(Very Nostalgic) Weekend in Bologna

I've made no secret of the fact that Bologna -- the capital and largest city of the Emilia-Romagna Region in Northern Italy -- is my very favorite place in all of my adopted country (see here and here and here and also here!) Not so long ago I was lucky enough to visit Bologna, a place where I last lived 10 years ago as a student. I traveled with my sister and friend Lavinia (you may remember her from this post) and we all met up with our friend Alice, who is lucky enough to be currently living in BO.  
Bologna has changed quite a bit since my last visit two or so years ago -- it's not quite the tranquil city I remembered it being, but rather one with well, lots of tourists. This, due to two factors: 1.) new, cheap Ryanair flights that fly directly to Bologna from many European cities and 2.) an article published in a Lonely Planet guide praising the city as a travel destination, which subsequently put it in on the map. For example: the entrance ticket to climb up the Torre Asinelli -- more on that later on -- now costs 5 euros and requires a booking at a shiny new tourism center, as opposed to its previous cost of 2 euros, no booking needed. To accommodate the new influx of tourists, there are now lots of flashy, red city tour buses; the prices of AirBnb and hotels have gone up, and getting a reservation at a restaurant for dinner has now become a bit difficult. While I admit I experienced a moment of shock -- "Bologna, what have they done to you?!" -- it was, in the end, still the same city it had always been, at least in the most important ways. Piazza Maggiore, Nettuno, and its fountain were still there; the portici gave their usual combination of practicality (shelter from the rain!) and beauty (who knew that a few arches could be such stunners?!) The city offered its usual feast of tortellini, tagliatelle, and piadina, and overall, returning to Bologna was as comforting as slipping on your favorite sweater, or a mug of hot tea on a cold day, and the theme of the trip was, no doubt, nostalgia (a big thanks to Lavinia for putting up with me and my sister as we repeatedly squealed with delight at the sight of everything from the sight of the train station to a random piazza to a street corner -- "so nostalgic!!!") With no further ado, here's what we got up to!

First stop on the nostalgia tour: dinner at Osteria dell'Orsa, a restaurant that I frequented often as a student and one that I make sure to visit every time I make it back to the city. Osteria was, thankfully, just as I remembered: no reservations allowed meant a line of hungry people waiting outside, but superb efficiency from the staff meant a bearable wait time, and most importantly, bolognese cuisine at its very best, which makes sort of wait or hassle worth it. We opted for the most traditional bolognese dish of them all -- tagliatelle al ragu' hand-rolled noodles and all -- plus tortelli, mortadella with crescentine (a sort of fried bread), an impressive display of crostini, and whipped mascarpone with chocolate to finish the meal. All of the food was delicious on its own, yes, but was even more appreciated given the chilly, rainy weather we experienced upon arrival. Off to a good start!

Climbing the Asinelli Tower is a quintessential Bologna experience -- you cannot leave Bologna without having done this, I think. It is, along with the smaller Garisenda tower, that stands next to it, a symbol of Bologna, and both have marked the entrance to the heart of the city for nine centuries (together the Asinelli and the Garisenda are known as le Due Torri or the two towers). They are nearly synonymous with Bologna, and have withstood everything from earthquakes to fires; during World War II, the Asinelli tower served as a lookout tower of sorts, and between 1943 and 1945, volunteers would position themselves on the top of the towers to direct rescue operations to areas struck by bombing. The Asinelli Tower is 97.2 meters high, making it the city’s tallest tower; there are 498 steps on a steep wooden staircase to reach the top of the tower, but never fear! There are platforms every few floors where you can stop to take a breather. The long climb is certainly worth it -- once you get to the top of the Tower, the views of Bologna are truly gorgeous. BONUS: A short walk from the towers you'll find Pizzeria Due Torri, an excellent pizza-by-the-slice place.

