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Bologna 2013 Archives

June 15, 2013

Ciao, Bologna!

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After a one-day interlude in Bologna back in 2005, we have always wanted to return to explore the city in depth. Something about the russet medieval buildings with shaded porticos, laid-back university vibe, and deep sense of time and place had made an impact. We were looking forward to our eight nights here.

I had booked an apartment on via Castiglione, a short walk away from the frenzy of Piazza Maggiore. After an easy series of train rides from Lugano, we met our keyholder (winded from her run across the city, as she had failed to hear there was a bus strike that day).The apartment is comfortable, though the air conditioning in the 85-degree heat was of a more Italian standard than American. Va bene. It's in an old palazzo, where you go through a series of gates and courtyard. Here's my review: http://www.slowtrav.com/italy/vr/review.asp?n=5575

We walked over to Piazza Maggiore, the enormous piazza that is the heart of Bologna, surrounded by Medieval and Renaissance buildings. We found the tourist office, and bought Bologna Welcome cards, which give free admission to many of the city's museums. The cards also entitled us to a freebie city tour, which was leaving in 15 minutes. Certo. Our tour guide gave an overview of the city's history as she sped us around the Piazza, and then through the streets surrounding. This tour is well worth doing for a basic orientation.

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One of the highlights was going into the original University building to see the Anatomy classroom; and Larry had a blast in the Basilica of San Petronio with the huge solar calendar. On each sunny day, the solar image would sweep across the church floor and, exactly at noon, cross a long metal rod that was the observatory’s most important and precise part. The noon crossings over the course of a year would reach the line’s extremities – which usually marked the summer and winter solstices, when the Sun is farthest north and south of the Equator. The circuit, among other things, could be used to measure the year’s duration with great precision.

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After our tour, we wandered into the small market area, and found a buzzy place to have some wine and a platter of salumi and cheese. We were the oldest people there, and the only ones not speaking Italian. Food and wine for 15 euros, a delicious bargain.

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We walked a bit more, then headed down the street from the apartment to La Sorbetina, a gelateria with astonishing flavors. Larry had a rich chocolate with hazelnuts, and I had a fig-ricotta-lemon that was divine. We took our tired feet home.


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Saturday in Bologna

Another hot and sunny day. It seems that after what people have told us was months of damp gloom, Summer has arrived in Italy. After figuring out the pod-style espresso maker in the apartment, we took our shopping bag and headed over to the market.

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We bought some prosciutto and mortadella at a salumeria; and some fresh tortelloni stuffed with ricotta. We then headed down one of the main streets to look for the covered market. Inside was a large collection of fruit and vegetable sellers, cheese shops, butchers, and bakeries. We bought several cheeses, tomatoes, apricots and cherries, herbs, bread, and amazing grissini, crisp breadsticks. We took a meandering walk back home.

Larry walked over to the apartment of the owner of our apartment to giver her the remaining balance. Her husband recognized a fellow old house enthusiast, and invited him in to see the house. They own the whole building, an old Palazzo which he inherited from an aunt. Up several winding staircases was an amazing view over the rooftops to San Luca, the church on the hill overlooking Bologna.

We walked over to Al Sangeivese for lunch. This is a small trattoria on the edge of the Centro, which happens to be around the corner from a simple place we enjoyed years ago, Osteria al 15. I enthusiastically agreed with the owner that it was too hot to sit outside, and I enjoyed the air conditioning as we looked at the menu of traditional Bolognese cooking, and a few interesting specials.

Wine, two glasses of decent sangiovese. We shared an antipasto of a flan of goat cheese with mushrooms. Nice play of the cool flan with warm mushrooms. Next, I had lasagna, which was amazingly delicate considering it had 10 thin layers of pasta, meat, and besciamella. Larry had a special of tagliatelle with asparagus and smoky guanciale. There was no way we could finish this and also eat our shared secondo, so our leftovers were thoughtfully boxed up. (things have changed in Italy!) For our secondo we shared a perfect carpaccio, shaved raw beef with arugula and parmesean, dressed with lemon and olive oil. Fantastic. No room for anything more than espresso. Perfect first lunch in Italy, and a very fair price. I'd definitely go back.

