There’s a hell of a lot to love about Italy. Almost all of my favourite foods come from there, it’s got a climate that dances all over the UK’s and has so many fantastic cities and locations to its name. I had visited there briefly in 2013 at the beginning of my backpacker life. It was actually the first ever country I backpacked to by myself. I only stayed in Tuscany for a few days, testing the waters about whether a travellers’ life was for me. I think it’s pretty clear what the answer to that question was.
As a result, I was thrilled to be returning almost three years later to revisit some of the destinations I’d fallen in love with last time and check out some new ones too. Italy did not disappoint and I’d probably go as far as to say it’s my favourite destination in Europe. I love it.
First on the list (mainly because of the cheap Ryanair flights to get there) was the Northern city of Bologna. It’s the biggest rail hub of Italy – with a train station like an airport – so it’s pretty much the Crewe of the country in that regard, though that’s where the similarities end. The weather wasn’t the best for my arrival, though it was a damn sight warmer than Northern England and the weather couldn’t take away from the city’s unmistakable charm.
Differing from my usual travel accommodation, I’d booked completely Airbnb places for this trip. I’d used Airbnb sporadically in the past but never depended on it completely. It turned out to be a great decision and all my rooms/hosts were fantastic. The real perk is that the Airbnb accommodation is almost always in a normal city street so you get a bit of a glimpse of real life. That wasn’t so much of a problem in Bologna anyway, since it’s not a tourist haven. It seemed like a nice, normal Italian city. There were loads of students, plenty of markets and Italian folk sitting out sipping Espressos. It always makes me sad that the UK has never really been a part of that laid back European culture.
There were some tourist sites to be seen though and first on the list was climbing the 97m Asinelli Tower in the city centre. It’s so tall and thin that you do wonder how it’s managed to stay up for the hundreds of years it has done. The cost to go up it is €3 and it’s well worth it for the stunning views from the top. Inside, although it’s been restored and made safe, it still feels somewhat rickety during the claustrophobic climb up the 498 steps. There’s only one way up and down so it involved constantly stopping to let people past. Some of the passages were pretty steep. On the way back down, we passed a group of French schoolkids who weren’t exactly giving youngsters and good name as they huffed, puffed and moaned.
When you finally reach the top, you realise what it’s all been for as you get a stunning view of the sea of orange that is Bologna. Despite the grey cloud, I still managed to get a good view so I can only imagine how far you can see on a clear day. From high above, Bologna felt quintessentially Italian. If it weren’t for the roads and cars, you felt as if you could have been looking down on the city 500 years ago. I’m a sucker for brilliant viewpoints and there’s certainly no shortage of those in Italy.
Elsewhere in Bologna, Piazza Maggiore makes for a great wander and people-watching spot just close to the towers. There are also loads of little meat, cheese and pizza/pasta shops in that area. We enjoyed walking round the shops looking at the infinite numbers of funny shaped pasta you could buy.
Speaking of food, the one thing that Bologna is understandably famous for is it bolognese. Although you’d struggle to find your run-of-the-mill spaghetti bolognese in the city, its tagliatelle ragù is its speciality. I was tasked with finding a delicious ragù spot for a budget price and stumbled across Osteria dell’Orsa which served its tagliatelle ragù for just €6. Despite the low price tag, the difference in quality was so obvious. Unlike me, who drowns his spaghetti in as much mince and bolognese sauce as is possible, the chef here had put less sauce on to allow the flavours of the pasta to come through. It was so nice and, had we been staying in Bologna for longer, we’d have probably eaten there every night. Italy isn’t the cheapest place but that was proof that you could find food to die for on a backpacker budget.
The next day, we braved the colossal train station and headed south to Florence on the infinitely superior Italian train network. It had been a flying visit to Bologna but it had been fantastic to experience a chilled-out, ‘normal’ Italian city. It’s the sort of place that’d be great to live as a student or retiree, though I’d no doubt put on 10 stone from all the delicious pasta and pizza I’d be constantly eating…