The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy
, Bologna is an ancient city with an intriguing contemporary cultural mix and somewhat rougher charms than, say, Florence or Venice, but these include a couple of unusual, even unique sights of special interest to the dark tourist too.
More background info: Bologna – the Red, the Fat, the Learned. These common epithets relate to the following three characteristics:
Firstly, the city has had a long history of leaning towards the political left. Very much so in fact – it had a communist city government continuously for over five decades from 1945 until 1999, when the line was briefly broken. Since then it has gone more centre-left, but still. It is certainly a tradition here. Hence Bologna is known as “La Rossa”, the 'Red' … although some sources prefer to attribute the nickname to the ubiquitous terracotta rooftops of the city. The political current is, however, still very much noticeable, especially in the university quarter (just take in the graffiti!).
“La Dotta”, 'the Learned', relates to the fact that Bologna is home to a highly renowned university, in fact it is widely regarded as the oldest in the world, dating back to 1088! A vibrant student culture is very much a defining characteristic of the city still today.
“La Grassa”, 'the Fat', finally, alludes to the city's and the region's culinary legacy. Bologna is home to mortadella, a type of sausage that is not just fat by grease content but also physically fat: a proper Bologna mortadella has a diameter of ca. 12 inches (30 cm.)! The city is also in the region that produces Parmesan cheese (Parma itself is just up the road), and you find tons of it stacked high in shop windows here.
The most famous culinary legacy from Bologna worldwide, however, is not known to the city as such at all. Spaghetti Bolognese, or “spag bol” (as Brits often abbreviate it – nobody in Italy would know what you're talking about!) is hard to come by here, as the real thing is a) made with tagliatelle not spaghetti, and b) the sauce is simply known as “ragu” in Bologna (and does not contain any tomato!).
Bologna is not only rich in cultural and culinary traditions, but also literally: it is a more affluent place than many other municipalities. It is also the seventh largest city in Italy
by population (just under 400,000).
Being not only affluent and of economic/infrastructural importance but also at the heart of Italy's left-wing parties and trade union movement, Bologna became a special target for Mussolini
, who was born not far from here, in fact (see Mussolini crypt
In turn, Bologna became a city of the Resistance. Not only did partisans from Bologna fight against Italian fascism, several also participated in the Spanish
Civil War on the republican side.
, Bologna was hit by aerial bombardment by the Allies and endured Nazi German
occupation from September 1943, but again was also a stronghold of the resistance against Nazism until the liberation of the city (and Italy
) in April 1945.
In the politically troubled and violent 'Years of Lead' (“anni die piombo”) of the early 1960s to the early 1980s, Bologna was the scene of several terrorist attacks and other violent acts and riots.
All of these historical phases are commemorated by plaques all over the city. But what makes Bologna really stand out in terms of dark tourism are two rather different types of museums. One is a venerable medical museum (at the Palazzo Poggi
), the other is more of an art installation incorporating a crashed plane (Ustica memorial
). The latter alone makes travelling to Bologna worthwhile for the dark tourist!
What there is to see: The main two particular sites of interest to the dark tourist are both of quite unusual types, one in the category of medical exhibitions, the other a totally unique one on the topic of a plane crash:
Complementing the latter is the Anatomical Museum, another medical exhibition housed inside the Anatomy department of the University, but unfortunately I wasn't able to check this out when I visited Bologna as it was a weekend and the museum is only open weekdays (9 a.m. to 1 p.m., some sources say also 2-4 p.m., admission free). So I can't report anything about it first-hand. Address: Via Irnerio 48.
Furthermore, since 2006 Bologna has also had a Resistance Museum
(at Via Sant'Isaia 20). It is both about the resistance against Italian
fascism and within the context of the Spanish
Civil War, but primarily during the occupation by Nazi Germany
in the latter years of WWII
. Unfortunately I couldn't visit this museum myself either when I was in Bologna in May 2015, also due to somewhat limited opening hours: Mondays to Fridays 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. (coming from Milan
I arrived in Bologna only after closing time). Admission free.
A particular battle of the partisans against the Nazis is commemorated at Porta Lame, both with a plaque and with rather feisty-looking bronze statues. More memorial plaques and commemorative artwork (here primarily in honour of the resistance's women) can be found in the Villa Sparda park outside the city centre to the south-west.
Bologna has also seen some violence since the war, especially in the form of ultra-left riots in the 1970s as well as a devastating terrorist attack in 1980, the so-called Bologna massacre, in which a bomb set off at Bologna's central railway station killed 85 and injured ca. 200. It is most widely attributed to a neo-fascist group, though there remain some uncertainties about the case.
This, as well as two smaller-scale fascist terrorist attacks
in 1974 and 1984, respectively, are commemorated by a plaque on Piazza Nettuno
. Next to this a whole wall of further memorial plaques celebrates the Italian Resistance
and commemorates its victims. When I was there I also found a relatively fresh wreath next to this even proclaiming that the resistance continues. Not a big surprise in left-leaning Bologna either ...