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We slowly walked back to the apartment for a brief rest before heading out into the heat of the day. On the way we stopped in the piazza outside San Domenico, where a group of elderly Italian tourists were singing. Scattered around the piazza are sarcophagi with the remains of Medieval lawyers.

We walked down the street to the Museum of the History of Bologna, in the old Palazzo Pepoli.
This is a new museum, filled with artifacts and amusingly over-the-top wacky displays using holographs and special effects.We were offered a tour, and so a lovely young woman took us around for the better part of two hours. We learned some new Italian vocabulary, taught her some new English, and had a blast. It really deepened our understanding of the city. We were just about the only people inside, though I'll bet it's crowded with schoolchildren during the week. The displays are thoroughly explained in Italian, so I would recommend asking for an English-speaking guide unless your Italian is very good.


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Walked around a bit more. There was an organization of women doing a charity event in the city this weekend, we saw many women in orange shirts running around doing some sort of scavenger hunt. Larry and his GPS phone were very popular.


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We found the first house that had basement waterwheels installed to provide power to the silkweaving machinery upstairs. For a long time, almost half of the people in Bologna were involved in the silk trade. A system of canals and underground streams provided waterpower to the small factories throughout the city.

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Home for a dinner of salumi, tomato salad, and wine.

June 16, 2013

Bologna's Attics

Another blazingly blue sky, and equally blazingly hot sun. We had another day on our Bologna Cards, so museums seemed a good use of the day.

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We began at the Archaeological Museum, housed in yet another palazzo near Piazza Maggiore. The lower floor starts you off with the Egyptians, a small though nicely presented collection. Afterward, we walked through the lovely courtyard, and up to the Paleoithic exhibits. Here we felt firmly in the 19th century, with acres of glass cases housing brown pot after brown pot, with hundreds of arrowheads thrown in for good measure. The labels are typed, looking to be from the 1950's. After that, you land in the Etruscans, with more cases crammed with jewelry, funeral pots, all manner of brass gizmos, funeral steles, and the occasional skeleton. Lots of interesting little bits and pieces, tiny animal figures, lovely carvings on stone. The Greek rooms had case after case of pottery, many of the cases so badly lit you really can't see what's inside.

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The Roman rooms had fascinatingly painted cases and pots, though I made some unscholarly observations about the nude men and clothed women who decorated most of them. Gorgeously delicate animals painted on vases, interesting bronzes, detritus of daily Roman life, and Larry was fascinated by the collection of Roman locks.

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We walked through Piazza Maggiore, which as usual during the day was being crisscrossed by trailing tour groups, most of whom were speaking Italian or French. We walked around a bit, finding the base of one of the two towers, which has been turned into a B&B. Which looks extremely cool, unless you're in the room on the 11th floor! the B&B hosts cocktail hour on their top terrace, which we'd consider climbing up to on a cooler evening.

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Found a pizzeria I'd seen recommended, Scalinatella on Via Caduti di Cefalonia. It is right next to the base of the tower.We decided to sit inside, where it was considerably cooler and quieter. Our table was right against the wall of the tower, which was fun.
We enjoyed good though not knock-your-socks-off pizzas, and a jug of slightly frizzante house wine. A good choice for a simple meal if you're in the area.

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From here we walked over to the Museum of the Middle Ages, housed in, you guessed it, a palazzo. The first small rooms had a collection of "curiosities", things lime carved ostridge eggs and Venetian platform shoes. Lots of strange and fun things to look at. Then room after room of carvings, stained glass, metalwork, textiles. What we found most interesting were the large carved tombstones for famous professors at the University.

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The museum's publicity spoke of a new exhibit showcasing their large textile collection, but there was only a teaser room open so far. Worth seeing if only for the exquisite golden-thread lace trim.

