Follow The Discreet Traveler by e-mail!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Bologna sandwich

Can you name the deadliest terrorist attacks in Western Europe? Like me, you probably think of Nice, Paris, or the Madrid subway bombing in 2004. Like me, you may not remember the fourth on that list, which was linked not with Islamists, but with the far right.

In the front of Bologna Centrale train station, there is a list of the victims of 2 August 1980. On that day, a neofascist terrorist group targeting the famously left-wing city planted a suitcase containing a time bomb in an air-conditioned waiting room at the station. Air conditioning being rare in Italy then, and knowing how hot Bologna gets in the summer, I can imagine how many people were crammed into that room. Between the station and a train that was waiting at the platform, 85 people were killed, ranging in age from 3 to 86, as the list of names tells us. It was the worst massacre in Italy since the Second World War.

It is surprising to remember that in my own lifetime, countries in Western Europe were still struggling with fascism, just as Eastern Europe was oppressed by communist totalitarianism. Spain and Greece were dictatorships into the 1970s, and Italy had a history of political violence as both right- and left-wing extremist organizations killed for their ends—just to give three examples. 

I mention this because it is useful to be reminded that extremist violence is not new, nor is totalitarianism a danger that is generations removed from us in the West. Standing in front of Bologna Centrale station the other day, and reading those names, was as sobering as realizing there were concentration camps in Italy.

We came to Bologna for the practical reason that it is centrally located, and wherever we were going to next in Italy, we could get there easily from Bologna. We were also told it is beautiful. It is, and window shopping on the Via Rizzoli, you’d never know the area has a long history of being governed by communists. For signs of that, look to Via Stalingrado (now, ironically, adorned with a McDonald’s), or the public bike system, rows on rows of red (of course) bicycles that look as tattered as if they’d come from the old Soviet Union. To be fair, they are free.

Bologna is also credited with having the oldest university in the world. My dad tells me that students, rather than faculty, ran the university, and if they didn’t think lectures were long or thorough enough, they fined the professors. Maybe that’s where the left-wing tradition began.

Getting there on the train was challenging, though. The trains were all right, except we didn’t realize the coach numbers appeared on signs along the platform. So we counted from the wrong end, then got on the train and had to haul our baggage through all of 2nd class and most of 1st class too. Didn’t feel like we were traveling so light! When we arrived, the apartment was nice, but there was no map and in the absence of a coastline I was completely disoriented. 

This is where I plug another business we are not actually customers of. The SavHotel in Bologna was next door, and its staff extremely helpful. I got English, and a free map.

I try to remember to ask Italians if they speak English, even if I think they can help me without it. People do like to help. One man offered Spanish and, while we’ve already established I don’t speak Spanish, I was pretty sure I could ask for a bus ticket. He didn’t sell them but told me tabacs did (these are shops that sell cigarettes and sundries, also called tabacs in France and Québec, I believe). Fearful that I might not understand tabac, he then did an elaborate mime of puffing on a cigarette, which made me laugh. Then there was the guy who, before I could ask, said clear as day, “I beg your pardon? English is possible!”

Bologna is distinguished by its anarchist graffiti, which I guess is part of the anti-state tradition also. Stuff like “Rome is shit,” or this gem:
Only the good-looking ones, T. said

They say travelers don’t know where they’re going, and tourists don’t know where they’ve been.

We met a tourist the other day. We were on a hot train platform and the afternoon was probably getting to him. Being American, he was friendly, and I found out that he knew the part of the world I grew up in, which most people overseas do not. But when I asked him how long his family was staying in Italy, he got this distracted expression.

“We’re on one of those tours,” he said with a vague gesture, “where they just take you all around…” Then he and his son had to rush off and join his wife.

We always have time to talk about where we’ve been. As to where we’re going, I’m afraid the hot afternoons have played a role in figuring that out. Because it has been hot. More than 90 degrees F hot, every day, and sunny all day, for weeks and weeks. Ireland was a totally different world. It’s July in southern Europe, and traveling has us outdoors and walking a lot. We are tired of being quite so hot.

I appreciate that this is a very First World problem! Parts of the First World live in central air conditioning, but that is not the case for travelers in Europe. A whole world of tourists seems to be here in July, and when we looked down the Adriatic coast towards Croatia, the weather looked to be as hot as central Italy. So we have decided to turn north. I suppose the turning point was Florence.

