A short break in ... Bologna

An historic, elegant, vibrant Italian city that isn't swarming with tourists? Jane Drinkwater tells of the joys of having a museum all to herself, of tasting Italy's finest food without having to book, and of shopping for more than just souvenirs

Why go there?

Bologna has been known since the 13th century as la Dotta, la Grassa, la Rossa - the Learned, the Fat, and the Red. Learned because it is home to Europe's oldest university, with Dante and Petrarch among its former students. Fat because of its culinary richness and expertise, and red because of the terracotta hues of its buildings and because the Communist party has controlled the council since the Second World War. The bulk of tourists have not yet discovered Bologna and that is half its charm. Wander around its beautiful, mediaeval centre late in the season and you might be the only visitors there. Despite its elegance, it has a relaxed atmosphere and 60,000 students, so don't worry if you've only packed jeans and trainers. It is only a two-hour flight from the UK to the G Marconi airport and speedy taxis mean you can be unpacking just 20 minutes after landing - perfect for a long weekend.

When to go

As soon as possible, before coach tours wise up to its charm. The Bologna Dream Festival is held in the summer so there are lots of concerts, plays and other cultural events. However, temperatures reach the high eighties and it can get rather stuffy. In the autumn and winter, on the other hand, you will have all the galleries and museums to yourself. Otherwise, if you avoid weekends when the big trade and book fairs are held, finding accommodation should not be a problem.

Getting there

The best way to get to Bologna for a long weekend is to fly with Alitalia as it has a convenient flight which leaves Gatwick at 8pm, allowing you to do a full day's work before heading off. For those with more flexible work schedules, there are also flights leaving at 11.45am and 6.50pm. Return flights leave at 9.45am, 3.25pm and 6.20pm. The flight costs pounds 134. A taxi into town costs about pounds 13. Alternatively, the 91B bus leaves from the arrival area and stops at the railway station in town.

Where to stay

Grand Hotel Baglioni, Via Independenza 8 (tel: 0039 051 225445). This fancy four-star hotel is the choice of dignitaries and people with plenty of cash. Centrally located on the main shopping street, it also has views of San Petronio Basilica. Double rooms cost pounds 250.

Hotel San Donato, Via Zamboni 16 (tel: 0039 051 235395). In the heart of the centro storico, the San Donato is close to the Two Towers and Piazza Maggiore. It has two outdoor terraces for breakfast or cocktails - one with a panoramic view. Modern bedrooms with balconies overlooking terracotta rooftops. Doubles from pounds 60-pounds 85.

Hotel Corona d'Oro, Via Oberdan 12 (tel: 0039 051 236456). This elegant four-star hotel is an eclectic mix, with its art nouveau reception area and a mediaeval first floor. Doubles from pounds 107.

Hotel Commercianti, Via de'Pignaterri 11, (tel: 0039 051 233052). Right next to the San Petronio cathedral on a pedestrianised street, this three- star hotel was originally the town hall in the 12th century and much of the original wooden architecture is still intact. Rooms overlook the Piazza Maggiore, and cost from pounds 110.

What to see and do

Piazza Maggiore This is the main square and a grand ensemble of religious and secular palazzos vie for power around its edges. The huge cathedral flanks the palazzo comunale (town hall) whose walls are covered in black- and-white photos of those killed by the Nazis during the Second World War. Adjoining Piazza Maggiore is the Piazza Nettuno which has Bologna's best fountain. The imposing bronze statue of the muscle-bound Neptune is supported by four voluptuous sirens unashamedly holding up their bare breasts to squirt water. Order a cappuccino in one of the terraced cafes lining the square and watch the groups of elderly men who gather to smoke and chat gradually give way to a younger crowd in the early afternoon.

Basilica of San Petronio This huge and imposing church on the Piazza Maggiore is one of the finest Gothic churches in Italy. A third of its facade is covered in marble bas-relief by sculptor Jacopo della Quercia but work was suspended in 1650 and never completed. Close inspection of its vast indoor columns and arcades shows that these were made by highly skilled bricklayers. Check out the beautiful Madonna and Child fresco by Giovanni da Modena, but remember not to take photographs, walk arm- in-arm, or eat ice cream while in the church - all activities that are shown on the "forbidden" board.

Morandi Museum, Palazzo d'Accursio. This museum, also on the Piazza Maggiore, opened in 1993 and is dedicated to the work of the 20th-century Bolognese artist, Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). Morandi was a still-life painter and particularly liked painting bottles and bowls. Despite the rather limited subject matter, the subtle changes in shape and colour make the paintings charming. The artist's studio is also recreated in the museum, allowing the visitor to gain a sense of how he worked. Open 10am-6pm (closed Mondays). Entrance: L8,000 (pounds 3).

Due Torri (Two Towers). These mediaeval towers (built in 1119) are a landmark on the Bologna map and the taller one - the Asinelli - rarely disappears from view as you wander around the city. The slender Asinelli is 322ft and leans 4ft from the vertical. Its short and squat baby brother - the Garisenda - is about half the size but leans nearly 11 feet. Bologna once had 180 of these towers, giving it a mediaeval-skyscraper skyline, but today only the remains of 40 still exist. Climbing the 500 well-worn steps of the Asinelli is the perfect way to work up a pre-lunch appetite, and the view of the city's terracotta buildings from the top is stunning (when kissing couples aren't blocking the look-out points). The view to the south is especially pretty where the villa-studded Apennine hills begin.