As we walked down the street, Larry noticed one of the palazzos had the Genus signs that it was covered by our Bologna card. We stopped into the Palazzo Fava, and learned that upstairs are frescoes. We took the elevator up, and a helpful guide showed us a large terminal where you can view the fresco cycle with English captioning. There are several rooms, with 16th century frescos telling the myths of Jason and the Argonauts, Medea, and Dido. Gorgeous, and worth seeking out.

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Went home, soaked the feet, made a nice dinner of tortelloni with sage, butter and parmesan.

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June 17, 2013

In Which Amy and Larry Learn They Are Not Bolognese Housewives

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A few weeks ago we booked a half-day cooking class and a market visit with Maribel of Taste of Italy. http://www.taste-of-italy.com/


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As arranged, we met up at a café near the market area. After a fast espresso, we headed out. She ushered us into several shops, discussing each's specialties, and what particulars of type or variety to look for. We saw what looked most appealing in the vegetable shops, and discussed what we'd make today. Because of the heat (what, you think I can get through a blog entry without telling you how hot it is here?) we wanted to keep things on the light side. I asked her about what the Bolognese make at home, since the restaurant cuisine is so heavy. She said they typically use a lot more vegetables at home, and serve cool meals in Summer.
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We bought some bread,visited the basement enoteca at Gilberti and got recommendations of their wines, bottled condiments and sauces, and got a lesson in cured meats at Simoni. We also went to the butcher's and learned about Italian cuts, and two different cheese shops. We then took a short taxi ride to Maribel's home.

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The traditional method of pasta making is to mix right on your board, gradually incorporating flour into the eggs. Nothing more is added to Bolognese pasta. Stir, stir, stir. Gently press and turn until you have a smooth ball, and let the pasta briefly rest.


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Then comes the fun part--roll, turn. Roll, turn. Keep at it until you have a large sheet. Then things get even more interesting, as you drape some of the pasta over the edge of the board, roll out in a spreading motion, carefully roll the sheet onto your pin, turn, and lay back out. Repeat, until the pasta is thin--ideally, so thin you can begin to see the board through the pasta. As we were beginners, and with the heat, we did not get that thin before the pasta began to lose its suppleness.

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Then roll the pasta, and cut with a big sharp knife. We made tagliatelle, long noodles; and farfalle, butterfly-shapes. Ours were mutant butterflies for sure. Leftover edge scraps got cut for soups.


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For our sauces, we made a fresh ricotta-arugula-tomato sauce for the farfalle; and a lemon rind-speck-shallot sauce for the tagliatelle. We also made zucchini blossoms, stuffed with ricotta and parsley. They were briefly sautéed in a bit of butter, instead of being fried. Can I just say how wonderfully delicious everything was when we sat down to eat lunch with some cool dry white wine? Amazing texture of the pasta, and the wonderful freshness of the sauces. I loved the fiore, where you could appreciate the delicacy of the flowers and cheese without a heavy breading. Maribel is fun to talk with and a great teacher; and we greatly enjoyed the morning.

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Later that afternoon we visited the churches of San Stefano, beautifully evocative old places. You can almost feel the ghosts here in the ancient center, where a Temple to Isis once stood that gave the place its circular shape.


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Salumi and salad for dinner.

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June 20, 2013

Ravenna Daytrip

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We loved spending a few days in Ravenna when we were last in the area in 2005, so decided to take a daytrip today. We caught the 9:05 train, and were in Ravenna an hour and a half later. Ravenna has a charming Centro with early churches studded with fantastic Byzantine mosaics. We enjoyed revisiting three, seeing one for the first time that reopened since we were last there; and enjoyed a tasty seafood lunch.

First up, San Vitale, begun in 526.


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The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, so tiny you can see the amazing detail of the mosaics.

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The Neeonian Baptistry,5th century.

