I was planning to release this post yesterday (27th), on World Tourism Day, but, alas, I got distracted reading the new JK Rowling book (which, in my defence, I’m to be reviewing). But oh well – missed the slot. Can’t be helped! I’ve got a radio alarm clock which still thinks it’s the 27th though… if that counts.
So, to begin. A couple of weeks ago, I was invited on a press-trip to Italy – a culinary tour of Bologna, Ferrara, Rovigo, Mantova and Sabionetta: a four-day sampling of Italian gastronomy and wine. A trip of extreme indulgence. Yum. I went with four other journalists from the UK, only one of whom I already knew, as part of a tourism project created by the Italian government to increase interest in the recently Earthquake-struck UNESCO World Heritage district.
We started in Bologna. ‘Fat City.’ Our lunch, a selection of vegetable sandwiches provided by Twinside (Il Bistro del Caminetto D’orgo) at our hotel, was certainly a welcome contrast to the onion and processed cheese sandwich I’d had on the British Airways flight from Gatwick. But, as our guide, Nadia, left the dining-space to find a corkscrew, the awkward ‘sooo, who do you all write for?’ and ‘where are you all from?’ conversation ensued. The ice was broken, however, when the wine was opened (two bottles of course, one red one white) and soon, I found myself talking to one of the journalists, Marion, about past pets, discussing how grumpy hamsters can be and exchanging guinea-pig stories.
Our tour of Bologna was fairly short due to our delayed flight in, but we somehow managed to squeeze a fair amount of the city in. Distracted by the sweet scent of fresh pineapples and giant apples, I must say, I missed the beginning part of the tour, but my ears pricked up again when our guide mentioned an underground river… the whole city, in my mind, became suddenly romanticised: transformed into a Coleridge-esque Xanadu as we were all led to a small hatch in the terracotta wall beneath a portico.
Through the little hole, the underground river emerged at the point where it became a canal lined with colourful houses (now would be a good moment for a photo of this canal but, I stupidly deleted my only good photo of it from my camera accidentally, so I’m afraid you’re all stuck with a good old google image search). The romance of the city continued further as we were told of the two leaning towers which protrude from Bologna’s skyline at startlingly dramatic angles; the guide told us that people say they are ‘leaning in to kiss,’ ‘But I,’ she continued, ‘I think it’s a bit of a silly story, because, depending on what side of the city you’re viewing them from, it can look like they’re leaning away from each other!’
We stopped for a moment on La Strada Del Jazz (Jazz Street), which was named thusly last year to commemorate the many big names of jazz who have moved through and performed in Bologna. I must say the music-student-geek inside me got a little back-of-the-neck-hair-standing as we stood over a star-shaped pavement plaque reading ‘Chet Baker’ and were told of the next star coming for Miles Davis (however, as an Ella Fitzgerald fan, I was a little disappointed that the Bolognese people hadn’t voted for a star for her over Miles – but, their city, their choice!)… After our introduction to the Bologna jazz-scene, the city councillor came to say ‘hello’ and ‘welcome’ making us all feel perhaps a little more important than we actually were. Upon moving from jazz to a road stuffed full of vegetable stalls, delis and the oldest food shops in Bologna, I couldn’t help but notice a lovely little sight on the brim of the skyline, just before the clouds: a small oasis on a rooftop (another glimmer of Xanadu?).
The square in Bologna was quite interesting. I have a tendency of drifting off into a dream-world during guided tours of cities, but on this instance, our tour-guide was very engaging. Of most interest was the church on the square; the Bolognese had been building this church for years and years, but were halted by the pope part way through completion due to the fact that he wanted to have the biggest Cathedral in Italy. Due to this, the wings of the building are only half-built. The building actually stops halfway through a window. Very interesting. Looks like someone’s taken a butter knife to it.
Also off the square was the University of Bologna, an institution considered to be the oldest university in the world. I quite enjoyed a story we were told here of when women weren’t allowed to study centuries ago and a female dressed up as a male to be accepted as a student. Her identity was, in her final year, discovered but it was also revealed, at the same time, that she had passed all of her exams at the top of her year. She was then hired as a lecturer and the whole institution had to reconsider its attitude towards women. Fun fun for gender equality! Yay.
What was also of note here were the endless walls of family coat-of-arms of past students. However, typically, I focussed on photographing a CCTV camera with a contrasting ceiling backdrop and ended up with no good coat-of-arm photos.
Dinner was wonderful (at Bravo Cafe). Of course, I expected no less. We were, after all, in a place dubbed ‘Fat City’ or ‘The Fat One’ due to its food excellence. At the front of my memory from this night is the courgette souffle. It was as if a little cloud had fallen from the sky and had landed on my plate. Probably the lightest and fluffiest thing I’ve ever eaten. I felt a little bit like I was in a cartoon. Too perfect to be real. The wine too was delicious. A photo won’t do the souffle justice, so here is a photo of the wine instead:
Ferrara was our second destination. Being that it was within the same region as Bologna, Emilia Romagna, it was in fact quite different. It was a city of bicycles. No cars, just bikes (to give you an idea, imagine Oxford and times the number of bikes by ten, then you might be close to the bike-population of Ferrara). With quaint, little cobbled streets, tiny bakeries and osterias, Ferrara is the picture-perfect, straight-from-a-post-card Italian Idyl. We started with a trip to an old family-run bakery (Panificio & Pasticceria Otelli Perdonati) where they showed us how they made their famous regional bread, Coppia.
The shape of this century old bread-recipe depicts a couple in love, to put it bluntly, having sex, so we all, immaturely, had a giggle about that. The bakers laughed with us and winked whilst they told the story. The flavour of Coppia, whilst subtle, had an originality to it, its texture harder on the outside and softer on the inside. Bite a leg off and little wisps of fluffy bread puff out in white twists. Lovely. Whilst in the bakery, we also saw the effects of the earthquake first hand; the baker, when we were by the entrance, pointed up to a large crack in the ceiling. All wearing our most sombre faces, we were surprised when he then laughed; ‘but!’ he said, ‘I want to show you all that we are still here, alive and kicking!’ We left with a huge bag of bread which sustained us for our tour.
So, what else was in Ferrara? The oldest Osteria in the world, home of dusty wine…
A palace covered in carved-marble diamonds:
and, if you keep your eyes peeled, you might just see the little baby boys who sit on the Ferrara roofs peering down at all the passers-by:
Obviously, I’m joking. He’s a statue.
We dined better than well in Ferrara. I don’t want to duplicate too many of the images I’ll be using in my magazine article, so I won’t put up all the photos I have of the Ferrara dinner, but here’s a taste of what we were treated to at Cuisina e Butega:
A starter of breaded sardines (with, of course, more wine plus Coppia):
Anchovy, pine nut, parsley and olive oil spagetti and another pasta dish with clams (the pasta was sort of like tagliatelle, but thinner… I’ve forgotten its name!) and an assortment of Italian cake. – As I said, I won’t duplicate too many of the photos, so here are images of the dishes when we were part way through with them.
and to finish, a nice double espresso of just the right consistency. One thing England doesn’t ever do quite right.
Incredible meal. Really really lovely.
Anyway. I think the espresso’s quite a nice thing to finish off on. So, I’m going to get up and make myself a coffee (they’re not quite as good in Margate as they are in Ferrara unfortunately) and get back to reading A Casual Vacancy before its too late to add a review to the many millions already out there in cyberspace.
This post is the overflow of this feature for Flux Magazine: http://www.fluxmagazine.com/index.php/travel/unesco-italy-bologna-ferrara/
My lovely travel companions’ articles can also be found here: