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  • The Beauty of Bologna

The Beauty of Bologna

Bologna, you ask. Spaghetti bolognese and strident left-wing politics will inevitably come the reply. Yet there is much more to Bologna, capital of Italy's Emilia-Romagna region.

As well as the cuisine and politics for which it is famed, there is also its history as a great centre of learning. Bologna boasts the oldest university in all Europe, dating back to 1088, and whose alumni include Copernicus, Petrarch and Dante.

It is also renowned for its architecture, Bologna being a city of distinctive colonnades and arcades that lend it an elegant, appealing air.

All of Bologna's must-see sights lie conveniently within walking distance of one another. But as good a place as any to start your exploration of the city are Piazza del Nettuno and Piazza Maggiore  in the historic centre. The two squares house swanky top-end boutiques and the ornate 16th-century Neptune Fountain, the city's symbol.

The city is proud of its history as a hotbed of left-wing politics and is still home to the headquarters of Italy's former communist party and its newspaper. Nowhere is that political history more poignantly remembered than in Piazza del Nettuno, where on a wall there is a montage of photos of local partisans murdered by fascists during the Second World War.

There are more recent painful memories too: as recently as 1980, nearly 100 lost their lives in a neo-fascist bomb attack on Bologna's main rail station.

On the south side of Piazza Maggiore one finds the Basilica di San Petronio. It would be hard not to, given that there are only four churches bigger in the entire world. Although construction started in the final decade of the 14th century it remains unfinished. But that is no reason not to marvel at   the flamboyant frescoes depicting scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy; a series of 15th century bas-reliefs by Jacopo della Quercia; and a giant sundial.

The basilica is flanked by the Palazzo dei Notai, where in centuries gone by jurists diligently drew up Europe's legal code; and the archaeological museum, home to notable artefacts from the ancient Etruscan civilisation. Attached to the museum is the Archiginnasio, once the 11th century university, now the city's central library.

A few steps away lies a maze of intricate streets packed with some of Bologna's famous food shops, widely regarded Italy's finest. After all, this is the city that gave the world tortellini and mortadella.

Arguably the best-known food store is Tamburini on Via Caprarie. Outside, a monk or nun asks for alms, inside, the heavenly delights of its cold meats and cheeses.

Afterwards, what better way to work off all that fine dining than to ascend the nearly 500 steep steps to the summit of the medieval Asinelli Towers for a breathtaking vista over the city.

The best time to visit? For classical music buffs, come during the Bolognafestival, which offers concerts from March to October. One of Bologna's past sons was composer Giacomo Rossini. Pop into the Conservatorio Martini, where he studied and whose museum houses several of his original scores and manuscripts.

If fast cars are your thing, then don't miss the Motor Show in early December, when the town is besieged by petrolheads the world over.

For everyone else? How about any month with a vowel in it?