A taste for Bologna
Bologna: Market fruit and vegetables. Picture: John Georgeff

Arriving in busy, grimy, lively, noisy and cosmopolitan Bologna, we soon realise that booking our carefully chosen B&B was a mistake.

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Untidy and smelly, it is run by the intrusive, crazed Patrizia. Escaping to nearby Bar Giuseppe, we sip coffee, work ourselves into a frenzy and decide that we just can't stay.

Our waiter, the simpatico Antonio, recommends a hotel around the corner and escorts us there. Sadly, the reception and elevator are upstairs on the first floor, common in Bologna. Tricky knees put it out of the question.

Not offended, the gracious Giorgio rings another hotel close by, checks availability and sends us over to a gorgeous 14th-century building facing the 13th-century San Petronio cathedral. After I retrieve our luggage and passports from crazy Patrizia, which isn't fun, the lovely Cinzia gives us an upgrade and sends some nerve- soothing prosecco to our room, overlooking San Petronio's stained glass. After a shaky start, Bologna is looking good.

Proudly claiming the title of Italy's gastronomic capital, one of Bologna's nicknames is "la grossa", the fat one. That evening, at the historic Trattoria la Corte Galluzzi, we share a delightful veal ragu, roast veg in olive oil and vittel tonnato, a cold, sliced veal dish, covered with a creamy sauce flavoured with tuna, anchovies and lemon juice. Squisito!

Bologna's million inhabitants share a rich history, distinctive architecture, art, cuisine, culture and a vibrant university. Its popularity in Europe as a conference and trade fair centre makes hotel bookings scarce and costly, but we jag a quiet week. The university is Europe's oldest, earning the city another nickname - "la dotta", the learned one. Its 100,000 spirited students are everywhere, chattering, laughing, on scooters and, being Italian, kissing.

Next day, we explore the vast Piazza Maggiore in the historical centre, lined by cafes, bars, elegant shops, a cathedral and San Petronio's statue on guard, high atop a stately building. The usual surly Italian tourist office service can be found here, too. Rail info? "Go to the station." Hmmm. Bus info? "Ask at the bus station." Culture? "I don't know. Go and look at those brochures." OK. We get the picture. You can return to gossiping now.

Happily, the hop-on hop-off bus is outside for a quick orientation tour. The amiable driver speeds past some of the old city gates, remains of the old city walls and Bologna's famed porticos, or arcades. Forty kilometres of graceful porticos allow pedestrians to travel through the centre sheltered from bad weather. The Portico of San Luca is almost 4km long. Up to the hilltop forest on the outskirts to revel in the sensational panoramic views. From up here, the chaotic sea of tiled rooftops shows the reason for another nickname: "la rossa", the red one. It also alludes to the city's reputation as a lefty stronghold.

Down the hill we go, past the church of St Dominic, the founder of the Dominican order. Back through traffic-choked streets, festooned with electrical and trolley bus wires. We pause at the imposing 16th-century statue of Neptune in Piazza Nettuno, controversial in its time. Contrary to usual practice, his, er, downstairs region, was uncovered and standing to attention. Ruling that Bolognese women were too disturbed by the statue, the Church commissioned a pair of bespoke bronze pants. So tasteful.

Yet, in other ways, Bologna's attitude to women was ahead of its time. During the Renaissance, it was the only Italian city which permitted women to enter professions and attend university.

Back in Piazza Maggiore, we meander through the food markets. Surely the fruit and veg are on steroids. Dozens of varieties of cheese are on sale. Enormous cured hams hang from ceilings. A horse butcher elbows for space among the delis. Buying a bit of nougat here, some ham there, a little cheese, bread, chocolate and fresh strawberries, we graze contentedly. Anyway, isn't Bologna the birthplace of the slow food movement? Many central streets are pedestrianised and bikes abound, providing a brief respite from the hustle elsewhere. You can easily hire a bike here - but if it's not locked, it'll be stolen.

All roads seem to lead to Piazza Maggiore, so we revisit Bar Giuseppe for a prosecco on the sun-kissed terrace. Remembering our B&B ordeal, they fuss over us like old friends. Later, dinner at C'era Una Volta, or Once Upon a Time, really is like a fairytale. All white, the decor is over the top, with marble floors, crisp luxurious napery and amiable waiters. They show a genuine love of food and pride in its service. We feast on parmesan polenta nibbles, veal rolls stuffed with bocconcini, courgettes and spinach and lightly battered chicken noisettes, served in a parmesan basket with julienne veg. Squisito again.

On foot next day, we retrace the bus trip. The shabby-chic porticos, each with its own character, often protect beautiful inner courtyards. Some are higher, some have vaulted ceilings, some flat, with layer upon layer of decorations, arches, wrought iron, or statues. Agreeably lost, we admire lovely boutiques selling antiques, high fashion, watches, books and stunning jewellery. There is the usual array of museums, galleries and churches. For Australians, used to a far simpler visual diet, it is almost overwhelming.

To finish off the day's ramblings, we wander down via Castiglione to the Giardini Margherita park. A refreshing, green oasis just outside the old city walls, it's a great spot for a deli picnic, surrounded by huge trees, walkways, kids playing soccer, rollerbladers, skateboarders, young lovers and oldies, all enjoying themselves.

Back to Bar Giuseppe in Piazza Maggiore yet again for a final aperitivo. Then off to Bar Il Calice in via Claverture for our final meal. Our affable waiter served grilled chicken Caesar salad, more vittel tonnato, tortelloni in a Bolognese ragu, green beans and tiramisu.

It is hard to move on to our next destination, but our livers will surely be glad of the rest.

The West Australian

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