Saturday, April 30, 2011

Eat, Pray, Bug (Part I)

We had landed. The tire screech and rumble confirmed it. It was our second in almost as many hours. We’d arrived at Aeroporto Guglielmo Marconi, our travel day now complete. The touchdown had been firm, yet much gentler than many others I'd experienced. Taxing in, my mind wondered to other times, at other airfields. There was that time on Allegheny Airlines when we hit so hard a cabin ceiling fixture had disconnected and fallen in the isle, adding further emphasis to their nickname, "Agony Airlines". On another occasion, this one in U-Tapao, Thailand, on a 10,000 foot strip by the sea, we’d contacted terra firma so deliberately that a generator had kicked offline - I was piloting that one! And then there is that saying Maria Elena reminds me is purely Irish, "May the road rise up to meet you ...". Well on Guam this is actually the case for there the runway, as you feel for it, noticeably rises to meet your landing-gear before abruptly ending at a 500' cliff. Win some, lose some. All that matters is that you walk away from them all - the good, the bad and the ugly.

Leaving the airport, our next and final destination was "B&B La Stradetta" ( in the old centro storico part of the city. Oh, and lest I forget to mention it, we were in Bologna. The La Stradetta (“Little Street”) hadn't been our first choice when planning our trip. We’d initially pinned our hopes on another B&B, Bologna nel Cuore (“Bologna in my Heart”,, but with only a handful of rooms, they couldn't accommodate us. The proprietor, Maria, then suggested we stay a few porticos away at her friend's B&B and thus we arrived at La Stradetta and met Sabrina Fini, an aspiring artist and B&B operator. Having just arrived in Italy our initial conversation with Sabrina was part verbal and part pantomime. Sabrina explained that “La Stradetta” was named after a painting by Dutch Master, Johannes Vermeer, entitled “A Little Street”. He is more familiar to us for “The Girl with the Pearl Earring”. Situated on Via De Gombruti, which is indeed short and certainly narrow, it fittingly reminded Sabrina, herself an art graduate of the University of Bologna, of Vermeer’s “Little Street”, thus giving special meaning to the name of her B&B.

Our stay at the ‘alternative’ certainly proved to be pleasurable for it was far more than a simple room with breakfast. It was spacious and expansive, for Sabrina had basically surrendered her entire apartment to us. She would work there during the day, cleaning and working at her computer, but by late afternoon was off to her mother’s place for the evening, only to return early the next morning with delicious breakfast treats like the tortellini sweets filled with almonds and accented with a hint of anise that we were told, “only my mother makes”. Eating had begun and we’d only just arrived!

I will begin by saying that Bologna lies under the radar and off the mainline tourist routes. Ever hear of Rome, Florence, Venice and Bologna on any travel itinerary? It also missed its billing on the “Grand Tours” of centuries past. Approaching by taxi, as we did, its look of industrial clutter must deter many from going any further. Yet I think the Bolognese prefer it that way - a haven in a world of chaos. Here they quietly go about their business enjoying their lives steeped in fine food, a pleasant climate and a heritage rich in education, architecture and culture. Nor is it a town of five or so addresses. With 380,000 residents basking in this pleasure, it is not only the capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region but prides itself as the food capital of Italy. We were eager to get to know and share in Bologna’s pleasures.

When we exited our B&B the first time, we were surprised to find the Italian army camped outside our door! Inquisitive as I am, I soon discovered that there was a synagogue just across the street, though I hadn’t noticed it when we arrived. It occupied what would have passed for just another apartment building. If fact, it shared building space with other tenants. The military security detail was there to guard it. This has been going on all across Italy since the 90’s when something nasty had happened. Religion and its various theologies as to who has the correct dogma or revelation can be heated stuff. Apparently, the Italians, with their own history of bloody religious fervor, had learned a lesson or two and weren’t taking any chances on a repeat. Paradoxically, some modicum of peace and serenity through prayer was being achieved at the expense of 24/7 security.

On our first morning of discovery we strolled down Via IV Novembre until we arrived in the main city square, Piazza Maggiore. There in the shadows of the Neptune fountain were gaggles of students, surprisingly with notepads in hand. With cherry blossoms blooming in Washington, DC and busloads of students headed there, this must be the local equivalent. We noticed groups of students all about that morning being explained their ancient heritage.

Across the square and through an inviting archway, onto Via degli Orefici, we came upon the morning market where cued-up locals waited for their turn to haggle, although everything certainly looked clearly marked and not in question. There were many butcher shops, fish mongers and certainly even more vegetable stands. Asparagus and artichokes seemed to be in season at the time. Everything was fresh with even the translation for ‘hot house’ missing from my pocket dictionary!

