We Still Didn’t Drink All The Vino: Mai Tai Tom’s 2018 Return To Italy
CHAPTER FIVE: HUSTLING & BUSTLING BOLOGNA
DAY FIVE – Kim Gets Shafted, Fascist Train Station, Bologna’s Patron Saint, Do You Believe In Magi?, Ah Cappella, Markets Galore, Pasta … We Got Pasta, Going To Neptune, Peculiar Church, Church Or Store, Slippery Horse Stairs, Apertivo Time, Checking Out The Airbnb, Rocco Rocks, On My Own, I Might Not Climb That, You Can’t Fight City Hall, Bella Bologna, Hail Cesari, Family Affair, Best Steak In Italy … Ever, and The Golden Arches
Walter had arranged for a taxi to meet us at 7:15 for our train ride from Milan to Bologna. The only thing missing was one of those melt-in-your-mouth croissants. We tried to be as quiet as possible as we exited the apartment. I had already ridden down with two of the bags when I heard something land at the bottom of the elevator shaft. Hearing a mild expletive from Kim (sound travels well down an elevator shaft), I knew this wasn’t good. As he was adjusting his lens cap on his expensive new camera, it got away from him and down the shaft it went into lens oblivion. Kim stayed calm and in a flash resolved to pick up a new one in Bologna.
It was a short taxi ride to Milan’s Art Deco mixed with Art Nouveau and a dash of Fascism, Stazione Centrale. Mussolini’s Fascist regime insisted the station was decorated with symbols demonstrating strength and power, which was just a tad bit menacing to say the least.
Speaking of Mussolini, since I had gotten the crew up so early, I immediately checked for any meat hooks (Mary and Tracy look so innocent).
This was a great opportunity for Kim to try out his new camera, and he didn’t have to worry about taking a photo with the lens cap on. The barrel roofs under the atrium in Italy’s second largest train station contain sculptures and reliefs. It really is quite a photogenic structure.
After a few more photos …
… we were on our way for the short 55-minute train ride to Bologna, complete with coffee and cookies.
Since it was Design Week, hotels had jacked up their prices (luckily, I tried to get hotel reservations ten months before we left, and found out the hotel I had wanted had raised their rate by 100 euro for the week we were going), so I took a chance on Airbnb, something I had never done before. I admit I was wary, but it turned out to be a great call.
For the incredible sum of $137 per night per couple, we found a three bedroom, two bath Airbnb with kitchen and two patios located virtually across the street from Piazza Maggiore. The previous guests had not yet vacated when we arrived, but our host (the gregarious and helpful Rocco) met us and took our bags for safekeeping. We’d meet back here at 2 p.m. It was time to set out and explore Bologna.
We walked past the seemingly ever-present 1566 Fontana del Nettuno (more on that guy another day) on Piazza Maggiore, which has basically been the center of Bologna’s society since the 13th century.
Throughout the years, it has been surrounded by buildings, including Basilica di San Petronio, Palazzo dei Notai, Palazzo d’Accursio, Palazzo del Podestà and Palazzo dei Bianchi. What do you know … it was back to church for us (photo was taken by Kim that evening). Get out the holy water Mary.
Walking into Basilica di San Petronio, you first notice how large it is (the sixth largest in Europe). The monumental wooden crucifix above the altar dates from the 15th century.
Speaking of largest, Basilica di San Petronio contains the largest meridian line in the world, designed in 1656.
From Bologna On Foot, “Each town had its own time, usually determined from when the sun was at its highest point each day. The sundial is the traditional way of measuring this. A meridian line is a far more accurate instrument to determine solar noon as well as to measure progress through the months of the year and to ascertain important days of the solar year such as equinoxes and solstices. Also the length of the Bologna meridian line is such that at the time of its construction it was a very important instrument for astronomical research. High above the floor of the church there’s a hole in the ceiling of the left nave.”
Although there is no admission fee, we had to pay €2 to take photos …
… and another €4 to enter the Chapel of the Magi.
The painting in the Chapel of the Magi depicting Heaven and Hell by Giovanni da Modena and inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, reminded me of my old friend Hieronymus Bosch (El Bosco), who I met in 2015 at the Prado. The painting of Lucifer is gruesome, but intriguing. da Modena must have had a devil of a time painting it.
Petronio is the patron saint of Bologna, so we figured there would be some statues of him.
The church contains 22 chapels.
We also stopped by the Compianto di Cristo by Vincenzo Onofri. We’d happen to see another famous one in a few hours, only quite different in style.
A special exhibit was taking place during our visit, “The Body of the Shroud Man,” which sounds like a cool 1950s sci-fi film. Seems we didn’t even need to go to Turin. We thought about going up the Panoramic Elevator, but decided we’d wait until later in the week, plus Kim had now had enough of shafts for the day.
