Emilia’s capital, Bologna, is a thriving city, whose light-engineering and high-tech industries have brought conspicuous wealth to the old brick palaces and porticoed streets. It’s well known for its food – undeniably the richest in the country – and for its politics. “Red Bologna” became the Italian Left’s stronghold and spiritual home, having evolved out of the resistance movement to German occupation during World War II. Consequently, Bologna’s train station was singled out by Fascist groups in 1980 for a bomb attack in Italy’s worst postwar terrorist atrocity – a glassed-in jagged gash in the station wall commemorates the tragedy in which 84 people died. In subsequent decades, the city’s political leanings have been less predictable, although its “leftist” reputation continues to stick.
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Bologna is certainly one of Italy's best-looking cities. Its centre is startlingly medieval in plan, a jumble of red brick, tiled roofs and balconies radiating out from the great central square of Piazza Maggiore. There are enough monuments and curiosities for several days’ leisured exploration, including plenty of small, quirky museums, some tremendously grand Gothic and Renaissance architecture and, most conspicuously, the Due Torri, the city’s own “leaning towers”. Thanks to the university, there’s always something happening – be it theatre, music, the city’s lively summer festival, or just the café and bar scene, which is among northern Italy’s most convivial.
The 2012 earthquakes
On May 20 2012, pressure caused by the slow movement of the Apennines through the Po Valley caused a magnitude-6 earthquake to shake the Emilia-Romagna region. The first quake was followed in successive days by hundreds of aftershocks, leaving 26 people dead, twenty thousand homeless and many historic structures damaged. The epicentre was in the province of Modena, and although the town itself was largely unaffected, the surroundings fared less well; many of the dead were workers in warehouses and factories which had not been constructed to withstand serious seismic movement. An important contributor to the local economy – the production of Grana Padano and parmigiano-reggiano cheeses – was affected when storage facilities collapsed, causing an estimated €100 million-worth of damage. In total, it is thought that the earthquake damage will exceed €13 billion.
No other city has anything like the number of porticoes or covered walkways found in Bologna. In the city centre there are barely any stretches of pavement not topped by an ornate, arched covering. The first porticoes were built out of wood, some thirteenth-century examples of which still stand. They proved so popular that by the fourteenth century construction of stone or brick porticoes, high enough to accommodate people on horseback, were compulsory on all new streets. Today, some 38km still stand, including the longest portico in the world, leading from the city up to the Santuario di San Luca.
Eating is especially important to the Bolognese, and its restaurants are said to be the best in Italy: indeed, the city is known as La Grassa (“The Fat One”), the result of a rich culinary tradition. For a snack, head for the Mercato di Mezzo, the former market hall at Via Clavature 12 where you can buy salads, calamari, platters of ham and cheese plus wine and beer from different stalls and sit at convivial shared tables – or take away.