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Fine food, fast cars and faulty towers: Bologna

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

I fell for Bologna. For its wide, porticoed streets lined with amber and red stuccoed buildings and mosaic patterned sidewalks. For its laid back university town vibe in the evening. For its civilized light traffic and lack of tourist crowds. For its amazing understated restaurants with their tables spilling out onto sidewalks. And for its grand Piazza Maggiore, ringed by palazzos, anchored by a unique cathedral and presided over by a commanding Fountain of Neptune.

Bologna evening on one of the main shopping streets

Bologna isn't as showy as the more visited cities in Italy, but that's a big part of its charm. The city has plenty to explore, and there are also great day trips to be had nearby. You can easily see Motor Valley, foodie destinations like Modena and Parma, and historic towns like Ravenna and Verona by basing yourself in Bologna. We even took a (long) day trip to Pisa.

bologna centre, the Fountain of Neptune and Piazza Maggiore

The food

We only had a few days in Bologna, so we barely scratched the surface of the food scene. There were casual Osterias and Trattorias on every block interspersed with pizzerias, gelato shops and bakeries. We saw delis selling beautiful arrays of cheeses and cured meats. We had fun browsing in grocery stores with dozens of different kinds of pasta, olive oils and vinegars.

My favourite meal was the Tagliatelle Ragu at <a href="" target="_blank">Osteria dell' Orsa. This classic dish was the original inspiration for North America's favourite 'Italian' dish, Spaghetti Bolognese, something you won't find on any self-respecting restaurant's menu in Bologna. The ragu in Bologna is less tomato-y, slightly smoky and rich-tasting. It's not served on spaghetti, but rather a flatter, long pasta called tagliatelle. Mine was scrumptious.

The next evening at La Maranara, the appetizers and desserts were even better than the primos and secondis. We shared an appetizer combo that included a fennel and orange salad, prosciutto mousse, a cheezy quiche, and a light-as-air mini frittata. Our desserts had some French influence. We enjoyed a delicate chocolate flan, baked cherries with ice cream and a chocolate creme caramel. Wow.

I wish I had known about the many cooking schools and classes on offer in Bologna. You can spend a few hours learning to make a single meal, or sign up for a week or more of intense classes. The Bologna Welcome tourist information service has a list of schools and classes for food tourists.

Just 30 minutes away by train lies Modena, home of balsamic vinegar. Another few minutes and you're passing through Reggio Emilia (parmesan country) and Parma, where prosciutto was born. There are agriturismos in every direction from Bologna. These provide opportunities to spend a night or two on a food-producing farm, another experience I need to try next time. The region is simply a food lover's paradise.

The cars

Food aside, our main reason for hopping the train to Modena was to visit the swanky Museo Ferrari. It was just a five minute walk from Modena station to the museum along a well-marked route.

The large main exhibit hall had more premium shiny red machines than I've ever seen before, all in one room. I knew Jackson would enjoy it, but I had no idea Nina would be just as enthralled. There were models from every decade, including some very rare vintage editions.

I could have done without the corny Pavarotti light show/documentary film we were forced to watch. It was part of a temporary themed exhibit illustrating what seemed like a tenuous connection between the famous opera singer (also from the area) and Enzo Ferrari.

A second, smaller building was Enzo Ferrari's original home. He sold the house at age 20 to buy his first race car, and so the seeds of his future empire were sowed. Inside, plaques and displays depicted episodes from Enzo's life, and there were a few F1 race cars and engines on display. Reading between the lines, I gathered Enzo was a bit of a tyrant, now hailed as a heroic, mythical legend.

There's another, older Ferrari museum and the actual factory in a neighbouring town. You can even catch a shuttle between the two museums. But since we'd had a lazy, late start to the day we decided not to make the trek.

 ferrari cars on display in the Museo Ferrari in Modena, near Bologna

Instead, we stopped at Trattoria Via Ferrari on our way back to the station for lunch. I half expected a medicore meal, thinking the name of the place implied tourist trap. But it was nothing of the kind. The atmosphere was quaint and tasteful, and once again, the food was excellent.

The waiter recommended appetizers of of puff pastry topped with prosciutto, which we devoured. I followed that with giant fresh made ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach topped with butter and sage. Jackson had a rich red wine risotto and Nina opted for grilled steak. Simple, tasty food and wonderful friendly service.

Walking back to the station, we passed a strip of shops staffed by and catering to Africans. There was a hair extension salon, an African grocery, a hip-hop clothing boutique and an evangelical bookstore. Almost all of the pedestrians were African too, and Nina thought she recognized Nigerian accents. It was an interesting little enclave in an unexpected spot.

For anyone who wants to see even more fast, shiny machines,the Ducati Museum is right in Bologna and the Lamborghini factory and museum is in nearby Santâ Agata Bolognese. Since the Lamborghini factory tours were sold out 3 months in advance, we decided it wasn't worth the detour. You can still visit the museum without a booking, but if you want to tour the factory, book early!

The Faulty Towers

Northern Italy has more leaning towers than I realized. There's the famous one at Pisa, but Venice also has a couple. There another on the island of Burano, and Bologna has two of its own. Unstable soil must have been one of the early Italian engineer's greatest foes.

Medieval Bologna went through a tower-building trend, started by wealthy families who wanted them for defensive purposes. Many have crumbled or have been demolished over the years. Of those still standing, the Two Towers are the most well-known. It's hard to tell from the photo below (since we're used to seeing distortion in architectural photos), but both of them lean when you see them in person. The shorter one tilts more obviously.

Although the original families who built the towers used them mostly to keep an eye on the surrounding streets, they were later used by astronomers to study the heavens. You can pay to climb to the top for views of the city, but we weren't feeling much like doing hundreds of claustrophobic stairs in the intense heat.

leaning towers bologna and pisa

It wasn't originally in our plan, but we decided to take a day trip to Pisa to see its crooked tower. Our connection through Florence was very efficient; only a 2-hour journey including the the train change. The Bologna-Florence leg of the journey was on a frecciarosa (red arrow) high speed train. We traveled through tunnels almost the entire way, and the digital information screen read 300 km per hour for a few stretches of the trip.

It was much more interesting than I expected to see the wonky tilt of the Pisa tower. The fact it's still standing is quite amazing, and thanks to the work of many talented engineers over the years. Of course we took the requisite corny tourist photos -- it was impossible to resist!

The cathedral and baptistry onsite were each impressive also. The cathedral featured glowing 24 carat gold ceilings, an elaborate carved pulpit by the sculptor Pisano and dramatic large scale oil paintings.

interior of the cathedral and baptistry at Pisa

The Baptistry was my favourite part of the visit. It's a huge round dome with a cool, serene marble interior. A custodian sang to demonstrate the echo, creating a beautiful harmonies with just his own single voice. Take a listen for yourself below, and please excuse the shaky camera work. It took me a minute to figure out where the singing was coming from!

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