Beautiful Bologna to Miserable Milan
I have to admit I’m finding travel in Italy pretty damn hard to write about because by God has it been done. People have been visiting since the days of the Roman Empire (hence the saying “when in Rome”) and it has remained a top destination since the enlightenment when artists, poets and rich people would make the “Grand Trip” to discover its classical and renaissance treasures. There are plenty of good reasons for this, the country boasts some beautiful countryside, an unrivaled cultural heritage, world-renowned cuisine, and decent weather for much of the year but I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know there am I? Yeah, there are a hell of a lot of great places to visit in Italy.
I was in Rome and my inter-rail ticket had a few days left to run on it so I decided to do mad 48-hour Kowalski-esque dash up towards Milan from where I could catch a cheap flight home (Milan to Liverpool £40). The first stop was Bologna, I had never considered visiting the city before but my entire inter-rail journey had only been planned one city at a time so a meeting with a group of affable Bolognans’ in Prague 2 weeks earlier had put the idea into my head.
My experience with Italian rail was mixed. Upon arriving in Rome I waited in a long queue at the customer service desk whilst the clerk, unperturbed by the growing line of tired customers growing ever more disgruntled and impatient continued to argue on the phone with his girlfriend. “Welcome to Italy!” shrugged the guy next to me in line. Every train I had caught since then had been “fashionably late” but I reached Bologna by mid-afternoon on Saturday so was pleased.
The city is relatively compact and stunningly charming, boasting gothic, baroque and renaissance buildings at every turn. It has the world’s oldest university and it’s very own leaning tower. There are endless side streets, avenues and alleyways which take ramblers past quaint little Italian deli with cured meats hanging on show, wine shops and tiny café’s; a stroll down is guaranteed to set your stomach juices torrentially flowing. All in all the city is just so quintessentially fucking Italian it could be a living film set or citron commercial or something. Despite this though, the city receives far less visitors than other Italian destinations so even in the height of summer I was free to take in the city at my own pace without feeling rushed and without been blinded and deafened by the endless click/flash, click/flash of camera’s.
Bologna seemed like the perfect place to try some real Italian cuisine (I had been led by my wallet rather than stomach in Rome so had survived by eating street food) and surprisingly many of the restaurants did a very reasonable early bird set menu (I was dining alone so chose to sit inside. It’s cheaper that way yet I still drew strange looks from the waiting staff). It was a simple, delicious pasta and a cracking red house wine. One thing you may however struggle to find here however is spaghetti Bolognese as apparently, despite its name, the dish does not originate here and is not in favour!
Each summer all summer the city erects an open air cinema in its main square outside the cathedral where citizens and tourists watch free films beneath the stars. Italy of course has a great cinema tradition and Felini (LA Dolce Vita) remains one of my favourite autors to this day. The festival clearly does not pander to tourists though as no subtitles were provided; nevertheless I watched the feature the whole through whilst sat on the cathedral steps sipping a miniature bottle of fine red.
Afterwards I headed down to the nightlife district to try and find a bar. However even though it was a glorious summer’s Saturday night they were all half populated at best. The reason for this is that Bologna is a student time and school was out “there is no party in Bologna right now, come back in September” I was advised. Another thing is that Italian social life also tends to centre around groups of friends heading out for a meal sitting around a table and this dynamic is very hard for a vagabond flying solo to penetrate even, one as charming as I. For all its splendour, Bologna was not the best place to be travelling alone, it just breathed romance and there is no “backpacker” scene allowing you to hook up with other travellers; consequently for the first time in the whole trip I did feel like I was alone.
I’m too sexy for Milan…
Onwards towards Milan, the capital of the North and the centre of Italy’s financial, political and fashion life. Milan stands in marked contrast to Bologna and you’d hardly know you was even in the same country. Its big, dirty and fast paced like many other European major cities. Even though it was Sunday (and Italy purportedly still an orthodox Catholic country) as soon as I exited the train I was assaulted by Milan’s hurried pace as gypsies and street vendors aggressively hassled me in the subway to buy their wares or just given them cash. I checked in to my hostel and sat down to catch the Wi-Fi when I was approached by a guy, he was tall, thin and somewhat shy looking so I was impressed that he found the nerve to approach one as blatantly cool as I. It turned out he thought he knew me “are you one of the extreme Frisbee players?” causing me to cough in disbelief. It turns out extreme Frisbee is actually sport and Milan had been host to some kind of international tournament that weekend. Although I had to disappoint Nick by confirming that no, I wasn’t an extreme Frisbee player an instant ccamaraderie was nevertheless born so we decided to take in the city together. We headed out down into the subway towards the sites. Milan’s architecture is for the most part modern and mundane but it does boast a very impressive cathedral (which made headlines a couple when a protestor assaulted then Prime Minister Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi with a miniature ornamental replica of it). Italy famously does Cathedrals very well but this one still wins a brize, firstly because it has amongst its display of treasures not one but two dead, decomposing Pope’s for your viewing pleasure and also because visitors can climb its roof to take in a very impressive but dizziness inducting panorama view of the city.
After that we headed to the Church where Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” fresco is but were denied access as visitor numbers are strictly limited and you need to book about a year in advance to catch a glimpse of his cross dressing Jesus. No thanks.
By accident almost, we found ourselves in the Navigli district which, set along the dirty canals, forms the cities premier nightlife hub. Milan is expensive but for £20 we did manage to find an all you can eat Japanese place where we took “all you can eat” at its word attracting resentful looks from the proprietors (seriously what did they expect?). Nick had spent some time studying in Tokyo so impressed me by attempting to order in Japanese; however the staff were all actually Korean so looked at him like he was stupid.
As darkness fell a frenzied horde of mosquitoes emerged from the canals so we dived into a bar, begged for their bug spray and bought a few glasses of San Miguel lager to wash the taste of aforementioned spray out of our mouths. For some reason I could not find Peroni in Navigli presumably as the national produce just isn’t considered “cosmopolitan” enough so they prefer more glamorous, exotic imports such as Carlsberg and Carling (I wish I was making this up…). In fact at this point I should stop to share a general observation about beer drinking in Italy. Every street vendor I passed, as well as selling newspapers & fags, sold Peroni, Birra Moretti, Nastro Assuro (all excellent) and then, as a fourth option wait for it…..Tenants Special Brew. It was the first time I had ever seen Tenants widely on sale outside of Glasgow so I just had to buy one to sup whilst taking a late night bus around Rome. I wish I hadn’t its fucking dreadful in Glasgow and tastes even worse in Italy.
Anyway, back to the lecture at hand to quote Snoop Dog. Me and Nick whiled away the twilight hours sat in bars exchanging music recommendations as Milan’s stylish, beautiful and, I presume, rich were coming out to play. Both the guys and the gals whilst looking great, just somehow breathed an inapproachable cool that seemed to say “look but do not touch”. We therefore decided to call it “Buona notte”, rode the late subway home and I returned to my dorm to catch some rest before my flight back to England the next day.
If you’re planning a trip to Italy, why not consider the islands such as Sicily?