Bologna & Milan are great Italian cities, too!

February 22, 2022

How could the less-popular Italian cities of Bologna and Milan compete with the glories of Rome for food, ambiance, and history? After spending time recently in all three cities, I found both towns to be great places I want to return to.

My family and I vacationed for ten glorious days in Italy over the New Year holidays.  The first six days were in Rome, followed by two days each in Bologna and Milan.  My real-time notes follow from both places—hence the present tense verbiage:

BOLOGNA

With little more than the Internet to guide us, we rented an apartment in Bologna for my family of four. A long-ish taxi ride to our place in the Via Santo Stefano made me wonder if we were distant from the city center. Instead, this flat is close to the main piazza, less than a 20-minute walk. We took off to see the central city after quickly unpacking.

Except for my paranoia regarding Covid crowds, our New Year’s afternoon traipses through the heart of Bologna’s historic piazzas were delightful.

Tonight we dine at a trattoria that includes an only-in-Bologna meat entree called “Cotoletta alla Bolognese” which is apparently fried veal with prosciutto and mozzarella. Sounds like a real heart-attack special.  Normally that much unhealthy protein is not my thing–and fried to boot–but, heck, when am I going to be in Bologna again? What could go wrong?

Dinner last evening at a traditional Bolognese trattoria was superb in every way, as the photos above and below indicate: Good food, authentic atmosphere, and convivial.

Our 4th-floor apartment (3rd floor in Europe, which counts the ground floor as zero) is delightful here on the Via dei Santo Stefano. The alley tile roof view is from our window.

We just completed a pleasing four-hour walk through Bologna led by my wife and daughter, with thanks to them for the research and route. The weather is gorgeous: bright sun and 52° F. after an early morning temp of 37°. Just right for walking.

Apparently, the people of Bologna thought the same judging by the crowds everywhere. Of course, it’s Sunday, which probably brought out more people. It also rains frequently in Bologna, so today was exceptional weather for us and for residents.

We were awed by the colonnades that Bologna is famous for. Over forty kilometers of colonnades, in fact. You can walk virtually anywhere in Bologna and never leave a colonnade.

Construction of colonnades here began in the 11th century roughly contemporaneous with the establishment of the University of Bologna in 1088 (which makes UNIBO the oldest university in the world).

Colonnades kept residents out of the rain and sun; more and more were built for centuries. It’s a brilliant means of maintaining vibrant social and commercial life regardless of the weather.

I’m sure there was ample graffiti in Rome, but somehow I overlooked it. Here in Bologna, though, graffiti seems more prevalent. I’ve had to carefully frame many of my shots to avoid including graffiti. Perhaps the proximity of a huge university (81,000+ students) proximate to central Bologna explains it.

I love the ornate balcony (above) covered by what appears to me to be a gigantic stone Pope hat on the modest church.

In a more contemporary vein, the Fiat police car in the next to last photo also caught my fancy. A tiny, but flashy, Fiat police car!

Bologna’s famous statue of Neptune can be seen at the end of the arch in the picture above. I also like the woman with a little dog in the foreground. Italians love their dogs like we do in America, but folks in Bologna seem to have a lot more dogs, and breeds of dogs, than the Romans.

We stopped for a look at Bologna’s famous two towers (pictured above, next after the tile roof), some of the last remaining towers of their kind. Apparently, Bologna was dotted with such towers during an earlier age.

Our son craved Pizza for lunch today (most Italian pizza being far superior to most American pies), and he expertly guided us to a cafe noted for its pizzas off the main piazza. It is grandly called Regina Sofia (Queen Sofia).

Turns out the restaurant is also known for its seafood, some of which were wildly expensive as stand-alone courses. We didn’t order any, sticking instead to pizza and salad. 

Regina Sofia is styled to be elegant. A bit smug and pretentious to me. A huge contrast to the traditional old cafes we’ve mostly inhabited for lunches and dinners in Rome and last night here in Bologna.

The menu was available only in Italian, which I took to imply Regina Sofia didn’t cotton to tourists. They seemed pretty pleased to take my money just the same.

