Before we had hatched our plan to start long-term travelling we had already booked a weekend break to Bologna. We decided to treat the trip partly as a learning exercise, to try out equipment, clothing, and our resilience to uncertainty, changing plans, and local public transport.
We decided to pack as if we were long-term travelling, use only public transport, eat cheaply, and count the euros as we went. We would have used Airbnb for our accommodation but had already bought an inclusive hotel deal with the airline (Easyjet) so we cheated slightly, enjoying a touch of luxury.
So how did we get on? To be honest it wasn’t too much of a challenge. Bologna isn’t Bhutan!
It was obvious we were going to Italy as soon as we walked on the tired looking Easyjet Airbus. There were a disproportionately high number of good looking passengers and a lot of the men were wearing silk scarves, brightly coloured trousers, and loafers without socks.
On arrival we sped through the airport and found the queue for the machine to buy €6 tickets for the bus to the town centre. After jostling in a less than satisfactory queue (from an English point of view) we squeezed on the bus only to realise we could have paid on the bus, saving 10 minutes. Not only was the queue unsatisfactory, it was also unnecessary.
Our next challenge was to guess when we should get off the bus. With only very quiet Italian announcements inaudible over the hubbub of the crowded bus we soon found ourselves whisked past our stop at the Piazza Maggiore and onto Central Station at the edge of town. We managed to catch another bus back and eventually found our hotel.
We lost our first battle with public transport but were undaunted, and over the following days successfully caught trains to both Modena and Ferarra – more of these towns later. Train tickets for these half-hour journeys were about €4 each way. Remember to validate these tickets in the special machine on the platform before you get on the train… otherwise you could be liable for a fine.
Bologna is home to the oldest university in Europe. Older even than Oxford. It’s main feature is the extensive use of porticoes…they are everywhere! Most streets have these arches covering the walkways. Apparently they started because property owners wanted to create additional rooms to house students but didn’t want to pay to build on extra land…so they built over the land not on it!
Whatever their history, the porticoes create a fantastic shelter from both sun and rain.
The town consists of a compact old town, with straight Roman roads radiating from a central Asinelli tower. Climb the tower for a great view of the layout of the town.
Bologna is a foodie heaven. It is a culinary crossroads between north and south. The region has its own landmark dishes, like tortelloni and tortellini, mortadella and parmigiano, balsamic vinegar and some of the best gelato in Italy. It also has imported dishes from other Italian regions, like fish and olives from the south. Travel out of the city and you will see a flat, fertile plain, with large open fields of crops. It is obvious where the well stocked markets get their fruit and veg!
Eating out is one of the main reasons to visit Bologna. Whilst there are the usual restaurants with their antipastos, primos, and segundos there are a couple of different ways to eat. One is the concept of the “aperitivo”.
An aperitivo is a snack before a meal. In Bologna it seems to be a meal in itself. You can buy a drink and get substantial free food with it.
For example, an Aperol Spritz will cost you €7 or €8, and you can then help yourself to limitless snacks! Students in this university city love the concept!
An Aperol Spritz, by the way, is extremely common in Bologna and is a nice long alcoholic drink. A mixture of Aperol, prosecco, and soda water, with ice and a slice of orange.
It is possible to eat really well without spending too much money. A huge lunchtime pizza costs about €5. Another way to get a good reasonably priced meal is to go into the Mercato di Mezzo and get fresh pasta cooked in front of you. You eat off plastic plates and squeeze on to shared tables but it is a wonderful culinary experience. Local beers and wines can be bought from other stalls in the market. Spending a couple of hours in the market one evening is highly recommended…. grazing, drinking and people watching.
Bologna is famous for its tortellini (very small parcels of pasta stuffed with pork) and tortelloni (larger parcels stuffed with ricotta cheese or pumpkin). Tortelloni is often served with sage butter and is absolutely delicious.
If you are lucky you may find a shop that makes its own pasta and watch the women at work making each parcel with great dexterity and speed.
Bologna is well connected. It is cheap and easy to visit surrounding towns like Modena, or even jump on a train for a day trip to Venice or Florence. The trains are a bit scruffy and can get hot if the aircon isn’t working well, but the ease and low cost outweigh any negatives.
We visited Modena, just over half an hour away.
It is a lovely town and well worth a visit. The next day we went to Ferrara. I had never even heard of this town but two people had recommended it…so we went!
Another relaxed Italian town with lots of nice restaurants like the fantastic Il Mandolino, tucked away down a medieval back street.
The photos above are all taken either with my phone (LG G4) or a Canon 100D with a f.1.4 50mm lens. As I said earlier, this trip was an experiment to work out what we should take on future travels when space and weight will be at a premium. I thought the lightness of the 100D and 50mm lens combination would be more important than the lost flexibility of using a high quality zoom lens. I was wrong. I found the 50mm focal length a huge restriction. I would attempt a shot in the narrow streets and find I was unable to compose the shot I wanted.
I think, for future travels, I will take the Canon 24-105mmL lens. The extra weight will be worth it.
Here are a few of the other photos that I took in and around Bologna.