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How about some lunch? Sadly, the seafood restaurant I had wanted to try was unexpectedly closed, so we took a chance on La Gardela. Very popular with the business crowd--at 1:30 the place was packed, and at 2:30 everyone brought their lunch tickets up to the cashier. I had a pristine swordfish carpaccio with burrata; and Larry had a nicely crisp fritto misto of shrimp, calamari, and zucchini. Delicious.


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Next, Inside the Museo Arcivescovile is the tiny Oratorio di Sant Andrea.
Notice that Christ is depicted as a Roman warrior? The museum has some interesting pieces, including an elaborately carved ivory throne, and a stone calendar that allowed Ravenna's clergy to determine when Easter would fall.

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Before catching a train home, we stopped into the lovely Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, a 6th century church built by Theodoric.

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Poor Theodoric was covered by a curtain after the Byzantines took control.

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June 21, 2013

Summer in the City

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More brutal heat today, and even the elegant Bolognese women in their sheer linen and strappy sandals are looking bedraggled.
We wandered over to the old Ghetto, and walked the few narrow streets where Bologna's Jewish community was shut behind gates every night after the Pope's order in 1556. The Mueeo Ebraica is very tiny, with a recorded history of Bologna's Jews you can listen to as you view the few wall displays and artifacts.

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A wonderful surprise was Palazzo Poggi, which houses the University museums upstairs. (the stairway was under reconstruction, and amusingly you were still permitted to walk it, under scaffolding and walking on loose dropcloths. OSHA would have had a fit.)
In a city of wonderfully oddball museums, the University museums are a hoot. Everything from 16th century maps and globes, wax models used to teach childbirth techniques to doctors and midwives; fossils, models to plan 18th century fortification and siege technique, models to teach anatomy, 17th century astronomical instruments...All in a richly decorated palazzo. We loved it.

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We had been told that if we like seafood to go to Sale Grosso. It's a small place with short daily menu featuring seafood and also vegetarian options. I had a generous plate of spaghetti with mussels and zucchini, light and briny. Larry had meltingly-roasted tuna over eggplant and potatoes, also excellent. We'd love to go back here for dinner.

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Went back to the apartment to let the heat abate a bit. In late afternoon we took a short stroll around the neighborhood, ending at San Domenico. This is a lovely church with some interesting artwork, notable a beautiful marble altarpiece that the young Michelangelo worked on. The attendant was very helpful, making sure we found everything of interest (be sure to see the Lippi hidden at the back, the bits and pieces of saints, and the old drawings and photos of the church and piazza.)

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In the Piazza are huge raised sarcophogi of medieval legal scholars.


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For dinner, we walked around the corner to Sette Tavoli, a popular place with a twist--every month they change the menu to reflect a different region of Italy. Unanimously positive reviews all in Italian, a rarity in Bologna.The night we were there the menu was influenced by the Molise. We shared an antipasto of stuffed calamari, marvelously tender and stuffed with a very tasty mixture, accented by mint oil. We wished we had ordered two, it was so delicious. I had a secondo of briefly seared tuna, wonderfully fresh and served with two light sauces. Larry had a dish of slow-cooked suckling pig, very tasty. We had contorni of crushed potatoes and sautéed spinach, well above the average. Dessert was also excellent, a light chocolate torte with coffee marscapone. Lovely place.

(forgive the lousy I-phone photos)

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June 23, 2013

Food Tour

We had booked a food tour with Alessandra of Italian Days a few weeks ago. Larry and I had tossed the idea around for a while beforehand, as the 145 euro a head pricetag felt quite expensive. However, after looking into the cost of renting a car, gas, plus the difficulties of booking visits ourselves, we decided to just go with it. Afterward, we felt it was money well spent, as you are picked up at 7, visit 3 producers, have a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide and two drivers, do a lot of tasting along the way, enjoy an enormous lunch in an agriturismo, and return to Bologna at 4. We learned quite a lot about making parmigiano cheese, balsamic, and prosciutto--although I could have happily spent less time looking at huge racks of pig legs. Eww, I much prefer my prosciutto sliced and on my plate with some melon. We also enjoyed spending time with the other people on the tour--a family from California, and couples from London and Australia. Oh, and we did buy a chunk of aged parmigiano, and some precious balsamic to serve by the drop.

