Ewan McDonald stokes his admiration for true Italian ingenuity, food and culture in the markets and kitchens of the city of Bologna.

Livio Lodi eyeballs me and asks, "Now, if I were to say the name Gugliemo Marconi, would you know who I mean?" I nod, and start to answer him.

He raises his hand to stop me, and repeats almost the same question. This time the name is "Luciano Pavarotti".

He doesn't let me answer. He asks the question again.

And again, changing the name: Enzo Ferrari. Benito Mussolini. Bernardo Bertolucci. Giuseppe Verdi. Federico Fellini. Antonioni.


Twelve, maybe 20 times. Twelve, maybe 20 more names. Actors. Film-makers. Car-makers. Opera stars. Writers. Chefs. Formula 1 drivers. A supermodel or three.

"Do you know the one thing that connects all these people?"

I know I am supposed to shake my head, so I do.

"They were all born within... " Livio points in an operatic way to the floor... "20km of this earth."

He hasn't even bothered to mention his own employer, another global brand. Livio is curator of the Ducati museum, above the factory where they make the most exquisite of motorbikes. The factory where they make Ferrari cars is just down the road.

Livio could have asked this journalist from the other side of the world why his home town, and his home province, is a household name around the planet.

My answers would have been as familiar to him as the names of supercars or opera stars are to you: prosciutto ham. Balsamic vinegar from Pavarotti and Ferrari's home town, Modena. Parmesan cheese. Or the most famous export of all: spaghetti bolognaise.

Just don't try asking for it in a local restaurant. The waiter won't know what you're talking about.

Bologna is not the city that comes to mind when you fantasise about an Italian idyll: you think Rome, or Florence, or Milan, Naples or Venice. Understandable.

But if you want to go to Italy, and not an art-museum, or a shopping mall, or Disneyland, and meet Italians... we should probably begin with last night's dinner.

It had been a long flight from New Zealand. Our travelling companions had begged off with headaches. Bob and I followed our tourist bureau guide's map from the hotel in the old town. Then we turned it up the other way and found where we were supposed to be going.

We pitched up inside the 19th century market. Fruit, flower, vegetable, meat, fish, cheese stalls were shuttered. But enterprising locals take over the space after 5pm: tables, chairs, students, locals, chatter, buskers, buzz.

Someone found us a table. Someone Else dropped off a basket of bread and a menu. A third person, possibly the son of Someone and Someone Else, suggested a pitcher of wine.

Bologna's Quadrilatero market operates much as it did in medieval times. Photo / Ewan McDonald
Bologna's Quadrilatero market operates much as it did in medieval times. Photo / Ewan McDonald

"What do you like the look of?" Bob asked.

"It's my first night in Bologna," I said. "Gnocchi." I will never learn to pronounce it as the locals do, but I can wrap my tongue around a bowl of it as well as them.

The tiramisu, even better.

City councils like nicknames. This one has three: la dotta, la rossa, la grassa.

The learned: it is home to the Western Hemisphere's most ancient university. The red: the sandstone and terracotta of its buildings and, since the 1980s, its preferred tinge of local government. The fat: local cuisine is considered the best in Italy, and that - as anyone who has seen more Jamie or Nigella will agree - is saying something.

There should be a fourth nickname, but I'll get back to you on that.

Next morning, four Kiwis stand, apronned and chef-capped, at benches of flour, water, salt, butter, herbs and vegetables, to be initiated into the freemasonry of Bolognese cuisine.

We're in a cooking school with an Italian kitchen maestro: I'm an adequate home cook but am suffering a soupcon (or whatever the Italian phrase is) of performance anxiety.

I luck in: Davide, the instructor, puts me on snipping parsley.

Four hours later we've produced a zucchini souffle, learned how to wrap tortelloni (not "ini") around our fingers, rolled out pasta with the devilishly tricky local rolling-pin, watched Davide create a superlative caramel dessert and pretend that we contributed to it.

Rare sports cars - some are one-off models - at the Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena. Photo / Ewan McDonald
Rare sports cars - some are one-off models - at the Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena. Photo / Ewan McDonald

He pours local wine and plates our modest contributions (I choose not to notice that most of my inadequately crafted ricotta and herb fingerlings have been consigned to the bin) and pronounces us something that sounds like "Maestro Chefs".

It's pranzo time. Lunch. We enjoy the carbs of our labour.

When you go to Italy, as someone once said, you fantasise about an idyll: Rome, or Florence, or somesuch. Sorry, you're not unique. Byron, Keats, Shelley, even A.A. Gill, have done that.

Just as you're more likely to meet and chat with Kiwis in Hamilton or Hastings than Ponsonby or Parnell, Bologna can be a soft landing in user-friendly Italy, if you'll permit those cliches.

Because it's had a university since 1180, many of the locals speak English. Because it is not Florence or Venice, and because the airport has only recently accepted international airlines, the residents do not feel over-run by tourists. Even the waiters and hotel clerks haven't learned to disregard visitors in the approved EU style.