At the larger main square of Bologna, Piazza Maggiore
, stands the largest historical building in the city, the Basilica di San Petronio
. Apparently it is the fifth largest church in the world, a rather very quirky one in several respects, and it also has its dark bits … The church was at one point intended to be even bigger than St Peter's Basilica in Rome
), but that idea was halted by the Pope. In fact the church is still unfinished (the front facade, which is still half raw brick, makes that immediately clear) and though it was started in the 15th century, it wasn't even consecrated until the 1950s. What makes it a dark site is the fact that it was twice the target of Islamist terrorist attacks, in 2002 and 2006, though both were thwarted by the police.
Not dark as such, but weird enough to warrant a special mention is what is probably the city's other most notable architectural sight: the Due Torri, or Two Towers, a pair of leaning structures that look like they may topple over at any moment. This impression is emphasized by the fact that they are leaning in different directions, so from some angles the visual effect actually doubles. The shorter of the two towers leans at an even greater angle than its taller sister, and even had to be shortened owing to fears it may fall. The leaning is due to soft ground and too weak foundations.
Bologna lies in the northern half of Italy
on the main route between Milan
, 125 miles (200 km) to the north-west, and Florence, 50 miles (80 km) to the south, as well as the micro nation of San Marino and Rimini on the the Adriatic Sea, both ca. 70 miles (110 km) to the south-east.
Co-ordinates and Google maps locators:
Piazza Nettune memorial plaques:
Basilica di San Petronio
Access and costs: quite easy to get to; not too expensive.
Getting to Bologna is easy by train or road, lying as it does on the main north-west to south-east route that goes diagonally through northern Italy
. High-speed trains connect the city to Milan
in just over an hour. Driving the (toll) highway takes approximately twice as long, but is also convenient. Good road and rail connections also exist to Florence and Rome
These networks should normally make flying to Bologna unnecessary, at least from within Italy, but the city also has its own international airport (code BLQ) with several connections to a range of European cities. Including by budget airlines.
Within Bologna's compact centre practically everything is walkable, but there are also buses and trams/trolleybuses, in case your accommodation is a bit further out.
options cover a very wide range, including some very good budget options, e.g. in the area just north of the centre and convenient for the Ustica memorial
(there are some business hotels in the area that primarily cater for the nearby trade fair complex and these can offer excellent value for money weekend rates).
And with regard to food & drink
, Bologna hardly needs an introduction (but see background above for a few remarks). Countless restaurants and little trattorias cater for the city's gluttonous inhabitants and visitors alike. The university quarter in particular leans more towards the cheap and cheerful.
Time required: For just the dark attractions of the city, a day might just about do (if opening hours allow covering it all, that is) but two or three days can easily be filled, if you want to explore beyond the dark and take things at a moire leisurely pace.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Given Bologna's convenient location and good transport links, it combines most perfectly with Milan
, which is only a good hour away by high-speed train.
Even closer by, but more tricky to reach by public transport are the Mussolini crypt
in Predappio or the Fossoli
camp memorial near Carpi (with its deportation museum
), for which you should rather have your own means of transport.
can also be reached relatively easily from Bologna including by train via Florence.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Bologna is often regarded as rougher and scruffier than many of its equally famous Italian
sister cities, but I liked it. Yes, there is a lot of graffiti, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing – at least if it is interesting and imaginative graffiti. And some that I saw delivered on that front.
The student culture adds to that a vibrant cultural life and bar scene, but there are also highly established more traditional cultural institutions (e.g. opera and theatre).
The cityscape overall is “cosy”, not as grand as Rome
, and many pavements are under arcades or colonnades, so there's plenty of shelter from fierce sun or rain. That only adds to the city's attraction to those who like exploring on foot.
Moreover, Bologna is one of Italy's culinary capitals, although here the focus is on “the Fat” (see background) in the form of meat and cheese, so vegans are a bit hard done by here (in contrast to southern Italian
cities or Sicily). The culinary theme is particularly concentrated in the Quadrilatero district around a few narrow streets branching off to the east from Piazza Maggiore. Here dozens of traditional speciality shops vie for gourmets' attention and collectively form something like a street market. It's brilliant for window shopping alone.
- Bologna 01 - the Red
- Bologna 02 - the Fat
- Bologna 03 - the Learned - uni quarter
- Bologna 04 - Anatomy department
- Bologna 05 - Piazza del Nettuno
- Bologna 06 - memorial wall
- Bologna 07 - continuing resistance
- Bologna 08 - terrorist victims memorial
- Bologna 09 - reflective
- Bologna 10 - Basilica di San Petronio
- Bologna 11 - lots of colonnades
- Bologna 12 - providing shelter for pedestrians
- Bologna 13 - leaning towers
- Bologna 14 - criss-cross
- Bologna 15 - in the historic centre
- Bologna 16 - solemn cleric
- Bologna 17 - hommage to heavy industry
- Bologna 18 - a bit of Roman rubble
- Bologna 19 - tobacco factory
- Bologna 20 - slain in August
- Bologna 21 - foodie heaven - except for vegans
- Bologna 22 - iconic dish - but not made with spaghetti in the original