Cheese being lifted from the whey. Six employees begin working at 4 am in this small factory.

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Parmigiano aging room

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Aceteria. Real certified balsamic is made by families, who age the vinegar in their attics. The vinegar spends years in the casks, being moved from different sized casks made from different woods to give subtle flavors--juniper, cherry, chestnut...The youngest it can be is 12 years old.

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Ugh.The smell in here was a bit much. Family-owned prosciutto "factory." What is interesting is that the youngest hams are stored in the coldest rooms, and we noticed the temperatures got warmer as the aging process progressed. Which probably reflects the passing of the seasons, as the pigs were traditionally butchered just before Winter?

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We had lunch in a lovely agriturismo in the hills outside Bologna. The food wasn't anything tremendously memorable, but tasty, and most certainly abundant. A salad, 3 pastas, secondo of beef (quite tough) with arugula, vegetables, and dessert. Plus a continuous pouring of the agriturismo's wines. (which were pretty lousy, but after 2 glasses, no one cared) Lots of fun, at any rate.

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July 10, 2013

Last Day in Bologna

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The heat had broken overnight, so we were able to do more daytime walking today. We've been reading Bologna Reflections by Mary Tolaro Noyes, an engaging exploration of Bologna. Not quite a guidebook, it has chapters that examine small facets of Bologna--a particular neighborhood, a segment of history, one building, or a slice of daily life. With each chapter is a tiny map of the area discussed, and often a little walking tour that helps you know where to stop, look up to see yet another medieval tower,or notice the details in a 11th century Palazzo, now a hotel.

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We started at Piazza Maggiore, and followed several chapters--through the Quadrilatero market area to pick up some goodies for the following week or to bring home, the Ghetto, past palazzos hidden away on twisty streets. On via Piella we found the window overlooking the Canale Navile, the remaining uncovered stretch of the canals that once crisscrossed the city.

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We bumped into the huge La Piazzola market, filled with clothing and housewares stalls, with a few food vendors as well. This is more everyday Bologna. If we had more room in our suitcases, I would have spent more time pawing through the linen stalls for tablecloths and hand towels.

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We returned through via Oberlan, and started looking for a place to have lunch. The menu at Ristorante Ciacco looked good, with some seafood and pastas. We had a table down in their cool lower floor, and an attentive waiter. Our antipasti of salmon tartare was wonderful, unfortunately we were disappointed by our pastas, mine with not terribly fresh shrimp and arugula pesto that was so bitter I passed it to Larry, the other a very under seasoned pasta with salmon. On the way back, we popped into the Museo Musica de Bologna, a little museum of instruments, rare books, and musical odds and ends.

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We spent some time in the apartment packing up and getting ready to leave in the morning, and then headed out for more walking. We explored via Castiglione in the other direction, through the neighborhood to the old city gate and the large park on the other side of the ring road. People were congregating in the cafes and bars for an aperitivo. We headed back and over to Piazza San Stefano, where we had heard there was going to be a jazz concert. The band was playing, with people sitting in the cafes, leaning out their windows, and perched on the edges of the raised sidewalks under the porticos. We sat on the edge of a portico, and enjoyed listening and people-watching.

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Love these heads peering down from a building leading out of the Piazza.

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For dinner, we returned to Sale Grosso, the seafood restaurant we had lunch at previously. Another memorable meal, and it was funny to run into Maribel the cooking teacher there with a few friends.We shared an antipasto of fabulous calamari,and I had a wonderful dish of fish under a crisp potato topping, served with a spicy chickpea puree and roasted peppers.

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As we walked home we passed more bands playing, and the streets were lively. A perfect ending to our city week.

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