The four of us (with Kim sporting a new lens cap he bought before our church visit) decided to traverse the narrow streets of Bologna. There was a terrific vibe as we walked passed markets full of fresh fish, colorful produce, cheeses and meats.
The veggies looked like artwork.
We were also struck by the red brick (not literally, fortunately). I had read, “Bologna is known in Italy as “La Dotta, La Rossa, La Grassa”, which translates as “the educated, the red, the fat”. “Educated” is for the city’s university, the oldest in Europe. “Red” refers both to the red bricks that most of Bologna’s historic buildings and porticoes are made from, and to the city’s history of leftist politics. And “fat”, of course, is for Bologna’s culinary history, one based on creamy pasta sauces and rich meat dishes.” Coincidentally, I was also called La Grassa by the end of our five days here.
We walked by the Palazzo della Mercanzia, a palace that was constructed in 1382 and served as the seat of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Agriculture and Crafts. We were looking for a different kind of seat … one at a nearby restaurant. Kim’s “Lunch-o-meter” pointed us in the direction of Sfoglia Rina (Via Castiglione 5/a), which turned out to be a pasta mecca.
This is a restaurant that uses its noodles. They’ve been serving fresh pasta here since 1963, and it’s named after the owner’s grandmother, Rina. We knew this place might be special, because pasta tubes were cleverly utilized as napkin rings.
Oh boy, was I in the mood for pasta. I started with the Bolognese favorite, Tortellini en brodo finishing up with a “Wow and double Wow” risotto with pears and bacon. I could already feel a new chin growing.
Speaking of pasta, Kim tried the potato gnocchi with almond and mint pesto with black grape jam, while Mary had a tagliatelle with Ragú. Round that out with black pepper Maccheroncini with bufala cheese, tomato and basil that Tracy devoured, and you have an incredible lunch.
They also sell an assortment of fresh pasta. By the time we left, this small place had a line stretching outside the door. I hadn’t seen anything like it since Starbucks in Milan.
You can’t escape churches here (or anywhere else in Italy), and they all have something unique to keep us interested. Strolling through the Piazza Santo Stefano we reached Basilica di Santo Stefano, also known as Sette Chiese (Complex of the Seven Churches), which is too complex to explain here, except that it was built with the “desire to create a complex of seven churches.”
We went inside the Chiesa del Crocifisso (Church Of Crucifix), built in the 8th century and updated in the 17th century. Above the altar is a Byzantine-style cross.
In the Church of the Sepulcher is a reproduction of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem and a relic of the rock of the original Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem.
Saint Petronio was buried here, but moved to the church bearing his name in 2000 (he had some help).
Outside we walked into The Courtyard of Pilate (Santo Giardino, the Holy Garden). In the courtyard is a basin made of marble known as Catino do Pilato denoting the spot where Pontius Pilate cleansed his hands.
There’s also the tranquil Benedictine Cloisters.
Finally, in the Church of the Holy Cross or the Martyrium there were frescoes from the 15th and 16th centuries. Although we had seen lots of churches, this certainly had a different feel to it.
One church leads to another, and now it was time for a quick stop at Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vita/Oratory of Battuti.
There’s a small chapel within the church (off to the side) and for €4 we saw our second Compianto del Cristo Morto (Lamentation over the Dead Christ). It was sculpted by Niccolò dell’Arca during the second half of the 15th century.
There was still time before our 2 p.m meeting with Rocco (I think hours must be added on when we’re traveling, because it always seems like we do more in a day than is possible). Next stop was the Palazzo d’Accursio, the seat and symbol of Bologna’s political power since medieval times. It’s also located on Piazza Maggiore.
We tried out some furniture in the courtyard that seemed perfect for King Tut’s “Condo made of Stone-a.”
Meanwhile, as we fooled around, this guy just looked on with bewilderment.
We came to the bottom of a staircase. As is always the case with us, we ran into another wedding, or end of wedding. The bride was having a hard time navigating down the staircase. The Grand Staircase was constructed by order of Pope (Don’t Call Me Orange) Julius II. Our buddy Bramante designed them to allow horse drawn carriages to reach the apartments located on the first floor. As we traversed the steps, I could see why the bride was having difficulty. They were very slippery and awaiting an old man to fall and break his hip. I surprised us all by reaching the top.
Not all the rooms were open, but we did see the Sala Farnese, which is where all the large ceremonies took place.
The Sala Urbana was open, but because of lighting it was tough to take a good photo. This room includes 188 Coats of Arms of Apostolic Legates, who I believe must have been bigwigs of the time. (Thanks Wikipedia).
The Sala Rosa contains tapestries and was the main room for Senate meetings back in the 1600s. This room is where one (well, usually two) people can be married. I guess that’s where the couple had come from.
I thought we might make it back here later during our stay, but we, of course, ran out of time.
Afterward, we stopped for a little vino (lots of choices of places to stop).
As we walked across the street to our AirBnB, I looked in the distance at one of the towers we might climb in a few days … or not.
