Mike MacEacheran | Counting calories in Bologna, Holland Herald
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Counting calories in Bologna, Holland Herald

Graduation day rules in Bologna. On the red-brick piazzas and squares, Bologna’s students cheer and dance, ensuring that everyone in the city knows of their success, no matter how relative the merits.

Inside the Osteria del Sole, dressed with a traditional Julius Caesar wreath of fig leaves and vines, Paula Correlli is celebrating passing her exams in foreign languages. Surrounded by fellow graduates and epicurean plates of Mortadella antipasti and Parmigiano, she is in raucous mood, yet it is only 11am on a cold autumn morning.

“Milan is so boring by comparison,” she chirps. Originally from Bergamo, Paula was converted by the tastes and table manners of Bologna four years ago to the day. “The osterie (cafes) are so old and traditional – we don’t have these places anymore where I’m from.” Dating from 1465, the osteria in question is like a modern take on a Raphael painting: crates are stacked high, a glass menagerie of broken clocks and brown bottles litter the counter and the barman has the vacant look of a dazed bear that is about to be shot.

Before Paula stumbles back onto the streets with her entourage, she cordially offers me a plate of untouched sandwiches. “You must be hungry,” she finishes. “We can’t let this go to waste. You must eat!” As her heels click-clack along the cobbled mews, the bells from the nearby Basilica San Petronio ring out above her head. In true Bolognese style, the city is hallmarked by melodic hospitality and warmth.

Bologna is very much at odds with the rest of Italy. With tourism far down its list of priorities – compared to Venice, Rome and Florence – the city contains itself through self-sufficiency and a life dictated as much by intellectual debate as diet. While Italy tightens its belt due to the economy, the Bolognese are notching another hole in their belt buckle, through their laissez faire attitude to gossip and gastronomy, and appear to be almost recession proof. The city’s twin nicknames – La Dotta (the learned one) and La Grassa (the fat) – have served it well.

To the discerning eye, the city’s crumbling roofs and medieval spires look like they have had a plate of warm spaghetti dropped onto them by a ham-fisted waiter. The buildings radiate Ragu-red in the sunshine and are stained in splodges of blood orange and sunburnt terracotta, the colour of a freshly made pasta sauce. At street level, perfectly formed porticos frame the projected upper floors of every trattoria restaurant and apartment in the city, like rivulets of dangling tagliatelle drizzling down to the drains below.

Architecturally, Bologna is overwhelmed by a series of long, roofed walkways, which form a 37 kilometre long medieval catwalk for the style conscious. Beneath these famed arcades and porches, the Bolognese can be found at play, combining their twin obsessions of shopping and sustenance: the city’s head may be ruled by the north, but its heart and stomach are very much in the south. “This city was built on pasta,” rasps Emanuele Addone, proprietor of Drogheria Della Rosa, one of the city’s most famous restaurants. “What would Italy be without Bologna’s tortellini or tagliatelle? We built this country from our plate.”

As the Italian capital of gastronomy, this is a city that actively encourages its visitors to indulge and the mere whiff of food from the enotecas and delicatessens is infectious: the promenade surrounding Piazza Maggiore looks to me like a mosaic made from broken egg shells. “You may have a queen,” boasts local tourist guide Giorgia Zabbini, “but we have San Maesta Il Nero!” When we later meet face to face, I admit to being a little underwhelmed: Bologna’s reigning sovereign looks more like a parmesan than a Queen Beatrix or Elizabeth.

Beyond Piazza Maggiore’s photogenic, ochre-red mandala, the modernised Jewish ghetto spreads north like an Umbrian hunter’s snare. In its midst is Bologna’s world famous 18th Century Teatro Communale, a four tier portico wedding cake-cum-auditorium worthy of the great Italian operas La Bohème, Madame Butterfly and La Traviata. Outside, while flushed students cycle past to lectures, inside, the theatre feels like an alternative hall of learning.

“We must be quiet,” whispers Stefano, Teatro Communale’s slicked-back caretaker, with a hint of melodrama as we enter. “The orchestra is in rehearsal for this evening’s performance.” Squeezing past a dull wooden door, I follow the caretaker into the rumbling belly of the theatre. Beneath a gigantic bottle-green curtain, strains of violins and cellos dramatise our steps as though we were part of a Puccini plot. It is a fitting entrance: as one of only three European UNESCO Cities of Music, the others being Seville and Glasgow, Bologna is in very fine pitch this morning. If any more praise was needed, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, king of Salzburg and the posthumous marzipan chocolate, studied within the leafy confines of the nearby Villa Pallavicini.

