In her haste to pick us up on the 1st of January for an early train to Rome from the cottage which she rents out to visitors, Clara Masotti has accidentally damaged the bumper of her car by hitting it against a post. She worries that her husband will notice. She herself seems otherwise unconcerned. “My father bought this cottage many years ago, when we still used the lira, before the euro,” Clara tells us, as she negotiates our way quickly through deserted streets to the train station on the last day of a visit to Bologna, confirming a number of commonly-held hypotheses about Italian drivers. “It was a place I used to escape at weekends with friends, just to have parties, to relax, to enjoy.” Zinc on wood in the bathroom, impeccable white furnishings through, a spotless Italian kitchen complete with devices for making everything from espresso to ravioli, Clara’s little cottage is gorgeous, warm and welcoming. Judging by her infectious laughter, and the architectural papers and accoutrements in her car, she has not quite shaken off the spirit of her student days. Nor has she forgotten any architectural principles of design in creating this beautiful city retreat. To the photographic eye, the story of Bologna is usually narrated through a soft palatte of terracotta rooftops and stone passageways; an earth and green canvas on which rises the image of the ancient. But although this is a cultured, studious, place, it is the vitality of student life which dominates this northern Italian city. In this, the principal city of the province of Emilia-Romagna, modernity is cloaked behind an ancient network of thoroughfares. Bound tightly within by twelve medieval gates, whose long streets are skirted on each side by giant, echoing porticoes and arches, the visitor is dwarfed. Running from church to square to marketplace, business transactions and academia have long shared space on these streets. Bologna is the seat of the oldest university in the world, founded in 1088, and this atmosphere of knowledge and learning sets the tone for a history which goes back a long time but continues to the present day: up to 100,000 students swell the city population during term-time. Lively groups of Italian and foreign students assemble together around the central squares and steep streets, hopping from café to bar for the Italian ritual of the aperitivo – an early evening drink accompanied by numerous portions of salads, cold cuts, crostini. Yet, beyond its scholarly traditions, Bologna is little known among foreigners: famous of course for the meat ragú, but never really competing with the well-trodden Rome-Florence-Venice itinerary of foreigners. It is a city which tourists fall upon, out of curiosity, on the way to somewhere else – Venice perhaps, or Verona. A centre of prestige in medieval times, Bologna today is a collection of cobbled, unmodified streets – much longer and more challenging than one expects in a place so apparently small. But it is on arrival that the scale of it all is finally betrayed by the maps. The central streets are lined with porticoes on each side, and are so much longer than seem right for a place which is so small in the imagination. Portico arches rise impossibly high overhead, providing a curious sense of smallness from underneath. At street level, all across the city, large, impenetrable walls of palazzos drop suggestive glimpses at the well-to-do prosperity which wrought the high ceilings and chandeliers above and within. There is an unmistakeable sense of class about this place. Large, palatial buildings, thoroughly well-appointed, stand as monuments to the aristocracy and merchant traders, long since disappeared, who paid for their splendour. Oversized church doors, with thresholds fit for giants, stand as monuments to ecclesiastical ego. Artesan produce spills out from shops onto the streets of the Quadrilatero, west of the main piazza: bold, black romanesco artichokes, legs of ham, local cheeses wrapped in straw and grass. Truffles and their touristic innovations in olive oil are lined up everywhere. Designer boutiques of fashion houses and up-and-coming lines sit side-by-side, and young, hip locals work the streets, knowing where to find what they are looking for, before dinner. Hot chocolate is sold on every corner, thick as soup. At the centre of this city, the large and magnificient Piazza Maggiore is the starting point from where all this unravels. Piazza Maggiore is dominated by the enormous Basilica di San Petronio, the cathedral of Bologna. This basilica is a monument of Bolognese life and history: around its inner perimeter, numerous small chapels stand as memorials to aristrocrats and wealthy families. The power of a Church at its peak is all memorialised here – even in the sheer grandiosity of a building which for hundreds of years was left unfinished, being consecrated only in 1954. But it is the art on the walls which reveals an intersection between the life of the medieval city, the Church and the thinkers who lived here. The Bolognini Chapel, on one side of the basilica, contains The Inferno: the fresco of Giovanni da Modena (painted in 1410) who rendered Dante Alighieri’s vision of hell in “The Divine Comedy”. Here, the painter presents the familiar Christian trope of an asexual, monstrous devil whose occupation is to devour sinful souls, simulaneously giving birth to them again into everlasting torment, representative of the macabre cycle of consumption – defecation – rebirth. This was the most despicable hereafter the medieval mind was able to imagine. The consumption, removal and purification of evil was precisely what the Church wanted to assert: strengthening its own rule, as it devours and destroys disbelief and those competing for power – wealth, spiritual and moral. Dante writes in his Divine Comedy that in the eighth circle of hell, he encountered the seducers, flatterers and the mockers of God. Sowers of discord are to be found, and it is in this circle that the painter places the prophet of Islam, Mohammed. The threat of Islam to the Byzantine empire was central in the Church’s worldview, at the time eager to devour and destroy disbelievers. The Inferno’s depiction of Mahomet being devoured in the eight circle has been on the radar of recent Islamic terrorism: Al Qaeda were intercepted (in 2002 and 2006) attempting to blow up the Cathedral, a plan fortunately intercepted by Italian security services. The fresco remains today, intact. Just outside of this centre of ancient power, around the corner, sit the two towers: le due torri. Bologna’s most famous landmark, these two towers are memorials of two powerful families – the Asinelli and the Garisenda. The first, which leans 1.3 metres off vertical, surpasses its poorer relation in Pisa, absent only the coachloads of spectators. Time here, as usual in Italy, is too short. There are too many little shops to uncover, complexes of churches and artworks to explore. The early train to Rome departs on time, quietly speeding its way south into the green flatlands and hills. Clara’s sense of humour and welcome leave a strong impression, and the energetic vigour, culture and the quiet northern Italian class of Bologna linger on. ————————————— For a beautiful self-catering experience, you can hardly do better than Clara’s ‘Little Cottage’: www.littlecottage.it Clara is a wonderful host and the beautifully appointed kitchen will enable you to experiment with cooking local produce. Available directly from her website or through AirBNB.