Monday, September 21, 2009

When a story rings true

Sunday 20 September 2009

Today finds us travelling from Venice to Bologna. Helen had brought John Grisham's latest novel 'The Broker' with her and over the last week when we were cooling our heels around Lake Garda, both Michael and I read it. The story is set in the University town of Bologna in the region of Emilia-Romagna in central northern Italy. In fact, we later learn that the University of Bologna is the oldest one in Europe, established in 1088! Ahh, but Bologna has more than just links to a story to offer - much, much more.

We set out from Venice after a good night's sleep and a tasty if predictable breakfast. Its funny that when we are at home we are all creatures of habit with our breakfasts each morning, but at least there, we have the option of having a change if we really fancy it. Here in Europe however, there is a sameness to the breakfasts offered by hotels that is becoming increasingly boring for those of us who face them day in and out. Shouldn't complain though, we don't have to prepare it, nor clear up after it. (Hey, washing up is beginning to look attractive - egads!)

Our trip today takes us away from the land of rising waters. With the trip to Bologne just on 150 kms we choose to get off the motorways and along the back roads into the much drier centre of Italy where we pass miles of fields freshly harvested. With a wind blowing, we travel through a dusty bowl with the windows down then up and down and up, bit like a yoyo. What is lovely though is the way that the Italians use trees to line the main roads, offering a respite from the searing sun. They are used extensively as wind breaks - along main roads to and from towns as well as along the edges of fields. And there is a wide variety of trees used as well - providing a nice visual.

And still life goes on around the remains of earlier activities with fields ploughed right to the edges of derelict buildings that stand as a silent testimony to passed days and ways. For a while we travel along roads that run along the top of flood levees, no doubt built to protect the fertile farming land from the ravages of the floods of the Po River. We pass through tiny hamlets, orchards, rural Italian villages - usually set back from the road which is a different to France towns and skirt the edges of the cities of Padua, Rovigo and Ferrara before we reach Bologna.

We arrive in Bologna around 2:30 pm and are greeted like with many other of these towns by tight narrow streets that give Helen cause for nervousness. We have been lucky enough to get accommodation tonight at the Hotel San Donato, one of the Best Western chain. We tend not to stay in the chain motels very often as there is often a sameness about them, so that when you wake in the morning, you need to stop and think just where you might be. Many times, they could be in any city in any country. Ah, but not this one! You see, this hotel has a view over the Towers of Bologna. These two structures are the last standing in a city where there once stood up to 100!

Kate tries to direct me in to pedestrian areas which makes life a little interesting for a while, but we eventually manage to find our way around the warren of tight back roads with people double parking and cyclists coming out of everywhere to the correct street for the hotel. And drive straight past the Towers! Bugger - Via Zamboni has one of those big thick bollards that raise and lower to control car entry into this area. Michael gets out to speak at the control, while all I can do with traffic hard behind me is sit tight and wait. Thankfully there is a button for the hotel and as soon as they confirm we do indeed have a reservation, there is a loud claxon wailing and the bollard sinks into the pavement below it and we can progress the last 100 m to the hotel. Which is good as the traffic is still piled up behind us!

We unload our gear into our rooms. Yes, plural. Like most of the chain motels, the rooms are set up for only two people and so tonight we have separate rooms. Ours is down one hall and has a sitting room attached and a glimse of the top of the towers, while Helen's has a small balcony attached. There is a fascinating view of the towers and the rooftops of Bolonga from a terrace off the hotel sitting room and bar that really piques our interest! We are in a hurry to get out and about - there is much exploring to be done, and not much time.

Firstly we head to the Due Torri (Two Towers) just two blocks away. These are the last remaining full towers in a city that was once quite literally full of them. Not all were as tall as these two however! Originally built as the ultimate examples of 'keeping up with the Joneses' they were built as private dwellings at a time when you could never be sure if your neighbour was your friend or your foe. Both the towers date back to the 12th century. The Asinelli Tower is the taller of the two and is a little younger than its neighbour with the alarming lean - the Garisenda tower, which was abandoned after the lean became apparent during its construction. Since then it has been lowered from 60 m to 48 m high.

Michael of course cannot resist the call the climb the 498 steps of the Asinelli Tower and so Helen and I cop a squat on the marble edging that borders the steps up in to the colonaded shops across the street to wait. And although this is a traffic restricted area, there is still a lot of traffic including buses. We lose count of the number of times that there are very
close calls as people leave the tower and step out - straight on to the street and often in the path of oncoming cars, buses or motorbikes! Doesn't seem to worry anyone else though!

