Thursday, August 22, 2013

What Bologna (Italy) Has In Common with the Sandwich Meat of the Same Name

The camera never lies -- or so I've been told. That doesn't mean you should believe everything you see in photos. Exhibit A: the Sydney Opera House, gleaming white only on the page. Tricks of lighting and shooting from the right angles can cover up a multitude of visual sins.

Which brings me to Bologna, Italy's seventh most-populous city (according to Wikipedia) and the capital of Northern Italy's Emilia-Romagna area. You know those shabby pensions that are passed off in online photos as three- and four-star hotels? That's Bologna, far more impressive in tourist-guide glamor shots, like the ones inside the brochures that the receptionist at Hotel Cosmopolitan Bologna gave me this morning, than it was a half hour later when I was walking through the middle of it.

The underwhelmingness of it all may have had something to do with the city's architectural sameness. Its buildings range from watermelon- to peach-colored, with the occasional mango and pineapple chunks thrown in. As I explored, I found myself craving fruit and wondering why anyone would settle here for more than a day or two when there are so many picturesque towns in the Northern Italy vicinity -- like Brescia, Desenzano, Peschiera del Garda and Padova, all of which seemed more visually appealing viewed from the train station platforms en route from Milan to Venice and from Venice to Bologna.

That's sort of like the lower-case b bologna. Every time I've seen it in breakfast buffets since my arrival in Italy, I've had to ask myself, "Why would anyone choose that when there are more appetizing options right beside it?" Before my arrival, two Italians in Mestre gave Bologna less than stellar reviews. One guy who went to school here called it merely "okay." Another Venetian dismissed it outright as "ugly."

"You should stay here," he insisted.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm (and his), Bologna had a lot going for it today: blue skies, a nice breeze, a perfect temperature and mountains in the distance (the Appenines), which is perhaps the perfect accessory for any horizon view. It also feels more traditionally Italian than Milan or even Venice, which might have something to do with the quieter smaller-town vibe here. It doesn't appear to be all about the tourist trade.

But if any city seemed to exist almost solely for its center, it would be Bologna. (Which makes it the exact opposite of Mendoza, Argentina, whose wineries and stunning Andes views make its drab CBD more or less unnecessary.) Yesterday's taxi ride around the edge of Bologna's center to the Cosmopolitan some six kilometers away left me expecting the worst, the urban equivalent of the sandwich meat, bland with a kind of nasty aftertaste. This outer area could be an airport district anywhere on earth. There's even a strip mall about 100 meters away! (Despite the hotel's less-than-ideal location, which would explain its bargain rates, the four-star accommodations are solid, and the Jacuzzi bathtub is a nice five-star touch.)

The hilly residential area on the other side of Porta San Mamolo is far more worthy of a drive-by -- or an extended lunchtime break -- and it's good for the calf muscles. But ultimately, it suffers from the same monochrome monotony as the center below. Shouldn't a major city in a country known for its colorful citizenry offer a palette with a wider range of hues? As I left the city center and returned to the sterile anonymity of outer Bologna (which could be summarized as solidly beige) in the Cosmopolitan's shuttle van, I wondered if more time in Bologna would help me appreciate it, or if I'd just start dreaming in orange and red.

Rome, I'm ready for you!

My Favorite Place in Bologna: Piazza Maggiore

Like Florence, Bologna boasts a statue in a central plaza that pays homage to Neptune, the Roman God of the Sea. The most impressive thing about Poseidon's monument in Bologna is the anatomical representation below the head, taut and bulky-muscular. Not bad for a Greek/Roman god I'd always imagined as an old man pushing several thousand years old. Mount Olympus must have a great personal trainer who specializes in squats, forward lunges and other butt-enhancing exercises.
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