Monday, 10 June 2013

Quattro giorni a Bologna!

Four days in Bologna & Ferrara at the "Arte e Cultura in 100 citta Italiano" a cultural event promoting the Emilia-Romagna region. Sarah goes on a recce of the culinary delights of the region in preparation for our Cookery Holidays in 2014.

I'm sitting in a café in Via Voltecasotta in Ferrara on my last day here in Italy penning the beginnings of this blog. My order: caffe macchiato with a side shot of water, one sugar. Short, strong, and sweet - the way the Italians drink it. Often accompanied by a few cigarettes. It's their kick start to the day, often taken standing 'al bar'. They, of course, take their coffee very seriously.

Caffe macchiato con aqua
A woman in red caught my eye

I listen to the gentle hum of their beautiful language all around me, squashed in between strangers, their friends, colleagues and  tourists. Luckily for me I can understand (most) of what they are saying. I feel like a spy! Even if you were deaf you would be able to understand a good deal of what they were expressing. Italians talk with their hands, of course, brushing their chin in disapproval, twisting their finger into their cheeks, "buona" (yummy) and so on. Ferrara, city of bicyles, wheels turning everywhere you look, young and old, women in fur coats, young people ride whilst simultaneously talking on their telephones one handed, children perched on laps, old men ride slowly lent backwards. I must also mention the obvious glamour and style in which the Italians, male and female conduct themselves....I find myself suddenly eyeing up high heels and little black dresses - totally out of character! It is an innate part of the culture of this romantic nation, its sexuality oozing from every female, and the men strut with a vanity and arrogance unfamiliar to most modest British men.

It's a culture that we envy for its relaxed attitude, seemingly better quality of life, whilst of course understanding all its inefficiencies and shortcomings. The economy is in trouble, government in a mess, but life continues with all its important daily rituals. The wheels keep on turning. Bologna itself is famous for its 'Bolognese ragu', its towers and lengthy porticos, her beautiful university and the food.

The porticos for which Bologna is famed


Young and old ride bicycles everywhere

Representing Great Britain...!

Authentic Adventures were delighted to be invited to "Art and Culture in 100 Italian cities 2013", a cultural event promoting the Emilia Romagna region over four days. After completing the interesting, at times gruelling, five hour networking event with eighty five foreign delegates from all over the world (Koreans and Brazilians had made the trip....), we were treated to a city tour of Bologna, also known as 'La Grassa' or 'The fat one'! It seems fitting that, having studied Italian at Universita di Pisa, then as a tour guide to rival walking company (details not to be mentioned here!) that I return after five years absence. I could also mention that my family nickname is "gourmande" - that could be translated as "food lover with excellent palette" or more literally as "greedy". Italians also refer to Bologna as "la dotta" (the learned one) a reference to the oldest university in the world, founded in 1088. Friends of mine 'studied' there, a bit. The city is also known as "la rossa" not only for its red tiled roofs, but for its communist supporters.

We follow Tamara, our friendly guide, through the medieval streets of Bologna, past the busy Saturday food market, delighting in the array of produce and glamorous market stall owners! It seems the whole city has come to see and be seen in the streets and Piazza dell Nettuno. There is a huge student march in full flow, red flags, chanting and a curious 'moo-ing' sound coming from a gigantic life sized stuffed cow. I later discover it is in protest to meat eaters. We manage to side step the display of yet more passion, and hide in the quiet covered market with wonderful antique bookshops, an array of vintage posters and every conceivable kind of map. At the far end of the arcade we hear the light tinkle of music, and on close inspection find a group of young couples dancing to fifties swing. Just another Saturday afternoon in Bologna - it's a stirring sight, reminiscent of Italy post war perhaps? The Italians have to be some of the most sociable people in Europe, delighting in the evenings "passaggiata" - a display of fine clothes, good looking new girlfriend, new leather handbag, or new baby. A chance to catch up with friends
and relatives, enjoy a gelato after supper (yes, it seems Italians DO eat icecream regularly and still keep their figures...).

