Bologna, like many of Italy’s ancient cities, is fringed by a bombilating ring road with eleven enormous Roman portas (doorways) dotted around its edge. Once you manage to cross this heaving artery, you enter an ancient maze of portico-covered walkways (Bologna has an incredible 28 miles of them, including the world’s longest at 666 arches), each one harbouring trattorias, osterias, locandas, bakeries, cafes, and enotecas. Should it rain, you can take shelter beneath these ancient arches, beside a shrine to the Virgin Mother or an anarchic scribble, and gaze out onto one of the city’s many heart-stoppingly glorious churches. Whilst slurping up the indigenous tagliatelle alla bolognese.
World-renowned by food-lovers, the Italians themselves affectionately refer to Bologna as ‘La Grassa’ (the Fat Lady) because it is so stuffed full of grub. It is also the capital of Italy’s famous food-producing region, Emilia-Romagna, where you’ll find the towns of Parma (of Parmesan cheese and Parma ham fame), Modena (the birth place of Balsamic vinegar and Lambrusco wine), Reggio Emilia (more cheese), and Faenza (of the pottery fame, and surely created as a vehicle from which the Bolognese could eat their fine foods).
This morning we spend half an hour walking to a bus stop that is only 5 minutes away (there are conkers, so many conkers!), before hopping on the no. 33. The bus stop is supposedly closed because of roadworks, but it doesn’t stop the men-at-work and the bus driver from working together to halt rush hour traffic just to let us on. Oh Italy, I love you so.
The bus traverses the ring road and we alight at Porta San Donato, the entrance to Bologna’s electric University Quarter and home to Europe’s oldest university. From the moment we
step off the bus struggle off the bus with two small children and a double buggy and head down Via Zamboni, it’s quite clear that the steady stream of students breathes an appetite for life – and food – through the city. Friends hitch lifts to lectures on the back of their classmates’ bicycles, young lovers kiss on the dirty pavement, effortlessly-stylish gentlefolk drink espresso at every corner bar, and they all smoke like it’s Britain in the 1950s… the streets are alive!
After a short stop for cappuccino and croissant at the genial Caffé Floriano, which appears to be somewhat of a local institution, we head to no. 33 Via Zamboni, home to the Museo Di Palazzo Poggi. We have come to explore its 18th-century Instituto delle Scienze e Arte (Institute of Art and Science), and we are gripped from the moment we set foot in this spectacular place. Room after beautiful room offers up intriguing artefacts in magnificent antique cabinets, made all the more marvellous by the curation of the collections. We are surrounded by giant crocodiles, animal skulls, fossils, and exquisitely-preserved wood blocks of native plant life; there are learning materials from an age of discovery in Italian medicine, including incredible wax models used in the study of early obstetrics; and a series of rooms dedicated to naval history and military architecture – the latter of which is strangely beguiling, if not appalling.
Our next stop is the Museo Ebraico di Bologna (the Jewish Museum), which teeters on the edge of the University Quarter in the heart of the old Jewish ghetto. En route, Roo and I nearly get run-over on a zebra crossing by a man who thinks he’s driving a Ferrari. He is not. I am outraged – Mama Mia! – and we stop to face each other through his car window, in a sort of roadside tango, to shout accusations and wave fists before he buzzes off. The Husband pretends not to know me.
It is labyrinthian in the ghetto and we struggle to find our way, even with the large map that is permanently no more than 10 inches away from my face. My Spanish soon comes in handy though, as it means I can understand about 4% of Italian directions (which is 4% more than The Husband, ha!), and a friendly shoemaker points us in the right direction. There, at the end of a tiny deserted street, rests a sobering and unwelcoming pair of locked metal gates, angrily flanked by two roving security cameras. This, we know, is the Jewish Museum. This, we know all-too-well in the United Kingdom, is Jewish security. In a world that sent its Jews to their deaths, is this really what has become of us? I want to pull the barricades down.
We ring the bell and the gates judder open, buzzing all the way. The children want to know where we are going, though this is not sparked by curiosity; they immediately sense the uneasiness of this cut-off, behind-bars place. They are hungry and fading into the abyss of grumpdom – not a good mix when met by a sombre, uniformed security guard who doubles up as an Italian-only speaking tour guide. We last all of three minutes before heading for lunch, which is probably best because this European family adventure is starting to feel a bit like The Exodus.
We head to Osteria dell Orsa, a firm favourite with the locals who flock here for the simple, delicious and affordable Bolognese cooking. It’s heaving with families, students, and workers on their lunchbreaks, but we manage to score a table in the popular front room and dine on the dishes of the day, which thankfully include tagliatelle alla bolognese. (I praise the pasta gods for I’d pretty much bribed the children into coming on this adventure with the promise of ragu.) The Husband and I enjoy the orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) alla pesto genovese, and a couple of glasses of the house red.
After lunch we head to the north of the city on foot, to the Parco della Montagnola. The guidebook claims that these are ‘beautiful, symmetrical gardens… with a pool at their centre’. In the book of real life, it reads ‘muddy playing field with a drained and barricaded pond in the middle’. But who needs lawn when you have conkers!
We walk back through the old city, passing doors so large they could welcome elephants and knockers (don’t) that wouldn’t look out of place as figureheads on ships. It is also becoming quite clear that the Italians are possibly the most glamorous people I have ever seen (apart from those Parisiennes), and here we are in our stinky, tattered traveling gear and waterproof walking sandals; those same sandals that The Mother-in-Law and The Psychotherapist Boyfriend wear on their camping holidays to Devon.
We run across the Piazza Maggiore, chasing pigeons and wobbling around fountains, and stop to stare up at the Due Torri – the last two remaining towers of the two hundred built in the 12th century. We had planned to go up but they are closed, which is no matter because the children are hungry. Again. And as we haven’t quite got to grips with there being a greengrocer in this city, so that I can buy a boring old apple, we grab a slice of scrumptious pizza for them at Pizzeria Due Torri, sitting on stools in the shadows of the twin towers.
Halfway home we break for our final coffee of the day and an ice cream for Zippy and Roo at La Sorbetteria Castiglione, a popular hangout for Bolognese parents and their children after school. And it is obvious why – the gelato is divine and the little ones are very happy. And very, very quiet.