Darth Vader and his Storm Troopers are advancing on the tree people, flanked by angry butchers armed with mortadella sausages. The trees’ frontline troops shield themselves with books and battle the meaty onslaught with melon-launchers. Two towers loom on the Dark Side, but the One Ring hangs between them, not yet lost or won. And no, I have not just dropped a catastrophic amount of acid.

Actually, I’m standing beside a roundabout in Bolognina, the slightly sketchy neighbourhood that sits – quite literally – on the wrong side of Bologna’s train tracks. (A Bolognese friend of mine affectionately refers to Bolognina as “a bit of a shithole”.) The elaborate battle scene is painstakingly sketched onto the façade of XM24, a sort of HQ for the city’s ‘alternative community’, which, the story goes, the council had fancied demolishing – until Bologna’s local boy Blu, world-renowned street artist, painted this on the side. His work being a bona fide tourist attraction, XM24 was thus saved. Never mind that it depicts the local government in the worst possible light: they are the sausage-slinging bad guys, lining their coffers commodifying Bologna’s history and culture, enemies of the book-hugging forces for good.

As it turns out , I’m seeing this piece just in time. Days later, Blu scratches the entire mural from existence, protesting how Bologna’s major new museum exhibition, Street Art: Banksy & Co., helped itself to some of his street works. I’m not telling you this to be annoying – though it is a damn shame you can’t see the mural for yourself now – but to illustrate why Bologna is such an anomaly: an uncompromisingly anti-establishment, countercultural command centre in one of Europe’s most fiercely conservative countries.

Anatomical theatre University of Bologna

What’s in a name?

Funny thing is, Bologna has all the makings of your typical Italian tourist trap. My taxi drops me off in a thoroughly medieval centre: all cobbled piazzas, colonnaded walkways and worryingly wonky towers, it’s an Instagrammer’s dream. Maybe the city’s greatest claim to fame is as the birthplace of spag bol: actually an Anglo-bastardisation (the locals prefer tagliatelle al ragu). In fact, as the capital of Emilia-Romagna, a region known especially for fine food, the city’s appetite is renowned: Italians call it La Grassa, ‘The Fat One’. John Grisham lived here while writing The Broker, and his ensuing culinary obsession inadvertently made food a main character in the novel – rumour has it he packed on around 5kg while working on it.

Bolognese culture is deeply rooted in the dual pleasure of ‘food and freedom’

But Bologna has two other nicknames that show why it’s a progressive paradise island in Italy’s ocean of Roman Catholic right-wingers. (Or, more simply, a rival for Berlin’s covetable artsy-scruff cool, and with better grub.) La Dotta, ‘The Learned One’, is a nod to Bologna as home of the western world’s oldest university. Founded in 1088, it’s been bringing intellectual forward-thinkers from all over the world to the city for centuries, birthing a creative, multicultural community that favours education over the church. (Check out the Anatomical Theatre in Bologna Medical School, in 1595 the first place in Italy to permit dissection of human corpses, against the Vatican’s wishes.)

Then La Rossa, ‘The Red One’, is a double entendre: meaning both its terracotta medieval buildings and reputation as a bastion of Communism after Mussolini. And that socialist streak remains. Via Fondazza made headlines last year as one of Europe’s first ‘social streets’, where residents share out tasks like shopping for groceries and fixing each other’s appliances. I wander around the area over the course of an afternoon and can’t say I witness a visible socialist utopia, but there are plenty of eccentric little shops. Think a not-so-surprisingly customer-light bookbinders, and a junk dealer whose store description could hardly be more accurate. An art cinema and juice bar suggest encroaching gentrification. But the ‘social street’ idea is just one more feather in the cap of a town that makes its own rules – and has in fact been doing so forever. Bologna’s coat of arms bears the legend Libertas, meaning ‘freedom’. My city guide, Giorgia, tells me that, during medieval times: “Bologna was always organising revolutions – it’s a tough place to rule.”

