Eat, drink and steer clear of an Italian art attack

Bologna's food is legendary. So, says Toby Follett, let's eat. But whatever you do, don't ask for spaghetti you-know-what

THERE is a hell of a lot of old art to get through wherever you are in Italy. Does the I-suppose-we-ought-to-do-the-Uffizi syndrome ring a bell? If it does, take some time out in Bologna. It has all the "Wow!" factor of any of Italy's fabulous medieval cities, but with relatively few monuments of international renown, it is a place simply to be in rather than one to tick off on a list of achievements.

Think of Bologna as one huge spread-out monument crawling with real Italians doing their real Italian thing. It doesn't have a single restaurant with a menu-board outside littered with little euro-flags painted translations of the main dishes. And as for signs saying "We Speak Inglish Here", no chance: the Bolognese are crap at English. Bereft of tourist influence, Bologna has a concentrated Italianness long lost in the more famous tourist towns.

Start your first day with a cappuccino and a bombolone (a featherweight Italian doughnut) in the magnificently munificent Piazza Maggiore. The square is the centre point of a star of cobbled main streets lined with buildings painted in a stipulated range of reddish to yellowish hues, all with roofs of terracotta. One of Europe's best-preserved medieval towns, it's thrilling just wandering the galleried streets of a city which must still look very much like it did seven hundred years ago.

As you wander you will soon notice that here people just love to spend their money. There can be few places on earth with a wider selection of the latest in car and motorbike designs than Bologna. It's like stepping into some kind of transport heaven.

As for clothes, the Bolognese spend much of their waking life shopping for them. To be seen wearing anything bought more than a few weeks back (and worn more than about twice) results in a reputation as something called brutta figura: loosely translated, a "sorry sight", not something Italians like to see too often. Even shop windows are exquisitely dressed, whether they are selling clothes, antiques or mortadella sausage.

Yes, the Bolognese do dress to impress. Even the ones who aren't rich look rich - in fact, most of these tend to look stinking rich. Sometimes this consumer obsession and apparent well-being make Bologna look like the ultimate capitalist society: ironic, really, considering its past 50 years of communist local government.

To the intelligence agencies of the West during the Cold War, Bologna was a big embarrassment - evidence that the Russian bear had its claws embedded in the heart of Europe. How come everyone kept voting communist and the place was so bloody successful economically? The CIA kept asking itself whether its local government was uniquely efficient compared to the rest of the country, and whether its public services were somehow brilliant. It all had to be a cunning Soviet plot. Forces of the right with links to western intelligence appear to have become so incensed with the place they blew up Bologna's railway station in 1980, killing 85 people. When the Soviet Empire collapsed, Bologna didn't.

A good place to ponder these weighty thoughts is the Bar dei Commercianti in Strada Maggiore. Known as il bar degli intellettuali, you may run into Umberto Eco as he takes a break from teaching at the drama faculty round the corner. And if you don't run into him, well, who cares - chi se ne frega - by now it's probably time to concentrate on a late-morning glass of vino bianco frizzante (fizzy white wine) and a tramezzino (tasty little sandwich).

Food and drink will feature rather regularly as you potter around town. The immaculately dressed windows of the salumerie (salame shops) and rosticcerie (five-star take-away food shops), the latterie (dairies of gorgeous cheeses) and panaderie (bakeries) will set you drooling early on in the day.

Bologna La Grassa - the Fat One - has been famous for hundreds of years for its delicious and fattening food. The local "priest strangler" pasta, or strozzapreti, was named after the notoriously greedy local clergy who were known for gorging themselves on local delicacies. A word of advice: don't try to order spaghetti alla Bolognese here. The Bolognese don't know what it is, and can be incredibly snotty about dish nomenclature. Tagliatelle alla Bolognese - that's OK. But when you bung the same sauce over spaghetti it becomes spaghetti al ragu.

Worried about over-eating? Think you need an intellectual fix after all this instant gratification? The waxworks at the university's Department of Human Anatomy (Via Imerio 48) will kill both birds with one gory stone. The exhibits, still used for teaching purposes, consist of intricately detailed pieces of every human innard (and outtard) you may imagine - and many you wouldn't even want to imagine.

The waxworks are more than just a macabre interlude to your day. Many of them are impressive works of art. The collection originated with the works of Ercole Lelli, a kind of Michelangelo of the morgue. He was commissioned to make a series of spellati or studies of skinned humans in 1742 by Pope Benedict XIV. This deeply studious Pope was concerned that there weren't enough corpses being cleared by relatives for medical study.

Lelli's works represent what the muscles of live human beings would look like if you could see them through the skin. The exhibits are often more useful to students than the real thing would be because they look so alive, so realistic. As Professor Franco Ruggieri, head of the faculty, says: "Doctors are interested in living people, not dead ones." If he is free he'll be pleased to show you round. He has so far resisted all appeals from galleries around the world to take his innards abroad - they are too fragile. You'll find the waxworks just past a corridor lined with hundreds of human skulls.

A leisurely meander past the cheap eateries of the university area will soon have you hungry again. While you're here you might want to note down the address of an underground gig or political meeting or two advertised on the portico columns. You may even find a flat advertised for rent which takes your fancy.

