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Italy- Bologna and Beyond. (Solo, December 2022)

Thanks to all for the advice and cheerleading. Shoutout to SJS who went so far out of the way to give me a rundown of their dining experiences.

VERONA
I flew from Catania into Verona in the am and I thought it was positively lovely. I hope I get to return and stay longer. The buses were easy to use and you could pay on board.

La Figaccia -had rave reviews. I wanted a quick bite so I could see more of Verona, but it took them a while to make a single sandwich. No other customers, 3 guys working and I've gotten a sandwich in less than half the time at busy sandwich places in the middle of Rome. (Perhaps the low volume is why they were slow?) The sandwich was fine, but not worth waiting or going out of the way, IMO. The ingredients were good quality, but it had very little flavor- kind of thin and sad.

Castelvecchio- I only had time for one attraction and I was very happy with this choice. There was one person in front of me for a ticket and no one for the audiotour and it still took 15 minutes to acquire both because the staff was painfully slow and distracted. I thought the art in the museum was some of the most interesting I've seen in Italy and had a strong sense of story. I recommend the audio tour, but warning: the pen device used for it is finicky. The views from the various walks and points are worth the price of admission alone.

Juliet's Balcony- Call me corny, but I wanted to get a few photos. I wasn't willing to give up 2 hours to wait in line (in the rain) so I can't say if it's worth it, but beware there will be a long line even in bad weather off-season.

PARMA

The Host The "luxury hoStel" was what you'd expect from the description. Cool idea in theory, but the hostel crowd doesn't usually mind sharing a room like my roommates did. The owners failed to give any instructions after check in, so I had no idea where the bathrooms were or that there was more than one. I apparently wasn't alone, because a guy with a stomach issue was banging on the outside of the door while I showered despite the two empty bathrooms down the hall. It was, however, clean, comfortable, and very central.

Culinary Guruwalk - The guide has made friends with many shopkeepers and chefs in Parma and we were warmly welcomed into multiple establishments and offered samples at several. It was only myself and a group of British fellas who were in full guys'-weekend-trip mode but they were polite enough that it was fun to be along for the ride.

Osteria Virgilio- I eat around 5pm at home, so by 7:30, when things were opening up, I was lightheaded. I had 4 restaurants in a row say they were fully reserved, even when I arrived as they unlocked or within minutes of opening. I walked for an hour trying to find a place (the cafes with more casual fare were closed). A couple of the places that turned me away sat mostly empty during that time. One of the restaurants accidentally shut my finger in their metal security door and it started to bleed more than the small cut warranted. It was freezing and wet and finally, a waitress that had turned me away saw me walking by (I didn't even realize I'd looped fully around at that point) and called me back in. She set me up at the counter (which was not being used as a bar) and I felt like a little child in a high chair with other diners at low tables, but they were lovely and the pumpkin soup was fantastic. The meatballs were so-so, even being quite hungry. I didn’t order antipasti, but it was immaculately prepared and sliced to order.

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MODENA

I made a three hour stop on my way to Bologna and I thought it was interesting and lovely. Less fussy than Parma and as pretty as Bologna.

Ristorane da Danilo I ran into the same issue with restaurants fully booked even at lunch. The proprietor unironically ranted “mamma mia!” and threw his hands in the air when I asked if they had a table, but he found me a spot. It was lively and fun with lots of locals and the waitress sweetly spoke with me in Italian for the duration. The food was simple and the homemade pasta was nice although the pumpkin filling was pie-sweet and there was a long hair embedded in one of the tortelloni. I’d already eaten ⅔ of the dish at that point, so nothing to be done. It wasn't particularly untidy otherwise and things happen when real humans make your food. It was priced affordably compared to Parma.

