Our assignment was to spend a week in Emilia Romagna and capture the soul of four of its main cities. Hired to tell a story through images that would be used by Emilia Romagna tourism, our team was chosen for our ability to see Italy not as Italians but as visitors. Fresh eyes, fresh perspective. In the age of hyper information, I prefer to wear each city. Although we had two days of scouting and an extensive shot list, as art director, my goal was to plan less and wander more. The cities would speak.
“ In every new city, bum a cigarette and speak to a taxi driver,”
an experienced traveler once advised me. Romagna runs from the Apennine foothills to the beaches of the Adriatic. It has become my usual base. Comfortable with the easy pace, good cycling, and the sea air, I have even developed a Romagnolo accent it seems. I made no conscious distinction with the part of the region that is in fact Emilia, apart from its name deriving from the ancient roman route; the via Emilia. In my mind it was all Emilia Romagna. An old friend and Romagnolo businessman tauntingly described the distinction over a bottle of San Giovese before my team headed east to the cities of Emilia. “We were farmers, until Mussolini built a villa here in Riccione, then the rich from Emilia began coming here. We built hotels, seduced their women on our beaches. We are simple they are sophisticated.
The rest is history.” All roads lead to Bologna? It is said that the largest city in Emilia Romagna doesn’t have any major tourist attractions; it is rather the city itself that is the attraction. Walk. It has a great flow. The 40 km of porticos, some crumbling, others pristine in marble, will embrace you. Sit, lean, observe the play of light. They feel cozy and intimate. One of Bologna’s less known nicknames is “la turrita”, or the city of many towers. These symbols of power and wealth were once homes. Of the approx 180 towers that once stood, only 24 remain today, one of which is even an Air BnB. Walk the Jewish ghetto,the student ghetto, the mercato di mezzo. Experience the churches built according to a crusader’s description of Christian temples in Jerusalem, the oldest university in the western world, and finally walk up to the Sanctuary of St.Luke, that overlooks the city. Welcome to Bologna.
Wandering into Piazza Maggiore in the direction of a famous osteria, a quick chat with some local businessmen revealed a fact about Neptune’s trident. His statue dominates the entrance to the piazza; Nettuno’s tool is immortalized in the logo of the luxury car brand Maserati. Excited by the factoid, we recalled that Emilia is home to Motor Valley, where worshipped legends Ducati, Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini were born. Stumbling upon Osteria del Sole, without a map was very satisfying. It is a magical hole in the wall that first opened in 1465. VINO….. a four-letter relic of a sign is the only clue that you may be in the right place. It is on Vicolo dei Ranocchi or “alley of the frogs”. The alley was named for the frogs that still inhabit the underground canals built in the 12th century to power local silk mills. The quarter is called the “mercato di mezzo” (middle ages market). Its narrow streets are crowded. Bistro tables, flowers, fish mongers, salumerias selling cured meats, bakeries, cheese shops; all spill out into the laneways.
The nearby food vendors make the Osteria del Sole experience all the more interesting. In the true Osteria tradition you may bring your own food. Osteria del Sole sells only wine by the glass or bottle. Some of the more popular bottles stand open next to the cash register. It is a no frills authentic experience, bustling with locals and tourists alike. The long communal wood tables are covered with everything from prosciutto, cheese and bread, to an unfinished birthday cake with revelers in tow. It is in the afternoon that you can best share a glass with some of the regular old timers and hear about the history that covers the walls. We broke bread with a group of regulars who shared stories about Bologna FC’s new Canadian owners Saputo, buying Florida condos and about how Emilia and Romagna differ. Sergio, who I could easily pass off as Sean Connery, had an air of superiority towards his more rural brothers.
“Oh yes, the Romagnoli, they are very hospitable“, he filled our glasses and smiled wryly.
Nicely toasted in the early afternoon, we said good-bye a little too loudly, too often, as we spilled out into the street. Our assistant Helga, (who for the record is as Italian as she is German) realizing by now that she had delinquents on her hands, marched us in the direction of Palazzo Pepoli. .
Cutting through the medieval lanes behind the university we promised to return that night to a swanky Tiki bar that enticed us. “Genus Bononaie,” I repeated when asked yet again about our afternoon schedule. The fancy Latin term describes a tour composed of historical palazzos or buildings that have been restored. They guard a variety of paintings, sculptures, and other creations. Arriving at Palazzo Pepoli which figures prominently on the itinerary of the seven palazzos, we were pleased to let Helga head inside to find our contact while we landed coffees in the warm sun. We were having a lively chat with four locals who had joined us when Helga appeared, pointing at her watch and walking as if she were catching a bus. Spontaneously shooting photos of our coffee break wasn’t the dynamic that she expected but it sure set the tone for the rest of the week.
My explanation that we needed to work instinctively to achieve the desired mood was met with a hard copy of the day’s shot list. “Viva l’Italia….Vuoi un café? “, I turned her frown upside down. “Helga, come sit down. Tell me where we are headed after Bologna anyway?” even though I knew the answer. After a text and another nervous glance at her watch, Helga sat down, resigned to accepting our pace. “Parma.”
…to be continued.