Friday, February 28, 2014


Given the truth, universally acknowledged, that Milan is a bit of a dump, it was always my plan to use it as a base of operations for forays into other, prettier towns. And so it was that I took the train to spend the day in Bologna.

Bologna is a glorious medieval city of colonnades and towers; the former created to shelter students moving between classes at one of Europe’s oldest universities, and the latter erected specifically to piss off the neighbours. Unfortunately, in the case of Garisenda, the leaning tower of Bologna, this backfired, resulting in an edifice leaning alarmingly to one side. To add insult to injury, it stands right next to the much taller and perfectly vertical Asinelli tower, making its ignominy all the more obvious. It’s like the dissolute second son leaning drunkenly against its proud and upright older brother.

This architectural Epic Fail notwithstanding, Bologna is basically the San Francisco of Italy – wealthy, youthful, smugly liberal, somewhat overachieving and dotted with homeless people.

The homeless aren’t a problem like they are in San Francisco; the ones begging aren’t obnoxious about it, and the ones not begging just go about their business like everybody else. But they all have dogs. Apparently one of the prerequisites of being homeless in Bologna is to have a dog. Not, it must be said, one of the tiny Chihuahua cross-breeds that the middle class citizens run around on designer leashes. They have to be big, with at least a smidgeon of pit bull in them, and kept in check with a length of old rope.

Like their owners, these dogs aren’t vicious or threatening. In fact by and large they simply slouch by their owners’ sides, watching the world go past with large, mournful eyes, as if sadly disappointed with the fate life has dealt them.

And every single homeless person has one. It’s as if some spectacularly charismatic bum got one years ago and it’s become a subcultural trend, like hipsters with watercolour tattoos or suburban housewives with cursive “Dream” plaques hanging over their beds.

But overall Bologna is about ancient wealth rather than current poverty. It’s impossible in photographs to appreciate the visual weight of Bologna’s medieval buildings. They’re like architectural Ulurus, so hulking and heavy that it’s difficult to believe that they were built with empty space inside. They are brutally over-scaled, such that people and vehicles seem to be scurrying when they go by in their shadow.

Fortunately the colonnades that once protected students from the rain now protect consumers from any element that might distract them from shopping.

Of course there are also the standard little restaurants, serving fabulous Italian food, tucked away into every nook and cranny not otherwise being used to sell impractical shoes or high end luggage.

Thinking it appropriate, I ordered the Tagliatelli alla Bolognese, but I was wrong. Apparently Bolognaise sauce is some sort of American travesty and the Shame of Bologna. No wonder the waitress had a little tone in her voice when she asked if I wanted grated cheese on it. It tasted good, though. Like every other Italian carbohydrate I’ve encountered.


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