The crossroads of Italy

Every city seems to have some claim to being the epicenter of the universe, but Bologna does have a reason to call itself the crossroads of this country. It is positioned to have taken advantage of the north-south and east-west trade routes, and for that reason it believes that is why no one style dominates this ancient city. Go west, young man, or any other direction in which you chose to earn your fortune.

We took a walking tour this morning and saw the major buildings in the main piazza. The pope had power here for many years, and as his rule was not so popular, his legate’s palace had a moat around it, just in case. The cathedral was never finished, as it was intended to be larger than St. Peter’s. The pope didn’t go along with that idea.

Rather than just saying “no way,” he came up with a very clever idea. In the mid-15th century, he decided to give the University of Bologna a permanent building as a generous gift. The city has the oldest university in the world, founded in 1088, but its academic activities had no formal home until that time. Since the new university building just happened to be right next to the planned expansion of the cathedral, its grandiose plans were forever put away. You can see where the old construction anticipated the new addition, on the left side of the next picture. We hope to tour the university later in the week, if only to see the anatomical theater that pre-dates Padova’s. For today, we just saw the center courtyard.

Nearby is a small church once run by an order of friars who cared for the sick and dying. Santa Maria della Vita has a group of sculptures called Sorrow over Dead Christ (1463) by Niccolo dell’ Arca. These life-sized figures express shock and sorrow in an incredibly real way. An astonishing tableau.

There was also a modern art exhibit in the same church, which struck my fancy. Nothing like a little contrast.

Between the 12th and the 13th century, there may have been almost 200 towers in the city. The reason is not clear, but one hypothesis is that the richest families used them for offensive/defensive purposes while fighting was going on in the 11th century between the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII.

Fewer than twenty can still be seen today. And then there are the famous Two Towers: the Asinelli Tower and the Garisenda Tower. Garisenda is tilting very badly, so it has had to be dramatically shortened to give it some stability. Quite a dramatic duo – and the inspiration for New York’s World Trade Center towers.

Don’s Food Corner

After walking the streets of Bologna past the spectacular windows of markets piled high with different kinds of proscuitto, pastas (especially tortellini) and big chunks of Parmesan cheese (we go to Parma later this week), I was ready to taste some of this at lunch.

And so we did.

Although we did not search out a particular recommended restaurant, we happened on one that our instincts told us was OK.   It turned out to be a place that specialized in polpette — meatballs.  Well, not strictly all made from meat because some of them featured vegetables and cheese.  But all were either pan-fried or deep-fried.

Before we dug into a platter of polpette, we started with an antipasto platter of regional cured meats and cheeses.  The cheeses included chunks of Parmesan cheese, a few slices of some type of hard cheese that we couldn’t identify and a couple of balls of ricotta with chopped celery inside and drizzled with a Balsamic vinegar reduction.

Two of meats included a type of prosciutto and slices of mortadella.  Of course, mortadella is the granddaddy of baloney.  Today’s sample was particularly complex; it included bits of pistachio nuts in it.  I couldn’t identify  the third cured meat.  But I was a little concerned because it had a rather shredded texture.  When we had finished the dish, I asked the waiter what it was.  Coppa was the answer.  He explained:  “The pig head.  It boil.  Then, it press.”  Great.  Taken back a little, I forgot to ask what the other cheeses were.  I assume they were made from the milk of some animal or another.

We moved on.  And started draining the bottle of local red wine we ordered.

The polpette presentation was impressive.  Overwhelmingly large, but we did our best.  There were a couple of mashed potato/cheese polpette, a couple of what we thought were spinach-based but were actually eggplant.  The others were some type of meat of varying colors and preparation.  Some had deep fried and crispy.  Some looked familiar pan browned and cooked in a type of tomato sauce.  We didn’t ask exactly what type of meat was being used.  In fact, after our coppa explanation, my lunch companion kind of lost her adventuresome spirit and her appetite.  As a result, we didn’t finish everything.  I asked for a doggy bag for the leftovers.  We have them back in the apartment in case someone gets her courage up to try them.


2 thoughts on “The crossroads of Italy

  1. I just found your card and have been reading about your travels. We met you on the train to Naples and then Sorrento, and kept seeing you on our travels. What a great adventure you are having!


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