Busy in Bologna
April 30 , 2008 Wednesday
King Enzo’s Palazzo is where we tour operators will meet the tour services sellers today.
This mid 1200’s building in the center of the main square was added to the existing town hall that the town had outgrown during a time of prosperity after Bologna became the first town to liberate slaves and ban slavery.
King Enzo had been captured in battle by the Bolognese and was housed here for the last 35 years of his life.
The room we’re in was definitely the party room - there are still frescoes on the walls and it’s big enough for two basketball games end to end.
For the last two days, we’ve had representatives from Emilia Romagna demonstrating to us their services, meals, and destinations in hopes that, because we’re better acquainted with the area, we will bring our clients back for a visit. Today, like speed dating, we get to hear a quick presentation, ask questions, and take brochures from 14 tourism service providers during 15 minute sessions between 9:30 AM and 1 PM. Then we break for lunch and in the afternoon are available to meet with any providers who didn’t get a chance to speak with us this morning. It sounds grueling, but every vendor was pleasant and informative and many of them had ideas that would be helpful for our business. Some did not, but even the time with them was not wasted.
Lunch was catered with all the awesome foods from Emilia Romagna and we mingled with some of the people we’d met during the morning sessions.
At about 3:30 PM the meetings were over and we got a tour of the city – this time by a real Bolognesa. She spent a lot of time on the main square’s points of interest including a statue of Pope Gregory XIII, a Bolognese pope who reformed the Julian calendar to better align with the astrological signs. Bottom line, he just skipped from October 4 to October 15th to take out 11 days. Some people were against it and were slow to adopt the new calendar but it is in use now over most of the world.
The cathedral’s façade is decorated with marble but only to half its height; and the transepts (arms) were never built. We’d always heard that the pope during its construction prohibited its completion because it was approaching the size of St. Peter’s in the Vatican; but our guide said there were several other explanations that were just as valid. Inside the cathedral is a bronze strip about an inch across marking the path of light from a small hole in the cathedral’s ceiling. It works the opposite of a sundial telling the time during different seasons of the year (on sunny days.) Because the Gothic cathedral was under construction for so long (1390 to 1633) it has a Baroque high altar. The Gothic style went out of style and when it was time to build the altar, the Baroque style was in.
The patron saint of the city is St. Petronius, and he is often depicted holding a model of the city, or with it at his feet.
As we left the cathedral, there was a choir singing on the temporary risers as part of the city’s celebration and procession of a local Byzantine-era icon of a madonna and baby, the Beate Virgin of Saint Luke that is said to have caused a long rain to stop in Bologna in the mid 1400’s.
It was in Bologna where the transition from monastic learning to secular learning first occurred with the founding of the University of Bologna.
We went into Europe’s oldest university and found the dissecting room where in the early Renaissance biology teachers dissected a cadaver twice a year for the sake of science.
This practice was not allowed earlier and several biology professors left Bologna during the 1200’s to found the University of Padova (where we visited in early 2007).
Several years ago, we visited Bologna and had difficulty finding a really good restaurant. Today our guide took us through some narrow winding streets with food shops whose ceilings are draped with Parma hams and whose front windows display mountains of Parmigiano Reggiano. There are several cozy little hosterias that were interesting looking enough for a try next time we’re here.
Out in front of the Camera di Commerce, Bologna’s Chamber of Commerce, we learn that this is where the official recipes for Bolognese pasta sauce and tortellini filling are kept. There is also a tagliatele pasta made of gold, documenting its official size and shape for posterity.
We also entered the little complex of connected churches and cloisters called St. Stephen's. One of them is built on top of a pagan chapel dedicated to Isis. Six of the columns encircling the altar in the crypt are from the original 2,000 year old chapel.
After a quick change for dinner, we took a bus past the Twin Leaning Towers of Bologna and got off at the headquarters of an association of Bolognese business men housed in a Renaissance palace. Seated at the table beside the head table, we were served one amuse bouche after another: tiny dishes of panzanella (bread and tomato salad), octopus ceviche, a mini ravioli of spinach and ricotta, a tiny cup of cheese and fruit topped with a raspberry, hazelnut and prune with bacon, a gorgonzola tartlet, a tiny tureen of baccala (whipped cod mousse), asparagus in lardo de colonatta wrapped in threads of phyllo, and a plain dried apricot. ..so many delicious tidbits that we couldn't eat all of the major courses as they arrived!
The head of the association said a few words, then translated the whole paragraph into English with “Welcome to Bologna!” Later he came over to our table and when he saw Anne, he told her he recognized her from the evening television news show. She’d been interviewed earlier in the day at the Re Enzo Palazzo and her 15 seconds made it to Bolognese television. He said she did a great job and he liked what she said.
Another highlight of the trip was the conversation at the table with Umberto Sassatelli Salvadori who manages a division of the travel business started by his great grandfather. Needless to say, he works for the oldest tour operation in the room. He puts together imaginative, dream events like grape harvesting and stomping, a vintage Vespa scooter tour of the countryside. He also told us he’d accompany us to the Music Museum on our next trip to Bologna. It was his agency that worked with John Grisham when he came to Bologna to research “The Broker” and “Playing for Pizza.” He uses an English-speaking former Bolognese chef as a chauffeur for guests so they can get to their destination with running insider commentary on the sights out of the window. Umberto knows lots of locals and asks them if he can line up a group to experience Bolognese life. If they agree, they set a price and Umberto promotes the event and brings the people. Our schedules didn’t intersect during the meetings earlier today; but he wanted us to have his DVD and brochure.
We arranged to meet on the corner by the Neptune fountain after dinner and he drove up on his motorcycle with the information and we told him we’d see him next time.
