As we know from The Prince and the Pauper, there comes a time when you must venture from your palace and see the world beyond its walls.
So it was with the Palazzo dalla Rosa Prati in Parma. It served as our sanctuary while Sally and Lisa recovered, and allowed us to reorient and find our bearings as we eased into the pace of Italian life. But one Thursday morning we said goodbye to our plush surroundings and to our host, The Handsome Vittorio dalla Rosa Prati.
We caught a train for Bologna. Even with its many stops, our carriage covered the distance in an hour and a half. The sky was sunny and clear. The landscape was flat as a pizza with the snowcapped Appenines in the distant west. My companions were clearly feeling better, you might say almost chipper, as we pulled into Stazzione Bologna Centrale.
We had booked two rooms at the Albergo delle Drapperie for 3 nights. It is in the Quadrilatero, the oldest part of the old city, where many of the buildings date from the Renaissance. The streets in the neighborhood are named for the bygone trades, and our Via delle Drapperie was once the street of the upholsterers. It is a district of shops and cafes, but more exciting is that it still is home to Bologna’s daily market. It surrounds our hotel. The narrow streets are normally filled with foot traffic, and the entire sector is a pedestrian zone.
After dropping our bags, we headed two blocks away to the heart of the city: the Piazza Maggiore, surrounded by the enormous Basilica di San Petronio (begun in 1390) and several palaces that are even older. The piazza looks today as it did in the early 1400’s.
The adjoining Piazza de Nettuno hosts the famous Fountain of Neptune, god of the seas, which was completed in the mid-1500’s. These two squares together make a grand forum, said to be one of the greatest public squares in Italy. The palaces house shops and cafes and museums and city offices. We snagged an outdoor table and enjoyed some cafe, sunshine and serious people watching.
We learned that Bologna is a city of prosperity and culture, referred to as Bologna the Fat, or sometimes Bologna the Learned. It lies about halfway between Florence and Venice, so it became an important commercial center early on. The oldest university in the world is here. Founded in 1088, it had 10,000 students by the 12th century. The influence of this old money and advanced learning on art and culture are everywhere – in its architecture, art, museums, and cuisine.
Bologna is a walking city. Not only is the city center compact and filled with interesting shops and cafes, but the city also has 43 kilometers of proticoed arcades. These are the covered walkways you can see in the photos of the Piazza Maggiore. They keep you dry in the spring showers, and cool in the summer heat. Everyone in Italy walks, and what we did more than anything in our time here was walk and shop, though we bought very little. There were interesting nooks and alleys everywhere, and the charm of Bologna’s streets and people drew us on.
But you can’t talk about Bologna without talking about food. Bologna is the capital of Emilia, which considers itself the culinary capital of a nation obsessed with the freshness and quality and heritage of its food. We were living in its most important marketplace. I’ll tell you about its epicurian treasures in my next post…