We enjoyed our first Bolognese meal on the evening of our arrival. Our hostess recommended we try a nearby restaurant but unfortunately (though it proved fortunate), we were unable to get into the Merlo Ristorante for lack of a reservation. We asked for an alternative recommendation and were directed a few blocks away to Gallo Matto (Crazy Chicken). We found it easily beneath a hair salon. Thankfully, lack of a reservation here was not a problem and we settled in for an outstanding meal. Serious eating had begun in a town renowned for its serious cooking! The ‘Sole Doro Sangevoise’ wine flowed as the primi (first course) and secondi (second course) arrived but not before an amazing antipasta. It consisted of an all-meat platter featuring thinly sliced prosciutto, mortadella and something mysterious, which if you closed your eyes, you’d think you were eating a pork chop. For us this was novel enough but a foot-long salami as thick as your thumb called a “strolghino” and a basket of fried dough squares topped off this first sampling of Bolognese cucina. We shared a filet covered in a gorgonzola cream sauce, which was hard to get away from Maria Elena, and a heaping mound of Tagliatelle alla Bolognese covered in a shower of shaved parmigiano-reggiano. Four men at an adjacent table, a little further along in their meals, allowed us to glimpse what was coming in the way of dolce (dessert), although at the time we hadn’t planned on having any. Our resistance soon melted when both the waiter and waitress arrived with wave after wave of desserts. All told there were five to select from and that we did, would you believe, but only to be polite. Served “family style” it seemed that you could take from each what you wanted and as much as you wanted, especially if you struck a ‘mother lode’ and this we had. There was Fior di Latte (Maria Elena’s favorite), Zuppa Englese, Panna Cotti, Mascaponi (my fave) and Torte de Riso. Thankfully, you’ll gain no calories by simply reading their names. After indulging, however, we felt some guilt and therefore the need to walk off this added bounty and this we did.

Bologna is known for its covered walkways called porticos. In fact, all told, there are 53 km (32 miles) of them. No reason ever to get wet or be in the sun. In medieval times there were even standards prescribed for their construction, for instance, their minimum height had to be at least 2.13 meters, the minimum height to let a man on horseback pass underneath. One morning we left our horses behind and decided to take a stroll along the reported longest portico in the world. It leads to the Basilica of San Luca, our objective that day, lying some distance beyond Porto Saragozza, a passage through the outer walls of the city. Rome has its seven hills yet even in the flatness of Bologna, at the base of the Apennine Mountains, we managed to find the only hill around and perched at its very top is the Basilica. I’ve been on forced marches before and here was yet another, though self-inflicted in this case. I never did confirm this with Sabrina but I now believe that the concept of artistic perspective was first created here in Bologna from this very portico. As we walked along beneath this beautifully crafted creation, we gradually departed the realm of man and began climbing a staircase, which if you survived the trek, would certainly have you approaching the state of Nirvana! Off far ahead in the narrowing illusion brought on by distance, we could make out a turn or some elusive end to this purgatory bordering on hell, only to find, once there, that the torture continued on to the next elevated mirage on the horizon. This went on for some unbearable time and when we finally did reach the end, a million steps later, denoted by a large cross on the landing joined to the last step and not surprisingly with an ambulance in the street below, we praised God for this final act of merciful relief, although my exact words could have been interpreted as irreverent. The church, the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of St Luke, is magnificent. Located at the top of Guardia Hill at the very end of 666 vaulted porticos (trust me, I counted them), built to protect the Madonna during her annual descent and covering almost four kilometers to link the shrine to the city, it offers a panoramic view of the entire city.

The interior contains works of several masters, but probably the most important is the icon of the Virgin Mary with Child attributed to Luke the Evangelist. According to legend, when St Luke was 47 he portrayed the Madonna during a miraculous apparition of infant Jesus in Jerusalem. It was kept in Constantinople in the Church of St. Sophia until, in 1100, it was spirited away to Bologna by one of the faithful returning from a pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Evidence, however, points to a Western artist who at about the end of 1100 painted it according to the Byzantine style prevalent at the time.

As we continued to explore, poking into various crannies, we came upon what on first inspection looked like a table with some votive-type candles scattered here and there across its surface. On closer inspection, I realized that the surface was moving, however slowly. It was something akin to the checkout counter belt in a supermarket, but moving much, much slower. Without placing your hand on the table, it was difficult to detect any movement at all. Apparently here prayer itself had become mechanized (see photo album). You placed your lit candle on the belt and gradually it traversed the length of the table, eventually falling off at the other end into a vat of water, your surrogate prayer-time on a surrogate altar concluded. We had come a long way since St Luke supposedly painted his Madonna and Child.

Here was another place of prayer, this one guarded 24/7 by natural centurions called Stamina and Endurance. Written in Latin high, high above the altar, high enough to almost be indiscernible was inscribed, “Orant pro Populo et Universa Civitate” or “They Pray for the people and for the Whole City”. A prayer lost in time among the angelic putti positioned nearby yet fitting indeed, when today extended to the entire world. Worth the trek? Yes, but next time, we’ll take a taxi to the top and enjoy the covered stroll down just like the Madonna!

To Be Continued

Written on the road in Bella Italia,

By that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Eat, Pray, Bug - Part I”.