With a weekend to kill and no particular place to go, Simon Clays finds that Bologna has surprises beyond his imagination. By Simon Clays
It was said that all roads lead to Rome. That also means that all roads lead away from the Eternal City, too. In my case, it’s rails. A fast train whipping through Titian countryside like a comet with a cappuccino. Bright morning light, a baguette, and the flash of green Stone Pines on crumpled hills.
I’m headed for Bologna. Like many, I’ve skirted it previously, chosen brighter Italian baubles. I think, maybe, she’s Italy’s unloved daughter: nestled to the left of Sienna and Florence, and often overlooked, when packed itineraries demand the Uffizi and a march on to Venice. It’s regarded largely as a Mecca for petrol heads—home to Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and Ducati. It’s a gasoline wet dream.
As I approach its outskirts, dimpled hills give way to industry and the chaos of modern living. Unloved residential blocks and washing lines usher me in. I wonder if this was such a good idea for a pit stop after all.
The station is unremarkable with all the hallmarks of provincial, small-town living. It has none of the grand façades one sees at Milan’s Central Station or the hustle of Rome’s Termini. Outside, the taxi stand is pedestrian. For a while, I wonder if anyone wants to take me anywhere. Can they be bothered? Maybe it’s raucous Rome still looming over me. Maybe it’s because it’s late August and half of Italy is in vacanza and missing in action.
I placate myself that it must be the pace of life out here and hope for the best. Two cases, a battered up Fiat, and a driver cursing at everything like an Italian sewer. Then the magic happens. The car lurches onto Via del’ Independenza, and I enter a historical twilight zone. Porticos line both sides of a broad street and run all the way to a grand square, crowned by a triumphant Neptune. I’m not sure whether his trident is welcoming me to the waters of his fountain or warning me off.
I won’t find out for now as the taxi reels right between gelato-licking locals, pavement trattorias, and boutiques before screaming to a halt, halfway down the main portico.
It would be easy to ride straight by the Grand Hotel Majestic. Blink and its subdued entrance is overcome by designer-store neon. Only two triumphant flags give the world a clue that it’s here. Inside, however, is a very different glass of Prosecco. If outside is a five-star speakeasy, hiding from the masses, inside is old-school opulence: grand white pillars, a huge marble fireplace, chandeliers the size of airships. If you want digital check-in and a credit-card room key, forget it. This is a grand hotel and designed to be that way. For well over a hundred years. Everything is built to last and built to offer the style of service the modern world is forgetting how to do properly. A quick hop to the bar and a roll call of the grandiose of the world light up the walls. It’s a glitterati of artists, actors, princesses, and Presidents—easier to say who hasn’t stayed in one of the suites that are more like time capsules draped in velvet, Louis XV armchairs, and drama.
But there’s a bigger surprise in store for me when I’m offered a second key to complement my bulky ‘twist in the lock’ room opening device. Reception lead me to the lift, insert the key in the tiniest of inconspicuous holes in the wall, and I ascend. The lights of the floors illuminate as I climb. Each time I’m expecting to stop: ping! I keep on going.
When I do finally come to a halt, I’ve run out of floors. Gone beyond where the hotel stops.
I might be in the attic. Then, a second, almost invisible lift door to my right parts and opens into a magnificent art deco rooftop suite. It’s totally private. Secret and inaccessible to anyone but room-service and me.
Best of all is its delightful roof garden. From up here, I can see the whole of old terracotta Bologna. Most of its 33 kilometres of portico running parallel and glued to the side of history. The cathedral dedicated to St Peter hangs over me. Statues of the saints, Peter and Paul, are so close, they’re almost guests in the garden. Sniffing at the jasmine bushes. A waiter arrives with a welcome glass of the local Pignoletto, a sparkling white produced in the hills west of the city.
The wine has as much zest as the waiter’s tales, and within a sip, I’m embroiled in stories of the hotel’s occupation by the Nazi SS during World War II, of an assassination attempt on the German commander, of Mussolini’s passion for the place. Bloodshed and retribution, all within the four walls of the hotel, but also salvation.