For the visitor, Bologna boasts a wealth of historic, artistic and religious attractions, yet each encapsulates the mood of academic redemption. Even the graffiti sprayed on the porticos throughout the city is of a decidedly high-brow nature. “Stay on the barricades for a better education,” is one in particular that catches my eye.

As a breeding ground for Italian talent, the University of Bologna’s hallowed halls and cloisters have welcomed historical alumni including Nicolaus Copernicus, Dante Alighieri, Thomas Becket, Pope Nicholas V and Erasmus of Rotterdam. To this day, famous semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco remains president of the Scuola Superiore di Studi Umanistici. The medieval palazzos and the scholarly revival that the city’s university once inspired act as a keystone to the backdrop of his world famous Il Nome Della Rosa (The Name of the Rose).

Whether today’s students seek inspiration from their alma mater or something else entirely, however, is a different story. Next to the Museo di Palazzo Poggi, originally set up by the Bolognese Senate in 1711 to house the Institute of Arts and Sciences, Vespas and scooters line up like dominoes and the students seem more preoccupied by pints of Peroni than any periodic tables.

“Bologna has always been the number one city in Italy for students,” explains Mary Dellantonio, a graduate from the American run John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. In any other country she could be a worshipped movie star in the same vein as Monica Bellucci but in Italy she works at the Bram Stoker styled Le Stanze bar. “People from Naples, from Rome, they all come to study here,” she says. “But only two or three out of every ten students will graduate – it’s such a famous party city. There is more discussion at 5am on the streets and in the squares than in the colleges.”

Overlooking Bologna, perched like a gigantic pink parmesan, the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca crowns the city. Serving as a destination for religious pilgrimages, and Sunday morning strolls, it is one of Bologna’s most celebrated symbols. For the unprepared, the mazy walk up to the sanctuary is the equivalent of hiking up the operatic scale of Luciana Pavarotti. The porticos and arcaded steps ramble like an elongated Nessun Dorma aria that constantly tugs at the heartstrings and clogged heart valves. Measuring nearly 4km from eager first step to last panting breath, the Meloncello Arch links the church with the town below and is the longest covered walkway in the world. Somehow I make it to C# without passing out in a heap like a gummy Parma ham.

Viewing Bologna from upon my Papal high, the city could be a fresh pizza dissected by arterial tramways and bus routes. In the distance, the Apennines spread out in a patchwork quilt of mountain villages, forests and roads wind to the Parco Regionale dei Sassi di Roccamalatina and the famous Ferrari factories of Maranello. Above me, San Luca itself is a refreshing sight and – with Umberto Eco still playing on my mind from the previous day – seems reminiscent of the Italian monastic abbey from The Name of the Rose. Sean Connery, the ageing star of the Hollywood adaptation, would have had a coronary if he’d had to climb up here today. One thing’s for sure: I’ve certainly worked up an appetite.

The following day, amongst the dusty bookshelves of the Il Palazzo dell’ Archiginnasio, tourists diligently brush up on their biology. On the palace’s first floor, the world famous anatomy theatre creaks under the weight of history and the over-fed Italians who stroll in after lunch. The room is an ornamental sonata of pinewood and sculpture. One of the world’s great halls of learning, physicians once sliced and diced corpses under the watchful eyes of the Holy See and the Pope on a great marble slab, positioned like a sacrificial altar beneath an unappreciative gallery of ecclesiastical statues.  Yet old habits die-hard: outside in the Mercato di Mezzo, like their forefathers before them, Bolognese butchers take great delight in carving up sinewy slices of hams as big as Silvio Berlusconi’s ego. The pursuit of knowledge continues in the adjoining library, which is home to more than a million manuscripts and as many dusty-grey haired professors.

At six o’clock every autumn evening, Bologna slips into relaxed mood and the dull yet hypnotic plonk of wine bottles being uncorked streams out of Bologna’s enotecas. Beneath giant hanging hams tied to the rafters with frayed string knots, Tamburini is one of the city’s most evocative delicatessen bars, the quintessential Bolognese dining experience. Spoiled with a bottle of Italian wine and a farmer’s board with raw prosciutto, freshly sliced pork salami and pecorino cheese, it’s more rustic than a scarecrow’s picnic. As Ippolito Nievo once said, “in Bologna you eat in one year what in Venice takes two, in Rome three, what in Turin takes three and in Genoa twenty…” It feels devilish but that’s why it’s so damn good: I could easily begin a love affair with this learned, fat city.