La Rossa, La Dotta e La Grassa (The Red, The Learned and The Fat One) have affectionately characterised Bologna over time. La Rossa illuminates the medieval metropolis that flourishes into view with its rustic crimson walls. Since 1088, the oldest university, Università di Bologna, has been brimming with La Dotta. And finally La Grassa – a foodie haven and birthplace of the world-famous tagliatelle al ragù (better known as spaghetti alla bolognese) where everything iconic about Italy’s cuisine from aceto balsamico to parmigiano reggiano can be relished on its very home turf. Like its legendary dish, Bologna’s pomodoro-red walls cradle everything that is tantalising about Italy. And every corner you turn within its terracotta maze holds the promise of enchanting the senses, as with every winding fork that tangles the comforting egg-rich and meaty strands of tagliatelle al ragù.
Often bypassed by herds of tourists in favour of heavy-weight destinations such as Rome, Milan and Florence, Bologna towers above all, quite literally. With its ubiquitous medieval towers soaring above the mass of red brick, Le Due Torri (the two towers) dwarf their towering peers as the iconic landmark of Bologna. Standing side by side, and leaning, the Asinelli Tower shadows over its shorter and oblique neighbour, the Garisenda Tower, with its peak reaching up at 97 metres. Surpassing the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s height by 41.14 metres, the ascent up the Asinelli Tower promises a panoramic view to cherish La Rossa in all its splendour.
Just a few footsteps away from Le Due Torri, you can follow the vivacious hustle and bustle drawn towards the epicentre of Bologna, the Piazza Maggiore. Big, large and certainly great as its title implies, Bologna’s beating heart is always pulsating with life and secrets. Whilst the domineering presence of Basilica di San Petronio commands the attention of all visitors who wander under its gaze, Piazza Maggiore’s Whispering Gallery and Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune) dare not to be overlooked. Facing directly opposite the unfinished façade and nestled in between cafés, the Whispering Gallery in its guise as a portico holds a surprising quirk. Grab your travelling companion and stand diagonally opposite them, and facing the corner start whispering. Despite feeling slightly odd speaking against a stone wall, the reverberating echo will not fail to fascinate and leave you pondering over this medieval architectural magic. Gleaming to the left is the Fontana del Nettuno, where aglow in the sunshine the striking bronze sculpture of Neptune stands aloft the serene pool beneath. Giambologna’s sculptural triumph completed in 1566 gestures directly towards the Basilica, and is surrounded by lactating Nereids. Hidden among the parade of shops along Via Dell’Archiginnasio resides the unassuming historical seat of Università Di Bologna’s ‘Studium’, which offers a peek into the history of La Dotta. Strolling around the Palazzo Dell’Archiginnasio is like journeying beneath a cloud of frescoes, where you will eventually find yourself on the first floor amidst a studious crowd flowing in and out of Bologna’s Municipal library.
Also in reach is the Teatro Anatomico. Once the heart of the University’s medical school, the burnished amphitheatre is a feast for the eyes, where artistry and medical practice collide. The all-wooden interior is a majestic homage to sculptural feats with the spine-tingling muscular detail of ‘Gli Spellati’, the skinned statues, and Apollo floating above as highlights.
Follow your nose out of Piazza Maggiore and be lead astray towards the narrow streets of Via Pescherie Vecchie and Via Clavature; a pocket of the city that is a culinary shrine to the sacred delicacies of Italian cuisine. With the intermingling aromas of aged parmigiano reggiano and prosciutto di Parma infusing the air, this petite network of delicatessens offer an unmistakable glimpse into the kitchen of La Grassa. Radiant golden nests of freshly made tagliatelle and trays of ‘belly buttons of Venus’, or tortellini, will catch your eye amongst displays of cancan-like legs of Parma ham, vines of salami and crates of organic fruit and vegetables that will awaken La Grassa within you. Tucked away on Vicolo Ranocchi resides Bologna’s oldest osteria, where animated scenes of old men arguing over card games instil the feeling that you are walking into a sepia-toned photograph. Though hidden, the 15th century Osteria del Sole is always bursting at the seams with locals, where bringing your own food from the surrounding delis is a common courtesy and a glass of local vino can be enjoyed at negligible prices.
A pilgrimage of Bologna cannot be complete without a visit to Piazza Santo Stefano. Just as varied and revered as the Bolognese cuisine, its eponymous Basilica or Le Sette Chiese (seven churches), promises a voyage through time. Even as you teeter across the cobbled ground, the Basilica’s architectural medley of styles from Early Christian to Gothic is visible.
Passing back past Le Due Torri, stop off for a gelato at Gelateria Gianni, before embarking on a stroll through the quarter of La Dotta. Though home to many of the University’s historic faculties, it is Via Zamboni’s electric atmosphere that has an infectious vibe. It’s a university scene like no other. Weave through the populous swarm of students, and past the many cafes and bars dotted along the stretch with the sounds of opera oozing out onto the streets from the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. And if you happen to spot a student tied to a lamppost, doused in a snowy shower of flour and eggs don’t be alarmed – a graduation celebration is in full swing.
Skipping a few streets away from La Dotta, it only seems apt to end with La Grassa and the only place to indulge in a plate of tagliatelle al ragù. The busy cluster of diners at Osteria dell’Orsa on Via Mentana is a testament to the delectable selection of pasta dishes that alter on a daily basis. Though too good to feature on the menu, the tagliatelle al ragù remains the same. This is La Dolce Vita – the Bolognese way.