I ask for a second glass. The saints disapprove. The waiter changes my glass and points over at the statue of St Paul. He tells me that during the occupation of World War II, Bologna was bombed. One night, a huge incendiary bomb fell and struck the statue of St Paul. The statue deflected the course of the bomb, and instead of crashing through the roof of the medieval cathedral, it wedged itself into several floors of the Grand Majestic. For whatever reason, the bomb failed to explode. Now, even though the cathedral is dedicated to St Peter, the locals have a real soft spot for Paul.
I discover that Bologna has a nickname: La Dotta, La Grassa, and La Rossa—the educated, the fat, and the red.
In one afternoon, I intend to indulge myself in all three and set off on foot. Old Bologna is fairly compact, labyrinthian, and strewn with fabulous eateries and watering holes. La Grassa is not an issue in Bologna. As for the educated, Bologna University is the oldest in the world. It’s fascinating, and a visit to the Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio, inside the compound of the university where physicians have lectured since the 1700s, is a must. I find out that Umberto Eco, the famous historical novelist, was a professor here. His favourite bookshop is a stone’s throw away and also worth a visit. I can’t help wondering how much of his research for The Name of the Rose was done through whispers here. Or, how much of the history of this mischievous city is wrapped up in his tale of greed, jealousy, and murder. Each new church, tower, or colonnade is a conspiracy of Machiavellian double-cross and a battle for the fat of the land. Church against State. Church against Church. La Rossa, or the red of the terracotta history of Bologna, abounds.
It’s a church that ends my day in this city of secrets. The high walls of the gothic Basilica di San Petronio (patron Saint of Bologna) stand harmlessly amid the street entertainers and hawkers that dot the busy Piazza Maggiore. The fountain of Neptune stands guard at its other end.
Inside, the basilica is a tribute to the wealth and grandeur of 16th-century Catholicism. Each of its 22 chapels is ornate and decked out with symbolism. A meridian line, which uses the sun’s light to track equinox and solstice, runs through its pews. Lavish art and sculpture lace the walls.
Except for the Chapel of the Magi, which largely tells the story of Bologna’s friend, St Petronio. Well, two of the chapel’s walls do. The third is dedicated to someone not generally associated with churches: a secret devil. In this version of The Last Judgement torn straight from the pages of Dante’s Inferno, this devil is seven, maybe eight, feet high. Some secret, but here he is, gorging on souls for eternity. Each section of his domain is dedicated to one of the seven deadly sins. It’s hard to pull yourself away from this vision painted some 500 years ago. I’m entranced. Time slips by in the fearful footsteps of the faithful. The devil really is in the detail.
Lucifer has given me an appetite. The sun has burned La Rossa as deep a red as the Lambrusco wine that slips easily past my lips. It’s time to unlock the secrets of La Grassa and dine al fresco on the finest food that Italy has to offer, and wonder how such a place has managed to keep itself off the fast-track tourist haul. It’s then I realise, Bologna’s not unloved. She’s just damn good at keeping secrets.
Alitalia offers direct flights to Rome from New Delhi. Bologna is a two-hour train journey from Rome’s main Termini central station. The other option is car hire. An Indian driving license is valid in Italy, you’ll just have to carry it with you and ensure you also have an Indian International License, too—your local RTO office can assist with this.
The Grand Hotel Majestic in Bologna is not only the finest property in the city, but it’s
also geographically positioned for access to the most popular sites. Rooms start at around INR 30,000 per night, inclusive of breakfast.
Bologna is a foodie heaven, but for a real treat, go to the dining room restaurant at the Grand Majestic Hotel, I Carracci. Named after the two 16th-century artist brothers who painted the frescoed ceilings, it really is a spectacle to sit and sample Bologna’s finest fare, while enjoying their take on classic Grecian mythology.