Bologna, Italy • July 2017 • Length of Read: 9 Minutes
Catching my breath, I gazed in wonder over the bronze and rust coloured city that stretched out before my eyes; the bright, mid-morning, sun illuminating the terracotta rooftops of the buildings below as the sidewalk-arching porticoes cast shadows out over the cobbled streets, providing welcome shade for the throngs of tourists and locals who were presumably perusing the myriad high-fashion shops; exploring the boutique cafes; or simply enjoying some al fresco dining whilst taking in the melting pot of architecture and culture that can be found on every corner in Bologna.
Along with the lovely Polish guy who I’d met at the tourist information centre in Piazza Maggiore, this northern Italian city’s main square, we’d just climbed 498 steps up the spiral staircase of the medieval Torre Degli Asinelli, and were taking in the panoramic vista we’d been rewarded from the top. The taller of the Two Towers, which together act as the symbol of Bologna, it has been standing strong for over 1,000 years, surviving the aerial bombings of both world wars as well as numerous lightning strikes. This tower’s shorter sister leans adjacent to it at a precarious 4-degree slant, even more squint than the 3.6-degree tilt of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and together they are among only twenty towers that remain standing in a city that used to boast more than one-hundred such constructions. With no suitable ground or space on which to build a castle, stone towers were constructed in Bologna by the region’s wealthy families, the height of the structures said to have correlated to the extent of their power. When these families had disagreements that led to bloody feuds, however, the towers would be demolished as a sign of defeat.
Back on terra firma, my calves burning from the descent, I took a stroll down the primary shopping street of Via dell’Independenza before cutting off towards the University. Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna is the oldest in the world, and unbeknownst to me upon pulling into the main train station the previous evening, I’d timed my visit for the exact week that the students’ graduation ceremonies and coinciding festivities were taking place. Entering the walled city-centre, passing a number of beautiful monuments and sculptures from the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque artistic eras, I was astounded to be confronted with hundreds of young people laughing and drinking in the packed streets as if it were a carnival parade. Crossing a small graffiti-covered square towards the fantastic Dopa Hostel, my recommended accommodation, I’d had to duck in between a pair of students playing drunken badminton wearing Mario and Luigi costumes; a more stereotypical Italian sight one would struggle to find.
The summer temperature was peaking in the mid-thirties and with not a lick of breeze in the air for comfort I found myself taking refuge in one of the quirky little lunchtime restaurants that ran up the street from this square back towards the Two Towers. One of the beautiful things about Bologna is how compact the city centre is. Due to the walled boundaries, there is little room for expansion, so every place of interest is just a short walk apart. At no point do you feel like the place is too crowded or crushed, however. Having checked in to my hostel, I’d befriended a group of pretty Brazilian girls and a separate group of cool Austrian guys. Together, we’d all bought some beers and wine from the local liquor store and spent the evening sat in a small circle at the edge of this square; talking nonsense, trading stories, and taking in the joyously absurd student traditions. As midnight hit, we’d then sidled into a nearby pizzeria for a bite to eat, and where the chef working the large stone stove took quite a shining to the South American quartet. When I then joked to him in broken Italian that they were all ‘la mia ragazza’ he bowed to me like I was a Roman God. Either that, or he was bent double with laughter at the possibility of such a pale, skinny, ginger man being able to get away with such elegant, foreign, girls. Alas, chi non bate non scopa.
Ordering a salad and coffee for lunch, I took the seat in the restaurant with the best view of the street and gazed out at the tranquil goings on around me. Mediterranean life is chilled out in a way that would be described as lazy back home in the UK. Having spent a fair amount of time this past year with a gorgeous Italian, however, I’ve come to the realisation that clock-watching, agenda-planning, and list-making is just a great way of running yourself into a stress-induced mess. She made me realise that, I myself, needed to become more laid back and less regimented, and just being present in the atmosphere of Bologna was helping me with this. One specific observation I made whilst watching the locals go about their daily activities, was the large number of people reading books. There wasn’t a smartphone in sight. Instead, those dining alone or waiting on companions were digging into famous literature or exam notes. It only seemed fitting of an environment which oozed such class and simplicity. I’ve become a big fan of the Mediterranean life.
The waiter, a young guy called Cosimo, came over with my food and we got chatting about travel. At this point, I was seven months into a backpacking world tour that had taken me through Oceania, South East Asia, and Central Europe, and he was fascinated to learn more about my journey. Whilst eating, he quizzed me on specific places I’d been, working holiday visas, and the general grind of living life on the road. When it came to paying my bill, we exchanged numbers and I happily agreed to give him any further advice he might require in relation to his dream of moving to Australia. I left the restaurant not only captivated by the architecture and atmosphere of this city but with people as well.
Returning to the hostel to drop off some things, I found the bunk below me to be occupied by a charming American dude who had just got off the phone with a prospective new college roommate for the forthcoming fall semester. “Sorry for eavesdropping,” I said, having caught the tail end of his call, “but I couldn’t help overhearing you asking the guy on the other end of the line about his sexual escapades.”
“I’ve learnt to just be blunt about these things upfront,” he laughed shaking my hand and introducing himself. “Last year I had the unfortunate situation of living with a gay guy that was in a number of polygamous relationships and at times our flat more resembled a brothel than student accommodation.”
‘That’s hilarious,” I laughed, picturing this very normal looking dude trying to eat his breakfast in peace whilst flamboyant visitors took over the kitchen. “What are your plans for tonight?”
“I’m actually heading out right now for a date with an English girl I met online to the open-aired cinema that’s been put up at the back of Piazza Maggiore,” he said, putting on his shoes. “They are playing all English language films this week and tonight is going to be a showing of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.”
“Good film,” I nodded. “Hope it goes well. It’s a beautiful setting for a date.”
“Fingers crossed,” he smiled, checking his hair in the mirror before leaving the room.
After writing a short article in the hostel’s common area and then taking a quick nap, I headed out as the sun set for a late dinner. There was only one dish on my mind: spaghetti bolognese, but there was no shortage of awesome eateries to go to. Wandering around the back streets, bustling osterias spilt out into the open-air, with wheels of parmesan, dangling meats, and hearty pasta dishes drawing in my nostrils with their fresh smells. I took a table at one called Osteria dell’orsa, the bear, and ordered a jug of white wine alongside the dish named after the city it originated. Tucking into it a short while later, the sun came streaking through an archway at the end of the street and gave the surrounding area an angelic feeling. ‘That’s heaven’ I thought to myself. ‘Everything about Bologna is heaven. Further on up the road, I want to establish a hostel here; to dine to my heart’s content; to drink the best coffee during the day and the best wine by night; to learn the language of the beautiful locals; to never return home.’