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Don’t ask for Spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna …

Won’t be parking MY bike here … graffiti near Bologna’s University

Because it’s tagliatelle not spaghetti and it’s ragu not Bolognese sauce, thank you very much.

Luckily I didn’t make that mistake.  But the people of Bologna are justifiably proud of their city and want to make sure that you, too, understand that their city is special.

And it is special.  It feels special.  Perhaps it’s because Bologna was the center of learning for Europe for most of the middle ages and drew thinkers and students and radicals from around the continent to study here.  They left this city a legacy of thinking big and gave it a grounding in art and science that has influenced the culture and food and buildings and outlook.

And if being a university town impacted it for the last 700 years, the modern university still shapes it today.

Bologna is the oldest university in Europe.  Students from all over Europe flocked to study art and medicine and law and science.  Thinkers came here to practice their arts with the best.  And virtuosos came here to learn their craft.  Mozart studied music here, and flunked his admissions exam – getting admitted with the help of a professor who corrected his paper.

Bologna “the Learned” infiltrated every aspect of the city – even the most conservative traditions in the church.  The central church includes a sundial in its floor, and it’s here they figured out leap year and adjusted the Gregorian calendar.  The medical school anatomical theater – where they would dissect corpses to teach anatomy and cutting edge medicine of the time – was monitored by the watchful eyes of an Inquisition priest.  The university museums still host volumes of the earliest science in its stacks that were radical and challenging to the church in their day.

Today wandering near the modern university finds sauntering students amid graffiti lined streets.  They lounge in the sun in Piazzas and are out in the evening lined up at the bars that serve free appetizers and for cheap eats.  Graffiti shouts of radicalism and anger and idealistic hopes.  Probably the same as their student predecessors, though expressing your anger by painting on a wall in the 1500s may well have resulted in losing your hand.

This city has always been important.  I biked into the Bologna on the Via Emilia from the west – the same road built by the Romans over 2000 years ago that still is the center road through this city and Parma, Modena and other cities in the area.  The landscape and farmland on either side of the Via Emilia still shows the perfect square grids from where the Romans colonized the area when this valley was the frontier against the Gauls and the empire was growing.

The modern city is packed and thriving.  Bicycles maneuver around pedestrians on blocked off streets.  Caffes are full of convivial people out enjoying a coffee or snack.  Stores line the streets and are full of shoppers – the whiffs of leather and perfume and food waft out of the open doors as you walk through the streets. Students in goth and raspberry streaked hair saunter alongside businessmen and construction workers as the city bustles through its day.

It’s not just the tower in Pisa that leans …

The Old City towers over the streets and it’s impossible to tell where you are without a map because you can’t see even the tallest building until you round a corner and see it looming in front of you.  You know when you get closer to the university because the graffiti and flyers plastered on the walls becomes less sporadic and more like part of the city landscape that belongs.

Medieval towers – status symbols of wealthy ruling families competing for power – spring up around corners. Palaces line the streets – most converted into businesses or housing today.  You can still see 14th century houses that are warped from age hanging over the streets – supported by ancient timber columns.

The streets are lined with graceful porticoes – covered arched walkways – many that still have frescoes brightening the ceilings and walls.  There are 40 kilometers of porticoes in this city, including one I hiked today that leads miles outside of the city and up a mountain to a church that was built to provide a suitable path for a procession bringing down a painting of a Madonna that works miracles.

And of course the city is known for it’s food … and it works to uphold it’s nickname of “La Grassa” (the Fat One) enthusiastically.  The term Spaghetti Bolognesi supposedly came from American GIs who came here in WWII and loved the ragu and tagliatelle so much they went home to America and asked local Italian immigrants to make something similar.


For me, I’ve been doing my best to explore “La Grassa”.  And when I sit down I just ask for their recommendations.  And inevitably the Bolognese pride in what is best about their city and their excitement to share it with visitors comes through.

Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate is a writer, former political consultant and two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate living in Seattle, WA