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  • Diana & Greg

The Big Red One - A Travel Guide to Bologna

Updated: May 10, 2020

Located in the North of Italy in the region Emilia-Romagna, the city of Bologna has a rich history. Originally Etruscan then Roman, the city evolved by the beginning of the first millennia to such an extent that in 1088 the University of Bologna was founded which is ˝the oldest continuously operating university˝.

Basilica San Petronio
Basilica San Petronio

For hundreds of years the city prospered, became famous and rich, but the period from the 17th century up till the 20th represented a long time of unfortunate decay both due to the plague and an inappropriate rule of the city by the papal state. By the end of the 20th century Bologna managed to recover from this difficult period and today it´s flourishing with tourism, its packaging industry and education. The city gained several nicknames due to its famous university, the unique cuisine and cityscape.

The University of Bologna is also thriving with campuses spread all over the region (Rimini, Ravenna, Cesena, Forli) and counting more than 80 000 students according to the data from 2015.

Archiginnasio of Bologna, Anatomical Theatre
Archiginnasio of Bologna, Anatomical Theatre

The Learned One

Nicknamed ˝the learned one˝, Bologna is proud to have one of the most famous universities in the world, the University of Bologna. Its fame is due to its endurance over the centuries, and being the alma mater of famous students like Dante, Petrarch, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Thomas Beckett or Copernicus.

The University of Bologna is proud to have had the first female college teacher, the Italian physicist Laura Bassi. Until the 16th century, the university functioned without an official headquarter.

The Archiginnasio of Bologna is the first official building of the University of Bologna inaugurated in 1563 and includes the Anatomical Theatre and the Archiginnasio Municipal Library.

The Anatomical Theatre has a dissection table in the middle with the statue of Apollo, the god of Medicine on the ceiling.

Archiginnasio of Bologna, Anatomical Theatre
Archiginnasio of Bologna, Anatomical Theatre

Other statues decorate the walls, most known among them are the Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galenus.

The walls of the Archiginassio Library are beautifully decorated with more than 6 000 coats of arms belonging to the families of the students of the University of Bologna. The library is outstanding for its collection of 850 000 volumes and pamphlets, many of them dating back to the 16th century.

Archiginnasio Municipal Library
Archiginnasio Municipal Library

The Fat One

This is another nickname Bologna acquired along the years.

If you think that´s because the population became fat, or simply because the citizens eat a lot you are far from the truth.

Do you know a famous dish originating from Bologna?

The name gives a hint itself: the spaghetti Bolognese. It originated indeed from Bologna, but it was a little different from what became worldwide known as the spaghetti Bolognese.

It used to be a sauce, the Bolognese sauce or ragu alla bolognese, based on chopped beef or pork, onion, celery, carrot, tomato. The sauce was a dressing to the pasta, pappardelle or fettucine, but not for spaghetti as used today in international cuisine.

The recipe appeared in the cookbook of Pellegrino Artusi in the 19th century. It is not clear how the spaghetti Bolognese was actually born, some suggest that was due to the Italian immigration to the US and UK at the beginning of the 20th century, when the Italians ˝recreated˝ the sauce in a rather Neapolitan style, based on a richer tomato sauce, mixing it with the available local ingredients. It is interesting that Spaghetti Bolognese as we know it internationally, actually cannot be found in Bologna. Instead you can enjoy a delicious original ragu alla bolognese.

Apart from these oddities, Bologna and its region has other delicious and famous specialties: lasagna, tortellini, mortadella. Fave dei morti are crunchy sweet almond based biscuits with a soft core served on the 1st and 2nd of November as offerings to the dead.

These Bolognese specialties can be found in most restaurants in the city and since the people love to eat out, you might have difficulty to find a place in a restaurant at noon. Around the Piazza Maggiore there are many restaurants and it is worth waiting for a place, for the food is really delicious and the atmosphere charming in real Italian-style.

The Red One

Basilica San Petronio
Basilica San Petronio

Fresco by Giovanni da Modena
Fresco by Giovanni da Modena

Wandering the streets of Bologna, you quickly realize without having to fly a drone that the old city center´s roof tops are predominantly red. This is where the nickname The Red One came from. Under these beautiful old red rooftops several palaces lay on a vast territory, resulting in the 2nd largest historical center in Europe. A large hole in the red coverage is constituted by the Piazza Maggiore, the main square of the city. The square is flanked by the red roof-topped Basilica of San Petronio.

The Gothic basilica whose facade was never finished leaving it half white-half red is the largest cathedral in the world built with brick.

The interior is made up of 22 chapels and has the typical Gothic style grandiose high ceiling with thin walls and counter-forts. The inside is illuminated by rose windows highlighting the simple unembellished walls and the floral decoration on the column capitals.

The fresco of Giovanni da Modena depicting Mohammed in Hell devoured by demons is also to be found here. Some radical Islamists attempted terrorist attacks twice against the Basilica as they considered the painting to be offensive to their religion. The Italian police managed to prevent the attacks.

Basilica San Petronio, Interior
Basilica San Petronio, Interior

The unfinished upper side of the basilica goes in fashion with the palaces surrounding the square: Palazzo d'Accursio, Palazzo dei Notai, Palazzo del Podestà and Palazzo dei Banchi.

These palaces hosted the city hall, notaries guild, banking center and police and justice center. Today they serve mainly as museums.

Another construction, a symbol of the city which stands apart for its height but not for its design are the Two Towers. Inspiring the creation of the World Trade Center, the Two Towers were built in the 12th century by two rival families and they blend in with the historical center due to their old brick red walls. The towers hold the names of the families who built them: Asinelli the taller one and Garisenda the smaller one.

​Near the Two Towers is the Palazzo della Mercanzia, the seat of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Agriculture and Crafts. The building is still in use, therefore only the hall is open and can be visited free of charge.

Following the street Maggiore to East, you will get to the Palazzo Davia Bargellini, a museum exhibiting a collection of paintings, statues, furniture, ceramics from medieval age till the 19th century.

The baroque palace belonged to the Bargellini family who died out as a result of a feud with the Ariosto family and was overtaken by the Davia family.After the extinction of the Davia, the palace was donated by the last owner to the public institutions.

Through the exhibition you can get a glimpse of the everyday life of the wealthy families of Bologna. Unfortunately, you cannot take pictures inside the museum, but the stone giants at the entrance can still be photographed.

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