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Loving The Red City of Bologna

When you think of Italy, you probably imagine scenes from Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn flying through the streets on a moped. Alternatively, you might think of the beautiful, painted cliff-side buildings of the Cinque Terre, which has seen visitor numbers more than quadruple over the past half decade. (Yeah, thanks for that, Lonely Planet). History buffs like myself foolishly picture crowds of men in togas, sipping red wine from wooden barrels as they argue beneath the increasingly smoky mountain of Vesuvius.

Hardly anyone pictures Bologna; and if they do, they imagine the home of the sauce which almost every country around the world piles high on their spaghetti.

Bologna is unlike what you’d imagine. It certainly knocked my preconceptions apart when Franca and I first visited a few years ago, and not because of the food, or the twin towers at the heart of its built-up city centre. Neither was it because of how old the buildings are and how splendid it is to walk beneath them all, through the never-ending kilometres of arcades.

What surprised me most of all about Bologna was how red it is – and I say that in the most lefty and liberal way.

Bologna – The Communist City

As both Franca and I walked around the city together, I started to put together a few pieces of a jigsaw which came without the box. I knew there was something happening around me, but I didn’t know what I was trying to construct.

There were paste-ups and some simple graffiti tags here and there. Occasionally, there were more improved street art pieces too, but that wasn’t enough to help me understand. The next clue was the amount of veggie places around. Sure, if you know that my primary reason to travel is for vegan food, then it’s not at all surprising that I found a bunch of vegetarian and vegan places to eat. But, when the quantity starts to dwarf other larger Italian cities, you take notice.

There were vegan bakeries selling every possible type of biscotti and cake you’d find in your regular pasticceria; plus, they were all super-popular and busy when we visited. There was a community healthy-living centre that served mostly vegan food, plus a number of cafes stocking vegan cakes and treats to eat alongside their soy and almond milk lattes. (Tip: Don’t order milky coffee in Italy. It’s for kids.)

Most spectacular of all was the quantity of gelateria selling vegan ice cream – and not just as an extra option beside the regular milk-based flavours, but entire rows of gelato made entirely from coconut, almond, and rice milk.

With a very full stomach, the picture was beginning to become clear: Bologna isn’t your regular city.

It was only when we started to get near the parts of the city, where the largest parts of the University of Bologna are located, that the last jigsaw piece fell into place.

We were walking under the arcades without any direction or sense of where we were going – Bologna is a knot of alcoves and side streets; please get lost in them – when we accidentally found ourselves in an old square, surrounded by seated students devouring piadine and wine on one side, and a group of banner-holding, campaigning students on the other.

Bologna is a liberal city. In fact, whilst the “Red City” is most commonly referenced by English speakers as a description of the colour of the stone and plaster the older buildings are known for; for Italians, it refers to how left-of-centre the politics of the people tend to be.

Every country has a “Red City”. In England, the most left-of-centre city is Brighton. In France, it’s Marseille. In Italy, it’s Bologna.

Personally, I loved how alternative the city felt. The different way the people behave and talk can be felt all the way around you. Not just in heart of the university campus, but all the way to the remains of the old city walls (which some fool decided to replace with a highway – stupid). There are cafes advertising political meetings, and each neighbourhood of the city seems highly community-based.

On one occasion, we were wandering around near the city walls when we came across a prime example of what an alternative lefty person like myself would adore.

Walking past a building which had clearly seen better days, we noticed a courtyard that was starting to fill up with market stalls. What’s most surprising about this is that is was about six in the evening, and these stalls were just setting up, not closing down.

Eager to see what local produce was available, we crept our way past the dreadlocked kids standing at the courtyard entrance and started to look around. Food, food, and more food. Most of it vegetarian, plenty of it vegan. We were in heaven.

“Let’s have a look inside.” Inside we went; and from there, we began to understand the situation perfectly.

The building we walked into is a community project for the neighbourhood and surrounding areas. It’s a combined music and performing arts space. A training area. Somewhere for the kids to study after school. There’s even a pizza oven that opens most nights, selling vegetarian and vegan pizza, but not the night we were there (sad faces all around).

Putting Together The Jigsaw

The last pieces were in finally in place, and after discussing the issue further with Franca, I found myself realising that Bologna is just about the most alternative city I’ve ever visited in Italy, which is really quite surprising given the size of the country. In reality, the further away you get from the major cities of Rome in the centre or Milan in the north, the less likely it is you’ll find an alternative scene as expansive.

Sure, when I’m in Napoli, I can see evidence of the alternative scene by the street art and graffiti tags writers have left behind, but none of it compares to the street art I’ve seen in Rome.

Bologna is the perfect city for the alternative traveller. It’s highly liberal and a good place for a party. The people love life and want to enjoy it. They also won’t stand for being pushed around, and will quickly side with you on an issue if they feel you also have the same passion.

Passion. Passion is the feeling that makes Bologna so liberal. So alternative. So red.

It’s because they have a passion for all things that they shout and scream to see themselves all protected and supported, and if you’re as alternative and left-of-centre as these happy Italians, then I couldn’t recommend a better place for you to go.

Are you red-dy enough for Bologna?

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