Gritty Bologna is the Cinderella city

Bolognese arcade: beauty no safeguard against grafitti

Ravenna is only about an hour from Bologna by a slow train but what a difference an hour makes. Ravenna is a three star tourist city in line for the European Cultural Capital Award for which the competition is ferocious and for good reason.  For that year, the award distinguishes a city beyond all others and millions of tourists circle the city that wins the crown.

You can see why Ravenna is on the short list.  It has some fabulous Byzantine mosaics.  They are so fine that when you enter the church and see them for the first time, they literally take your breath away.  The sun itself seems to pour out of the gold halos which surround faces that are as real as the man or woman sitting next to you on the bus, and Ravenna is clean, quiet and easy as pie to visit.

The city has severely restricted vehicular access to the centre.  You simply don’t see many trucks and private cars but bicycles are everywhere.  The beggars ride bicycles in Ravenna.  The café habitués hitch their bikes to the café bench, the old folks to the park bench, the lawyers ride and talk on their cell phones.  There are young parents and grandparents with children on the back wheel and the front wheel and sometimes on the cross bar.  I took more photographs of cyclists in Ravenna than I did mosaics because I’ve seen great mosaics before, I’ve never seen such a variety of cyclists.  I kept expecting the cycle traffic to ease up, it never did, even in the heat of mid-day.

Bologna is a different kettle of fish.  It is a two star visit city and when you read the guide books, the description is at best tepid.  It’s most frequent description is that ‘it’s an independent, little city living under its many arcades.’  Bologna’s not in line to be anyone’s cultural capital.

I found it much more impressive than Ravenna simply because there is so much more to see.  It is the home of the oldest university in Europe.  Dante went to school here.  It has the finest and most beautiful city library in Italy.  There are many extraordinary museums.  The city’s archaeology museum has an Etruscan exhibit which has these exquisite glass exhibit cases housing the best Etruscan collection in the world.  It takes your breath away not for minutes but for hours.

The city has been lived in since the Palaeolithic and has a fascinating Renaissance history. When Dante Aligheri and Nicolo Machiavelli were talking and writing about a city’s struggle for liberty, they could have been talking about Bologna as easily as Florence. It’s arcades are simply unequalled.  It has a single arcade which climbs several kilometers from a western city gate all the way to a hilltop over looking the entire city.  It’s a climb worth taking.

Bologna, as in Ravenna, has cyclists everywhere.  In fact, I’m willing to bet Bologna would win the European and World Award for most decrepit bicycles on a city street anywhere.  I’ve never seen so many rusted out, worn out, broken down bicycles in my life.  For my money, there is simply no comparison, Bologna wins hands down over Ravenna as an interesting place to visit.  Then why the stark difference in the star rating?  Why the tepid description of Bologna and the glowing ‘must see’ report on Ravenna?

The answer is Bologna is a tough city to visit and Ravenna is a polished apple. Many of Bologna’s beautiful arcades are defaced with graffiti making them look menacing, rather than graceful.  You know when you meet citizens wearing ‘guardian angel’ T shirts at night, all is not perfect in Dodge.

The city has not restricted vehicle access to the city centre.  There are large, articulated buses rumbling over the cobblestones as well as many trucks and cars, yet about half the street traffic is bicycles and motor-scooters.  They are everywhere but their benefits are blunted by the vehicular traffic.

The walk from the train station to Ravenna’s city centre couldn’t be easier.  You leave the station and walk straight down the street which faces the station. The walk from Bolgona’s train station to Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s city centre is hard to figure out.  Do not turn right.  A visitor cannot amble unconcernedly.  Compared to Ravenna, the noise and traffic on Bologna’s streets is disconcerting and the historic sites are not as easy to find.  Even Dante’s university must be tracked down clutching a map.  In Ravenna, his tomb is impossible to miss. Ravenna is like a girl who doesn’t have much but what she has is clear as a bell.  Bologna is like Cinderella, always working, dressed shabbily, hair straggly but underneath all that straggle is the belle of the ball.

photo by Marja van Bochove