Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Bologna, Italy

Posted on 11/23/03

Palazzo Comunale o D'Accusio

Bologna was intended to be a figurative and literal cleansing of the palette. Figuratively in that my head had been zapped into meltdown by the things I had seen in Verona and Venice and I wanted to give myself a little break before diving into Florence and Rome in what was sure to be a full-on brain smear. Literally in that the food in Venice was so disappointing that I wouldn’t have fed it to a starving goat. I was keyed up for some good old fashion, authentic Italian cooking. The kind, you know, that Italians eat. Bologna served its purpose marvelously.

But before any of that wonderfulness, there was the objectionable matter of dealing with my accommodations. If you’re a betting man/woman, you have probably laid odds that after my thorough shredding of the HI hostel network into microscopic scraps of derision that the karmatic backlash would result in my doomed existence in HI misery for all eternity. If that’s how you laid your money, then you can go ahead and quit your job. Bologna had nothing going in accommodations other than the HI hostel without blowing a month’s worth of my wine budget on a hotel. The well worn HI blueprint was in full swing in Bologna. Located five miles out of town, on a seldom serviced bus route, detention center décor, a breakfast that only a sweat shop worker could love and rules that bordered on insulting. There was a new development in the men’s bathroom arena in Bologna. The ejector-seat toilets. I was familiar with the ejector-seat toilet concept thanks my many years at YMCA summer camp. You ladies may not know what I’m talking about, so I’ll elaborate. Due to the embarrassing number of boys/men that never learned how or when to lift the toilet seat when they let fly with a Number One, the Idiot Prevention Crew at the toilet development lab decided that since us males couldn’t be trusted to lift the seat up on our own, they would create a toilet seat with spring action so that it was always up unless you took matters into your own hands, or butt checks as it were, to bring the seat down for Number Two related visits. While I’m sure this was welcomed as revolutionary by public bathroom officials, the timing, hand-eye coordination and pure annoyance involved in getting your ass down on the spring-loaded seat before it recoils back up, while keeping you pants from touching the repulsive floor area in front of the toilet is the stuff of award winning, hidden camera video shows. In fact, knowing how blasé the Italians are about showing unmentionables on television, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they had a weekly segment devoted solely to ejector-seat toilet clips on “Italy’s Funniest Home Videos.”

Another unsettling pattern that had begin to emerge on the late fall, HI travel circuit were the off-season weirdo travelers that crawled out from whatever rock they lived under for 10 months a year, to tour the HI hostels in southern Europe and give yours truly the heebie jeebies in the process. I started to see this trend in Bordeaux and it only got worse as I moved into Italy where it peaked in Bologna. Over half the hostel was full of cookies that I wouldn’t even share a breakfast table with, if I could help it. But I had little say in who I had to share a room with, so I jacked up my personal security level to the point where I never left the room without locking and alarming everything, including my dirty underwear.

The Bologna HI hostel went to the next level of dis-service where not only did they have a lock-out from 9:30AM to 3:30PM, but the staff actually locked-up and left the premises! I tried batting my eyelashes, promising to be quiet as a dead gerbil and dropping references about huge travel guides that were in bidding wars over my material, but the unaffected day clerk wouldn’t budge on the matter of letting me hang out and work in the dinning room for part of the day. So, I had to tour Bologna. Drat.

By the time I hit Bologna, I had scratched Pisa off my list of destinations in Italy. What the tourism board in Pisa doesn’t want you to know is that almost every city in Italy has a fricking leaning tower. Bologna has two. Unfortunately they are side-by-side, about six inches away from each other and the neighboring buildings were not built with photographers who wanted to get both buildings into one frame in mind. How rude.

From the twin, leaning towers I moved into Piazza Maggiore (directly translated, “Major Plaza”) where I saw what is now one of my favorite sights in Europe. Naked breasts are everywhere you look in Europe, but Italy is the undisputed titty king. To Italians, seeing bare breasts is like seeing a nose. They’re all around you all day long and they have long since become desensitized to them. Boobs are on prime time TV (shows and commercials), in magazines, on bus stop poster ads and obviously live and in person at all beaches and parks… but the most gratuitous display I have ever seen in Europe was in the fountain in the center of Bologna’s main square, Piazza Maggiore. The fountain has a statue on top that appears to be of Poseidon, the god of the seas, but just below him are four women, one on each corner of the fountain, leaning back, squeezing their breasts and launching an unholy squirt of liquid into the fountain (pictured). I was stunned that something like this was featured in the center of the main public square! This knocked me back more than the late night porn on regular broadcast television. Man, I love Europe!

San Petronio Church

The other main sight in Piazza Maggiore, though far less pleasing than the fountain, is the massive San Petronio church. It was hard to be impressed by San Petronio after the sickeningly large and ornate churches/cathedrals in Milan, Verona and Venice. I started an internal deliberation on whether or not to bore my readers with yet more pictures from inside churches, but that debate was ended by the giant picture of a camera with a red circle and cross over it at the entrance. I breezed through the church quickly and apathetically before moving on.

After Piazza Maggiore I was at a loss as to what to do. Lonely Planet was vague, which usually means there’s not a whole lot going on. I stopped in the tourist office just off Piazza Maggiore and other than some musicals and theatre events coming up in December, they didn’t really have any suggestions for me either. I finally decided to invoke the Venice Approach and just circle and crisscross the city center and hoped that I would stumble onto something cool.

Europe has the cutest cars!

