Bologna ... it's more than just sandwich meat

Trip Start Jan 03, 2004
Trip End Dec 2004

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Saturday, July 17, 2004

Down a side street off of Piazza Maggiore in Bologna is Via Val D'Aposa. The street itself is typical Bolognese with porticoes lining the western side. The massive wooden door at Via Val D'Aposa 7 was probably built tall and wide to accommodate horses during its Medieval past. Behind the door is a small courtyard with a an ancient water well and a staircase leading up to apartments on the second floor (which Italians call the first floor). This building, about 500 years old, would be a historic monument in the States. Here, it's just an everyday building home to families and businesses.

After six months on the road, Via Val D'Aposa 7 was our home for one month while Andy taught a course on international conflict resolution and human rights to university students enrolled in a summer program. During the month, we saw most of Bologna's tourist attractions, hopped on trains to nearby (and not so nearby) towns, and survived the everyday ordeals of living in a foreign country. We consider ourselves very lucky to have lived in such a beautiful European city for part of the summer.

A peek into Andy's class of 18 students would look like a mini-United Nations with representatives from Lithuania, Romania, Czech Republic, Canada, India, Bulgaria, Denmark and the United States. Most of the students were bright and hard-working. A few were, well, not. Andy worked long hours most days preparing lectures and grading papers. It was a semester-long course packed into less than four weeks. Andy's main challenge was coming up with activities to keep the students engaged for 2 1/4 hours, five days a week. In all, Andy enjoyed the experience of teaching, but we're holding off on buying him a tweed coat just yet. While Andy was at class in the mornings, Jill tried to keep herself busy, doing everything from sketching in the park to studying basic Italian grammar. Her drawings will not be proudly displayed on any fridge doors, and she rarely got the nerve to try out her Italian on actual Italians. She did, however, succeed in researching most gelaterias (Italian for ice cream shops) within walking distance to the apartment and can rank them in order of deliciousness. If she can find one that serves mint ice cream (her favorite), her research will be complete.

From our days wandering around Bologna, we can recommend the following must-sees if you ever make it to this gem of the Emilia-Romagna region: (Hordes of tourists usually head to the more well-known destinations in Italy.)

1) Climb to the top of the Torre degli Asinelli for a view of the city from 97.6 meters high. This tower and its leaning, shorter neighbor are called Le Due Torre (the Two Towers) and are a Bolognese landmark. One guidebook called them the Laurel and Hardy of medieval architecture.
2) Walk through the four stone churches that make up the Basilica di Santo Stefano.
3) Visit the wood-carved anatomy theater in the Archiginnasio, the city's first university. (Bologna proudly claims to have the oldest university in Europe.)
4) Wander through the Egyptian collection at the Museo Civico Archeologico.
5) Step into the small Oratorio di Santa Cecilia behind the Chiesa di San Giacomo Maggiore to see the restored 15th-century frescoes.
6) Sit on the steps of the Basilica Di San Petronio and watch the wide range of Italian fashion walk by.
7) During the summer, watch a film outdoors in the main square, Piazza Maggiore. Seeing Jimmy Stewart in the classic American Western movie "The Man from Laramie" next to Lars from Denmark under an Italian sky was an international experience to remember.

Our most important recommendation is to treat yourself to a three-course dinner at one of Bologna's local eateries. Bologna is best-known for its food, being the birthplace of bolognese sauce (known locally as ragu), lasagna, and mortadella (known to us as bologna). Our favorite restaurant was Osteria 15 on Via Mirasole. If you can find the place tucked away on a residential side street and have to ring a bell to be let in, you know you're at the right place. A reservation is probably a good idea but Osteria 15 is anything but upscale dining. It's just darn good food. We're not sure if we can ever settle for the Olive Garden again!

