“Hi Mom and Dad, I ended up taking a quick detour before returning to Copenhagen. I hope all is wel-wait, what?”
“You studied in Bologna? I thought you did your semesters abroad in Sienna?”
“Really? Both!? Wow!”
Just like that I learned something new. You would think that something as big as the topic of where my mom had studied abroad when she was my age would have come up…perhaps it did…but it definitely surprised me as I sat in my hotel room, freshly arrived in Bologna. It also changed my relationship with the city completely. Not only had I found myself in what was shaping up to be a gorgeous city after a last minute change of plans, I was now retracing family history. Not a bad start.
I found myself in Bologna as a last minute guest for the BlogVille Launch Party. The concept is a really cool one. Basically the local tourism folks at tourism Emilia Romagna set up two apartments, one in Bologna and one in Rimini, for travel bloggers to stay in free of charge. The goal? To showcase the region and boy-oh-boy did it work! My trip to Bologna started in a parking lot in Narni as I prepared to head to Rome before catching my flight back to Copenhagen. That’s when I got my invitation. Kash, of Budget Traveller who was helping launch Blogville mentioned that a few of us should join him last minute in Bologna. I hesitated briefly and then decided to toss my existing plans out the window and to give it a go – who doesn’t love a good launch party with great company? So I joined Kash, Jodi of LegalNomads, Alexandra of Fluent in Frolicking and Angie of Angie Away for a race to Perugia where we caught a train to Florence, and then on to Bologna. As it worked out Ken Kaminesky‘s trip back to Florence aligned with the first two thirds of our itinerary. What ensued was a hilarious train ride up the middle half of Italy. Luckily we all made it (generally) in one piece, though most of us were sore from non-stop laughter for the next couple days.
Things continued to maintain their entertaining ambiance even after we arrived. As we waited for our host Nicholas who was our local facilitator and Blogville representative we relaxed in the Piazza de Neptune. In the photo above you’ll see quite possibly one of the coolest street musician setups I’ve ever run across. Parked in Bologna’s central square by the fountain of Neptune, this gentleman had a full three piece speaker setup, sound mixer, and mobile generator all attached to his motorcycle. As if that wasn’t cool enough he was jamming out on a headless guitar. See the glowing patch on his shirt? It’s very possible that this was Iron Man on an incognito vacation.
Our arrival was just before sunset and Nicholas promptly showed us to the last minute accommodation they had lined up for us. As last minute arrivals the BlogVille house was already full. But, glad to have us and incredibly fast acting they reached out to a local hotel who put up Jodi, Alexandra, Angie and I for our two night visit. As it turned out the hotel, Art Hotel Commercianti, was situated just off the city’s gorgeous Piazza Maggiore and the rooms overlooked – yes, I said overlooked – the main Duomo. The hotel’s interior was every bit as elegant and beautiful as its view. As an Art Hotel, the entire building was decorated with a museum quality mixture of historical artifacts and beautiful artwork. The breakfast buffet was large, fresh and even had a gluten free section. The rooms were spotless, modern, well equipped and our host Dott. Mauro Orsi was an absolute class act. One of my favorite highlights was the authentic suit of armor they’ve setup on one of the sofas in the reception area. While he may not be the world’s greatest conversationalist (conversation was a bit hollow) he definitely makes for able bodied company while waiting for friends to arrive.
To put it simply Bologna is a much more attractive and vibrant city than I expected. Which isn’t to say I didn’t expect it to be attractive, I did…which perhaps makes its impact on me even more pronounced. The city center is relatively flat and feels like a fairly large city. After all, it has nearly 400,000 residents. So, it has excellent high end shopping, bustling streets, and the ambiance of a city that is not just there for show, but which is alive and being lived in. There’s no mistaking Bologna for a small countryside-town and that’s part of its distinct charm. Especially given one of the city’s major claims to fame: the oldest University in the World. A University which incredibly dates back to 1088.
Bologna is…alive. As you walk through the city’s large, open squares you can feel the city’s heartbeat throb around you. Which is probably why in addition to being an incredible University town Bologna has also been hailed as a UNESCO City of Music, and a European Capital of Culture. Heck, after seeing the motorcycle musician I’d say that by itself earns the UNESCO designation.
The city’s visual style is also representative of the region and indicative of the city’s historic importance and wealth. The streets are all lined by richly colored buildings, most of which are painted in orange and golden hues. At sunset the late afternoon light really brings out the color, making it a magical time to wander the town. The architecture is impressive and has a sprawling elegance that brings to mind everything one might imagine when mentally picturing the might and Majesty of Renaissance Italy.
