In search of... Spag Bol in Bologna

You'll never touch the slop served in Britain again once you've tasted the real thing,

Why would I go to Bologna when fabulous Florence is only two hours' drive away?In a word, food. The best you've ever eaten.

Why would I go to Bologna when fabulous Florence is only two hours' drive away?

In a word, food. The best you've ever eaten. But in addition to being the undisputed gastronomic capital of Italy, Bologna also boasts a delightful, well-preserved centre. It's not that easy to find a shopkeeper or waiter who speaks English, but, by living happily in the shadow of its southerly Tuscan neighbours, Bologna seems to remain – for many – a foodie paradise under wraps.

In striking contrast to Florence, Bologna is a modern, expensive city which has buildings of working-class red brick instead of grandiose marble. Sophia Loren lookalikes carrying yipping chihuahuas saunter along medieval streets, flitting from Calvin Klein to Dolce e Gabbana. Businessmen zip to work on purring Vespas. And the city's bustling convention centre, which draws thousands to international events throughout the year, can make finding reasonably priced accommodation a significant challenge for the tourist on a budget.

So it's out of my price range, then?

Not necessarily. Although fashions are designer and hotels are upmarket, you can find the neighbourhood corners that make Bologna an affordable weekend destination. Remember that Bologna is Europe's first university town, set up around AD1000. Students throng the cafés in the evenings and gather noisily to play guitar in the main Piazza Maggiore at all hours. There are ripped jeans and dreadlocks alongside the Bruno Maglis. (Look on the trees and walls in the university sector for details on Bologna's thriving nightlife scene.) They enjoy the city's top attractions – namely, beautiful squares and inviting eateries – on very little money. But even impoverished Italian students wouldn't stoop to eating the slop that we call spag bol, a bastardisation of the original Bolognese meat sauce recipe.

What's so different about spag bol in Bologna?

For starters, the name. If you see "spaghetti Bolognese" listed on a menu in Bologna, you've come upon a tourist trap. Instead, Italians refer to the meaty pasta dish as tagliatelle al ragú, which is very different from the spag bol you ate at university dinner-parties. This pasta is thicker, yellow, egg-based tagliatelle, and the rich sauce consists of slow-roasted meat and a little cream added to cut the acidity of the tomatoes and wine. Add a chilled bottle of the local Lambrusco to finish off the perfect meal, and you'll barely spend a tenner. Lambrusco, you gasp? Don't be judgemental: while connoisseurs love to ridicule inexpensive Lambrusco, the chilled, light red fizz goes down like champagne in Bologna.

What if I hate spag bol?

Don't worry. Bologna is also the home town of tortellini, which was originally fashioned in the shape of Venus's belly button, and you can find it served with a range of delicious sauces. The surrounding region of Emilia Romagna saw the birth of parmigiano reggiano, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto and lasagne.

The city prides itself on making the dining experience a long and enjoyable one, so most restaurants, regardless of price, offer outdoor dining options in good weather (including the massive Nutelleria and the city centre McDonald's). As a result, the Bolognese like to eat out, and many osterie fill up during the week as well as on weekends. Afterwards, around midnight, the entire city– even elderly couples and families with young children – comes out for a stroll.

So if I gorge, where can I work it off?

With a pretty, safe and compact centre, this is an ideal town for walking. Thanks to a network of covered arcades running throughout the town, Bologna shelters its walking travellers from inclement weather. Look up to find the lovely frescoes and mosaic arches of these portici instead of the insides of your umbrella. While you're out exploring the city on foot, be sure to stop at Bologna's famous food markets, usually open mornings during the week and on Saturdays. One just off the main Piazza Maggiore on Via Clavature features copious salumerie (delicatessens) and formaggeri (cheese shops) which are full of bargains.

If you're a really ambitious walker, take a hike to the top of the taller of Bologna's Due Torri, a pair of hilariously tilted towers built by competing families in 1119. The gorgeous view of Bologna's orange roofs and surrounding green rolling hills makes the claustrophobic journey up worth the effort.

How do I get there?

Go (0870 607 6543; www.go-fly.com) flies to Bologna from £65 return. British Airways (0845 773 3377; www.ba.com). Book accommodation well in advance and expect to pay a little bit more than in other cities in Italy. The atmospheric Hotel Orologio (0039 051 231 253) is a good base and offers rooms with views into the Piazza Maggiore for just less than €200 (£120) per night.

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