As much as we would have liked to, we couldn't afford to eat out every night. Trying to stretch our budget-travel dollars, we took advantage of the apartment's kitchen and cooked fairly often. (This also enabled us to eat dinner at a reasonable hour, whereas Italians typically eat dinner at 8:30 p.m. or later.) The first hurdle was figuring out how Italian supermarkets and markets differ from those in the States. To keep you from repeating our mistakes, here are a few tips: the plastic bags at the supermarket to lug your stuff home cost 5 cents each; if you think you're in line, you're probably not as Italians don't abide by the first-come first-served rule of thumb; and never, ever, ever touch produce yourself unless the store provides plastic gloves for this purpose. If you do, sirens will go off and you'll be dragged out of the store by your hair and locked up in solitary confinement. OK, it's not that bad, but you'll certainly get dirty looks and a scolding. Italians don't appreciate you touching things in general. This seems to apply in most stores, where everything is carefully arranged. Of course, you can only be chastised for touching things if the store is open. More often than not, stores in Italy are closed sometimes for a few hours and sometimes for a few weeks. In Bologna, many shops shut down on Thursday afternoon for some reason.

Once we made it out of the store, the rest was fairly simple. The fresh tomatoes, crusty bread, fresh mozzarella, abundance of basil, and other fresh ingredients made cooking delicious salads, sandwiches and pastas a breeze. We often enjoyed our meal with a glass of locally produced wine, which was inexpensive and the perfect complement. While in America, people tend to think drinking at lunch makes you an alcoholic, in Italy it is perfectly acceptable.

Living in an Italian city without many tourists meant we really did need to know some words in Italian. Our biggest accomplishment was finding the city's public health office and getting our second dose of Hepatitis A vaccine. (At least, that's what we think we got. Ebola, Hep A... same, same.) We got to experience first-hand the Italian health care system, which entailed almost as many stamps and paperwork as India's infamous bureaucracy. At least the friendly nurse, who was quite adept at miming, made the experience less intimidating.

We made the most of Bologna's central location and vast rail system by taking several day trips to nearby cities. The most spectacular was visiting the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre ("Five Lands" in Italian) on Italy's northwest coast. We took the four-hour train ride with our high school friend Heather, who is also the director of the exchange program. We lucked out in finding a room during peak tourist season in Vernazza. After several failed attempts at hostels and homes advertising rooms for rent, we found one by asking at a small restaurant. We may have been crashing at the waiter's pad as the room looked quite lived in with even dirty dishes in the sink, but we were glad to have a roof over our heads for two nights. Apparently, the American travel guru Rick Steves put Cinque Terre on the map. So, if you visit expect to overhear droves of American tourists (which I'm not implying to be a bad thing). Hiking between the towns was great for stretching our city legs. Swimming in the still ocean waters off Manarola and sunning ourselves on the rocks like sea otters made the journey worthwhile. We filled ourselves with plenty of seafood before heading back to Bologna.

Before Cinque Terre, we took a day trip to Siena to see a trial-run of the centuries-old Palio horse race. The race, held twice a year, began in the Middle Ages. Ten men representing different town districts (contrade in Italian) ride bareback around the town's main square, Il Campo, three times. Il Campo was packed for the trial run, so we can't imagine the mass of humanity on the actual race day. We saw very little of the race action as we didn't pick an ideal viewing location, but we got a feel for the excitement and pageantry of the event.

This past weekend, our friends Heather and Sarah visited from D.C. for a whirlwind tour lasting only four days. We took them to Verona to see the opera Madame Butterfly in the open-air Roman Arena. It was hard to believe we were sitting in a theater built in the 1st Century AD listening to an Italian opera. We, in our quick-dry pants and REI shirts, were quite the contrast to the men in tuxedos and the ladies in gowns. But in our nose-bleed seats, we were hardly noticed. We also spent a day in Florence and a day in Venice. We had time only to hit the highlights. We sent Heather and Sarah home exhausted but hopefully with a desire to see Italy again someday. They brought us treats from home, which we're still relishing. Jill got Twizzlers, Peanut M&Ms and new books. Andy got news magazines, which is just like candy to him. (Jill worries that Andy will get the shakes being out of the country on election night.) Thank you to everyone who took our hint for care packages seriously and sent other goodies our way.

Now that our month in Bologna is coming to an end, we feel rested and ready to take on the rest of the world. Andy may be too rested as he's already talking about "Around the World 2005: Lap Two." Just kidding parents and prospective employers!

Tonight our Eurail passes will get punched for the first of many train journeys this summer. Next stop: Prague, Czech Republic. We'll have a report from Eastern Europe for you in two weeks.
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