Terracotta-coloured and red all over

Bologna's opulence is self-assured, even if the street names are anachronistic.

One street sums up Bologna. Via Stalingrado rumbles dogmatically north from the confusion that constitutes the city centre into suburbs heavy with light industry. In a metropolis that specialises in grand avenues and alluring alleyways, the street itself can most kindly be described as unexceptional. The amazing thing about Via Stalingrado is that the name has survived four decades of ideological turmoil.

Yet Bologna thrives on swimming against the tide of convention. This middle-aged, middle-class city in the middle of Italy possesses sufficient civic nerve blithely to celebrate a Russian city bearing the name of a tyrant - and the place where the expansionism of Italy's wartime ally was finally defeated. After the death of Josef Stalin, when the true horror of his dictatorship became apparent, Stalingrad quietly became Volgograd on Soviet maps. But his name lives on in Italy's most contrary city.

Bologna is red in every sense. Arrive by train, and you find yourself disembarking among a tangle of rusty tracks. This is the station where 85 people were killed in a right-wing bomb attack in 1980. Bologna - defiantly left of wherever the centre happens to fall, the body and soul of Italian socialism - was the tragically obvious target for fascists.

Outside the station, anyone who assumes left-wing politics thrives predominantly amid deprivation and drabness is in for a shock. Bologna, the wealthy capital of the rich region of Emilia-Romagna, is full of Chianti socialists. They sip their hearty reds in a city whose entire colour scheme may look strangely familiar, the reason being that it has been mimicked, down to the last tinge of terracotta, to decorate British brasseries. Cafe Rouge owes its chromatic inspiration to Bologna, the Red City.

The place evidently feels most comfortable at the low-frequency end of the colour spectrum. Pastel tones from pale pink to vivid scarlet attach themselves initially to a gauntlet of tall, hunky houses that line broad boulevards leading to the heart of the city. If the weather is as petulant as I found it last month, you will be grateful for the graceful porticos that line almost every street. In total, 25 miles of timeworn sandstone arches bestow shelter upon those peering in at shops that match Milan in both style and prices.

Opulence oozes from every designer handbag and polished flagstone on every smart street. Yet for decades Bologna has been in the firm ideological grip of democratic socialists. The young mayor is equally at home entertaining international conference delegates as trade union delegations. He does this at the Palazzo Comunale (city hall), a rambling old Renaissance pile that fringes the main piazza. Wedged among the grand reception rooms is a museum to one of the two latterday local heroes.

Giorgio Morandi was born in Bologna in 1890. To say he spent most of his life painting tables is a suitably sparse introduction to his minimalist work. He chain-smoked brutal Nazionali cigarettes while creating a sequence of fantastically delicate images, assembling rigorously geometric still- lifes that bestowed grace upon the most artless of objects: a jug, a bottle, drinking vessels, resting on heavy oak trestles. The delicate contrast with the usual heavyweight baroque suspects elsewhere in Italy may not be life-changing, but it is certainly life-enhancing.

The other great Bolognese most definitely changed the world. Guglielmo Marconi was charged with continuing the electric tradition established by Luigi Galvani, a local boy who galvanised the scientific community by demonstrating the potential of the humble spark. A bright one, Marconi moved from Bologna to London to apply his theory of radio transmission, but a century later, everything from the airport to the best-value pensione is named in the inventor's honour.

Evidently, Bologna bred better engineers than architects. What is it with these Italian builders? Pisa has been cashing in for years on its tilting edifice, while Bologna labours under not one but two vertically challenged towers. Their names are Garisenda and Asinelli: a pair of dysfunctional siblings, frozen in mid-lurch at the Porta Ravegnana, an ancient gate to the city. Asinelli, the superior of the two, leans down just a little from its 300ft summit, but its younger brother is just half the height and much more wayward.

Precision is not a strong suit in Bologna. The old city's perimeter is a skewed pentagon, and you need only step off an orderly avenue to find a random huddle of habitation. Most of this jumble pertains to the university, which is the oldest in Europe - its academic millennium is fast approaching.

British students tempted to make a pilgrimage to the spiritual home of "spag bol" should be warned: if you insist upon spaghetti Bolognese, you will go hungry. The meat, tomato and anything-else-in-the-larder sauce is known as ragu and comprises the lowest culinary denominator in the eating capital of Italy. You are in the middle of the national pantry, so everything - from the local olive oil to the wafer-thin Parma ham - is the best. Emilia-Romagna's scenic poverty (this is deadpan prairie country) is starkly at odds with its agricultural wealth.

This contrast is reflected in terms of tourism, too. For most foreigners, Bologna is merely somewhere to change trains between Venice and Florence, or Siena and Ravenna. So the Piazza Maggiore, as bold a square as any in Italy, remains strictly communal property - the means of production for the expansive nightly passeggiata.

Other cities might mope at their municipal misfortune in missing out on valuable visitors. But the tourist probably needs Bologna more than Bologna needs tourists. And the city knows it.

How to get there

The easiest way is to fly on Alitalia from Gatwick or British Airways from Heathrow to Guglielmo Marconi international airport, but note that there is only one service daily on each route, and fares tend to be high. You could do better to find a cheap flight to Milan, which is 100 minutes and pounds 10 away by train from Bologna; suggestions for discount tickets can be found in the Survival Guide, opposite.

Where to stay

Being off the tourist track, Bologna is not bestowed with a wide choice of accommodation. The Pensione Marconi, at number 22 on the eponymous street (00 39 51 26 26 52), offers simple but comfortable single rooms at around pounds 20 per night, doubles for pounds 30. The modern and luxurious Royal Carlton Hotel, close to the station (00 39 51 24 93 61), has a special discount rate of pounds 95 single, pounds 120 double.

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