The old city center is also home to a fantastic mixture of winding and confusing streets. For me, this is a hallmark of a good city. There’s just something charming about getting lost in a zig-zag of narrow avenues and wide open boulevards that worm through neighborhoods full of small squares, corner cafes, and opportunities to glimpse locals living and engaging with their city.
As I mentioned earlier, the architecture that marks the city’s main buildings has a very distinct appearance to it. In many cases this visual style is similar to what is found in Florence, Venice and across the Northern parts of Italy and marked by a distinctly martial feel. While no doubt terribly imposing when first built, I find the more modern effect to be quite inviting. Each window, supported rampart and tower seems to offer a mystery worth exploring. I only regret that I lacked the time to properly explore Bologna. Though, I definitely intend to return to the city upon my next visit to Italy.
As we toured the town with Nicholas we eventually expressed an interest in finding a small cafe for lunch, all eager to take advantage of a well-versed local host. He quickly wound us through a variety of back streets, and past a wonderful mixture of local shops and kiosks, many of which were overflowing with fresh produce and local meats.
Perhaps it was all an elaborate plan to ensure our mouths were salivating and our stomachs rumbling by the time we completed our brief 10 minute walk. Or more likely it’s just impossible to walk through the city’s downtown area without almost falling into shop after delicious looking shop.
The synergy between Italian city and Italian University town results in even more cafe’s and small bar districts than you’ll find in your typical Italian town. Which makes Bologna a fantastic destination in good weather, and perfect for travelers interested in engaging with and really immersing themselves in the city’s culture and ambiance.
As we settled into our cafe on a small side street and ordered from their menu of the day I had the opportunity to people watch. I’m always impressed by just how fashionable the Italians are, and as one of Italy’s most affluent cities Bologna is definitely anything but the exception to the rule. As the locals relaxed, made their way past on bikes (or more likely a moped) and casually strolled along the street often looked as though they were straight off the pages of a leading fashion magazine….and of course, always make their whole appearance look effortless.
After a refreshing lunch it was time to explore once more. One thing that always makes me chuckle is European fountains, and Bologna is no different. The fountain of Neptune – one of the city’s famous landmarks – takes an interesting approach to depicting the female form. Did I say interesting? I meant hands on. I’d love to see the sculptor’s thought process. I’m sure it went something like, “what does this statue of a giant naked Neptune need? Women. Squeezing their breasts. Breasts squirting water. Yes, THAT is the mark of a good fountain”. Regardless, the end result is an extremely impressive statue with beautiful depictions of the human body (and various sea monsters).
Still partially immersed in our food coma’s Nicholas responded to one of the girl’s requests for ice cream by taking us to what he claimed was the best ice cream shop in town. Located right next to one of the city’s other famous landmarks – the Two Towers of Bologna. Of these one is 97 meters tall and largely straight while the other is 48 meters tall and leans heavily. Oh, and the ice cream? Nicholas was right and the shop (not to mention the view) was fantastic.
In addition to the seeing the towers and the fountain of Neptune there’s a lot to see and do in Bologna. Unfortunately, with my limited window I only had the opportunity to get the smallest of tastes before I had to catch a 4AM train back to Rome for my flight. That said, what I did see and experience during my time in Bologna definitely caught my attention in a major way. The city is awash in fantastic food, rich nightlife, and a wonderful history with several day’s worth of sights to see. I’ll definitely be back to Bologna, and with ample time to properly explore the city.
If you’re interested in learning more about Bologna I definitely suggest checking out posts from BlogVille guest bloggers. Either by accessing the BlogVille site, or just doing a generic google search for “#BlogVille”. Overall I was extremely impressed by all aspects of the visit. The city is stunning, the professionalism, energy and vision shown by Nicholas and the local tourism folks was fantastic, and the time spent with the other #Blogville bloggers was delightful.
As a fun aside, out of the launch party several of us were interviewed by an Italian Journalist. The interviews led to pieces in both Glamour Italy and Cosmopolitan Italy. You can view the Cosmo piece here.
Oh, and I almost forgot. A special thank you to Dott. Mauro Orsi and Bologna Art Hotels for the gift of a fantastic Bolognese Cooking Heritage book by Barbara Bertuzzi. It contains a bunch of pure culinary delights, some of which I might just share with you all soon!