Then we said goodbye to Bologna by the light of an ancient lamp on Piazza Grande.
April 29, 2008 Tuesday
A Modenesa greets us today as we get off the bus in Modena. We passed the Modena signs yesterday about halfway to Parma, so the bus rides today will be much shorter than yesterday. This is the town whose name we enjoyed hearing American newscasters guess how to pronounce a couple of months ago when they told us of the death of Luciano Pavarotti and his funeral here.
The town’s opera hall recently renamed Teatro Maestro Luciano Pavarotti is the first place our guide for the day takes us. We got to walk up and down the aisles; I even found a bathroom and wondered if the Maestro would ever have been caught in there.
A side room holds treasures collected through the decades, such as costumes and beautifully painted backdrops.
Walking toward the 11th century cathedral, we passed an inconspicuous alley with a big building covered with scaffolding and canvas.
From behind it I could see an interesting collection of little stone towers and arches.
My cries of “I wanna see that!” were ignored by our determined guide who whisked us on down the block and around the corner. She explained the significance of the statues on the front of the cathedral then took us inside to see the unpainted terra cotta nativity scene by Vigarelli – a little less than a third of actual size. This is another church that becomes split-level at the arms of the cross shaped layout.
A few of the marble columns were supported by sitting figures - a unique design.
The upper level with the high altar is for the super-worshippers while the main level is for all the common people. Somehow I don’t think heaven will be like that. Below the higher level is a lower level crypt, cold and with tombs of several old-timers scattered around including one occupied by the bones of the patron saint of Modena. When we went out the side door, I could see on the piazza side of the cathedral the wonderful collection of interesting architectural features on the back of the building I wanted to see before.
A culinary school in town was eager to show of its facilities and skills to us tour operators. Toqued teachers showed us the big table with stools for students of Emiglia Romagna cooking and the spacious kitchen with big stoves for their creations. We got to taste several bite-sized trophies prepared just for us and served along with prosecco and blood orange juice. The chefs described the ingredients for each tasting and we ate it up as we gulped them down before rushing out to inspect a hotel.
On the way there, we got our first strong whiff of the real, live Parmigiano Reggiano for sale under a tent in an open air market. Since we’d not stopped in any cheese shops yesterday in Parma, we picked up a 30 month-old vacuum-packed chunk. It’ll last us about 4 or 5 months if we’re careful not to pig out on it.
The hotel was unimpressive – the opposite of the next stop, which was to me the highlight of both days. Outside Modena and way outside the little village of Rubbiara we pulled our 15 passenger bus into the farm of a salt of the earth family of farmers named Galli. They submit most of their Balsamic Vinegar to the consortium that certifies that their vinegar not only tastes perfect but that is also prepared in the traditional manner. We see bottles of one-year old balsamic vinegar from Modena on our shelves in Virginia but only vinegar that has been certified by the consortium as “traditionale” can be sold as such. It is typically stored from at least 12 years and up to 50 years in little cherry and oak barrels until it thickens and sweetens enough to dribble on strawberries or even vanilla ice cream. We walked through the Galli’s small barn filled with ancient farm implements, by the tasting stand with the tiniest little plastic spoons we’d ever seen, to the stairs at the back of the garage leading up to the attic. Just like big barrels are used to age wine in cellars, balsamic vinegar is aged in little barrels in attics.
Up the stairs we went to the fragrant barrel room where parallel benches fill the room like pews in a country church and on each bench a family of 5 barrels sits. By the wall is the largest but only about 24 inches tall, then toward the main aisle the barrels get progressively smaller and the last one is only about 12 inches tall. The first one is filled with grape juice called “must” and when it matures, the must is used to fill each of the smaller ones. After a year, some of the must from the littlest one has evaporated (the angels’ portion) and the must in the second littlest is used to fill it up. Then the third littlest barrel is used to top off the second barrel. After about 12 years of this traditional method, the balsamic vinegar from the littlest barrel is ready to be skillfully blended with the vinegar from the littlest barrel from another pew to give it the perfect sweetness required for certification by the consortium. This is a fascinatingly slow process and the rewards are just a few 100ml bottles each year. The young 12 year old vinegar goes for 40 euros (around $65) a bottle and you can use your imagination for the price of the 25 to 50 year old stuff.
On a long farm table, Senora Galli served us a country homemade lunch in the building beside the barn. She kept bringing food and explaining what’s in it and how it’s made until we begged her to quit. While we were getting back on the bus, I signed her guest book then paged through reams of happy comments from visitors from Australia, Israel, Japan and other places from which people make the pilgrimage to this slow food shrine.
We made a quick stop at the Abbey of San Silvestro in Nonantola and at a bar for a cup of coffee before driving up to Carpi. I’d never heard of Carpi, sounds like the country cousin of Capri, but there is Europe’s largest city square. We visited a darling little early Medieval chapel with Byzantine frescoes named Santa Maria in Castello or “La Sagra” for short. One fresco is of a frequently seen fight between St George and a dragon signifying the virtue and worth of resisting evil. There are also some early Renaissance frescoes with more animated figures and interesting backgrounds.
And yet another exquisite jewel box of a theater - big business in this country, where opera is a tradition and right.
Like many other towns in the area, several streets are lined with arcades - such a great way to shop in any weather!
Before driving back to Bologna in the dark, we enjoyed another hotel tour and dinner with the managing partners, a welcoming couple who shared our table at a terrific dinner in their restaurant. He graciously replaced some of the Lambrusco bottles on the table with some local Sangeovese for those of us who couldn’t take any more red wine fizz.