Right in the heart of Bologna, on a huge open piazza before the church of San Petronio, stands one of the nuttiest pieces of baroquery you are ever likely to set eyes on. It’s a statue of Neptune in pyramidal form. At the top stands the old sea god himself, butt-naked except for a voluminous Marxist beard. One hand is stretched out, as if patting the head of an invisible dog; at his feet crouch four fat cherubs, each clutching a wriggly fish as if they were using it to play pretend-guitar. Below the cherubs are four rather unappealing mermaids who slouch so low that their chins rest on their collarbones. Jets of water spray from their breasts in an unpredictable arc, like the clapped-out windscreen-washers on a 1980s Ford Cortina. As art, it’s so bad it’s good – and all the more bizarre for being the symbol of a place that is about as far inland as it is possible for an Italian town to be. But Bolognese people adore this statue: it is a trysting-place for lovers, and it is where happy students of the ancient university come to pop a bottle of prosecco on graduation day. I love it too: Neptune is one of the many memorable and joyous things about this wonderful, under-explored city.
Bologna is known in Italy as La Rossa for its left-wing politics, terracotta rooftops and scarlet-painted shutters. The city’s red colouring is best seen from the summit of one of the 12th-century towers that dot the skyline like industrial chimneys. Nine centuries ago there were more than a hundred, and they made Bologna a city of proto-skyscrapers – a ‘medieval Manhattan’ in the words of one historian. Now, just 20 or so of these giants remain, and only a couple can be climbed by visitors. One is the Torre Asinelli, which stands next to its woozily listing shorter sister, the Torre Grisenda. Together, they are another symbol of the city. A third accessible tower, the Torre Prendiparte, is a 13-storey, single-bedroom bed-and-breakfast, and one of Italy’s truly inimitable places to stay.
The living spaces of the Prendiparte are stacked on top of each other like alphabet blocks in a nursery. Stairs lead up from the entrance hall to the sitting room, up again to the bedroom, then to the kitchen, and after that the dining room. Above the cosy accommodation, with its turn-of-the-century dressers and tables, come nine more storeys – all of them empty but for an unfeasibly steep and rickety wooden staircase. So the view from the terrace has to be earned with a toilsome tramp upwards and (afterwards) a sweaty-palmed descent.
Oh, but in between there is a simply spellbinding vista to drink in. Go up there at sunset. All Bologna is far below you: the craggy, corrugated roofline; the minuscule people, discernible mostly by their crawling pencil-line shadows; the chessboard piazzas and the window-box parks and gardens; the lonely basilica of the Madonna di San Luca, protectress of Bologna, on its sacred hilltop beyond the city walls… I thought I wouldn’t want to do the scary climb more than once. But I found myself Rapunzelling up to the rooftop every day, sometimes twice, because I couldn’t get enough of that unencompassable panorama.
Bologna is no less remarkable at street level. In the town centre, long stretches of pavement are contained within covered walkways, an incidental consequence of a piece of medieval town planning whereby buildings were extended from the first floor up, and the overhang supported on columns. It all makes for a stately and very sheltered city. Sitting outside a café or a bar, you can always contrive to be protected from the hot summer sun or some sudden autumnal shower.
But you have to go properly indoors to get the best of the city. One reason Bologna is not more visited is that it is so coy about the amazing sights hidden behind its beautiful façades. Take the anatomy theatre in the Archiginnasio, the old seat of the university. This beautiful, wood-panelled room, 500 years old, is a monument of Enlightenment thought, a temple of science. Here, watched by queasy medical students, early-modern anatomists conducted some of the first explorations of what lay beneath the surface of an individual being, of what makes people tick. For reasons of hygiene, they worked only in the freezing winter months, and each dissection was a non-stop 48-hour marathon both for teachers and audience. The most striking things in this awe-inspiring space are the spelati, two wooden carvings of flayed men showing the subcutaneous musculature in minute detail. The room is free to visit, and it is as unforgettable in its secular way as the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
Bologna is full of slightly obscured treasures such as this: deep in the Palazzo Poggi, part of the university, is a science museum bursting with obstetrical, electrical, martial and maritime curiosities: model ships, stuffed crocodiles, waxen hearts and livers. In another part of town, and at the other extremity of the belief spectrum, is the gaudy shrine of St Catherine of Bologna, whose incorruptible remains, dressed in a nun’s habit, sit forever on a golden throne in the convent where she served as abbess.
Less inconspicuous, but easy to miss because it is a walk away from the town centre, is Mambo, Bologna’s museum of modern art. It is worth seeking out just for the upside-down map of the world in upholstered leather, like a topsy-turvy cartographical bedhead. Visit towards the end of the day, and hang around for an early aperitivo: the Mambo bar does some of the city’s best stuzzichini – a free spread of canapés and tapas served in every Bolognese bar at the cocktail hour. This pleasing custom is fairly new to these parts (it’s always been more of a Milanese thing) and it is another of the city’s delightful surprises.
