Ask most people to name the first Italian city that comes into their head and few will trump out Bologna. That suits this city just fine. While the tourist hordes clog up Florence, Rome and Venice, Bologna remains relatively tourist free, letting the locals enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Italy unmolested. Founded by the Etruscans as Felsina, on the Po Plains in 600BC, the northeast Italian city was renamed Bononia by the Gauls, whose French overtones still can be heard in the local dialect. Bologna came to worldwide attention with the founding of the university in 1088, when two thousand students from all over Europe poured into the medieval commune. Porticoes supporting additional lodgings sprung up all over the city, to house the influx of newcomers and Bologna's leitmotif was born. Today, 40km (25 miles) of ochre-hued arcades still shadow the streets - covered walkways that give Bologna its unique style.
The heart of Bologna is around the twin piazzas, Maggiore and Nettuno - a handsome public space sealed on all sides by medieval palazzi and the hulk of San Petronio. Here, amid the pigeons, the Bolognese come to shop, to pray, to chat and, of course, to demonstrate. Not just for the ochre coloring of the medieval buildings in the fading evening light is the city known as 'Red Bologna', with socialism and communism a major feature of Bolognese life, ever since determined partisan resistance in World War II. It comes as no surprise to learn that Bologna was the first Italian city ever to elect a communist council.
The well-educated citizens of Bologna have never been afraid to voice their opinions and immerse themselves in all things cultural - a feature of civic life recognized in 2000, when the city was named a European City of Culture. Recently the former stock exchange has been converted into Italy's largest multimedia library, in keeping with a city that well deserves its tag of La Dotta, 'The Learned'. In Bologna, however, a social conscience and cultural knowledge go hand in hand with a hearty appetite, with the city fully justifying its other moniker, La Grassa, which translates literally as 'The Fat', a reference to the seriousness with which the locals take Epicurean pursuits. It is something of a favorite joke among the Milanese and the Romans that only at mealtimes do the Bolognese fall silent. The local cuisine goes far beyond the world famous spaghetti bolognese (something the locals never eat - they call the sauce 'ragu' and would never mix it with spaghetti), with a wide range of culinary delights culled from the surrounding countryside, as well as some robust and interesting local wines.
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