I know, I know -- why eat Greek food in Bologna, right?! While I usually am all for experiencing the local food of the place I'm visiting, I make an exception for To Steki, because even in a sea of fabulous bolognese food, it stands out. Surprise surprise, it was another one of my favorite restaurants as a student (I did mention this was a nostalgic weekend, right?) and the restaurant was packed, as always (reservations recommended!) After some deliberation, we ordered a superbly hearty moussaka, pork souvlaki, imam bayildi (stuffed eggplant, originally a Turkish dish that the Greeks adopted and added feta to) and lots and lots of pita, tzatziki sauce, and fries, plus Greek yogurt and honey with strawberries, to ehm, keep things healthy. We all left happy and full, all thoughts of ragu' cleared from our minds, at least for an afternoon. 

Ahhh, Il Banco del Pane -- this little bakery/bread shop holds a lot of good memories for me, as it was where my sister, our (first Italian friend!) Gloria, and I would go routinely after class at the University of Bologna to get a slice of their famous tenerina, a deeply fudge-y, intensely chocolate-y cake, one that I have tried to recreate at home as well (see post here!). The cake -- brownie-like, dusted with powdered sugar -- was as good as I remembered it to be, the owners were lovely as they always had been, and bonus: due to a new Redhead promotion in the bakery, they even gave ginger Alice some free treats, too. Photos below!


My first ever meal in my favorite city was at Trattoria Belle Arti; it was September 2009, we had arrived in Bologna from Boston just a few hours before, and I was tired, confused, and a little scared, to be honest. After all, I was far from home and meant to live in the city for a whole year, and wasn't sure what to expect, or how I'd do. I remember a few things about our meal at the Trattoria: I was struck by the sizes of the individual pizzas, meant for one person (something that doesn't at all phase me now -- I can easily finish an entire pizza on my own!); I remember opting for orecchiette con broccoli, one of the few non-bolognese dishes on the menu, and something I'd never order now, older and wiser foodie that I am; I recall leaving the restaurant feeling more secure and settled once I'd had a good meal, and maybe even a little excited about what was in store. Ten years later, another visit to the same restaurant gave me an opportunity to reflect on all that had happened between that first meal at Trattoria Belle Arti and my latest one; I've maintained many of the wonderful friendships I made in BolognaI now speak fluent Italian, and I have made a very good life for myself in Rome. Sentiments and trip down memory lane aside, we had a wonderful meal at Trattoria, with bolognesi standbys like the ever-so-cozy tortellini in brodo, it's slightly richer cousin, tortellini con panna (tortellini served in cream) the usual and always delicious tagliatellealragu', and BONUS: an adorable bulldog named RAGU' -- a fitting name for a bolognese bulldog -- who was hanging outside the restaurant, hoping for a tortellino or two (!!!!)

For our last stop on the nostalgia tour, my sister and I made sure to go back and visit Pasticceria Santo Stefano for their Nutella tart, a favorite treat during our student days -- crumbly cookie crust! nutella filling! chocolate glaze! All these years later living in Italy, I have to say that the tart was, well, typical Italian bar fare -- not nearly as exciting as it seemed 10 years ago -- but at the time it truly was the best sweet in the city for us, something we had not seen in the U.S and that seemed just as magical and special as the city we were residing in. We ordered one to split and enjoyed every (memory-packed) bite of it. Not long after our snack, we stopped to visit our Italian language school, Cultura Italiana, a place where we spent countless hours during our year in Bologna, and the one most responsible for giving us both a solid base in Italian on the way to fluency. Good times!

In summary: if you haven't visited this city yet -- please do go! If you're an expat like me it's a quick trip up north on the train and perfect for a weekend; if you're coming to Italy on vacation and doing the usual Rome/Florence/Venice route, stop for a day or so on your way up to Florence (they're about 45 minutes apart by train). I think you'll find the city as marvelous as I do -- and if this post hasn't been sufficient, I have a strong suspicion that the photos below will nudge you in the right direction.

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