Radical political graffiti in Bologna

Rant and rave

Bolognese culture is deeply rooted in the dual pleasure of ‘food and freedom’. A few aperitivo in the old town’s crammed little bars is all it takes to see that socialising over piles of chow is the lifeblood of the town. All this snacking and swilling goes hand-in-hand with its anti-establishment leanings: Osteria del Sole, essentially a 15th-century dive bar, is where the intelligentsia would come to talk art, religion and politics over vats of wine and platefuls of nosh, and is much the same today. Deep within the chattering gloom, lively groups of gesticulating folk pack communal benches scattered with BYO picnics. Giorgia tells me without a hint of humour: “You cannot order Coca-Cola here: only wine.”

If Osteria del Sole is where Bologna’s liberals first started pontificating over a feed, Camera a Sud, tucked away in the Jewish Ghetto, may be its modern incarnation. A vending machine at the door prints pocket-sized art for a couple of euros a pop. (Arty irony, obvs.) My Bolognese mate brings me here to join tables of young things whiling away afternoon into evening, fuelled by local vintages (a 280-strong list) and prosciutto-wrapped crescentina (airy, Bolognese fried bread: Oh. My. God). An important word to those on a foodie pilgrimage: don’t miss focaccia con gelato at Gelateria Delle Moline a few streets away – warm bread filled with scoops of gelato. Yes: a literal ice cream sandwich.


Another modern show of Bologna’s alternative mind-set is its legendary rave culture. Link, though today basically a superclub, began life in the 1990s as an art squat in an old pharmaceutical warehouse. Early performances from Aphex Twin and Plastikman are still spoken of in reverent tones by local once revolutionist pill-heads, the sorts who now have respectable jobs in academia. Its legacy lives on at Bologna’s annual Robot Festival, which keeps up the city’s embrace of digital art and music, and is a sure-fire bet for a big old rave-up.

Woman walks in front of Bologna street art

Wandering free

And, of course, there’s Bolognina, where that now-gone Blu mural was just one example of the area’s colourful street art culture. A wander around reveals a prevailing theme – one huge piece on the side of an apartment block, with bas-relief style 3D effect, shows monstrous pelicans stealing scaffolding away from the city skyline. Nature versus bulldozing development seems the artists’ preoccupation in common. I take a fairly aimless tour of the neighbourhood, but it’s no surprise that the sharing economy can step in if you want a more informed experience: a local will show you round if you book through social guiding site Guide Me Right guidemeright.com

Best Eats

Via del Pratello is a bohemian street full of great restaurants and bars; reserve a table at Il Rovescio Osteria for fantastic ‘slow food’ (order the pork ribs) and biodynamic wines, rovescio.it. The herb market, Mercato delle Erbe, hosts pop-up restaurants in the evenings; check out Banco 32 for seafood tapas, banco32.it. For a traditional feed, it doesn’t get cosier or more gut-busting than Osteria Broccaindosso (7/A Via Broccaindosso), where the dessert plate comes piled high.

Aimless meandering is a great way to explore Bologna, though: it’s such a buzzy little city, you’ll always bump into something interesting. All this contemporary cool doesn’t mean the history should go ignored, either: the town has fun historical facts aplenty. Neptune’s statue at main Piazza Maggiore is naked because Napoleon rode into town and stole his bronze shorts; the imposing San Petronio Cathedral is only half marble because the Pope didn’t want it to outshine St Peter’s and demanded it be finished in dull stone; Mozart studied music here and cheated on his exams. (“He was a genius, but he didn’t test well,” the ever-serious Giorgia laments.)

Probably the best way to enjoy Bologna, then, is as the Bolognese do: with a free spirit, and a shitload of food.

Getting There

Ryanair flies direct from London Stansted to Bologna from £95 return, ryanair.com. Hotel Corona d’Oro, a former 13th-century palace, is a great base for exploring Bologna’s medieval centre, from £156pn, hco.it. Or, on the other side of town, closer to the hipster action of Giardini Margherita park, boutique Hotel Convento dei Fiori di Seta is a former convent and serves unbelievable chocolate cornettos (Italian croissants) for breakfast, from £62pn ilconventodeifioridisetabologna.com