City break: Bologna

Why i went

Bologna is one of the loveliest cities I know: less formal than Florence, less skittish than Venice. It’s friendly. It isn’t big-population 400,000-but it makes up for that with an additional 83,000 students at the world’s oldest university, established in 1088 (past students have included Petrarch, Boccaccio and Dante). When we visited, they were graduating and wearing laurel wreathes to prove it; a girl dressed like a laurel-wreathed dalmatian turned out to have udders. ‘She’s obviously a vet,’ said our guide.

What is Bologna famous for?

It is variously called la Dotta (learned), la Rossa (red, both in building colour and politics) and la Grassa (fat, because it’s Italy’s food capital). But, for me, the arcades (left) are the most memorable feature. They range from medieval buildings to the ground floors of modern tower blocks, but the best are the wide marble pavements covered by elegant arches resting on Classical columns. They stretch for more than 24 miles and protect pedestrians from sun, rain and traffic. Why didn’t Bath or Edinburgh copy such a clever idea?

What makes it distinctive?

Bologna feels friendly because it has no natural marble to encourage formality. Almost every building is of brick, usually stuccoed and painted in a variety of earth colours-terracotta, ochre and stone. By common consent, everyone paints their building in these friendly colours. There
is no purple, emerald or scarlet in this city.

What I ate

Obviously, I ate tagliatelle alla Bolognese (serving the sauce with spaghetti is a monumental faux pas). I also took a course in how to make it with Uova e Farina ( you must use beef and pork mince with minced bacon; you must not use tins of tomatoes, but passata and concentrated tomato only; and you should simmer the sauce for at least three hours, or better, six.

I had a meal of local specialities at Ristorante Ciacco on Via San Simone: Parma ham and mortadella (Italian sausage) plus mortadella mousse and friggione (tomatoes and onions), followed by tortellini in brodo (broth), then tagliatelle alla Bolognese and cotoletta alla Bolognese (pork in breadcrumbs with Parma ham and parmesan). Finally, replete, I was faced with the choice of either a rice cake or ice cream. This is not a city that yearns for green vegetables.

What I did

I met Davide Simone, owner of a butcher’s shop in the medieval Quadrilatero food area at Via Pescherie Vecchie (Old Fish Street), who talked for an hour about his mortadella. I visited the workshop of Bruno e Franco, where the staff make 5,000 tortellini by hand every day-tiny, filled with pork and inspired by the navel of Venus. At the Paolo Atti & Figli bakery, which makes 90 types of bread a day, I was told how, in 1943, an Allied bomb fell into a huge bowl of rising dough and didn’t explode. The city was just behind the Gothic Line and was later liberated by the Polish army. Later, at Enoteca Italiana wine bar, Marco Nannetti and Claudio Cavallari told me that the latest fizzy wine, pignoletto, is set to challenge Veneto’s prosecco.

What I saw

To Santo Stefano (left), a group of seven churches dating from the 5th century, where there is a papiermache Pieta sculpture made of playing cards and a tailor’s grave featuring his iron scissors. Better, there is a Romanesque church and rotunda built over a temple to Isis. We had coffee at an open-air cafe in Piazza Maggiore, the hub of the city, and met Giam-bologna’s 1567 colossal and naked statue of Neptune. Giambologna was not local; he came from Boulogne, not Bologna. The city has few artists, Morandi, he of the dull still-lifes, being the most celebrated. Instead, the region makes Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini cars, Ducati motorbikes and La Perla underwear. It is also known for its libertarian views and is one of Italy’s richest cities. We visited the museum of the city’s history, opened in 2012, which was a disappointment.

What I bought

We went to Marconi’s birthplace, Sasso Marconi-renamed by order of Mussolini, to the annoyance of the citizens-a few miles away, not to see his huge mausoleum, but the much more enjoyable truffle festival. I bought both black and white truffles, plus a huge quantity of porcini and finferli (chanterelles). These came back as hand-luggage without incident.

Where I stayed

Hotel Porta San Mamolo (, within walking distance of the centre, is made up of five old houses and a former church and was a Nazi headquarters in the war. It is now in the centre of a lively community, the members of which shout to guests from the windows, and has a winding central garden of olive trees, acanthus and lavender that gave us ideas for our own garden. It’s family run and extremely friendly-we were put up for two extra nights when our flight was cancelled because of a storm.

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