While Bologna is a pretty city and full of character, as I expected, it wasn’t exactly dripping with the oh-wow factor. I circled the city center and started to head for an internet café that the tourist office recommended when things suddenly got very exciting. After getting lost once and getting back on track encouragingly close to the café, I was a mere two doors away from the place when about seven police cars and vans came screaming out of nowhere and shut down the entire intersection that I wanted to enter. Lagging behind was the bomb squad. Having the newly acquired American fear of terrorist attacks still deeply ingrained in my system, I beat a hasty retreat to the far corner of the street while the less edgy Italians moved in as far as the cops would let them for a closer look. A bomb squad guy scampered around his vehicle, pulling out equipment and wiring, and started poking around below the level of my sight-lines. A second later an extremely loud explosion erupted and the daring Italians that were right up on the corner broke into applause. Apparently the bomb squad blew up a questionable box in the street and, well the Italians love a good show and demonstrated their appreciation accordingly. The polizi cleared out of the intersection in a blur of action and I was left to sit down in the internet café to do battle with Lastminute.com, a European budget travel web site, to convince their ticket ordering system to let me buy a plane ticket home for the holidays. It took seven tries and 25 minutes to trick the web site into completing the transaction.

Both nights in Bologna, I walked halfway back into town to a restaurant that the night clerk recommend and I was a very happy man for it. The Fattori restaurant was obviously suffering from a weak customer base, being located out in the middle of nowhere like they were (both nights I went there, there was only one other table of dinner customers, besides mine), but they had fantastic pasta and the prices were about as cheap as I have seen in all of Europe. A heaping plate of mouth-watering pasta was five euros (less than $6). On my first visit I ordered the Penne Vodka, which was pasta with a vodka based, tomato cream sauce with bits of ham, mushrooms and shallots mixed in there. It was beyond.

While I ate in orgasmic pleasure, the 50-ish owner/waiter/busboy guy switched off the amusing techno station that he and his wife were enjoying over by the bar and zapped on the television hanging from the ceiling directly over my head. To my utter consternation, he flipped to a channel that was airing an Italian soap opera. This was even more tactless than the techno, but I didn’t suffer for long. The show ended quickly and a soccer match between Italy and Denmark came on. Italians are as serious about soccer as they are about their cell phones. The owner forgot all about me as he became instantly enrapt in the game, even though they were just going through the introductions. A lone man burst into the bar door and scampered breathlessly to a stool without even saying hello to the owners and swiftly fell in the same television trance as the owner. After the intros they played the national anthems of both countries. The Danish anthem was played dutifully and solemnly, then the Italian anthem came on. You could clearly hear the Italians in the stadium screaming the words at the tops of their lungs. I glanced over to the bar and saw the recently arrived man mouthing the words, quietly and intensely while the owner was standing beside him at attention, with his hand over his heart. I misspoke before, the Italy’s soccer obsession is second only to its near-comical dedication to their national pride.

By the time I had downed the Penne Vodka, my stomach was nearing maximum capacity. I wasn’t hip to the Bolognese tendency of giving huge first plate portions. In Milan and Verona, the first plate was just a petite appetite wetter. A preview for the big second course. Well, in Bologna the servings were much larger and in the customary Italian way, I had already ordered a second course of grilled chicken with herbs and some unidentifiable sauce that was tangy and yummy. By the time I had forced down the grilled chicken and the 50 centiliters of wine that I needed to wash it all down, I could barely draw a deep breath, much less get the momentum going for a brisk 25 minute walk back to the hostel. Even after all that food and wine, my bill was less than $15, which is a whooping bargain anywhere in Europe. The second night I brought along the only two other hostel residents that I was certain weren’t insane. Knowing better, I only ordered a first course (the tortellini, which the Bologna region is credited for inventing) this time around so I would have space for the dessert, a wickedly scrumptious tiramisu, that was so saturated in booze that it was lighting up my tongue even after warming up with two glasses of the house sparkling white wine. I had finally found the small, inexpensive Italian restaurant that people had been regaling me with stories of for so long.

Later back at the hostel, the other two sane people and I were putting down a bottle of 2.50 euro red wine while watching The Matrix in Italian when a heaping bus-load of Italian kids suddenly exploded into the hostel. It was about 11:30PM and most of the crazies had gone to bed a little after 10:00PM, so I knew there was going to be trouble. Italians, it appears, are trained to speak in hollering tones at a young age, because the art of calm, low speaking was completely lost on these kids and with their chaperones also being Italian, it probably seemed to them as if the children were conducting themselves in a perfectly well behaved, quiet manner. Unfortunately the early-to-bed crazies didn’t agree. The kids were tearing around the hostel well after midnight when I finally retired and the lead cookie in my room, whose bed happened to be next to the door was a frothing mess. Every few minutes he got up and changed something about the room, somehow thinking that pulling the shades, for example, would muffle the sounds of the kids crashing around in the room above us. At one point when I got up to use the john (wine goes through me like a bullet through Jell-O), I came back a minute later to find the door locked from the inside. I had to jiggle the handle and knock for several minutes before the cookie got the wits together to open the door and let me back in. I was sobering up and not in a good mood by that point. When he finally fumbled the door open, I shoved my way in and just stood in the doorway, staring at him. I knew he was an Italian crazy, so words were no good, but I thought a good long, silhouetted mad-dog stare would get my feelings across. He backed up and got back into bed. I gave it one more beat to make sure he knew I was pissed and then closed the door with conviction and made my way back to my bed. I realized that my quiet little show of anger had been witnessed by the other three cookies in the room, who had been awakened by my efforts to get back in through the locked door. They all steered clear of me the next morning.

I was so happy to leave Bologna, that I literally skipped to the bus stop with my luggage. The hostel nightmare aside, being in the non-assuming city of Bologna had been a pleasant recharge. Craving even more low-key enjoyment at this point, I made plans to get back to small town life and nature by heading to the north-west region of Italy and do the Cinque Terre scenic walk.

Go to Cinque Terre

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©Leif Pettersen 2012