Looking back, Tony & I did an embarrassing number of things wrong with regards to the European portion of our trip. For the most part, we moved too fast, were too tightly scheduled, and pinched our pennies too hard—we managed to stay under budget in a lot of places, but often at the expense of living it up and enjoying ourselves. What’s more, our whirlwind tour through Europe was really little more than a grand tour of its western capital cities, which maybe wasn’t our smartest move either. I have great love for big, bustling cities, but I’ve often found that it’s the places that are tucked out of the way of the stampeding crowds that not only best capture the spirit of a country, but tend to most effectively snag my affections to boot. Despite this, whenever we sat down to plan out an itinerary, we kept fixating on each country’s brightest stars, finding ourselves saying, “Oh, but we can’t go to France and not visit Paris, and we can’t visit Italy and not visit Rome, etc.,”
I very much doubt anyone has ever said you can’t visit Italy without visiting Bologna but what a shame that is, because wouldn’t you know, it wound up being the clear highlight of our time in the country and handily ran away with our hearts. Tucked away in the Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna tends to fly under the radar of most visitors as they skip over it en route between Tuscany’s heavy hitters and the bustling hive of tourism that is Venice. Truthfully, if not for Bologna acting as the cheapest departure point to our next destination on our whirlwind western European tour, we likely wouldn’t have stopped by for a visit either. Sure I had heard the city was an epicure’s delight, but I assumed all of Italy would be a feasting free-for-all and wouldn’t require a dedicated destination on that front. As it turns out, I was wrong about the food situation in Italy, and had we skipped Bologna, that would have been a terrible error as well.
Of course, many people tried to tell us we were fools for our choice. When we told folks that our final stop would be Bologna, they kept asking us why we didn’t just go to Venice instead. On a bad day, I’d imagine I could give you several thousand reasons (in the form of tourist bodies) to visit Bologna instead… I’m sure Venice has its charms, but as we learned all too well in Florence, popular Italian cities in peak season are no trifling thing, and if there’s anything that can detract from them, it’s the suffocating presence of other people. (See Sartre’s infamous words, “Hell is other people.”) To be completely honest, after the claustrophobic crush of crowds, the notion of going some place most other people do not was really appealing to us. And, of course, the cheap plane tickets out didn’t hurt either.
So it was that we arrived in Bologna, knowing little more about it than that it had a possibly slamming food scene, is home to the western world’s oldest university, features some interesting Renaissance-era architecture, and that hardly anyone bothers to visit. We had no list of restaurants to eat at or sights we needed to see or things we needed to do. We came ready to discover on the ground what Bologna held for us, ready for it to surprise us. After nearly a month of struggling to find our feet in Europe, it felt like we were finally getting into our travel groove once again. Maybe we were feeling slightly ground down by our experiences in Florence and Rome (and Paris before them), but it felt so good to arrive in Bologna without any expectations—for the city or for ourselves.
Undoubtedly the smartest decision we made regarding our time in Bologna is that we chose to CouchSurf once more. We realized we had been feeling kind of disconnected from the places we were visiting, and managed to secure a room on the outskirts of town with a lovely man named Enrico. I am confident that we would have found Bologna charming and delightful had we been there totally alone but, without question, hooking up with Enrico was the best thing we could have done. I cannot say enough about his incredible kindness and generosity; as you will see, his hospitality really made our trip to Bologna.
One of the things we love best about CouchSurfing is the instant connection we get to the places we visit and the insider’s knowledge that we get to benefit from. Time and again we have found that the best of a destination is revealed to us when we have a local by our side and their eyes and experience with which to view it.
Take for instance our first outing in Bologna. In a stroke of poor timing, our first day in the city fell on a Saturday when most businesses and attractions throughout the city are closed. To add insult to injury, the sky was an ominous grey and promised rain. Unwilling to be deterred, and on Enrico’s suggestion, we agreed to take part in a common weekend ritual amongst locals and climb our way up to Saint Luke’s Basilica (Santuario della Madonna di San Luca). Without Enrico’s enthusiasm and urgings, we certainly wouldn’t have tackled this bracing (invigorating?) hike; for one, we never would have known about it, and for two… well, we all know that climbing up things is rarely my favorite thing to do.
Despite the threatening skies, the majority of our walk was risk-free as we were able to make use of the city’s famous porticos (covered walkways). Numbering 666 and considered one of the city’s hallmarks, these protected pathways allow for a completely sheltered 3.5km walk up the rather steep hill upon which Saint Luke’s is perched. (And it should be noted that the San Luca walk is only a fraction of the arcades that crisscross the city, covering 40 km of ground in total!) We were huffing and puffing when we reached the top—even with ample “photography” breaks—but we had a magnificent panorama of the city to reward us (and gelato on the bottom when we made our way back down!).
In a monumental act of generosity, Enrico took the following day off from work so that he could play tour guide and show us around his city, even as the skies opened up and spat down rain. He ticked off all the city’s most important and impressive sites, including its own leaning towers (Torre degli Asinelli and Torre dei Garisenda), its famed university (the oldest in this hemisphere!), its massive San Petronio Basilica, the awe-inspiring Santo Stefano (which contains SEVEN religious complexes within it, some dating back to the 5th century!), and the old Jewish ghetto (now a haven to trendy students).
Bologna’s leaning towers
Some of the interior of Bologna’s university — founded in 1088 — and the oldest lecture hall in the western hemisphere. It was customary that when a student matriculated their family crest was inscribed on the walls or ceiling of the university.
The half-finished facade of the San Petronio Basilica, ironically under construction.
The mind-boggling complex that is Santo Stefano.
