Discovering a different side of Italy with Emirates

PEPE DON’T PREACH - Pepe Diokno (The Philippine Star) - February 20, 2016 - 9:00am

When we think of visiting Italy, the usual cities come to mind: Rome, Venice, Milan, Florence. They’re destinations that are rich in culture and history, with sights that every human must see if they ever get the chance. But they can also be tourist traps. Along their well-beaten tracks, experiences can be spoiled by unruly crowds, bloated prices, and cookie-cutter tours. One loses touch of what’s truly local.

Bologna, therefore, is a breath of fresh air. Located in northern Italy, it has the hallmarks of a great place to visit: religious sites, historical landmarks, great local food. But, as it doesn’t have the recall of the country’s other cities, it is not a well-trodden destination, and with a direct flight from Dubai to Bologna via Emirates, I discovered why this, for the moment, is a very good thing.

To Italians, Bologna is well known for being three things: “La Dotta, La Rossa, La Grassa” — that means “educated, red and fat.” Locals say that with a cheeky grin, and leave a pause after the word “fat,” giving you time to put on a puzzled look before they offer a spirited explanation. (But more on that later.)

The red city

For tourists, the first thing that will strike you is “la rossa.” Arriving in the city on a cold December day, it took just a 20-minute car ride for me to reach the heart of the town, and exactly that same amount of time to see that the whole place is covered in red. Structures built in terracotta, some of them centuries old, form one of the largest and best-preserved metropolises of olden Italy. Beautiful porticos line the streets, where street plans from the Roman era are still apparent today.

Among these old terracotta buildings are the main symbols of the city: the two towers. Torre degli Asinelli is 330 feet high with 498 steps to the top, and beside it is Torre Garisenda, which is 162 feet tall. They were both built in the 12th century, and look like the stuff that would inspire Tolkien. In order to take a photo of these landmarks, I was taken to another tower, Torre Prendiparte, a 900-year-old, 65-meter building that can actually be booked as a bed and breakfast or events venue because it is privately owned. Walking up its 400 steps, I saw a living record of the Bologna etched in the walls the tower — from the civil wars of the Middle Ages, when families fought families and built the torre as a sign of wealth and power; to the time in the 19th century when people were imprisoned in Prendiparte for crimes against religion.

It was there, on top of that tower, that I realized there are two kinds of tourists — one that would sleep in a place that used to be a prison, and another that would never dare. If you’re the first kind, the number to call is +39-335-5616858.

The educated city

Bologna’s brick-laid cityscape is also home to the oldest university in the world, the University of Bologna, which opened its doors in 1088. Walking through its corridors, one can still see the beautiful hand-printed crests of its first students, who came from even as far away as the Americas. One can even enter the Anatomical theater of the Archiginnasio, where the first studies on the human body were ever conducted.

The University is still operational today with a student population of over 80,000, and it is one of the reasons Bologna is called “la dotta” (“the educated”). The other reason, my guide shared, is that in the 18th century, a young man named W.A. Mozart came to the city to study under a composer who was also a Franciscan friar named Father Martini; and in the 19th century, Bologna’s Philharmonic Academy produced the likes of Verdi, Brahms, Wagner, Puccini and Liszt.

I had barely been a day in Bologna and I already felt like I was exploring rich history. I had also found out how the city got two of its three nicknames. This is because it doesn’t take much to penetrate the spirit of the town. For one thing, the place is small — the walk from my hotel to each of the sights was no more than 20 minutes long. For another, a convenient tourist center called Welcome Bologna sits at the very center of town, across the Piazza Maggiore. Here, you can get free tourist guides, arrange trips, find out about events, and ask questions of the friendly, English-speaking attendants.

The fat city

It wasn’t before long that I discovered the reason behind Bologna’s third nickname, “fat.” In this city, people don’t mind being called fat — something I discovered as I looked at my guide, Anna Lisa, with the look of puzzlement receding from my face as she smiled and embarked on an explanation. Anna Lisa is pretty; with curly hair and bright red lips, she looks like she’s in her early 20s instead of nearing her 30s. (“Guess my age,” she asked me. I failed.) “We are fat because we have good food, and because we have the highest quality of life in Italy.”

People here love to eat, and to eat well. Bologna is considered the “gastronomic center” — the “food capital” — of Italy, according to guidebooks. This is because of the variety of produce grown and crafted to perfection around the region of Emilia-Romagna, which Bologna is capital of. Bologna is where the Americanized meat name “baloney” comes from. It is where lasagna was invented. A few hours away, there is a town called Parma that makes the world-famous ham, and in this same vicinity, parmesan cheese is made.

In fact, after taking in the architectural sites of the city, I was taken on an itinerary that was literally entitled “Food Trip.” Every day for about a week, it was a fiesta of pizza, pasta, various hams and cheeses, decades-aged balsamic vinegar (also made in the region), gelato (which originated in the region) and wine. The local spirits are the red sparkling lambrusco, and the white sparkling pignoletto — and as my trip ended, I decided to bring an entire suitcase of these back home to Manila. Those, and bags of the local favorite, tortellini, which are little rolls of pasta stuffed with meat and cheese.

Being a fan of Italian cuisine long before I first visited the country, this was heaven for me. And while the flavors were not surprising, a few things were — how the freshness of the produce affects the taste of the dishes; how eating a lot of healthy food is better than eating a little bit of unhealthy food; and lastly, how little all of these things cost. Traveling with a partner, a person will be able eat very well for only five euros a meal. (Servings are usually huge.)

The hub city

Now, there is one more thing that must be said about Bologna — a fourth nickname, perhaps, to add to its brochures. And this is that the city is also a hub for the region, and an excellent starting point for visiting Italy in general. From Bologna, it takes just about an hour to go to Milan via high-speed train. Florence is just 40 minutes away, Ferrarra is one hour, Venice is two hours, and Rome is two and a half. It is possible to take a day trip to any one of these places, and keep Bologna as a base for its cheaper cost of living.

There are more places of interest nearby, too. With a car ride, I was taken to the seaside village of Ravenna, which is known for its ancient mosaics. Their town museum hosts an impressive collection that shows the cross-section of traditional and modern mosaic crafting. With another car ride, I was in Modena, inside the final home of Pavarotti. (As a child, I watched his concerts with my late grandmother, and so I left a note for him from the two of us.) Modena is also the birthplace of Ferrari, and on the same day, I visited a beautiful museum that pairs the sleek cars together with Pavarotti’s music. That day was then capped off by a crash course at Carpigiani’s Gelato University, where I learned the stark differences between gelato and ice cream, and was able to make my own batch of that sweet, smooth ice.

Ending my trip to Bologna, there were few things I had felt the need to do. The food and the sights had me beyond satisfied, and the busy schedule left me excited for the comforts of a bed — or the fully-reclining business class seat, which Emirates had generously booked for me. But there was one more thing to do. In my final hours in Bologna, my group decided to take a selfie in the middle of one of the city’s roads. As we took out our phones, however, a car stopped behind us. It didn’t honk, it just slowed to a halt, but nonetheless, we retreated for the nearest sidewalk. “No, stay!” the driver yelled. “Take the picture!” And he smiled, and posed, and took that selfie with us.

Our group was in the wrong, of course, but this story shows the kind of life that still exists in Bologna. In another city, we would have almost certainly been yelled at, or maybe even run over. But here, off the beaten track and away from the tourists traps, we experienced something that was truly and uniquely local — great sights, great food, and great people.




Tweet the author @PepeDiokno.

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