Sunday, May 13, 2007

Full in (but not of) Bologna

Looking for a place to spend a day or so in between Venice and Ravenna, I decided to visit Bologna, where food reigns supreme. Instead of stores filled with glass objects and souvenirs, there are shops loaded with cheeses, meats and homemade pastas, all neatly displayed in cases or in the windows. Gigantic parma hams cluster in large bunches from the ceilings, each probably worth more than its weight in gold. The fact that I don't eat pork slashes my choices considerably, making it easier to decide what to taste.

My guidebook strongly recommends an award winning ice cream shop, Sorbetteria Castiglione, so off I go, wandering through arcades and porticos that are at least two storeys high. To call Bolognese architecture grand is an understatement. Many of the doorways to older churches and buildings are dozens of feet tall, and I feel like a dwarf as I make my way down Castiglione Street. Sadly, many of these buildings are also amply adorned with graffiti. Bologna is a student town, perhaps that explains the prevalence of spraypainted gobbledygook?

Soon I arrive at the ice cream place. They have a limited selection of flavors, half of which are the house specialties. You pay by the weight - I choose 250 grams worth of three flavors: dark chocolate, Michelangelo (an almond based flavor) and a cream of ricotta with caramel. Simply stunning, making Venetian gelato seem like a Hoodsie. I am tempted to order another portion and try even more of their special recipes but want to leave room for something healthy (um...before this I also sampled some pizza).

Bologna is home to several brick towers, erected back in the 12th century by wealthy families who wanted to make a statement - the Donald Trumps of that time? There used to be 180 towers, and now there are around a dozen, of which one can be climbed (another, right next to it, was poorly built and now leans more than 3 meters off center). I figured climbing nearly 500 steps will be a good way to work off the ice cream...up I go! Oddly, the ticket booth is not located on the ground, at the entrance, but a good 50 steep steps inside the tower, where the clerk perches in a tiny alcove and collects the three euro admission.

The ascent makes the four flights of to my Venice hotel room seem like not such a big deal. Halfway up, on a wooden staircase that hugs the inside walls of the tower, with just air in between, I decide that I really shouldn't look down or worry about when the last time the tower was inspected. Periodically, there is a floor or platform in between endless staircases where the out-of-shape can catch their breath. At the top, the view is well worth the effort and there is a refreshing breeze. Mission accomplished.

Returning to terra firma, I spot a religious procession, with clerics in many different colored outfits parading through the main square while singing. A small group of protesters has gathered, but they don't look particularly angry or upset (many are laughing and smiling) and the signs they are holding or wearing (affixed with tape), advocating civil unions and equal rights, are simply white pieces of paper lettered with magic markers. No large placards to be found, no one is chanting or shouting. Uniformed police stand around, just in case. Some photographers zoom in for shots of these signs. The writing is so small that you have to be quite close to read them. Later, I read in my guidebook that Bologna has one of the country's "better organized" gay communities....

And now, you've guessed correctly, it is time for dinner. So far, my guidebook is batting 1,000 with food recommendations in Bologna, so I walk out of the center in search of a trattoria it mentions as being popular with locals. It is Saturday night, and the touted prix fixe menu is not available, but I decide to try the place anyway. A typical Italian meal has a first course (usually pasta) and a second course (meat or fish), but I can't fathom eating all that food. I order a side salad and truffle flavored cheese filled tortelli (larger than tortellini), and a 1/4 liter of insanely inexpensive house wine, which I can't finish. I had forgotten how intense the truffle aroma is, and when my plate arrives it stinks (at first I thought that the waitress had neglected to shower...). But the pasta is handmade, the cheese mouthwatering and I am smitten.

In a bit of a stupor and completely full, I waddle back to my bed & breakfast and go to sleep, under a crucifix.

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