Known for its rust red brickwork and impeccably preserved medieval architecture, wandering around Bologna would be a treat even if one were completely ignorant about the history and significance of what was on display. After all, you only need eyes to see that Bologna is a gloriously pretty little city. But having someone who was not just knowledgeable but also passionate about the city and could make our tour personal made our time there even more special. As Enrico shepherded us around the city, he didn’t just tell us the dry facts you could learn anywhere, he shared some of the city’s more intimate secrets and scandals with us as well.
When we toured Palazzo Comunale (Bologna’s City Hall), Enrico showed us the room where he had been married and when we stepped outside and gazed up at San Petronio Basilica, he confided that the rather banal top portion of the building was due to concerns on the part of the Pope back in the 16th century who feared San Petronio would outshine Saint Peter’s of the Vatican and put a stop to the construction.
When we stepped out into the Piazza del Nettuno where a gigantic statute of Neptune stands at the center, he regaled us with tales of how its sculptor composed it so that from one corner of the piazza—where a convent used to stand—it appears as though Neptune’s hand is actually a massive erection. When he took us to the covered arcade north of the Piazza Maggiore, he showed us how a whispering gallery has arisen from the architecture, and seemed just as delighted as we were as we gleefully shared secrets loud and clear with one another despite our hushed voices.
I think that if I had to pick a favorite part of the city that we saw that day, I would probably have to pick the Quadrilatero district. Previously one of the poorest parts of the city, this area is a gastronome’s delight, housing wonderful fresh markets and specialty food shops. It’s a feast for the senses and a photographer’s paradise; even if most of the stalls were rather out of our price range, it was still absolutely wonderful to watch the locals shop for their fruits and veggies and uncover some of the more obscure local delicacies (care to take a visit to the horse butcher for all your equine meat needs?).
As I mentioned earlier, Bologna is known to be something of a foodie haven and is the birthplace of some of Italy’s most iconic dishes. In particular, I knew that I would have to try some authentic tortellini while we were in town, not a hard thing to do as the town is (rightly) proud of these delightful little bundles whose distinctive shape was inspired by Venus’s bellybutton. Unlike the tortellini that you find in North America, which can be stuffed with anything from ground beef to pure cheese, tortellini filling in Bologna is closely controlled: in order to be marketed as tortellini, a certain proportion of the stuffing must be made up of local ham and meat. And rather than being served with a thick sauce, traditionally the pasta is served in a light broth. Rather than the insipid, doughy carb bombs that I am accustomed to, the tortellini here were chewy yet tender and absolutely packed with flavor—the ham was pungent and paired wonderfully with the broth. I reckon that I am ruined for all other tortellini for life!
As good as our meal out with Enrico was, however, anyone who has had the pleasure of being invited into the kitchen of a local knows that Italy’s reputation as a great food nation has surely been built upon the skill and passion of its home cooks. I am not exaggerating when I say that we feasted like royalty when Enrico stepped into the kitchen at home, plating up grilled meats and lovingly prepared veggie sides that only emphasized how lackluster their Tuscan counterparts we had sampled truly were.
And of course, no trip to Bologna would be complete without sampling its namesake spaghetti Bolognese! Knowing what a keen interest we have in food, Enrico went the extra mile and asked his girlfriend, Elisa, to come over and show me how to make the ultimate sauce. (Spoiler alert: it involves some dicing, many glasses of wine, and a lot of giggling!)
First up, dispelling some more Italian food myths:
1) In Bologna, this kind of sauce is known simply as “ragu”.
2) Ragu is pretty much never eaten with spaghetti in Italy.
As with all Italian food, in order for a sauce to be considered a ragu, it must only contain certain ingredients: tomatoes, carrot, celery, onion, garlic, wine, ground pork & beef. Technically what we made cannot really be called a ragu because we scandalously went ahead and threw in some mushrooms. #sorrynotsorry
I like to think I make a fairly mean meat sauce, but Elisa’s sauce really was something other. It took about three hours to prepare (most of that devoted to simply letting the sauce simmer and reduce) and the end product was ridiculously rich and thick and really decadent. This is the dish that exemplifies the Italian mastery of strong, simple flavors and for me, eating this was akin to a light bulb illuminating above my head as I finally understood what all those people with Italian grandparents fuss about when they go into paroxysms of ecstasy over their Nana’s cooking. Like all the best cuisines, Italian cooking done right is all about putting a little bit of yourself, a little bit of your soul into the pot, and that’s just not something you can easily find on a menu. I know a sauce as good as this will never be found in any restaurant, and the memory of making it alongside Elisa is one of my very favorite memories from our entire trip. A cooking adventure to the extreme, because I don’t speak Italian and Elisa doesn’t speak much English, we resorted to speaking to each other in French… but really, I tend to think it was our shared love of food that really allowed us to bond and made for such a great afternoon in the kitchen. Finishing our meals off with some of the best gelato in the city, and we all went to bed extremely happy that night!
Despite a shakey middle portion of the Italian leg of our journey, I feel safe in saying we nailed the landing in Bologna. For us, it was a return to form, and a good reminder of how we like to travel and why we find all this globetrotting so rewarding. Though Bologna doesn’t get nearly as much press as it should, all the praise that it does get is very much deserved. Even with poor weather, we enjoyed our stay there immensely, for the legitimate deliciousness of the cuisine, the beauty of the buildings, but most of all, for its people. Much thanks and love to Enrico & Elisa for making our stay there so phenomenal: When we think back with fondness for Bologna, I know that most of our affection is focused predominantly on the two of you.
Now it’s your turn: Have you ever been to Bologna? If so, what did you think? If not, would you be interested in going? And for all you Italy experts out there, what’s your favorite “non-touristy” town that we should make sure we visit next time?