A city to savour

With its classic architecture and saucy food, Bologna is a rewarding addition to any Italian itinerary, writes Steve McKenna.

What really hits me on my first morning in Bologna is not the copious amounts of caffeine I've imbibed or the array of carb-fuelled temptations advertised on restaurant chalk-board menus. It's the arcades.

Supported by pillars and columns, and decorated, in some parts, with stuccoed icons of saints and messiahs, these marble-floored porticoes fan out through a centro storico (historic centre) wedged within the borders of Bologna's ancient city gates.

Dating to the Middle Ages, these winding walkways appear infinite but Bolognese friends assure me if you tacked them together, they'd stretch about 40 kilometres.

Not just for show, the arcades shelter the entrances to homes, hotels, museums, galleries, bars, cafes, trattorias, gelaterias, pizzerias and myriad retail outlets.

The capital of northern Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna eludes many travellers' radars but the relative lack of tourist hordes, allied with the city's traditional Italian charms and the youthful zest generated by its 100,000-plus students, makes it a rewarding place to break up a visit between, say, Milan and Florence, or Venice and Rome.

Like Venice, Bologna has several nicknames: La Dotta (the learned one – it's home to Europe's oldest university: founded in AD1088), La Rossa (the red one; thanks to its left-leaning politics and the colour scheme of its buildings and terracotta roofs); and La Grassa (the fat one; it's one of Italy's gastronomic capitals and spawned the saucy Bolognese-style dishes globally adored today).

Despite its wealth of covered public spaces, plenty of things happen outdoors in Bologna. Cyclists are ubiquitous. It's said you can pedal almost anywhere of note within 15 minutes of Piazza Maggiore, the city's heartbeat, which is home to the imposing Basilica di San Petronio. It overlooks an ornate fountain sporting a buff bronze statue of the Roman god Neptune.

The al fresco cafes of Piazza Maggiore are a dream for people-watchers. Over cappuccino, I spy septuagenarian businessmen with ancient suits and even older leather briefcases, gaggles of hipster students, and a parade of slim, stylish women weighed down with Gucci and Prada bags.

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A tangle of cobbled alleys spring off the square. My tip: go wherever tickles your fancy. Unlike Rome and Florence, where certain sights have to be ticked off, in Bologna, you can mostly keep your map in your pocket. I amble to my heart's content, roaming the back streets, browsing antique stalls, markets loaded with fruit and veg and other tantalising local produce, and delis selling mortadella sausages and parmesan-like cheeses. When I start to flag, I'm never far from a little cafe that offers espresso boosts for €1 ($1.40) or less.

Bologna has a few "unmissables", however; not least Le Due Torri, the two leaning towers built in the 12th century, when mediaeval skyscrapers began to soar over this booming merchant city.

Scale the 498 steps of the tallest – the 97-metre Torre degli Asinelli – for panoramic views over the city and its hilly green surrounds.

Alternatively, stroll along Bologna's longest arcade, which spans 666 arches and runs 3.8km to the Madonna di San Luca, a hill-top sanctuary on the city's lush western outskirts.

Studded with leafy parks (Margherita Gardens is the prettiest), Bologna claims to have more cultural attractions per capita than any other Italian city. Etruscan and Roman artefacts from the city's ancient past are among the exhibits in the Archaeological Museum, set inside a 15th century palazzo. A converted bakery plays host to the avant-garde MAMBO, the Museum of Modern Art.

In the warmer months, the cobblestone squares and lanes around Via Zamboni (the central university district) provide a scenic backdrop to a calendar of outdoor theatre performances and music festivals. So, too, does Piazza Santo Stefano, which is home to a complex of religious buildings with fifth century roots.

Year round, after dark, these two neighbourhoods buzz with winers and diners, grungers and hip-hoppers and Che Guevara-esque characters.

The Quadrilatero – a web of lanes with ambient cocktail bars and eateries east of Piazza Maggiore - draws a dressier crowd, while a bohemian middle-class vibe permeates the osterias (taverns) along Via del Pratello.

Run by three generations of local women, the pocket-sized Pasta Fresca Naldi serves hand-rolled doughy treats, including tortelloni stuffed with ricotta cheese, lasagne and the classic tagliatelle al ragu bolognese.

Perched on a stool inside the shop, I enjoy these thick noodles, drenched in a meat-based sauce flavoured with herbs, onions and tomato paste, and think: this definitely trumps your bog-standard spag bol. And when you see Bolognese of all ages coming in for their lunch-time fix, you know you're onto a winner.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Etihad has a return fare from Sydney to Milan via Abu Dhabi for $1552. From Melbourne, it's $1681. See etihad.com.

From Milan, there are several trains each hour to Bologna, with the shortest journey time one hour on the high-speed Frecciarossa services. See trenitalia.com.

STAYING THERE

Set in a lavish 18th-century palace, the Grand Hotel Majestic is Bologna's swankiest sleep. Rooms priced from €264 ($370). See grandhotelmajestic.duetorrihotels.com.

Gothic, Renaissance and contemporary flavours seep through Art Hotel Corona d'Oro. Rooms priced from €134. See hco.it.

MORE INFORMATION

bolognawelcome.combologna.use-it.travel.

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