Other people: “You should go to Bologna!”
Me: “Yeah, yeah, for sure,” I would say, with no intention of ever actually going.
My lack of desire to see Bologna wasn’t based on anything concrete. It wasn’t based on anything at all, really. In actuality it wasn’t so much an aversion to the city as it was a lack of knowledge about it. And as is often the case, what you don’t know about, you don’t take much time to think about.
I hadn’t spent afternoons romanticizing the city in my mind. I hadn’t dreamt of roaming it’s streets, eating its food, meeting its people and learning its history like I had done with Venice or Capri. And so, I was fully content with pretending that I would visit. Until my favorite band scheduled a gig there, that is.
I was scrolling Bandsintown, an app that suggests concerts happening in your area, when I saw it. My band. The one that had written the two albums that acted as the soundtrack to every moment of the last two years of my life, was going to be playing an intimate venue just an hour and a half away.
I immediately bought a ticket and waited impatiently for four long months.
When concert day came, I was so engrossed in the idea of the show that I still hadn’t yet thought about the city I was about to spend the day in. I hopped on the bus with a book, my ticket and no expectations.
As the bus crept slowly North, I thought it would be best to google at least one spot I should visit. The first thing that popped up was Piazza Maggiore. Perfect, I thought. I’ll start with the piazza and take it from there. I walked up a long street lined with shops and restaurants until I reached the end where it ran into the massive square.
I was about to walk over when two tall towers to my left caught my attention. I had heard of the towers of Bologna before. In medieval times there were up to 180 of them scattered throughout the city, built presumably for offensive/defensive purposes. But these two, I quickly learned were some of the few that remained. Famously called the Two Towers, the 12th century structures were magnificent. And beside them, in a small square, a little market was set up.
As a fiercely talented man stood and played his guitar, sang some songs and blew a kazoo, an array of bohemian artisans sold their handmade goods as they stood behind rickety tables. I wandered around, being pulled into warm conversations with the welcoming artists.
Just as I was about to leave, a man stepped out from a doorway and introduced himself. We began talking when suddenly, he pulled out a deck of cards. He performed an impressive magic trick on me while a crowd gathered around us and watched (he later asked for my phone number.)
I carried on, back towards the piazza, but stopped in a little cafe for a quick espresso. Chatting with the woman behind the bar, she expressed that she so happy I was visiting Bologna for the first time that she wanted to give me a treat. She whipped up a delightful strawberry smoothie and put it in a to-go cup to take with me as I explored. I was already hooked on Bologna vibes.
I entered the piazza, filled with hip looking people, sitting on the ground, in groups or alone, chatting, reading, enjoying the sunshine. I wandered around for a while, admiring the Fountain of Neptune and San Petronio Basilica. Finally, I too sat down on the ground and pulled out my book. But I was soon interrupted as excitement broke out in the square. All at once, music began to play and a massive crowd appeared.
Curious, I walked over to find four young men. One with with a hand drum, one with a guitar, one with a tambourine and another, singing animatedly as he expertly moved a bow across an octave mandolin, an instrument that has roots dating back to 17th century Italy.
As they played their traditional Italian tunes, young women from the crowd began to perform traditional Italian dances as well. It was a beautiful juxtaposition. A display of youth honoring their roots. I sat and watched them for an hour, long after the crowd dissipated and they waved and thanked me as I took off again, with no particular destination in mind.
I allowed myself to get lost, weaving through the old cobblestone streets until finally, I found a lovely little restaurant with a beautiful menu. I requested a table for one for dinner. Unlike Florence where everyone begins speaking to you in English as soon as they sense your imperfect Italian, in Bologna they allowed me to practice. To the best of my ability, I spoke with the waitress and sommelier. They chatted with familiarity, suggested their favorite dishes and even joked with me, patiently waiting as I translated punchlines in my head.
When I was through with a delicious meal, the owner of the restaurant graciously walked me to the closest taxi stand so that I could head over to my show. As we rolled through the streets towards the venue, I had an unfortunate realization…I had left my ticket for the show at the restaurant.
I explained to the cab driver and she kindly turned off the meter as headed back towards the restaurant so that I could retrieve it, before rushing me to the show so I wouldn’t be late.
I ran into Estragon theater just as the first song began and somehow pushed myself up to the front row. I spent the next two hours dancing in a small crowd, a few feet away from the man who wrote the songs that for years, had been my inspiration and my solace.
After that, it didn’t matter that I missed my bus home. It didn’t matter that I had to sit on a train station floor until 6am the following morning (yes, that actually happened.)
I sat there, sleepy, on the floor for 5 hours, perfectly happy. Because I had gotten to see them play. And as if they hadn’t already given me enough, The 1975 had led me to Bologna; a city that has made it onto my list of favorites with its incredibly kind people and magical hippie vibes.
So if anyone ever tells you “You should go to Bologna!” …You should probably just do it.