to them, Bologna is on the Unesco tentative list. Besides their historical importance, they give a special character to the town and deem the use of an umbrella useless, be it rain or sunshine.

Regarding the construction of the porticoes to Madonna di Luca, there is a legend that says that the architect made sure there would be 666 arches. Our guide told us they are even numbered, but only until 657. The last nine don’t have numbers on them. The arcade was designed like this for the ceremony in May during which the statue of Madonna is brought to the town for one week and taken back. For lazier tourist, there is a train from Piazza Maggiore to San Luca, San Luca City Express.

Other places and secrets of Bologna

Piazza Maggiore

Today, the square is the heart of the town together with the adjacent Piazza Nettuno. In the evening, there are a lot of people sitting on the steps around it or directly on the ground, listening to music, chatting, having a snack and a beer. In July and August, a film festival takes place here, “Sotto le Stelle del Cinema“.

The unfinished Basilica of San Petronio

Basilica of San Petronio

The square is dominated by the Basilica of San Petronio, the patron saint of the city. It was started in 1390, in marble, but as it was initially planned, it would have been larger than San Pietro in the Vatican. Having heard this, the pope stopped its construction. Even if the people of Bologna were against the pope at the time, they could not continue the building as the pope bought the land next to it. In 1530, the basilica was chosen by Pope Clement VII for the coronation of Charles V and it had to be finished. As there was no time, they simply decided to brick it.

The saint on Palazzo d’Accursio o Communale

Palazzo Communale

Moving clockwise, there is Palazzo d’Accursio o Communale, the city hall, and the Clock Tower. It consists of several buildings built in different centuries and this can be easily seen in the two different styles on its facade. Not only the styles are different, but according to the architectural subtleties, also the religious affinities differ. Half of the battlements have a “V” shape, which meant that the owners were against the Pope, while the other half has a flat shape, which meant that they were for the Pope. The statue in the middle of the palace depicts Pope Gregory XIII (pontiff of the Bolognese Boncompagni family). However, the inscription above it says differently. That’s because during the Second World War, the citizens wanted to protect it from Hitler and changed it to “Divus Petronius Protector et Pater” (the saint patron of the town).

The walls that whisper

Across the basilica stands the Palazzo del Podesta and the whispering tunnel beneath it. Legend says that if two people whisper in two corners opposite they can hear each other. Don’t be surprised if it will be a bit crowded as everyone tries to test the theory. We’ve tried it too and it works, but only if there is silence. As per the legend, this was concocted in medieval times to confess lepers.

Piazza Nettuno

Neptune or pornstar?

Fountain of Neptune

As in the 16th century, Bologna became subject to the Papal States, Pope Pius IV decided to give the bolognese something they did not have yet, a fountain. This was not out of goodwill, but to let the people know who ruled over them and Neptune is a metaphor of the pope. Just as Neptune rules over the sea, the Pope rules over the land, represented by the four little angels, which stand for the Ganges, the Nile, the Amazon, and the Danube, the main rivers of the four continents known at the time. As per the legend, Neptune’s genitals should have been bigger, but, naturally, the Church forbade this. In retaliation, Giambologna designed the statue in such a way that, from behind, the thumb of his left hand seems to stick out from the lower abdomen, similar to a huge erect penis.

Re Enzo and the Bentivoglio family

In Neptune’s square, behind the Palazzo del Podesta stands Palazzo del Re Enzo. It takes it names from Enzo of Sardinia, the favorite son of Frederick II, who was imprisoned there by the Guelphs for 23 years, from 1249 until his death in 1272, despite the efforts of his father to have him liberated. Enzo was left free within the palace by day and even had women brought to him, but by night he was kept into a cage hanging from the ceiling. A legend talks that he had a son from a peasant that was called “Bentivoglio”, from the words “ben ti voglio” (I love you) that Enzo sang to him and he was the ancestor of the Bentivoglio family, that later ruled over Bologna.

Piazza Santo Stefano

Square of the 7 churches

The square is home to the Complex of the Seven Churches, one of the main sights of Bologna. You can enter the complex for free and find out more about its secrets and the buildings that seem to blend and melt together inside. Two days a month, an antique market with vintage objects of all kinds takes place there.

The legend of the three arrows

Across the square lies Corte Isolani with its passage and expensive shops, but before crossing it, stop for a moment and look for the arrows in the wooden ceiling. How many can you count? We’ve only got to two and this is also what our guide told us, but apparently, some people could find three. Depending on the number of arrows you see, there are two versions of a legend. A rich man found out that his wife was cheating on him and hired three assassins to kill her. When the woman opened the window she was naked and apparently had such beautiful boobs that two of archers missed. Depending on how many arrows you can see, the third one missed also or was gay, was not distracted and hit the target.

The window to the little Venice

Channel of Bologna

In the past, Bologna looked more like Venice. During the 12th and 13th centuries, water canals connected Bologna to the Po river. Today almost all of them are tucked away behind the city walls and under the buildings, but a few can still be seen. The most popular one can be viewed in Piella street looking through a small window next to Trattoria Biassnot.

Where to sleep, eat, shop

Apartment in the center of Bologna

We booked a room at La Cineteca Bed and Breakfast and were more than happy with it. The owner was nice and gave us some tips on where to eat and what to do. The entire apartment is themed and you can see that he paid a lot of attention to details. It was a bit pricier, 70 euro/night for two persons, including breakfast, I would not think twice about staying there again.

Mercato Mezzo

Wander the streets of the Quadrilatero, the seat of the medieval market, where you can look for all sorts of delicacies. There’s where you can buy the famous Bolognese specialties to take home: tortellini, tagliatelle, balanzoni, mortadella, Parmigiano Reggiano, sauce ragù and local wines.

Croissant at Cafferteria Fiordaliso

After a shopping round, eat at Mercato Mezzo or Mercato de Erbe, for both good food and atmosphere. In the morning, have a traditional breakfast with croissant and cappuccino at Fiordaliso Caffetteria, the best we’ve eaten in town and they don’t pay me to tell you this. We could not but test four of them, for research purposes, of course. They were all delicious.

Where to go next?

Bologna is great, but so is the entire region. If you got here and found out all the secrets of Bologna, why not take some day trips and get to know more of the region? Great options are Ferrara, Modena, Florence, Ravenna or even Rimini and San Marino, if you can spare two days.

Have a nice trip!

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