Bologna is one of the big cities of Italy. It always has been. Considering its importance to the history, art and culture of Italy, plus the attractive buildings that remain from its past and very gracious lifestyle of its present, it’s a real pity it is not better known.
The Bolognesi are famous for their food and good living. There’s a good reason for that. The land around the city is some of the most productive in all Italy; this is the basis for all that variety in their cuisine, with a considerable part having meat at its heart. Agriculture and industry made the people rich: maybe more than any other city in Italy, Bologna loves to live well and enjoy its success. Even a business lunch in one of the many truly superb restaurants is an excuse to enjoy the hospitality and savour something special.
This sense of contented bonhomie spills over into the way the Bolognesi treat people too. They are fun people to be with, excellent company and full of jokes and stories to tell. They seem to treat everyone as a welcome addition to a party, all being equal. This spirit of humanity is ancient: way back in 1256 the city abolished serfdom and slavery, the city buying their freedom out of public funds. In the Renaissance, women were allowed to study, gain degrees and have their own professions. In the 1700s, under the Popes no less, a woman professor taught at the University.
That University is the heart and soul of Bolognese pride, for it is the oldest of its type in Europe, opened its doors in 1088. The University also gives the city its flavour, for the streets are always noisily full of students and bicycles. Like its rival the Sorbonne in Paris, great scholars lived and studied here, Thomas á Beckett, Dante, Boccacio, Petrarch, Copernicus and Erasmus amongst them.
As you walk through the old centre, one thing that jumps out at you is how many arcades there are. Not only are they a graceful ornament to Bologna, but they are also useful too, for they keep the rain off you in winter and the hot sun off you in summer. The arcade from the church of San Luca to the walls of the city is almost four kilometres long!
Two tall brick towers dominate the centre of Bologna, both now slightly off the vertical. There were originally 180 towers of various sizes and shapes; the others have all gone in wars, the demilitarization of the town and big re-zoning work in the late 1800s. It must have looked like a medieval Manhattan back in the 1300s! The rest of the centre is full of cultural places to visit, like the Libraries, the churches and the theatres.
Spring and fall are mild, rainy and short. Since Bologna doesn’t escape the weather of the Po valley, winter is chilly and foggy, while summer is definitely hot and humid. Almost every month there’s something going on, mostly music and film festivals. Traditional celebrations include the Festa della Madonna di San Luca on May 12th, a traditional procession which since 1433 carries an icon of the Madonna with Child from the church to the cathedral. Also in May Bologna has its own version of a Paio, the celebration where people dress in medieval costume and there are jousts, horse races and local fairs. A more contemporary “Danza Urbana” takes place in September, a big festival with dancing in the street and squares. And of course, food can’t be missed, with the Tortellino Day in October – all about tortellini and wine. But the real reason to visit is simply to enjoy the delights of being in a truly welcoming city and meet hospitable, hearty, happy people.