36 Hours in Bologna Isn’t Nearly Enough

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

“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.

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

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.

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

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.

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

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.

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

The City

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.

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

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.

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

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.

Beautiful Bologna, 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.

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

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.

Beautiful Bologna, 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.

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

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.

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

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.

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

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.

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

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).

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

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.

Beautiful Bologna, Italy

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! 

Oktoberfest Day 3

After pushing hard the previous two days we took it easy Sunday morning. We slept in until about ten and then kicked around the hostel until about twelve when we went for a bite to eat. After washing up we decided to stop by Oktoberfest and pick up some pictures. From there we planned to head to the old town and explore it in a bit greater depth before booking our train tickets for later that day.

We made the 15 minute walk to the fairgrounds where we took a number of photos, each bought a few souvenir t-shirts and casually wandered about. Eventually we worked up a bit of a thirst and couldn’t resist the urge to pop into one of the tents and poke around. We had heard fantastic things about the Augustiner tent and beer and so chose it. Luckily it was still early enough that the majority of the tents still had openings. We found the Augustiner tent and quickly located a small spot at the end of a bench next to two men and a woman dressed in traditional garb. In usual fashion we started talking to them and in no time had made friends. They helped us flag down our forgetful waitress and even shared a bit of their beer with us while we waited for our own steins when it became necessary to toast to a song.

As we sat and chatted we learned that they had been there since 9 in the morning and were already starting to hurt. One of the guys (the woman’s husband or fiance) went from drunk to partially passed out in the 2 or so hours we sat there with them. The three were incredibly friendly, sharing stories, food, history, harassing each other and all around including us in the fun. When anyone ordered food, it got passed around and shared and as the two foreigners we had to try everything. This ranged from a red cabbage/beet thing, to gravy-covered meat, pretzels, and a herring and onion sandwich. While I didn’t notice a huge difference between the beer in the Augustiner tent and the beer in the Pauliner tents we’d previously visited it was definitely fantastic beer.

The tent itself was incredible, see my photos (facebook – message me if you need the link) for an idea on how big it was and the atmosphere. The barmaids and men were fantastic, no idea how they did it but they would carry 5 or 6 steins at once, sometimes stacking an additional one in the middle on the handles of the others. The whole place smelled of rich food, beer, and people. The energy in the air was ecstatic as everyone was happy and as friendly and hospitable as could be. At one point there was a family who was sitting on the other side of our 3 German friends. I presume they were German and one of their kids – he had to have been 16 maybe 17 had a stein for himself. As we pounded on the table with our elbows, lifted our steins in the air to “prost!” and shouted along he kept pace with his own stein…which was about as big as he was. The funniest part was when it came time for him to leave, we all toasted him and he scuttled the last bit of beer he had to cheers from all of the surrounding tables.

Later, an older German man easily in his late 70s who was sitting behind me leaned back and challenged me to a toast. Though his english was very limited, I was able to talk to him for a bit which was really neat. Then, he would periodically lean back into our table and cheer or toast with us. He’d also sing along with one of the three (the guy who was still going strong) and they would collectively sing old drinking songs and bellow them out. Later we also picked up a German doctor who sat sandwiched in with us and reminded me of Mr. Bean…the similarity was uncanny….and he had a french-style pan haircut which made it that much better. The guy was nice, and merrily drank along with us. Another family also ended up sliding in later and though their two young girls were way too young to drink (even by Oktoberfest standards) the parents joined our merriment.

Around 3 we finally succeeded in finishing our drinks and avoiding having more bought for us. We dragged ourselves away from the tent. It was hard, the people were all so warm and the atmosphere so incredible – it almost hurt to leave. Once outside we wandered around a bit, picked up a few more items and some photos then made our way to the rail station. The unfortunate news was that our train options were pretty limited and as always expensive. The good news was after dealing with a complete ass of a rail attendant when I first tried to book my ticket, I talked to a nice lady at another window and got a sleeper compartment for the trip to Prague. Amber found a train back to Cologne later that night that left about the same time as mine. With time to kill we walked into the city center as night fell, ate and explored.

The inner city was beautiful, especially at night with the buildings and cathedrals lit up. We stopped for gelato and then found a 3-person classical street group playing in an alcove (cello, violin, flute). There we paused for a good 20-30 minutes and listened. As with so many other things on the trip it seemed straight out of a movie. Eventually we got back to the train station and hunkered down to wait for our trains. While we waited in the small coffee shop we started talking to a few of the others. The first couple ended up being Americans traveling – we exchanged stories and tips. Then I noticed that the two somewhat rugged travelers (with huge packs) had what I immediately recognized as a fly fishing pole holder. I engaged them in conversation and it turned out they were from Kansas over in Europe backpacking and fishing. Though their fly fishing luck had been really poor we chatted about fishing stories until it was time for my train to leave. They were interesting chaps, each about the size of a mountain . When we all stood up (cafe had closed) they dwarfed me…weird the people you meet, such contrast on the road!

I got lucky for my sleeper car – it was 6 beds, 3 stacked on each side of the cabin and reminded me of what I’d imagined the bunks on a submarine must look like. 4 of the other bunks were filled by a group of Asian American girls who were my age and had just finished some program or another. We got acquainted then settled in. It was somewhat comical as I warned them that I might snore and invited them to nudge me if it was disturbing them. Well at two points during the night I must have been snoring because as I was in a half sleep I remember a pillow from above flying down (I was in the middle bunk) and thwomping me on the head. It was hard to keep from laughing. By a stroke of luck, I just barely fit (and by that i mean my feet only kinda dangled) and I was able to get a good night sleep.

The next morning I awoke in Prague. I’ll continue that story soon.