Piazza dell Nettuno is the central point in the city to which all other streets lead to and from. The bristling, muscly bronze figure of Neptune stands proudly surveying his people and the Town Hall nearby. Commissioned by Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal Legate of the city in 1563, his overt nudity caused a scandal, and folk-lore says that the council considered covering the offending parts with a lead 'sarong' - that obviously never happened, and his four maidens beneath further exemplify his prowess by water squirting from their breasts (until the nipples became chalked up.) We visit the 'Seven churches' rumoured to house the whipping post upon which Jesus Christ himself was tethered and thrashed, some wonderful adjoining monastic chambers and interconnecting chapels, linked by covered walkways made using mis-matching pieces of stone and whatever was to hand at the time. Santo Stefano and the basilica and Santo Domenico. Mosaics and patterns are inlaid into the walls as the communication of the time to pilgrims who could not read script.
A tailors gravestone

Torre Asinelli

Patterns and symbols are the writing of the day
 We have become a splinter group of around fifteen, in all shapes, sizes, ages and nationalities! Tamara leads us along a busy street (no cars allowed here at the weekends, a source of great controversy amongst the more traditional shop owners) towards Torre Asinelli. Another famous leaning tower, standing at ninety seven metres high, higher than the Duomo in Florence and the Leaning tower of Pisa itself (I have also clambered up this entirely unsafe antique!). During the 12th & 13th centuries there were one hundred and eighty towers in the city. Now, the two famous Bolognese towers remain, Asinelli and Garisenda. I feel claustrophobic and experience vertigo (through floorboards with holes) as does my Dutch colleague ahead of me, but we forge ahead, keen not to miss the experience. The views are stunning - from the safety of the back wall! Exhausted, but happy, the delegates are led to an atmospheric pizzeria, where we are greeted by four enthusiastic 'pizzaolo' (pizza throwers) - and they do not disappoint! I choose pizza Quattro formaggi and experience weird cheese dreams all night. I wake up with stomach ache and a feeling of not knowing exactly where I am - but the pizza was mouth-wateringly delicious. My Italian language is returning
with force and fluency and I take every opportunity to speak to Italians whilst making plenty of mistakes.
Fearing for my life...


Bologna would make a wonderful gastronomic city tour with its array of excellent restaurants, fantastic local produce and energetic city life. A vast array of special produce comes from this area and is grown in abundance due to the reliable climate; Parmeggiano Reggiano, aceto Balsamico (the good stuff), prosciutto from nearby Parma, mortadella, salami, and of course pasta, vino rosso, olives and olive oil. There are 230 'traditional products' alone in this region, and 33 with special PDO and PGI government protective ratings. Good local wines (sampled) include Sangiovese di Romagna and Lambrusco di Modena and Reggio Emilia. Favourite food memory: Cappellaci di zucca al burro e salvia - little pockets of hand made pasta (bright yellow and soft) filled with butternut squash with a butter and sage sauce. A sprinkling of parmesan cheese to top it off.

Prosciutto e parmiggiano
Even the market vendors seem stylish!
"It is obligatory to drink in this pub"

The following day we head to Ferrara, about an hour away. Our pretty guide, Roberta, is Ferrarese and speaks passionately about "her city", the city of bicycles. First stop, therefore, should be the bicycle rentals, where I choose a very tired looking light blue number - but 'she' has a basket AND a bell (others do not!). This turns out to be a good choice, as the streets of Ferrara are busy and the bell comes in handy. The bike stand falls off the moment I start pedalling, but nevermind....Ferrara is situated on the Po river and dominated by the friendly Castello Estense and her lovely moat built in 1385.
Nearby the Romanesque cathedral stands alongside City Hall, the three large buildings guarding this friendly city. We weave our way through the streets, we are not as adept as the locals and there are raised fists from the local mamma's trying to carry their shopping home, "Attenzione bicicletta!" It is a delightful way to see the city, and much faster than on foot - we cycle around the whole outer limit of the medieval city walls through lush green grassland where joggers take their Sunday morning run. Ferrarese boast that these walls are the best preserved Renaissance walls in Italy along with Lucca - very magical indeed. Pretty soon we arrive at the Palazzo degli Diamante (diamond studded marble on the outside catching the light at different times of the day) to see an exhibition by local Ferrarese film maker Michelangelo Antonioni - famed for his film, "Blow Up" - the 1960's classic. I hide in the shop, and the others cycle away without me to the Jewish Museum! Luckily Roberta returns to find me and we cycle at a leisurely pace through the back streets and short cuts chatting in pigeon Italian and laughing. The Jewish were separated from the rest of the community from 1627 until 1859 and the museum is in the heart of the ghetto.
A sunny day for cycling

We cycle around the medieval city walls

Bikes returned, apology for bike stand made, we are set free to wander the streets of Ferrara in the early evening light. To my total delight, there is a huge flea market covering the whole of Piazza Trento Trieste and beyond!! I spend three hours wandering around people watching and rummaging through jewellery, antiques, old postcards etc. etc. I buy a vintage King Kong poster for my eldest son, and a new pair of sunglasses which provide me with a new Italian disguise. I could be a local couldn't I? No-one would ever know.....

Authentic Adventures launch Cookery Holidays in 2014 - first location will be in Puglia, Southern Italy. Please keep following us via our monthly newsletters and on Facebook for information about forthcoming trips, news and competitions!