Florence (Firenze) is a world treasure, one of the first foreign cities I wanted to visit, and I will never forget that first time. But it was December then, and in the picture (there’s only one), I’m wearing my overcoat and wool beret. I saw the Galleria degli Uffizi (the world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance art) and the Galleria dell’Accademia (built to house Michelangelo’s David). I don’t remember prebooking tickets in those pre-Internet days, or standing in long lines. I remember room after room of Madonnas in the Uffizi and then all of a sudden Botticelli’s Birth of Venus burst into view, a pagan sigh of relief.

I’m glad I had all those experiences twenty-five years ago. Because, while I don’t know what Florence was like this past December, I wouldn’t recommend anyone’s first or only visit be in high summer. It was hot. It was crowded, but what I really mean by that is that things were sold out. I couldn’t have gotten into the key museums even if I’d wanted to. Four hours standing in line is not unusual.

As for the Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore), the cathedral itself is free, but the line was so discouraging I ruled out going in again. And tickets were sold out to go up into Brunelleschi’s dome (fortunately, I’d already done that too). I briefly considered climbing Giotto’s bell tower instead, but there’s no way to buy a ticket just for that; you have to pay the 15 euros for the museum, then stand in line, then climb up 414 steps. On a cooler day I might have done it. This time, it was just another thing in Florence I didn’t go into.
Ponte Vecchio (1345), the only bridge across the Arno not destroyed by retreating Nazis

Don’t get me wrong: We were glad to get back to Florence. It’s beautiful from the outside too, and it was nice just to wander without the pressure to buy tickets or check things off lists. But I felt bad for people whose only experience of Florence was that one. If you’re going to go there once, I do not recommend July.
Palazzo Pitti

It didn’t help that we could have gotten train tickets for a fraction of the cost. We had read online the day before that you can get to Florence in only half an hour from Bologna, and for only 9 euros. Each of those things is true, but not both. To get there in less than an hour and a half requires the high-speed train, almost all of the journey underground, and it costs a lot more than 9 euros. It’s amazing how an expensive train ticket can suddenly make one balk at paying 7 euros to go in the Boboli Gardens.

We’ll figure Italian trains out perfectly—just in time to move on to somewhere completely different.

We stopped in the shadow of the Duomo to have a cold drink (we stop for this a lot). The people at the next table may have been Canadian, judging by the daughter’s Toronto Blue Jays cap. The mother kept insisting to the waiter that her children would only eat pasta with either “alfredo sauce,” which I have not seen on menus in Italy, or “ground beef with tomato sauce.” She kept repeating “ground beef” although I don’t think this phrase meant anything to the waiter. I’m not sure what they ended up ordering…

Tourists, eh? 

Our last day in Bologna we stopped by the Sala Borsa, a free public library. (Must’ve been the communism wearing off on us.)
Pictures of Italian resisters, outside Sala Borsa
In the library I found a postcard for a Joan
Miró exhibition in the Palazzo Albergati. I’m a fan of Miró and had looked for his works in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, but hadn’t been able to find them. Maybe they were on loan to Bologna! I enjoyed an hour with his paintings, almost all to myself, in a peace and cool that was far removed from Florence.

Outside the library T. met a couple from Asheville who noticed she was wearing the same backpack as theirs. (Thankfully, at least ours aren't the same color.) They're traveling around Europe the opposite direction from us: they'd come from Trieste and were on their way to celebrate their birthdays in Nice and Barcelona. They're dragging suitcases around with them too, but as he's about to turn 70, and she 75, I don't blame them! With their tales of bouncing around from hostel to hostel, meeting students from all over the world, they sounded younger than me.

We finished the day at a wine bar, Enoteca Italiana, on the wonderfully named side street Via Malcontenti. We found it by accident. I tasted (and subsequently bought a bottle of) a local wine, and the proprietor served us each a square of lasagna, which is what they’d cooked that day. It was delicious--and all very red.


Anonymous said...

These days we all travel the Via Malcontenti occasionally (maybe often). How nice that it led you to a tasty square of lasagna (red or otherwise). Groove & Pop

Unknown said...

..." They say travelers don’t know where they’re going, and tourists don’t know where they’ve been...."I absolutely love could I never had heard that before ...? Just one more time..."Thanks for taking us with you!" UB

J. E. Knowles said...

Thank you UB!