Italy #2: Full of Bologna, posted November 18, 2007 at 05:37 PM
We left Venice on a Wednesday. Forty-five minutes later we were in Padua. We were making this stop to see Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel, one the most important and complete cycles of frescoes from the Renaissance. Three rows of thrillingly painted scenes--at the top scenes from the life of Mary, in the middle scenes from the life of Jesus, and at the bottom the Passion. The ceiling is a bright cobalt blue riddled with gold stars. Amazing. Along the back wall is an over-the-top depiction of Judgement Day, with Christ lording over all of humanity, and casting about one-fourth of them to Hell (Giotto must have been an optimist!). The Hell scene is fantastical with all kinds of torture and agony represented. It's great.
After walking through the Chapel's nearby museum galleries, we walked into the university area of the town for lunch. A quick panino of mortadella and provolone with a glass of wine, served by the friendliest Italians. What more can one ask for?
Digging deeper into Padua, we arrived at the Basilica di Sant' Antonio:
St. Antonio's actually in there--finally resting in one of the most beautiful monument chapels I've ever seen. With reliefs by Lombardo behind him, he lies in eternal peace as his followers leave flowers, pictures, and prayers all around him as they stroke his marble house and cry. But for me, this church is all about the Donatello carvings on the high altar. Carter asked a monk if he'd let us look at it more closely, and the monk was happy to oblige. He unlocked a large iron gate and led us right up to the altar, instructing us where stand and where not to walk. He told us about the scenes in the reliefs, about the large Easter candelabra, and he accommodated us with turning on lights and patiently waiting for us to get our fill of this amazing art history lesson. It was absolutely extraordinary.
We had a coffee at the train station before heading toward Bologna. Our train departed at 3:33.
At 5:00pm we arrived and took a cab to the Grand Hotel Baglioni. The doorman who greeted our cab asked for our reservation name, and by the time we got to the front desk they greeted us by name. We were shown to our room by the lovely woman who checked us in, and as we approached room 315 she said to us, "This is a very good room--a corner room." Um, she ain't just whistling dixie! The room was amazing--large and ornate with nice views, cloth-covered walls, a little foyer entryway with plaster pillar facades, and a hugh bathroom with both shower and tub. Carter immediately went out to buy booze while I showered. Then he bathed and I drank. Life is better than good!
Alas, having fought it for two days, it was now clear that I truly did have a cold. But I was comforted much by the grand luxury of the Baglioni! And I wasn't going to let it keep me down. So we went out in search of an outdoor spritz. We settled into a cafe in the Piazza Maggiore, where the waiter tried to rip me off. But I'm from New York and don't take kindly to being treated like a yokel tourist. I confronted him and got my €5 back. We had a second drink around the corner at a little pasticceria where they served a bowl of crisp little tarrales with our drinks! We had dinner near the hotel at a placed called Diana. It was brightly lit and friendly. I had tortellini in broth to start, then veal calf liver & onions. The tortellini threw me back to childhood, as the noodle in that broth tasted exactly like the Easter Sunday noodles that Aunta Martha used to make. Wow. We had some very bland cheeses for dessert.
We wrapped up the evening with drinks at a college bar that could have been in Ohio for all we knew, although with a much cuter crowd. I left Carter at the bar to get back to nursing my cold in my luxurious bed. I was delighted to find the hotel had folded down our bed covers, placed little mats with slippers on either side of the bed, and lit candles on the night stands and in the bathroom. I could get used to treatment like that!
If I loved Venice for being other-worldly and unreal, I fell in love with Bologna for possessing a realness, a rootedness, and an inevitability about it that, combined with the absolute beauty of its architecture and the young people that fill its streets, make it one of the most livable cities I've ever visited. It's the friendliest, most seductive place. It's easy to find your way around, and it's so old and rustic. The porticos of Bologna make you feel like you're living in another century. Arcade after arcade of covered walkways all over the city mean that it has always been and will always be a pedestrian city with a vibrant street life.
We started our first full day in Bologna with breakfast in the room, which wasn't so hot, but was comforting in the extreme. Our first stop after leaving the hotel was the Basilica di San Domenico. Domenico is entombed there, in an amazing monument by Nicolo dell'Arca (which was completed by a 19-year-old called Michelangelo!). As we were looking at the altar, the church's curator approached us and started telling us all about the altar, the carvings, and San Domenico in charmingly broken English. Once he discovered that he had a knowledgeable friend in Carter, he really delved into detail, and walked us through the church, their little museo, the high altar, all the side chapels, and the cloister, telling us all about everything. It was wonderful and totally enchanting.
When we left we wandered the university area in search of lunch. We found it at a small friendly bar, and after our sandwiches and coffee we headed toward the Museo delle Cere Anatomiche, housed in the anatomy classroom building on the University campus. The museum was closed for mid-day so we sat outside on the steps with the students to pass a sweet 15 minutes until 2pm. Then as the ragazzi headed to their anatomy classes, we headed to ours.
The anatomy museum is a curiosity of old wax models of the human body, outside and in. And it also features insane waxworks of deformity and disease. It was fascinating and disturbing. Again, the people there--professors?--were most friendly in giving us information about an anatomical theater housed in the public library which we planned to see the next day.
Around the corner from the anatomy museum is the large Pinacoteca Nazionale. We looked for a long time at the galleries filled with Renaissance art, by the end of which my cold had gotten the best of me. I left Carter to look at the Baroque galleries on his own and returned to the hotel to take medicine and a nap. A few hours later I awoke to the sound of Carter unpacking a bag of wine and cheese and bread and small tomatoes still on the vine. Ah, now that's medicine!
