By Pasquale Gianni
In a sad revelation that my first semester abroad will be coming to an end, I decided there was so much more I need to see. So, instead of staying in Rome for the weekend, I impulsively took an express train to Bologna, a charming smaller city in north-central Italy. As a city, Bologna is known for so many things and chief among them are its foods, radical politics and The University of Bologna, which, founded in 1088, is the oldest in the Western world. Admittedly, though, I set my sights on Bologna for a short getaway for an entirely different reason: a concert.
For starters, this excursion was a testament to the incredibly easy and efficient travel possibilities throughout Italy. On a Thursday afternoon, I arrived at Roma Termini Train Station with only a small duffel bag, and, after buying a ticket from an automated machine, I was on a Bologna-bound, high-speed, comfortable train within five minutes. The Frecciaroassa train lines connect most of Italy’s major cities and run very frequently, at speeds of almost 200 mph.
After arriving at the Bologna Station and checking into my quaint hotel near the center of town, I headed directly to Teatro Manzoni to see none other than the American icon Bob Dylan. I was shocked to discover the degree of popularity that Dylan enjoys in this country. Incredibly, despite many of the locals and concert-attendees not speaking much English, they were all singing along passionately to the songs. And after speaking with many of them, I was able to get the sense that, even in these parts, Dylan is viewed as a great symbol for generational change. It is really a beautiful story about how culture, here in the form of music, can transcend lingual and geographical barriers.
Perhaps, though, it is no accident that Dylan enjoys this large following as he is a longtime icon for liberal-minded crusaders for justice. This is because Bologna, more so than any other Italian city, has been a breeding-ground for left-wing intellectuals and radical politics. In fact, the local government has been controlled by the Communist Party for just about the entire post World War II Era. You see, in Italy there is a very strong Communist tradition. The Communists, for example, were directly responsible for restoring Italian Democracy and ridding Italy of the monarchy in 1946 in the aftermath of the war. Since then, although no longer called the Communist Party in the Post-Soviet Era, they have controlled various local and regional governments throughout the country.
If you’re not a Communist, that’s fine, but when you visit Bologna, you’ll have them to thank for the free public transit that moves the dense, seventh largest metropolitan area in the country. Out of 71 classified “cities” in Italy, they boast the lowest rates of unemployment, highest standard of living and second highest average income distribution. It is here that the headquarters of the coveted Italian Lamborghini, Maserati and Ducati manufacturers are located.
The explanation for the strong industrial economy in the city can be attributed, as per usual, to education. The University Of Bologna, with nearly 85,000 students, has long been ranked number one in Italy, and offers just about every discipline one could think up. Many also attribute the political attitudes of the city to the influential university presence. And as with any large university presence, the surrounding area is filled with budget restaurants, bars and pubs, which always make for a bit of fun for visitors. Other than this quarter, though, Bologna is surely not the most adventurous city in the country. But there is, of course, always the food.
Bologna, referred to throughout Italy as “La Grassa” (the fat one), is a city known for its culinary excellence. It is here that the famous Ragu al’Bolognese, Tortellini and Mortadella, a divine lunch-meat that, although incomparable for all intents and purposes, was the inspiration for American Bologna (Baloney), were born. And you better believe I tried them all. Here you can find informal trattorias and Michelin-star restaurants, depending on what you might be looking for. When it comes to passing time between meals, however, it gets a bit trickier. Perhaps this is the reason the “La Grassa” name stuck because the Bolognese are always finding themselves indulging with excellent cuisine and wine. It was, nevertheless, a trip worth taking, and one that’s helped open my eyes to everything, rich and varied in all forms of beauty and excellence, that this spectacular country has to offer.