It was finally time to check out our digs for the next five nights. Located in a large building, we walked and climbed a number of steps (I don’t think any of us had the heart to count the exact number) to our beautiful furnished apartment. Our host Rocco was energetic and enthusiastic as he talked about the surroundings, which were clean and modern. He also had a bottle of wine waiting for us. How did he know? The kitchen was well-stocked (sorry Rocco, we ate all the cookies).
He was willing to help with anything (restaurant reservations, getting taxis, suggestions, etc). He was a fantastic host throughout our stay in Bologna.
By now, Kim, Mary and Tracy were ready for some rest. Me, not so much. From our patio I could see the top of Cattedrale Matropolitana di San Pietro, which is the Cathedral of Bologna. Although another church was not first on my list, it was close so I wandered over by myself.
I spent about 15 minutes just meandering around …
… and then headed over to Pizza Maggiore to see what was going on (we’d all visit Cattedrale Matropolitana di San Pietro together the following day). Preparations were being made for a weekend festival.
By the time I returned, the gang was awake, so Kim and I decided to head back to Piazza Maggiore for some photos before dinner during the Golden and Blue hours, while Tracy and Mary shared some Prosecco on the apartment’s delightful balcony.
The vibe of nightlife was starting early, a band was playing music, and the people were all in a jovial mood. As a matter of fact, we found the people of Bologna and Milan to be a relaxed and fun loving lot, much more than our visits in Rome. Rocco had told us that Bologna was a cool place for people under 50 … it wasn’t bad for people over 50 either. La Dolce Vita, baby!
For dinner I had reserved Ristorante Da Cesari (one of Rocco’s recommendations he’d emailed me before leaving the U.S.). It made for an outstanding first night dinner.
Not surprisingly, although we had 8 p.m. reservations, the four of us arrived early, securing the window table affording a view of the entire restaurant, which was still quiet.
It wasn’t for long. People probably saw us at our window seat, and knowing our impeccable dining choices, rushed in. Actually, this is a place you should reserve in advance. Many people were sadly turned away at the door..
Da Cesari is truly a family affair. It was started by our server’s grandparents 65 years ago. We learned it originally opened at 6 p.m. and only served one pasta and one crostini. They served 100 patrons every two hours.
For some reason Ricardo (our server) reminded me a little of Curly from The Three Stooges, and he was hilarious. He spent a great deal of time talking about the restaurant and his family. Ricardo previously worked for his uncle Umberto Cesari of Momo wines as a traveling wine distributor. He spent 260 days a year on the road until one day his 3-year old daughter told her nursery school class that her dad “drank wine all day.” By the way, we loved the Momo Rubicone blend (Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot), which is available in the U.S.
Heeding Ricardo’s story, Mary and I started off with the first pasta dish Cesari’s ever served: Gramignone verde al ragù di salsiccia (spinach pasta with ragú). Once again … the simplest of dishes. It was a great start.
I must say I was hesitant to order the steak with balsamic as I have not had much luck with beef in Italy on our numerous trips, but Ricardo gave it a thumbs up, and I’m sure he wouldn’t lie to me. He didn’t. It was hands down the best steak I’ve ever tasted in Italy on all our trips.
By now the place was packed and noisy, but a fun noise with people all having a great time. Laughter and conviviality filled the room.
Kim started off with Tortellini en brodo di manzo (in beef broth) and followed that up with Scaloppa di vitello alla “Petroniana” con patate al forno (Veal escalope with Parma ham, cheese and roasted potatoes). Oh man, what a great sauce, and the veal was pounded as thin as the ham and cheese slices.
Tracy started with a “Wow” Ravioli di zucca al burro fuso e parmigiano (Ravioli stuffed with pumpkin, served with butter and Parmigiano cheese) and then the Scaloppa di vitello.
Mary went for the special Grilled Veggie dish.
With a couple of bottles of wine the bill came to €78.50 a couple. Another bargain.
We bid “buon anotte” to the affable Ricardo and made our way back to our apartment strolling under one of the many gorgeous Bologna porticos.
Tomorrow would be a rather weird day. I woke up a little under the weather, so what better way to start than at the Anatomical Museum. Of course, we had to duck into another church (or two) and then an art museum (or maybe not) before hitting some “hidden” canals. After lunch I took a rare nap (blasphemy!) while Kim and Mary checked out a tower and yet another gorgeous house of worship.
Miracoli!!! By dinnertime I had made a comeback, and we became real Italians having an aperitivo before yet another fantastic Bolognese dinner.
NEXT: DAY SIX: – Slab Me, Pass the Junior Mints, Apollo 1, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Revisiting Pete, Frescoes Off Limits, Wherefore Art Thou, Don’t Ever Change, Leave The Gun … See The Canale, Down For The Count, Mary & Kim Take A Walk, Comeback Kid, Endless Basilicas, The Fun Drunk Kids and Hush Hush More Charlotte