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John Mariani's "La Bella Bologna"

Food & Wine | Art | Restaurants

Like Turin, Bologna has been preserved by its lack of the kind of overwhelming tourism that quite literally plagues Rome, Venice, and Florence, which have become all but impenetrable.  Although Italy’s seventh largest city,  with about a million citizens, Bologna retains a Renaissance grandeur together with a graceful, even quiet, inner core, a city where the locals stroll and shop, buy food and sit down for lunch and dinner, and don’t depend on foreign traffic for their livelihood.
         

Which is not to say Bologna is bereft of international travelers, but they are there as much for business as for pleasure, and the city has a rich panoply of excellent hotels, including the Grand Hotel Majestic “Giá Baglioni” right in the city center, where I stayed.

Its lobby and reception hall is expansive, larger than most in Italian deluxe properties, and my room (right) sumptuously decorated  and wonderfully quiet (until a street performer decided to settle in for the afternoon on the Via Indipendenza).  I wanted to throw  pear at him from my window but the pear was too good for that. 
    

There is a state-of-the-art spa, and the hotel also has one of Bologna’s finest and loveliest restaurants, i Carracci, of which I shall say more next week. And there may well be no finer, more genteel hotel general manager than Tiberio Biondi, who goes out of his way to greet and make guests happy, backed by a highly professional staff who are well aware they work in a deluxe property for a well-traveled clientele with high expectations. 
         

Bologna is an ancient Italian city, dating back 3,000 years, with a rich history that includes the oldest university in the world, founded in 1088.  There is a great deal of beautifully preserved medieval architecture, centered around the Piazza Maggiore (left), and a smattering of later styles; the city’s walls sre still evident and its many towers and archways give Bologna a vertical and horizontal balance.
         

Like all Italian cities, Bologna has had its good, bad, and horrific times, but currently, as the capital of Emilia Romagna, with a good industrial base, the city is as prosperous as it looks, but the Bolognesi do not show it off; they are not ostentatious; they do not flaunt their affluence.  It is a city far more proud of its intellectual and educational heritage and of food so delicious and famous throughout Italy that the city has long been called “La Grassa,” the fat one.  I shall be saying more about Bologna’s gustatory splendor in next week’s newsletter, but for the moment let me mention that Emilia Romagna is home to Parmigiano-Reggiano, mascarpone, mortadella, cotechino, grana padana, Prosciutto di Parma, tortellini, tagliatelle, and, of course, lasagne all bolognese. Florentine fabulist Giovanni Boccaccio tells a story in his Decameron (1353) of a land where there is a mountain made out of Parmigiano cheese on which people do nothing all day but eat macaroni; I'm sure he meant Emilia Romagna.  I have recently written about its principal wine, Lambrusco, which has a wholly undeserved reputation for being sweet, fizzy plonk.
 
Of the scores of churches that dot Bologna, requisite visits include the vast San Petronio Basilica (right), begun in 1390 in the Gothic style of pink and white marble, with 22 chapels within. The Bologna Cathedral, while not as large as San Petronio, is, in the ecclesiastical sense, more important. Begun in 1028, it burned down in 1141 and was rebuilt, with additions along the centuries, with a new façade added in 1747.  The Bolognesi themselves favor the medieval architecture of San Petronio to the Baroque style of the Cathedral, which they find ostentatious.  There is also the somber, cloistered St. Stephen Basilica,  the deliberately plain Basilica of Saint Mary, founded as a church for the Servite Community, and the late Romanesque San Giacomo Maggiore, established by a community of hermits in 1247.  
 
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Given its long history of devotion to the musical arts, Bologna  initiated the project "Bologna dei Teatri" in 1998, a circuit of theaters offering cultural and theatrical events from the folkloric to the grand. The city’s opera house, the Teatro Comunale di Bologna (left), is widely renowned, and its own heritage includes native son, conductor Arturo Toscanini.

The city has its formidable lists of famous people from the arts and politics, sports and industry, and a short one, with a nod to the Emilia Romagna region, would include artists like Correggio, Parmigianino, Reni,  and Morandi, opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, composer Giuseppe Verdi, author Umberto Eco,  race car driver and entrepreneur Enzo Ferrari (whose superb new Ferrari museum is in nearby Modena).  The city nearly corners the market on great Italian film directors, claiming Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini (below) and Bernardo Bertolucci as their own.

When I visited in June, the weather was hotter than usual for that time of year, but Bologna is a northern city, so it doesn’t get the constant searing heat of Rome, Naples, and cities to the south.  I therefore walked and walked and walked, under those shady arches and in the shadows thrown by the towers and churches around the Piazza Maggiore and the bronze Neptune Fountain. There are two colossal towers in the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana.


Unfortunately, as too often is the case in Italy, important monuments are closed for any number of reasons at any time of day of the week, and this was the case with the National Museum of Art, which I wanted to see for its Bolognese paintings, as well as Perugino’s "Madonna in Glory" and Raphael’s "Ecstasy of St. Cecilia." But those must be for another time.


Simply joining the throngs of Bolognesi who usher from work to eat at their favorite trattorias and ristoranti and the students noshing on panini and salume is as much a part of the city’s great charm as its monuments.  For its history, its size, and its tempo of life, civilization has no more appealing showcase than Bologna.

Article written by John Mariani and published in his Virtual Gourmet available on his website www.johnmariani.com

John Mariani is an experienced traveler and restaurant connoisseur having been traveling the world for over 35 years. He publishes a weekly journal on his website which has a different theme every week. We highly recommend a visit if you are passionate about travel and food. 

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