Destinations: How to get lost in Bologna

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- I arrived at the Bologna Central Train Station on a cold gray morning with a crump-covered napkin I’d jotted a couple landmarks on. My plan for the day: See the main square and stay out of the rain.

When I arrived, it was chaos. A horde of locals and herds of cars and buses fought to reach their destinations. Cars were up on sidewalks, people flooded through traffic like water breaking through a dam. What did I get myself into?

After reevaluating why I decided to visit, I stopped into a café where some locals pointed me in the general direction of the main square. After setting off, I was reminded why I chose to visit Bologna.

Bologna is old, really old. Etruscans, “Italians” before Italians were “Italians,” founded the city as a trade hub. Before I reached the city center, I learned that this hub had acquired a lot of memorabilia over the centuries, and I wouldn’t be able to see all of it. First, I stumbled upon one of the 12 medieval gates. The culture also runs deep. The city is well known for spaghetti Bolognese and tortellini. The University of Bologna has attracted great minds like Nicolaus Copernicus, Giorgio Armani and Petrarch. People were dabbing here long before it was trending on your Facebook page.

Across the street, an elegant fountain, sculpted into a staircase, draws in sight seers.

I climbed to the top of the stairs to get a better sense of my surroundings and saw ancient ruins on a nearby corner. Now, I’m excited. I’ve already seen monuments from three different eras of history! Like a bloodhound trailing a scent, I put my nose to the ground and start sniffing for everything this fascinating city had to offer me. I didn’t care anymore about I wrote on my napkin, I was ready to get lost in all of Bologna’s wonders.

I made my way down one of the many porticos that cover the sidewalks of Bologna, sticking my head in every door to see the shops, cafes and trattorias. I wasn’t the only one. Plenty of students searched for a quick bite; tourists shopped for new clothes; and the locals conducted their daily routines.

Then, I saw something through a window, two ladies rolling, kneading and forming tortellini. The two do it every day and didn’t mind me taking pictures of them making another batch.

Tortellini is one of the reasons Bolognese cuisine is famous, and these ladies take this fresh egg pasta very seriously. Their quickness and precision they used to form these round, tasty treasures was impressive. I barely had time to get my camera ready before they were done.

As I walked down the main road, I saw a church nestled away in a cramped alley to my right. It looked ordinary but old.

The fine, ornate décor, the ceiling covered in a masterpiece, the marble floor, every minor piece of this exquisite collage was perfect. Bologna has more than forty churches and this wasn’t even one of the main ones. It was just there along a narrow alley, ready to awe unsuspecting tourists like myself.

I knew I couldn’t discover this vast city alone. So I called in support. This is Angie. I used to go to the college she currently attends. She showed up ready to lend a helping hand.

As we walked from a student area, she informed me that this is, first and foremost, a college town. This graffiti-littered wall is both legal and changes often by the students. Although I have been enjoying my time here, I didn’t really know what these buildings and sculptures were. Finally some context.

As we continued towards the city center, I learned she’s been studying abroad in Bologna for the past semester. One of the subjects she studies is Bolognese history. Needless to say she had a laundry list of places to show me.

But first, it was time to eat. We came to a small alley market lined with fresh produce, breads, cheeses and cured meats. The produce and pasta looked fresh, and the cheeses and meats looked aged to perfection.

We bought some cheeses and went to our next destination…

A wine bar. The bar was founded in 1465. The place is for cultured professors and locals, who bring their food, get a bottle of wine from the bar and discuss issues and ideas. After a quick bite, my hopes were restored as we headed to our final destination.

See that tall building in the distance? That’s the Asinelli Tower. We headed there—right to the top. The first thing you need to know about this tower is you need commitment. I hope you didn’t skip leg day, because stairs.

Lots of stairs

But we endured and finally made it to the top. As I looked out, I noticed a smaller tower below. Fun fact, this leaning tower below gave Dante inspiration for his comparison in “Dante’s Inferno,” of a giant’s hand to a leaning tower in Bologna.

The view over the city is impeccable. I didn’t realize how big the city was until I was looking out at it from the middle of this ancient place. Even though I only saw a few of the city’s wonders, I felt as if I accomplished something that day. I saw the real Italy, met some wonderful people, and with a little help, figured out how to get lost in Bologna.

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