Bologna & Florence, Italy
From Venice it was a three hour drive to Bologna, weaving our way through heavy traffic for the last hour. After a couple of nights on the street we were ready to stay in a caravan park, appreciating the modern amenities available to us now that we are back in Western Europe. Danny whipped up a mushroom risotto for dinner using weird little mushrooms he found in Venice (in a store, not on the ground), which were pretty tasty. We also downed a bottle of a local Merlot that wasn't too bad either.
The next morning we found a car park in Bologna and walked 10 minutes to the centre. It was quite clearly a university town, with 90% of the population seemingly aged between 18 and 25. Almost every street was lined with old, red-bricked and red-tiled buildings, giving the appearance of a working class city. The highlights of our exploration were the covered walkways running along the streets, each one possessing a unique style or pattern. Apparently there are 38 km of these arcades in Bologna, originally built in the middle ages. It was a convenient way to move about the city while being protected from the elements.
The centre square wasn't overly attractive, but the Town Hall on the square did have a free photo exhibit displaying scenes from Bologna. A local woman guided us around, explaining each photo we passed. We weren't expecting much when we arrived but in the end it turned out to be really interesting.
Afterwards we continued wandering through the city, checking out more arcades, and climbing a tall tower to gaze out over the sea of terracotta from the lookout. There wasn't much more we were keen to see in Bologna, so we headed back to the car. On the way we bought some tiny veal tortellini, apparently famous in this region (or so the lady from the photo exhibit told us). I have a feeling we have numerous pasta meals coming our way over the next few weeks.
Florence was another slow, three hour drive away. The entire trip seemed to consist of steep hills, many of which required the use of first gear just to climb up them. It was also extremely windy. I don't think we reached 50 kph at any stage. So far we were not loving the Tuscan countryside.
In Florence we located a carpark near the centre, which was free at night but was going to charge us a small fortune the next day. Our first mission was to walk straight to the Irish Pub, the main sports bar in the city, to see if they were showing the AFL Grand Final tomorrow morning. Danny's team was playing, and he was eager to follow the action live on TV. Apparently many people had asked the same question, but the manager said there was no way he was getting up at 6 a.m. to open the doors. Disappointing. We did find out the WiFi password though, so we could return in the morning to stream the radio broadcast from outside.
We ate our veal tortellini from Bologna for dinner, in a vegetable stew/soup with mozzarella. It was sensational. Danny thought it was one of the best meals we had eaten all year.
The following morning our alarm sounded at 5:30 a.m. I couldn't recall the last time I was up that early, and my body wasn't too happy about it. Sluggishly, we dressed and walked back to the Irish Pub, placed a blanket on the front step and settled in to listen to the Grand Final. Back home there is usually a huge party for us to attend, the city goes crazy in the build up to the match, and the atmosphere is something I look forward to each year. We didn't sense any of that in Italy. It was freezing cold, pitch black, and it felt like we were just listening to any other game.
By 8 a.m. it was full daylight and the streets were swarmed with locals going about their day. We probably looked like homeless people, wrapped in our blankets and warm clothes, but we weren't budging. At 9 a.m. the Pub opened and the manager let us inside to watch the last 15 minutes on the big screen in the wonderfully warm room. Unfortunately the result didn't go Danny's way, and it was probably good that the TV was switched over to the rugby as soon as the game had finished. Danny decided to stay and watch the England vs. Scotland match, drowning his sorrows over a few pints.
Once the rugby had finished we moved the car to a free car park then caught the bus into the centre. The first square we visited was dominated by a large church, which was surrounded by a bustling market selling mostly clothing and leather goods. Here Danny purchased a mushroom knife, a utensil that had been on his wish list for a while now. It was then over to the main square, with its dramatic white and green cathedral (the fourth largest in the world). Inside it was surprisingly plain, resulting in us spending most of our time taking photos of the exterior from various angles. We then climbed 400 steps inside an adjoining tower, where we were granted sweeping views over the red-tiled town and out towards the green countryside.
Not far away we found another square and another market, this one offering wine, cheese, meat and olive oil. Danny was in market heaven, but all he ended up buying was prosciutto. I splurged on a jar of truffle salsa, which was much cheaper here than in Australia. The next square was full of statues, including a replica of Michelangelo's David. As it was exactly the same as the original, we decided not to join the enormous line or pay for the privilege of entering the museum to see the real David. We took the obligatory photos but really we couldn't see what all the fuss was about.
Leaving David behind, we crossed over a bridge crammed with jewellery stores and then walked through a quiet, non-touristy area of Florence (I didn't think such a place would exist). Our journey took us along the old city wall and up a hill to Piazzale Michelangelo, which provided a stunning view across the city. Several painters were seated on the balcony, attempting to capture the scene in the late afternoon light. We stayed up there for a long time, soaking up the beauty in front of us. I know Florence is supposed to be all about art and architecture, but right here was my favourite spot in the whole city.
For dinner we stopped a popular pizzeria and both ordered pizza. Mine wasn't great, and Danny's was only average. Even if we have to visit every restaurant in the country, we are going to find that one phenomenal slice that confirms Italy has the best pizza in the world.