In the evening we ventured to Piazza Santo Stefano and drank wine there in the lovely environs. With our wine they served a small dish of green olives, a bowl of chips, and then a plate with tiny bite-size cubes of potato, sandwiches, and cheese. We tried to eat only a bit of it though, as we were really in the Piazza for dinner.
Dinner was at Cesarina, which like the Hotel Baglioni is mentioned in Frederick Seidel's poem "Bologna." As he was with the hotel, the poet was right about Cesarina. We had a fabulous meal. I started with a fresh pasta in a mushroom sauce with parmesan. Carter started with thinly sliced bacon fat served on toasted flat bread. Oh my god. Then I had goat in a brown gravy and Carter ate a grilled veal chop. Everything was delicious. For dessert I had a not-too-sweet chocolate mousse, and Carter had a chestnut mousse with persimmon on top. Wow. They also served us four roasted chestnuts at the end. The waiters, the hostess, and the chef herself--a woman with dyed blond hair, a sweet smile, and a raspy voice who apologized for her perfectly good English--all stumbled over themselves to make sure we were happy. We were. Ecstatic even. So much so that we immediately vowed to return again the next night.
When we emerged from Cesarina, the Piazza was filled with college kids, drinking beer and wine, sitting on the cobblestones talking, playing with their dogs. We sat among them dreaming of our youth.
The next day was wonderfully relaxing. We started slowly with breakfast at the hotel, then went to the Basilica di Santo Stefano. It's an architectural wonderland--a Romanesque nave with a Baroque altar stuck on it, then doorway after doorway leading to three other churches and two gorgeous courtyards. It was all marvelous.
After sitting for coffee in the Piazza we wandered through the shops in La Carte Isolani, a meandering sequence of rooms, courtyards, and walkways between Via Santo Stefano and Strada Maggiore. Carter and I both resisted the temptation to buy shoes. We headed next to the Biblioteca comunale dell' Archiginnasio, which contains one of the oldest anatomical theaters in Europe--at least it did until it was mostly destroyed in World War II. It's been rebuilt and it's fantastic.
The Morandi Museum was next. I was really taken with Morandi's early work, up to about 1945. There were some watercolors that transformed his ever-present still lives into abstractions which I also liked very much.
The Morandi is in the same building as the city hall, the Palazzo d'Accursio, and there's a wonderful city art collection housed there. It's thrilling more for the scope and installation of the Bolognese and regional art than for the art itself, though there were many fine pieces. In the last room was a great marble Apollo, set among four walls with leafy frescoes. Lovely.
We strolled down Via Clavature to find lunch, which we did, at Bistro Rosarose. It was a long, leisurely lunch, even by Italy's already leisurely standards. The weather was perfect--cloudless and 70 degrees. I had lasagna Bolognese made with fresh pasta, and Carter had fresh linguine in pesto. We shared prosciutto and mozzarella. All of it was purely delicious. We sat there for a long long time, drinking our wine and talking or not talking.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped in the Basilica di San Petronio in Piazza Maggiore. My god this place is huge, and amazingly brick. We saw some lovely altars, a mapped out meridian on the floor, a small school group of misbehaving youths, and a Swedish man who flirted with me. Back at the hotel we used the business center to catch up on email, train schedules, mobile phone annoyances, and such in preparation for our departure the next day. Another Scotch, another bath, then back out to dinner.
We went again for a drink at Il Caffé della 7 Chiese. They again were warm and friendly. Then we returned to Cesarina. This time we introduced ourselves to the proprietress. Her name is Pina and she was interested to hear of how we'd heard of the restaurant. She said she didn't recall Seidel by name but said she knew so many customers by face only. For dinner I had tortellini in broth, followed by rabbit that was flavorful and very tender. For dessert I had a mandarin mousse at the waiter's suggestion. Carter had prosciutto & melon followed by spaghetti alla Bolognese. He had a white chocolate mousse for dessert. We both had grappa after. They shook our hands as we said arrivederci...
Again we sat in the Piazza for a while, then went back to that college bar for a drink. The bartender was a blonde American girl who was shocked and dismayed to see two of her compatriots paying €18 for two doppio Jack Daniels. We were dismayed ourselves, but couldn't face a pint of beer after that filling dinner.
The next morning we packed then I put Carter into a cab and said goodbye. I love traveling with Carter. We like to do exactly the same things, and we always have so much to say to one another. And then when we don't, sharing quiet moments is even nicer.
I then went to the markets we had seen around the Via Calvature. I bought tortellini and broth for 12(!) as well as cheese, mortadella, and salami. I then found a bag of giuggiole at another market. We had been given this bizarre fruit the previous night at Cesarina. It's like a cross between an apple and an olive. Crunchy and tasty like an apple, but very small with one pit like an olive. Then I found a pasticceria and bought three pastries for Bob, Corinne, and me to eat in Figline Valdarno while we waited to be picked up by the rest of the family. I also got some plastic cups for the Scotch just in case that wait turned out to be lengthy! I had to buy a tote bag to carry everything.
Once on the train leaving Bologna, if I had known the Eurostar 2nd class would be so crowded I'd have gladly paid more for 1st class. It took a long time to get my suitcase to fit somewhere, but a nice Dutch man finally helped me. The Italian woman next to me looked at me with disdain. But I didn't care--I was on my way to meet my family in Tuscany!!
The complete final edit of my Padua/Bologna pix is posted here. Be patient for the page to load before you proceed to looking at individual pix....there's a lot there...