BOLOGNA, EMILIA-ROMAGNA, ITALY — “The fat one”. “The red one”. “The student”. Bologna has many names. All describe a part of this place; none of them tell the full story.
From a geographic perspective, think of it like a thick belt that that spans the northern boot from the just outside Genoa to the Adriatic coast south of Venice. Often overlooked by sightseers on the usual tourist trail in favor of the guidebook hot spots of Rome, Venice and Florence, the region is home to some of the most authentic, beautiful and savory places on the peninsula. And a distinct lack of fanny packs.
Even the Romans understood the value of this fertile strip of land. They built the Via Emilia — the world’s first superhighway — to connect the region and deliver the fruits of its pastures and fields to Rome. Even today, Emilia-Romagne is known as Italy’s breadbasket. In fact, the vision of it as a girdle is an apropos one, as it’s probably the leading reason for Italian guts.
Why? The towns here read like an A-list of epicurean heavyweights: Parma (think of prosciutto and Parmesan cheese), Modena (home of real Balsamic vinegar and its party-loving cousin, the slightly sparkling Lambrusco wine) and the mother of them all, Bologna (namesake of Ragu, aka bolognese, and the home of mortadella, aka, real bologna). Simply put, you don’t go hungry in E-R.
That’s where Bologna gets its first nickname: La Grassa — the fat one. This one’s obvious. Everywhere you look — everywhere — is built around feeding you the best that Italy has to offer. The tastiest handmade pasta, the freshest vegetables and greens, the juiciest meat and game.
Even our hotel restaurant, which we thought we’d just drop into after a long day of driving, served up near-gourmet fare for the price of a Big Mac value meal. Seriously, this is where you come to eat. Every town has its specialties. And we dabbled. Oh, did we dabble.
Next nickname: “La Rossa” — the red one. This is a tricky one if you’re not Italian. Yes, the abundance of terra cotta throughout town means that the city has a distinctly rose glow. But it also refers to the areas politics; the hardworking, blue-collar attitude created a hot bed for left-wing philosophies.
No wonder the region was one of the most active areas of resistance during the fascist rule of Mussolini. In fact, in every town you can visit the shrines to those who lost their lives in defense of the people’s rights. But it’s the architecture, the red brick streets, the winding back streets that stand out in my eye. As beautiful as Rome, but truly lived in, not just a stopover in a guidebook, Bologna is maybe the most Italian of cities. Often grungy, at times magnificent, always authentic.
“The student,” or “the wise one.” This nickname obviously comes from the city’s university, the first in Europe and still a major draw for students. Maybe that’s what keeps this medieval city so fresh and young. As old as any place in Europe, but still learning new tricks.
And that’s the point: Emilia-Romagne feeds not just the belly, but also the soul. Another face of Italy, but one that is truly authentic. And delicious.