But of all the hidden pleasures of Bologna, my own favourite is an artwork tucked away at the back of the church of Santa Maria della Vita. Here stands an astonishing lifesize ensemble of 15th-century terracotta figures that depict the friends of Christ around his soon-to-be-entombed body. This complesso is a group study of the first mad frenzy of mourning. Every figure is frozen in a moment of unbearable sorrow. Doubled up in an agony of grief, Christ’s mother looks as if she has been punched in the solar plexus. Mary Magdalene, her face a silent scream, runs at full pelt towards Jesus’s laid-out corpse and seems about to throw herself on it. St John the Beloved cuts an oddly comic figure, gurning theatrically as one hand cups his chin, like a young Kenneth Williams trying his hand at Hamlet. Taken as a whole, the scene is full of emotional truth. It does for the human psyche exactly what the anatomy theatre did for the human body – and, come to that, what Bologna does to the people who come here – it gets under the skin.
Where to stay
Torre Prendiparte: The tower sleeps two and is available for short lets. There is no TV or Wi-Fi; this is a romantically old-fashioned hideaway. When you arrive you’ll find the solid-oak kitchen table laid in readiness for breakfast the next morning, and the fridge is well stocked with wine – just help yourself. Via Sant’Alo 7 (+39 051 589023; www.prendiparte.it). From about £315 per night
Under £150: Il Convento dei Fiori di Seta: The Nunnery of the Silk Flowers is a small, chic boutique hotel in a quiet southern corner of the old city, a short walk from the centre. It was a functioning convent until quite recently, and a hushed air still hangs about the place. The rooms are cleanly minimal, but the breakfast room, in what was once the nuns’ church, has a star-spangled ceiling and a painted crucifixion in a high niche. Via Orfeo 34/4 (+39 051 272039; www.ilconventodeifioridisetabologna.com). Doubles from about £85
Grand Hotel Majestic: Bologna’s only five-star hotel is unashamedly traditional. The entrance is manned by uniformed porters and there are big, chintzy sofas on all the landings. The management takes pride in the glitzy history of the place: Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra stayed here, as did Princess Diana and Paul McCartney. Via Indipendenza 8 (+39 051 225445; grandhotelmajestic.duetorrihotels.com). Doubles from about £230
Where to eat
You’ll not find a bright-red spaghetti Bolognese anywhere in Bologna. The meaty sauce they call ragù contains little or no tomato, and is always – but always – served with tagliatelle, never spaghetti.
Pappagallo: A fine place to sample traditional Bolognese and Romagnan cooking. Its name means ‘parrot’, and it is a much-loved institution, the service and the vibe firmly rooted in the 1950s. The tortellini in brodo are magnificent, but don’t go for the five-course tasting menu unless you are inordinately fond of pasta. Via della Mercanzia 3 (+39 051 232807; www.alpappagallo.it). About £100 for two
Osteria del Sole: A crazy 550-year-old restaurant that serves no food at all. You buy your own picnic in the nearby market and bring it to the bar, where they will supply you with some rough wine and a knife to cut your bread. It is a brilliant place – Buffalo Bill had a great night here in 1904 – and somehow it seems to have circumvented the Europe-wide smoking ban. Bring at least five euros’ worth of food per person, and you must buy your wine in-house. Vicolo Ranocchi 1/d (+347 968 0171; www.osteriadelsole.it)
All’Osteria Bottega: This unassuming spot is virtually impossible to find without being told about it, because it’s down an unpromising street near the city walls. But it is probably the best, most homey Italian restaurant I’ve ever eaten in. Start with pink slivers of mortadella served with ripe pear and sparkly prosecco, then take your pick. The sautéed potatoes are peerless. Via Santa Caterina 51 (+39 051 585111). About £70 for two
Where to drink
Le Stanze: A hip spot in the former private chapel of the ruling Bentivoglio family. The faded saints on the walls look down slightly disapprovingly at the serene Buddha on the bar. The place is jumping at night, but a great spot for a quiet coffee break in the heat of the afternoon. Via Borgo di San Pietro 1
Camera a Sud: A pleasingly shabby bar in the heart of the old Jewish ghetto. Grab some wine or a glass of dark beer, then flick through the dog-eared paperbacks and political literature. If those young people in the corner look like they are plotting a revolution, that’s because they are. Via Valdonica 5
Mercanzie Lounge Bar: A small bar where a young, cool crowd spills out onto the street. The free buffet is arguably the best in the city centre. The poet Dante Alighieri once stood close to this spot, waiting for pretty women to happen by. Seven hundred years later, not much has changed. Piazza della Mercanzia 2/A
This feature was first published in Condé Nast Traveller March 2015