Once down he tells us that the steps were at first spiral and then ascended around the inside walls of the square tower - albeit very narrowly with passing being quite difficult. Being timber, they show the passage of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of feet over the years. There are small windows through which he could see the changing view of the city rooftops as he progressed higher and higher and you pass the huge rods that have been inserted to contain the structure and try to stop the tower from toppling. The view from the top is stupendous out across the old city and over the newer areas around the edges of the town if the photos are anything to judge it by! Still, 498 steps, nah, not me!! Interestingly, the lean of the Garisenda does not appear to be so dramatic from on high. Yet it is recorded at a lean of more than 3 metres!

He eventually comes back to earth, his shirt stuck to his back with perspiration as it is very muggy, but all excited. He has spied what appears to be a number of the landmarks that John Grisham has used in his book! Next stop - the Piazza Maggiore with the strange looking exterior of the Chiesa di San Petronio - the Basilica of St Peter. It first appears as a thrown together building with an impressive under facade of marble topped by a bricked affair that was added much later. Originally planned to be a masaterpiece of Gothic architecture, the building was abandoned once the plans for the coronation of Charles V and funds dried up.

In the Piazza that faces the Cathedral there is also the Palazzo di Notai and Palazzo Communale near which we can find the impressive Fontanna del Neptuno (Neptune Fountain). But this piazza is not just a place of impressive structures and buildings. It is a living breathing hub within the city that pulsates with the life of its people. There is a Punch and Judy show noisily arguing in one corner, a pan flute player in the centre drawing a crowd as well as a more alternative drumming and comic act that is setting up near the fountain. Coffee shops face into the square as most do here in Europe, where people sit side by side rubbing shoulders with those at the next table so that everyone can see. Nice really. So we sit for a while too and drink in the atmosphere along with our coffee.

There is an arcade in the market building where it is said that if you stand in the corner under one of the arches where the two arcades cross that you can clearly hear the conversation in the opposite corner. There were three young guys who managed to get Michael to stand there. By the looks on their faces I felt sure that it was a bit of a prank, but Michael assured me that he could clearly hear their mate indeed - not understand his Italian, but definitely hear it!! The light is starting to fail and so we decide to walk along some of the arcades back to the hotel. Of course, as we leave the shelter of the last one, the heavens open and it begins to rain steadily. It really doesn't matter which way we go now, we are going to get wet and unlike the Scouts, we have come out unprepared - after all, we were just going out for a bit of a look!

Before dinner, we decide to make use of the nicer facilities that the hote offers and Helen and I settle in at the bar to have a vino. Pinot Grigio it is and the young waiter - Stefano, is super friendly and very chatty. For a while, we are his only customers! And for a while, we have the stunning views out across the terrace (where it is still raining and too wet to sit) are stunning as the night deepens.

On the advice of the Hotel receptionist we head out to the restaurant locally known as Tratorria AnnaMaria (for the chef owner) a few blocks away. It seems that here the later in the day that it is, the more people are out in the streets. That of course is helped by the fact that the university does not hold classes at night, so all the students can go out and party. - Our wait staff were Georgeo and Federica. He spoke no English, but his attitude and games certainly struck a chord with us all - Michael particularly. Federica on the other hand spoke some English and between her attempts and our proudly improving Italian, we manage to have a feast!
Michael and I begin with primo piatto (first course) of pasta
Tagliatelle al ragĂș (Tagliatelle with meat sauce) Michael
Gnocchi al gorgonzola (Gnocchi with Gorgonzola) Maria
Ravioli con salsa di bolongese (Ravioli with meat sauce) Helen
Stinco di agnello cotto con verdure (Lamb shank cooked with vegetables) Michael
Di vitello con funghi porcini (Veal with porcini mushrooms) Maria
Helen's Zabaione (Zabaglione) is the best she has ever had Limone gelo crema (Lemon Ice Cream) Michael
Creme Carmel (Crema Caramel) Maria
When we asked Federica if she wanted to travel to Australia she quite emphatically said no - she likes her Italy - wow, that was a first!!

Back to the Hotel San Donato just in time for one more drink before the bar closes at 11 pm. Can't remember what Helen had but I had an Amaretto and Orange Juice and I am thrilled when Stefano goes out to his kitchen and bring in three oranges to juice for my drink - man, that is service - and one of the best drinks I have had in ages. He wipes down the seats for us on the terrace and finally we sit outside (with the mossies) taking in the best of the view. What a day.

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