Italy’s culinary capital, the oldest university in the world, and Commie agitprop: Bologna
The home of the oldest university in the world is also touted as the culinary capital of a country universally renowned for its food. Throw in centuries of left-wing agitation, and you’ve got Bologna, Italy.
A beautiful town with an expansive medieval cityscape, nicknamed “La Rossa” as much for its political leanings as for its terra cotta bricks and roof tiles, Bologna was Amanda and my next stop on our Grand Tour of Italy.
We spent a couple days here, and it was so refreshingly un-touristy that I want to cover it briefly in this blog. My first impression of Bologna, apart from a train station that is somehow more confusing than any other city we visited, was that it is perfectly designed for pedestrians. Porticoes line nearly 25 miles of streets in the historic center. With tens of thousands of students arriving in the Middle Ages, the walled city couldn’t expand to accommodate them, so property owners started to build directly above the pavement. Not only does this provide a pedestrian-centered experience, but it also shelters people from the elements.
Amanda and I stopped in Bologna basically because we are huge nerds: The political history and the oldest university drew us here, but I would recommend staying for the food.
We consistently ate well for a consistently reasonable price in Bologna (roughly €10 per dinner). Bologna is the birthplace of the eponymous bolognese (meat) sauce and is also known for tagliatelle, tortellini, gelato, and many other dishes. I won’t linger on this too long because I tend to get annoyed with endless Instagram scrolls of food pictures, but I want to mention one aspect of our dinners.
Amanda and I ate mostly at trattorias, basically mid-range Italian restaurants. Apparently, Italians are really into making reservations over the phone. We would usually show up, without reservations, at around 7 or 7:30 p.m., only to be told that, despite the nearly empty restaurant, they were “full” for the night. We quickly figured out that this meant they were booked starting at Italian dinner time — around 9 p.m. Usually, they would happily let us eat without reservations, as long as we were out by a quarter to 9 or so. Finish dinner in an hour and a half? No problem for Americans (even Amanda).
I’m not sure what I expected, but the oldest university in the world, founded in 1088, was grimy. Nearly all of the buildings surrounding the campus were covered in graffiti. Notably absent was that mainstay of American graffiti — penises — instead, it was overwhelmingly political, decrying recent austerity measures or supporting this or that politician.
This is an urban campus, with streets and cars criss-crossing through the campus, and I felt like it lacked a central focal point. We visited the university gardens and wandered through the narrow streets and sidewalks.
Bologna has long held a reputation as a hotspot of liberal, left-wing, anarchist, and especially communist agitation. Throwing 80,000 students into the mix probably doesn’t moderate this tendency. From World War II onward, with only one exception in 1999, the city has been governed by center-left coalitions and has engaged in experiments like free public transportation.
You can feel a youthful energy throbbing throughout the city, whether it was spontaneous demonstrations we encountered, random propaganda being handed out on street corners, political graffiti scrawled across the university buildings, or just the hum of 80,000 students.
The Two Towers
No, Bologna wasn’t involved in the war for Middle Earth — the actual history of these towers is far more interesting. Some historians believe the medieval city may have held a mind-boggling 180 towers within its walls.
Possibly these towers were used by rich citizens for offensive or defensive purposes during the Investiture Controversy, the “most significant conflict between Church and state in medieval Europe,” which originated between Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Essentially, successive Popes challenged the authority of monarchs to make church appointments, such as bishops, and this led to consequences like nearly 50 years of civil war in Germany.
Most of the city’s towers were either demolished or collapsed in the succeeding centuries, but somewhere around 20 still stand. Even though she felt a little under the weather our first morning, Amanda agreed to climb one with me. These two towers were the inspiration for the architect who designed the World Trade Center in New York City.
Construction started around 1109, and both towers lean a bit today. We climbed the higher of the two (and the only one that is open to the public): Asellini Tower. The Asellini Tower is 319 feet tall, but with much wider steps than some of the towers I’ve climbed in Oxford (I’m looking at you, Magdalen).
Bologna may lack some of the big-ticket sights that many people associate with Italy, but it’s a worthwhile stop in its own right. With a beautiful red skyline, fantastic food, and an intoxicating history, it would be a must-see attraction in nearly any other country. I found Bologna similar to Florence, but with none of the touristy downsides — it seems eminently livable.