Coming from the relatively homogeneous US, I can’t get over how culture completely changes over small distances in Europe. You can go (as we just did) from Switzerland to Italy by train in only 4 hours, but they’re a world apart. From the calm and organized train station in Geneva, we walked out into the full-frontal chaos that is Milan. All the eating, greeting, and kissing! Mark and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, because Italy.
Milan was only a transfer point. We’re here to revisit Bologna. Choosing where to go is a dance between seeing new places and visiting old friends. Figurative friends, not literal, though visiting literal friends is fun too. There’s something to be said about being able to navigate by dead reckoning, immediately finding your rhythm. The first time we decided to come here in 2011, I mentioned Bologna to a friend who grew up in Italy. He gave me a puzzled look and said, why Bologna? I said it has probably the most intact medieval center in Europe, the world’s oldest university and botanical garden, and it’s smack in the middle of Emilio Romano, a region renowned for its cuisine, and in a country known for food, that’s saying something. He said, oh yeah, Bologna! We’ve been wanting to return ever since.
I love Bologna. To me, it’s the perfect city. It’s not precious or fussy. It’s not on anyone’s bucket list so it doesn’t cater to, nor is it overwhelmed by tourism. It’s eminently walkable, which is to say it’s not only largely pedestrianized, but there’s a visual density here that makes every damn turn surprising and wonderful. It’s a transportation hub, so it’s easy to travel to neighboring cities like Parma, Modena, and the extraordinary Ravenna. The food is fabulous. There’s a large student population with its attendant graffiti, lefty vibe, and cheap eats. It’s a living and growing city, so it doesn’t have to parody itself by constantly evoking its past glories, though they are so numerous, it would be understandable if it did.
In the 11c, the university was founded, and with the influx of students came a building boom. The existing buildings were added on to at the 2nd floor, extending over the street, making the miles of porticoed walkways that make Bologna so pleasant to walk, rain or shine. They were originally of timber and plaster. Later buildings were required to include porticos, and were made of stone or red brick.
By the 12-13c, Bologna was wealthy and politically unstable. Building defensive/offensive towers became contagious among the rich. Some say 180 towers were built, others a mere (!) 80-100. 22 remain. I think of them as rising like so many middle fingers, like the current high-rise boom in London which are nothing but a wealth shelter for the super rich.
Bologna also has the best creepy cool stuff. Bones and mummies in the churches, a perfectly restored anatomy theater featuring wooden sculptures of flayed men flanking the teacher’s throne, and a collection of 18c wax anatomy sculptures for medical students. Today I was utterly smitten by the Zoological Museum. I’m a huge fan of natural history museums. If there’s one where we are, we’re going. The older and mustier, the better, and this one was the best so far. Really old and musty. Probably the oldest, given that the beginning of its collection came from Ulisse Aldrovanni, the guy who is the father of natural history studies (this after he served his sentence for heresy). He probably coined the term geology or at least he was the first to use it. He certainly started the craze of collecting specimens of minerals, plants and animals into a cabinet of curiosities.
Over and out until next time!