City Guide

Four Hours in Bologna

18 Aug 2008 by Sara Turner

One of Europe’s oldest seats of learning, Bologna is still kept on its toes by a vibrant student population. Sara Turner soaks up the atmosphere in one of northern Italy’s most beautiful cities.


1. Piazza Maggiore

Known as la Cittá Grassa (“the Fat City”) because of its rich local cuisine, or la Cittá Rossa (“the Red City”) because of the scarlet-painted buildings and leftist bent of local politics, Bologna is full of culture and history. Spend a few hours exploring and you’ll certainly learn a thing or two. And yes, Bologna is the home of the humble British dish that is spaghetti bolognese, but ask for it in a restaurant and you will be offered a quizzical look, but no fare. Food will have to wait, however, because the back streets beckon.

Bologna is a medieval city which is anything but medieval in its outlook, but it does mean that the tightly wound streets are best explored on your old-fashioned two feet. However, even on a rainy day this is not a problem, as most of the wide pavements are under elegant porticoes.

Bologna’s ancient university, founded in 1088, is the oldest seat of learning in Europe, predating its Oxbridge cousins by a good few years. The city’s student days have never really ended and the university’s 23 faculties can’t afford to rest on their laurels, with around 100,000 students (almost a fifth of the population of Bologna) on their books.

A perfect starting place to get to know this venerable city, kept on its toes by the young and hip, is Piazza Maggiore, where plenty of student-types can be seen hanging around the enormous steps. Enjoy a tiny cup of perfectly brewed Italian coffee, or a glass of Prosecco if you’re in the mood, while watching the glamorous Bolognesi from behind your Armani sunglasses (which can be purchased from Coin on Via Rizzoli).

2. Basilica di San Petronio

If you take a closer look at the main church that dominates the square, the Basilica di San Petronio, you will notice it is incomplete. (You can see a model of what it should look like in the small museum inside, along with a collection of old bibles and relics.) The original design, started in the 14th century, was for a structure so big it would compete with St Peter’s in Rome (such was the arrogance of the rich traders of Bologna), but in the 1600s another far more interesting project came along – the university. The stonemasons and craftsmen downed their tools, leaving misshapen windows, an asymmetrical façade and half-painted pillars. Instead, the funds went into a new university built on the same site as the unfinished church.

3. The Archiginnasio

Facing the church, if you head down the left-hand wall along Via dell’ Archiginnasio – lined with spectacular jewellery shops – you will discover the Archiginnasio under the porticoes. This is where the university was first housed. Head through the enormous doors and into the inner courtyard, where the walls are covered with heraldic coats of arms commissioned by former students – look closely and you may find a name you recognise. Unfortunately, several hundred of these unique students’ records were lost in the Second World War, when a bomb ripped through the building.

Climb the stairs to your left and wander around the top floor, where you’ll find a stunning wood-carved room which served as the anatomical theatre. Here, on a large marble slab, corpses were dissected in front of the medical students gathered on the tiered seating around it. However, at a time when the church didn’t really condone such things, or believe in scientific findings such as the circulation of blood around the body, it was all done under the watchful gaze of a church representative. If you look up to your left as you enter, you will see a set of windows from where the “voice of God” (the local priest) would censor the goings on.

4. Piazza del Nettuno

Just next to Piazza Maggiore is the smaller Piazza del Nettuno, named after the rather risqué 16th-century Neptune Fountain surrounded by watery naked ladies, cherubs and scallop shells. Up the large flight of steps from the square is the city library, another place that’s well worth poking your nose into, especially for a look at the stunning covered courtyard. The outside wall of the library is covered in small head-and-shoulder portraits of men and women – these are Bologna’s heroes of the Second World War, i partigiani.

5. Via Zamboni

It’s now time to pick up the pace and walk through to the city’s university quarter. Most of the faculties are housed on the imposing Via Zamboni, lined with enormous buildings, the majority of which you can poke your head into – the central courtyards are all worth a look.

Bologna’s opera house, the Teatro Comunale, is also on Via Zamboni and is one of the best theatres in Italy. It is a magnificent example of 18th-century baroque architecture, so if you have the time and can organise it far enough in advance – tickets sell like hot cappuccinos – it is well worth spending an evening there. Visit tcbo.it for more information.

6. Museo delle Cere Anotomiche

Continue up Via Zamboni to number 48 Via Irnerio, the wax museum. It’s nothing like Madame Tussauds – there are no famous people that you’ll recognise – but it is equally fascinating. The wax models, of everything from babies to the artists themselves, were used until the 19th century as teaching aids for the university’s medical students. The endless ways in which childbirth can go wrong are depicted with terrifyingly graphic accuracy. Visit museocereanatomiche.it.

7. Piazza Santo Stefano

This triangular piazza is a great place to sit on a sunny day and admire the perfectly dressed Italians, but do take a few minutes to explore the church at its centre. Known as the Sette Chiese (Seven Churches) it is a maze of churches built over several centuries. The atmosphere is perfect for a few moments of quiet contemplation whatever your religious leanings, even if it’s just about the astonishing mix of architecture.

8. Tamburini

Wander through the Mercato di Mezzo – the oldest area of Bologna – located between Via Drapperie, Via Clavature and the surrounding alleyways. While you’re there, check out Tamburini, the food store from heaven that has been serving delicious prosciutto crudo (dry-cured ham), cheese and handmade pasta since 1932. In Bologna it’s famous, so if you’re pushed for time grab some mortadella (heat-cured pork sausage), freshly baked focaccia and Gorgonzola dolcelatte cheese to eat on the way, or if your schedule is more relaxed, find a corner and a menu. It’s all good – just don’t ask for spag bol.

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