Food and drink

Bologna is home to some of the finest and richest cuisine in Italy and many people travel here just to eat. It excels in fresh home-made pasta dressed in rich meat or mushroom sauces. According to locals, tortellini was invented here by an innkeeper trying to emulate Venus's navel - a legend, of course, but it gives some idea of the obsession with food. Don't expect to find spaghetti bolognese on the menu - tortelloni with a burro e pomodoro (butter and tomato) sauce is more common fare. Stroll out for cocktails in the early evening and you will find an enticing range of olives, crostini, and other snacks lined up on the bar. Remember to take into account the coperto e pane (cover and bread) charge in restaurants, which can range from L2,000 to L8,000 per person. Beer can also be expensive.

La Mela, Via de'Fusari. Stop here for the perfect lunch. The mixed seafood starter is a selection of giant prawns, shrimps, mussels, clams, octopus, and langoustines in oil, lemon and garlic - delicious. Consider sharing a pizza as a first course to leave room for a second main course. About pounds 30 for two with wine.

Il Cantinone, Via del Pratello 56A. Via del Pratello is a good street to discover at night because of its concentration of osterias and pubs. Cantinone is popular with locals and students and has a cosy atmosphere, a good selection of wine, and a large crostini menu in case you don't want a full meal. Eat and drink for around pounds 10 a head.

Cambusa, Via Mascarella 8. This is a small restaurant specialising in seafood with plenty of tables for two. The waiters seem reluctant to hand out menus and prefer to reel off the specials of the day. Our lack of Italian meant we ended up with a three-course starter but each was delicious and the cognoscenti were opting for the same. Choose fruit rather than Sicilian dolce which were very sweet. Around pounds 16 per person with wine.

Cantina Bentivoglio, Via Mascarella 4B (tel: 051 265416). This is a spacious bar on two floors but has a warm, relaxed atmosphere. Upstairs, there are huge wooden tables and wine bottles everywhere. The food is not spectacular but there is live jazz every night, so it is best to book a table if you are planning to eat late at the weekend. Closed on Monday.

Getting around

The city is perfect for walking around as the traffic level is low and there are fewer moped stuntmen than in Rome. Its most distinguishing feature is the 25 miles of porticoes and arcades running parallel to the roads which make sightseeing and shopping possible in any weather. The city is a lived-in museum and its residents are proud but not precious about their heritage. Some buildings have a splash of graffiti, some are crumbling and some are under Cristo-like wrap for restoration, but the overall impression is good. If you plan to take a bus, buy a L1,800 ticket in a tabacchi and simply stamp your ticket when you board. The bus map gives an indication of Bologna's political affiliations with street names like Lenin, Salvador Allende and Martin Luther King.

Shopping

Italian delicacies? Cashmere? Leather? Just how much money have you got to spend? If you are hoping to pick up Parmesan, mortadella, porcini mushrooms or home-made tortellini, head for the Via Caprairie which has a few impressive delis with elaborate cakes in the window to lure you in. Chestnuts were in season during our visit and shop displays were full of marrons glaces. For window-shopping or a splurge on some Italian knitwear, try the Via d'Azeglio where all the designer boutiques are, and don't miss the wonderful men's hat shop on the Via IV Novembre.

Nightlife

If you don't manage to get tickets for the opera at the Teatro Communale, which is said to be a close rival to Milan's La Scala and just as fashionable, there are plenty of other options. Wander around the university quarter to read the posters and if nothing tempts, drink in one of the cheap bars until the early hours. At midnight on Saturdays, Piazza Maggiore is still packed and traffic is at its peak as people head out for the night. Via del Pratello and Via Mascarella are good for bar-hopping, and the Irish bar on Via Zamboni attracts young things who spill out beneath the arcades and shiny mopeds in an artistic mess.

Out of town

Basilica of San Luca and the Pizzeria Coffee Shop Vito, Via Monte Albano 5, San Luca (tel: 051 437711). If you are looking for Sunday activity, why not make a pilgrimage to the Basilica of San Luca on the top of the Della Guardia hill and take in the panoramic view? A stunning portico, made up of 666 arches, winds up the hill to the basilica and the walk takes a leisurely 40 minutes. As a reward, eat at the Pizzeria Coffee Shop Vito close by which has a selection of about 30 different types of pizza (the "girasol" - gorgonzola and radicchio - is good). Desserts include classics like tartufo nero, and there is zuppa inglese (trifle) for the homesick. Wander down as the sun disappears and the city becomes a glowing mass of oranges, pinks and reds. Take the number 20 bus from the city (it leaves from the Hotel Baglioni) and get off at the bottom of the hill near Bologna's football stadium.

Deals and packages

Lupus Travel (tel: 0171-306 3000) offers two-night breaks in Bologna for pounds 225 per person based on two people sharing a room at the four-star San Donato hotel (flights with Alitalia). Call them to get a copy of their new brochure or visit them at Triumph House, 189 Regent Street, London W1R 7WD. The Tourist Information Centre is at Palazzo d'Accurso at Piazza Maggiore 6. Opens Mon-Sat 9am-7pm. Other branches also at the airport, open Mon-Sat 9am-1pm, and at the train station, open Mon-Sat 9am-12.30pm and 2.30pm-6pm.

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