A visit to Bologna Italy is probably not in the cards for most people, ever. Even if you are fortunate enough to travel to Italy, you will probably not end up there. It’s not a romantic Italian destination like Venice, Rome, or the Am Coast. It’s flat and humid in summer, so you would not rent a villa there with your pals as you might in Tuscany. On the surface it is a second tier Italian city in the dull central Po Valley. So why should I write a piece about it? Simple. Because among Italians, Bologna ranks as one of the top cities in quality of life. And when it comes to quality of life, Italians know a thing or two. Also, if you look closely, you will find that Bologna is a superb example of enlightened design and urban planning. You just need to look at it from a different perspective than you get in travel guides, which generally give it only passing mention. And for the best different perspective, I recommend the top of Torre degli Asinelli, an imposing tower built in 1109. I climbed up the 498 wooden steps–25 stories–to take this photo.
The most obvious visual feature of Bologna from this vantage point is the orange and rose hues of the roof tiles and buildings. (I’ve included a shot of San Francisco for a comparison). Bologna is known as the “Red City” both for the colors of its architecture and its roots as a political center for the left wing. It is a city of color with a pleasant, earthy feel, not dimmed by the grey of concrete typical in so many other cities. You also don’t see any wide streets or cars from this perspective. They exist of course, but in the centro citta the streets are narrow and the cars are few. Bologna has done as superb job in prioritizing the rights of pedestrians. Cars are banned from the central part of the city, and the public transportation system is considered one of the best in Europe. You also see pockets of space between the buildings. These are piazzas, and they are numerous and generous, providing elegant public space for all citizens. Still looking from the tower, you will not find any two buildings with the same shape and size or architecture. There are quirky towers and a wild range of roofline and windows. Bologna is a city of rich in diversity and variety, a quality sadly missing in many “planned” communities.
But the truly unique feature of Bologna must be viewed at eye level. Click here to view additional photos. There are the 30 miles of gorgeous arched porticos in the inner city that protect pedestrians from rain in winter and harsh sunlight in summer. You can walk year ‘round in Bologna without an umbrella, hat or sunscreen. The walkways are elegant, integral with the architecture, and predictably infused with warm rose colors. The arcades themselves have a positive effect on the spirit, as any cathedral designer will tell you. The sidewalks they shelter are often done in elegant terrazzo. These pleasing passages guide you around the city and past the myriad stores and cafes in a very democratic way, and, because you are close to shops, reduce the need for commercial signage. I only saw one protruding commercial sign in the walkways, stereotypically a McDonald’s. How did that get through the Bologna planning commission? You are naturally encouraged to saunter through the city at a human pace and take notice of the amazing details all around you. Even the graffiti can seem like a textural element that somehow fits into the genial scheme of things. Bologna is a modern city of 400,000 people that feels like a pleasant village. A walk around the town is one of the most civilized and simulating strolls you can take, anywhere. It is proof that modern culture can exist compatibly with the past.
The civility of the design of Bologna is not something acknowledged in travel guides, though they usually point to affordable pleasant hotels right in the main square, and to the numerous important historic points of interest. Bologna is home to the oldest university in the world, dating back to 1088. It was also at the center of the anti-fascist resistance during the Second World War. The architecture is stunning. The Morandi Museum alone is worth the trip. If you are into shopping, whether for fresh produce or cutting edge Italian designer wear, the dearth of tourists make the hunting and gathering that much more pleasurable–a far cry from Florence or Rome. The Bolognese cuisine is exceptional, since the area is justly famous for its pasta, prosciutto, and Parmesan cheese.
Look closely at Bologna from any angle; it would hard to find a better destination in Italy. If you have one, point me in that direction, please.
I encourage you to make comments that can be shared with the public by using the Post Comments section below. If you prefer to contact me privately, click here. Also, I send out an email newsletter on a weekly basis, but I am often adding posts to my blog daily. Frequent visits and comments are appreciated.