As sure as evening comes around, so too will your appetite and a niggling desire for a glass of wine (if you're anything like me). Time to head for the central market area to the east of Piazza Maggiore.

Here the air is protein-laden with particles of parmesan cheese and porcine mushroom spore. It's a place of plump and shiny aubergines, bulbous peppers of sunlight yellow and deepest red, of skinned frogs legs, hanging pheasants, ducks and hares, and a cornucopia of pork meats. Spoil yourself by buying a small piece of real parmeggiano reggiano cheese. If you can afford more than a small piece, be careful: with each parmesan wheel worth hundreds of pounds it is not unknown for cheese delivery vans to be held up at gunpoint. Try not to eat the cheese yet.

Then go to Tambrini, the magnificent salumeria in Via delle Caprarie. The counter groans with carnivore delights, shopkeepers appear through pigs' haunches of prosciutto, piles of zampone (stuffed pigs' trotters), and mini wild boar sausages, hanging in neverending strings as if they have flowed out of a magician's pocket. All pretty unpleasant for vegetarians, mind you. Get an etto (100 grams) or so of whatever takes your fancy.

By now you will have started to nibble on the parmesan. Buy some bread and head for the dingy but delightful Osteria del Sole in Via dei Ranocchi, remembering it's closed from 2pm to 7.30pm (shops stay open til 8pm). The osteria is a very Bolognese tradition and means "hostelry" or pub. They are amongst the very best places in the city to eat and drink.

According to Luciafib Spolaore, one of the impassive brothers who owns the Osteria del Sole, it has been functioning as an osteria for a few years now - 500 years, to be precise. In keeping with the status quo Luciano, who himself has been stood here pouring the drinks for the past 55 years, has never bothered to serve anything but wine and there's nothing on the menu. Hence the trip to the market: he's happy to let you bring your own picnic.

Order a bottle of Sangiovese, a rough local red wine (the proud Bolognese will be mortified by this description), or something white and fizzy. Chew on your sausages, munch on your bread, savour your cheese, and drink a toast or several to not being hurried and fussed by doing your duty as a tourist.

Of course, there is a hell of a lot of old art in Bologna, too, and historical monuments. But this is your first visit and you can't do it all in one go. Meanwhile, Luciano: "Mi porti un' altra bottiglia?"

FACT FILE

Don't miss

Piazza Santo Stefano, an idyllic medieval square with a complex of four little churches in it. Santa Maria dei Servi church on Strada Maggiore Piazza Aldrovandi. Characterful daily markets at Via Zamboni and Via delle Belle Arti. The university area, Piazza Maggiore, is best on a Sunday morning when gaggles of old men shoot the political or football breeze and dads bring their little ones to feed the pigeons.

Museums and art galleries

Museo di Anatomia Umana, Via Irnerio 48, open 9am to 1pm. Anatomical waxworks including pieces by the brilliant 18th-century artist Ercole Lelli. The Archiginnasio's Teatro Anatomico, Via dell' Archigginasio: the old medical faculty dissection theatre in the old university building.

Eating

Osteria del Moretto, Porta San Mammolo: a real old-style osteria known as the bar of the sessantottini (the "little sixty-eighters", the student revolutionaries of the Sixties). If you're lucky it will be the night when the two old men come in and play old osteria songs. Pizzeria Piedigrotta, Via Santo Stefano 40: great pizzas, oodles of atmosphere. Ristorante da Silvio, Via San Petronio Vecchio 34D: eat as much delicious food here as you like for a fixed price of 60,000 lire (pounds 25).

Drinking

Il Circolo Pickwick, Via San Felice 77: open all day but best around la ora del aperitivo - 7pm to 8pm. Daniele, the Circolo's charming owner and barman, will mix you a weird and wonderful cocktail (or two) and an inventive snack. Ask him for advice on where to head for later. Rosa Rose, Via Clavatur 18: more of anthropological interest than anything else, here you'll find the Bolognese equivalent of the Sloane Rangers.

Music

Jazz: Osteria Cantina Bentivoglio, Via Mascharella 4. You can eat, drink and listen to jazz here most evenings. Opera: Classical Teatro Comunale, Largo Respighi 1: opera to blow your socks off. Rock/dance: Il Link, Via Fioravanti 14: trendissimo venue for ambient and techno ravers. Livello 57, Via dello Scale 21, down Via San Felice: hardcore, jungle, raggamuffin etc in a squat.

Accommodation

Book early - Bologna has relatively few hotel rooms. Hotel Baglioni, Via dell'Independenza 8, is the city's poshest hotel, recently refurbished (0039 51 22 54 45). Orologio, Via IV Novembre 10: great location in the main piazza (0039 51 23 12 53), but not cheap. Garisenda, Via Rizzoli 9, Galleria del Leone 1 (0039 51 22 43 69) is much cheaper. Good location close to the central market and main piazza.

Information

For more information go to Tourist Information in Piazza Maggiore (0039 51 24 65 41). It's worth noting that open-air bars and discos in the Appennine hills a few minutes' drive south of the city are in full swing during the warmer months.

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