The compact, flat, mercifully traffic-free historic city centre - as much as an Italian centro storico can be traffic-free, for almost everyone has a permit from the mayor or his brother-in-law allowing their Alfa Romeo access as and when they feel the urge - is distinctive.

The red city's buildings shimmer in late-autumn sun, determinedly four-square, defensively minded, massive.

Bologna's treasures, chronicled in Unesco's World Heritage List, are its 45km of arches and porticos, stretching across the pavements outside shops and palaces and universities. You can walk - or, if you have a permit from the mayor - drive a horse and carriage from here to over there. They've been here as long as the university and I asked a local why they were built in the first place. Protection from the sun? From rain or snow?

No, he said. The council passed a bylaw in 13-something to say that a landlord owned the area of his house plus anything up to the kerb. So wealthy landowners built the verandas for their servants to live, sleep, raise their families underneath.

Chef Davide Berchiatti teaches the finer points of local cuisine at the Cultura Italiana Bologna Cucina. Photo / Bob Wallace
Chef Davide Berchiatti teaches the finer points of local cuisine at the Cultura Italiana Bologna Cucina. Photo / Bob Wallace

Then there are the towers. Because Bologna is flat, on a flood plain, and rich, and full of wantonly backstabbing clans, those landlords built high and higher towers for defence (read, shooting arrows and firing cannons into their neighbours in the next tower). Some historians believe there were 180 towers, some 60m high, in the medieval city. About 20 remain; one has been ingeniously converted into a B&B, ranked in TripAdvisor's Top 10 romantic places to spend a night.

The learned city. Of a population nudging 375,000, some 80,000 are students. Internationally famed institutions like Johns Hopkins have campuses here, the youngsters giving a buzz to the daytime and a rock to the evenings.

Creative and sympathetic rebuilding of medieval buildings, such as an aristocratic family's palazzo becoming Brand Central - Gucci, Versace, Chopard, Italian and French high-end shopping - add to the impression of a city designed, and sensitively re-engineered, on a human scale.

The fat. I've mentioned why Bologna is regarded as owning Italy's finest cuisine, and we'll come back to that. Let's leapfrog to that fourth nickname: la veloce. The fast.

The broad, flat Po River valley has brought centuries of agriculture and wealth to Emilia-Romagna province. Etruscans, Greeks, Romans saw the potential in this fertile land bang-smack between the trading empire of Venice and the political cunning of Rome.

Caesar's legions built a wide straight road to connect them: Via Emilia. Invaders and defenders, entrepreneurs and politicians have used it for more than 2000 years.

The most famous local was Marconi, Steve Jobs of his time, inventor of radio, born just up the road in Sasso. By the 1930s the haybarns around Bologna had become little factories that built cameras and radios and washing machines. During World War II Mussolini ordered them to build guns and bombs and radar.

The famous twin towers in the centre of Bologna from the piazza Maggiore.
The famous twin towers in the centre of Bologna from the piazza Maggiore.

Rebuilding Europe, creating much-needed implements and appliances, providing jobs and wages for the defeated and disillusioned locals, Italian and Allied bureaucrats re-fashioned those derelict factories. In the 1950s they fashioned tractors. Planes. Cars.

And what happens when young Italian factory-hands are taught to build cars or motorbikes, and there's a long straight flat motorway outside the engineering shop? When the names above the doors are Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ducati, de Tomaso?

Bologna became the centre of automotive engineering and design genius - all those marques are within a gear-change of one another - and has revved up. In the 21st century, the Po Valley is Western Europe's Silicon Valley.

Some nights later, back in Auckland, I'm eating pasta with a friend. "So how would you describe Bologna?" she asked.

I thought back to my last night, dining at a restaurant underneath the arches of Fat City. The waiter paused at my shoulder and I ordered the entree that you and I call spaghetti bolognaise and the Bolognesi call ragu.

Thin strands of pasta. Unctuous, long-simmered pork and beef mince on a base of even more slowly sweated carrot, garlic, onion and herbs. Sangiovese wine from somewhere nearby.

Three courses later, our host - the former deputy mayor and media studies professor at the Western world's oldest university - walked us through night-time Bologna, into a meat and vegetable and fish market converted into a chi-chi restaurant, wine-bar, bookshop, home decorating bazaar. Near midnight, the galleries and pizzeria and bistros rattled and buzzed. We walked back to our hotel, just across Bologna's vast piazza, where workers were assembling stalls and seating for the world's most divine chocolate festival.

Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda towers and statue of St Petronio tower over Bologna. Photo / 123Rf
Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda towers and statue of St Petronio tower over Bologna. Photo / 123Rf

"It's Rome without the strut," I answered my friend. "Milan without the sneer. Florence without the arrogance. It's the essence of Italy."



All three of Emirates' daily A380 services from Auckland connect at Dubai with the airline's flights to Bologna, its 38th and newest Europe destination. Return Economy Class fares are currently on sale and start from $1977. emirates.com