Christmas in Bologna
It was not to be. The sun refused to come out, and the sky persisted with a constant vexatious drizzle; not enough to make one stay indoors, however.
Certainly not enough to take away the euphoria at discovering a new vibrant and beautiful city: Bologna.
We arrived, —-my son and I, on a 4 day whirlwind lark,—- in the evening, not long after the sun had set and the darkening sky began to cast long shadows across the city streets. The rain was already falling, and the reflection on the pavements of the lighted boulevards, festooned already with Christmas lights, gave the scene an otherworldly character.
I’ve never been to Emilia Romagna, so when Giancarlo suggested this part of Italy for our brief and impulsive sojourn, I was excited. There would be much to do, lots to see, and a new culinary world to discover.
But I hadn’t counted on the rain. It came unbidden….. and stayed, and stayed. It met us as we stepped off the train that first evening and accompanied us to our hotel as we dragged our small overnight bags, from the station along the cobbled streets. It followed us to Ravenna and then to Modena. And then back to Rome.
But the rain could neither dampen our spirit nor wet our overcoats; we were in the city of porticoes!
Never ending and everywhere! Step off a sidewalk, cross the street and find yourself along a new covered walkway with a line of columns standing sentinel as you pass; regal columns that lend the city an air of elegance and a sense of gentility. The Portico of San Luca alone, made up of 666 porticos, is one of the longest in the world.
This was my first time in Bologna and I welcomed this visit. It was going to be a special one in the company of my son. I usually take over when it comes to being the tour guide; this time I was happy to let him take the reigns. I was willing to be led to the museums, to the points of interests, to the restaurants.
We made our way to the Hotel Dei Portici, fittingly named, as it sits on Via Dell’Indipendenza, framed by lovely Corinthian ( or Doric….who knows?) columns. This was an old Liberty style building named Palazzo Maccaferri which housed a Belle Epoque vaudevillian theatre. The Eden Theatre, decorated with original frescoes is now the charming home of the Ristorante I Portici. The theater, which by the end of the 1800s and early 1900s was the old café- Eden Kursaal, and described as “the temple of Vaudeville in Bologna” had been closed for decades and returned to its former glory thanks to the restoration of Palazzo Maccaferri. The hotel’s interior is of a minimalistic style enriched with important pieces of the big names of Italian and international design such as Stark, Kartell, Poltrona Frau, and Minotti. These pieces interspersed throughout the lobby and corridors create a refined and suggestive atmosphere. “Nice hotel” I thought, “let’s see what the rest of Bologna has in store for us.”
As we ventured out into the evening we found a vibrant and edgy night life considering that the rain was still coming down: couples strolling had in hand, juggling Christmas parcels; young people milling about and laughing loudly; seniors walking their canine companions; children running from one end of the pedestrian walk to the other. All was abuzz with the fever of the holiday to come.
Even through the dim lights of the side streets, I could feel, more than see, the noble spirit of this city: la dotta, la grassa, la rossa. Bologna is indeed all this: “the learned one”- for its famed university, “the fat one”- for it’s cuisine, and “the red one”- a reference to the red rooftops throughout the city, although many claim for its strong historical leftist leanings.
The rain, this first evening in Bologna, seemed to sharpen our appetite and made me think of the “brodino” or chicken soup my mother often had waiting for us kids on rainy, grey days. Tortellini, the famous Bolognesi ones, would be just perfect after a long day of travel too. We wove our way through narrow but sheltered streets, never having to open once our umbrellas; we peered through the windows of many trattorie, and finally arrived at Trattoria Montanara, a small, rustic and quite modest eating place. Inside, the cozy, enveloping warmth mingled with the tantalizing aroma of traditional Bolognese cuisine.
At 8:30 pm, we were the “early birds”. A steady stream of patrons continued to cross the threshold and managed to squeeze themselves into this little, by now bulging, restaurant. Others waited patiently outside its doors, peering through the glass in hopes of someone soon departing.
We ate, as we promised ourselves, a clear, aromatic broth with the most delicious (not enough of them) tortellini submerged within its depths.
The broth was a golden, pure liquid; a savory mélange of meats filled a pasta so fine it must have been made by the gods; and all this, was enhanced by a grating of sweet smelling parmesan that wafted to our nostrils and filled us with gluttonous delight!
This was the first of a number of culinary journeys we would take in the next few days that would both satisfy our ravenous hunger after our sightseeing jaunts, and give birth to a new sensorial awareness for our palate.
Our walk back to our hotel that evening presented a city seen at its best: Christmas lights adorned the streets, and illuminated the breathtaking architecture; people in cafes and wine bars spilled out onto the sidewalks; music, elation and a certain festive fever filled the air. This was Bologna at Christmastime.