If you’re looking for a quick 48-hour jaunt look no further than Italy’s gastronomic heartland, where the buildings glow red, the gelato is plentiful and just a two hour flight stands between you and a stroll down Bologna’s 38km of intricate poritcoes – Aperol in one hand and phrasebook in the other.
Its reputation for melding history and belt-busting food has earned it not one but three nicknames – la dotta, la rossi and la grassi; or the learned, the red and the fat, for those without the language skills. But do its walls painted in sunset hues, mosaic walkways and riches of mortadella, cheese and Prosecco live up to the hype?
We made a quick pit-stop at the Art Hotel Novecento before hitting the main square, Piazza Maggiore, for the evening. Though Bologna is just a short train ride from nearby Florence, this is a city where the mood is unfailingly polite and even in its central courtyard, there are no pushy waiters on street corners trying to entice you into the nearest tourist trap.
In fact, on a Tuesday afternoon the streets were practically deserted, leaving us to pick an osteria – cafes serving wine and snacks – quite undisturbed. At Zerocinquantuno 051, we raised our first Spritzes and ate salty slithers of Parma ham, roast belly pork and sundried tomatoes tucked into tigella – small, round-shaped bread made with olive oil.
Then, to the first of many ice cream stops – the much-lauded La Sorbetteria Castiglione, where in keeping with tradition, gelato is stored under the counter to keep it the perfect temperature and texture. We chose velvety scoops of salted caramel, rich dark chocolate and vanilla before chasing them with strong coffees and venturing out in the unforeseen evening drizzle.
Winding our way back to the hotel through a gloom of alleyways, fresh fruit and veg stalls punctuated the darkness with bursts of colour. We paused at a cheering window display of loose tortellini at one of Bologna’s most famous pasta-makers, Paolo Atti and Figli, where signs promised their wares were so authentic it would “fool your husband you made them yourself”. A nightcap at Mercato di Mezzo also saw us tick off the city’s first indoor market, a three-storey pavilion that dates back to the Middle Ages and now hosts a handful of vendors serving cocktails and street food.
With only 36 hours left, we were out early on day two with a hit-list of eateries, churches and backstreets to visit. Our first stop was Via de’ll Indipendenza, a wide avenue of high street shops bordering the former Jewish ghetto. Veering into its maze of passages, we stopped to read about the fascinating history which saw a community forced by the Papal State to live within borders that were opened at dawn and closed at dusk.
Now home to an artisan crowd of independent retailers, cafes and bars, one of its greatest features is the network of canals running through its core. The guidebooks suggest peering through the window of a graffitied wall on Via Piella, but perhaps the best view of this not-so-hidden stretch of the Canale delle Moline is over the road, where its deep green water looks all the more vibrant for the golden buildings at its edges.
Leaving the corner of the city known as Little Venice behind, we made our way to one of Bologna’s top sights, La Torre Asinelli. We fully intended to climb its spiral staircase of 498 steps to take in rooftop views but restoration work has closed the tower until the summer. Instead we got our cultural fix at the basillica of Santo Stefano – a cluster of seven churches with mysterious origins. Thought to date back to 430 AD, the complex houses a labyrinth of ancient graves and a Benedictine cloister fronted by a suntrap made for idling in the midday sun.
In keeping with the religious theme, we toasted a successful afternoon of sight-seeing in Le Stanze – a former converted chapel in the student quarter. With its impressive frescoes duly appreciated and wine imbibed, we stopped for pick-me-up espresso martinis at the Jukebox Café before making our reservation at top gluten-free restaurant, Franco Rossi, where the service was faultless and the wheat-free pasta as good as its glutinous parent. Dessert at Cremeria Santo Stefano hit peak gelato, with unspeakably delicious custard cream and speculoos flavours on offer for just a few euros.
Our final morning was spent ducking into delicatessens with hams hung high in the windows to pick up souvenirs. Wedges of Parmesan and aged bottles of balsamic vinegar were high on the list of take-home treats and were gelato airline friendly, the stracciatella flavour from our last parlour stop, Cremeria Funivia, would have made the cut too. Bidding farewell to a city brimming with beauty and history, we returned home no redder given the intermittent sunshine, but we did come back slightly more learned and quite a bit fatter.