The pizzas were excellent, however, and the bread and pizza crusts were outstanding. We all enjoyed our Sofia sojourn and left with happy stomachs. The bill totaled €55 ($62.50) including many and various taxes and services. An average of $15 per meal, which was reasonable for the pleasure to our palates.

One of the world-class wine stores in Bologna. This photo is of only one room of two!

MILAN

Since our train for Milan departed Bologna at 936am, we had to leave our apartment on the other side of town by 830am. I was a bit nervous this morning because Bologna’s monopoly taxi service wouldn’t let me reserve a cab for four persons yesterday. Due to Covid, taxi drivers do not allow customers to ride in the front seat, and few cars accommodate four passengers.

The English-speaking cab company dispatcher politely made me call back 15 minutes ahead. To be safe, I phoned just before 800am. I was relieved that the company sent a car promptly and one that accommodated all four of us. We arrived at the station before 830am. 

And there grabbed a cappuccino and croissant to wait in the cold (a nippy 37° F.) outside. Tables inside the modest coffee bar were removed for Covid.

Our high-speed Frecciarossa train was once again very comfortable in reasonably-priced Business Class.  This one reached 285 KPH or about 177 MPH. It took just over an hour to reach Milan from Bologna.

View from our AC Marriott window of downtown Milan and adjacent Garibaldi train station

We took a taxi to the AC Marriott Milano Hotel where we have two rooms booked for our last night in Italy this trip. Very reasonable cab fare at €15.10, I thought.

The AC Marriott had our rooms ready upon our arrival about 1130am, thank goodness. Our Delta flight to JFK tomorrow departs at noon, and the CDC now requires a negative Covid test not more than 24 hours prior. I was anxious for us to get started on the somewhat slow online proctored testing process using the Abbott antigen tests I had brought. I needed a private place like our hotel room and hotel wifi to conduct the tests using the Abbott Navica app partnering with eMed.com.

Good thing I brought eight Abbott tests for four people because the eMed online proctors were very strict about expiration dates: cannot be more than three months past the date printed on the box. One test was rejected. [Note: expiration dates have since been extended to six months by the FDA.]

It took exactly two hours to get all four of us tested, obtain the certified results, upload them all to Delta Airlines along with copies of our CDC vaccination cards, wait for the health documents to be approved, and then to get our boarding passes. Miracle! We are now checked in and ready to go.

The CDC says testing is just the day before one’s flight. But I waited until after 12 noon to be absolutely certain.

The testing chore completed, we used the marvelous streetcar network to get to central Milan for a walking tour of the area. Especially impressive are the stupendous Milano Duomo (below) and the adjacent gargantuan galleria of elegant stores and restaurants.

We enjoyed strolling through the astonishing galleria next to the Duomo and grabbed lunch at the Pizzeria Spontini where we enjoyed northern Italian-style thick pizza. It’s a great concept established in 1953.

We headed out at 630p to walk through Chinatown before our 730p dinner plans. Milan has a sizable Chinese population, many of whom immigrated to Italy from Shanghai.

Upon finding our chosen trattoria inexplicably closed, we stumbled across a charming estoria a couple of blocks away that provided ample ambiance, gracious service, tasty victuals, and a magnificent wine to cap our Italian adventure.

We dined and drank like kings tonight.  I carefully chose a 2016 (a good vintage) Brunello di Montalcino by a great producer. The estoria owner smartly insisted on decanting the vino to open it to our palates, which it most effectively did. Every tiny sip of the Montalcino was sumptuous.

I ordered a simple plate of Tuscan meats and pecorino cheese. My wife had a scrumptious risotto, our son chowed down on Tuscan sausage over roasted potatoes, and our daughter enjoyed a salad and roasted potatoes.

A delicious panna cotta with a heavenly raspberry topping finished the meal, which we shared.

And then the owner offered his housemade limoncello, gratis. It was the perfect way to end the perfect meal and wine and the perfect Italian experience.  

Altogether, sojourns in Rome, Bologna, and Milan to sample those great cities’ cultures and cuisine proved to be an ideal itinerary.  I miss it all already.

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