BOLOGNA
Affittacamere Biscotti22 I arrived in the city after sunset and had no trouble finding it. I stayed in the smallest room, which faced the street. The hosts warned me it would be loud because it was in the university district. They did not tell me that it was directly above a full blown nightly rager (not on the same street or the same block. The exact spot.) and that it would be difficult to reach the door through the crowd after 9pm. It was less clean than I prefer (I’m notably touchy about the cleanliness of hotels/airbnbs.) but slightly dingy walls, and a shared bathroom that meant I could not keep it as clean as I’d like during my stay (though I never had to wait more than a minute). The extra blanket in the closet smelled awful and that was the worst of it, however the heating worked more efficiently and precisely than anywhere I’ve stayed in Italy. I use earplugs and an eye mask and there were heavy blinds on the windows, so, for me, the noise was well worth being able to stay in town affordably. There was a lot to eat and see close by and I didn't use public transportation once in Bologna.

Guruwalk- At this point I hate to visit a city without a guided tour. I always research, but I still learn and remember more with a guide.

Christmas Markets- I walked through several times and it was fun. Not a lot I’d actually buy, but giant piles of torrone are tempting.

Gamberini I usually visit smaller artisan shops, but this is the Bologna institution and it was worth a visit. The cornetto was "meh", but the maritozzo was perfect.

Seven Churches was one of my favorite places I saw during the trip and we were there when the bells were ringing which was kind of out of body. I’ve visited several places from the 10th and 11th centuries at this point, but to stand in a mostly intact church from the 5th is something else. Entry is free.

Portico di San Luca/Madonna di San Luca- Forum fellow SJS encouraged me to walk it and I’m glad I did. There was heavy fog which occluded the view, but it was very atmospheric. Walking both ways took me around 2 hours total as I didn’t stay at the church long or see the crypts.

Ristorante Da Cesare- After my long portico walk, I finally got my tagliatelle al ragu. It was… fine. I would have traded it for another meal despite the very good service.

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~~INTERLUDE IN FLORENCE ~~
I purchased an unlimited 3-day economy Trenitalia pass on Black Friday, and I was able to use it to go from Verona to Parma to Modena to Bologna. On the last night it was valid, I went to Florence. I’ve been there 3 times and still haven't spent a night, but the familiarity was comforting and it was absolutely beautiful at Christmas time.

Palazzo Vecchio was blessedly open for evening hours, so I finally got to see it. Interesting and worthwhile.

All’Antico Vinaio- This place is polarizing, but I haven’t had a bad bite yet. It’s the only place (gelato not withstanding) I've taken the time to visit twice on a trip. My culinarily informed teens also requested repeat visits. I think some who don’t “get it” often order something plain. You have to order one of their specialties to understand. The porchetta with spicy eggplant is beyond. I asked my son if I should take the train from Bologna just to get a sandwich and he said "Hell, yeah!"

BACK TO BOLOGNA

Oggi Gelato- This was probably the most flavorful gelato of my trip. Usually I find this type of place over-hyped, but I had been disappointed up til Oggi. It was worth the slightly higher price point. Another point to the cashier for speaking Italian with me so nicely.

Sfoglia Rina- I mainly chose this because those higher on my list were closed or full. It was good. The waiter pushed the whole grain tortelloni but I should have gone with traditional. I sat across from a couple who had just arrived from my hometown, Pittsburgh!

Dice Tattoo Shop- My mother always overdoes Christmas but she gave me “mad money” for Italy instead. I put most of it toward my accommodations, but I used the rest on a (very small) tattoo, lol! Oddly, one of the artists had studied at a Uni in Pittsburgh and the other was friends with a tattoo artist 10 minutes from my house. Small world.

The Basilica of San Petronio is one of the most interesting churches I’ve visited (even with a mild case of “AFC”, as forum fellow Slate calls it). Inside is a controversial fresco which is one of the most fascinating and disturbing pieces of art I’ve ever seen. If you look carefully, you can find it inside on your left, but it is protected by barriers and can only be viewed up close by asking church volunteer/staff to show it and giving a donation. Church entry is free.

Teatro Anotomico- Interesting despite being only one room. It would have been very cool in the context of a tour.

Biblioteca Salaborsa- The main library is modern and a nice place to spend a rainy day or rest, but there are ancient ruins underneath that can be viewed for an optional donation. I found them interesting and worth the stop.

Palazzo Pepoli - Museo della Storia di Bologna- I could tell a lot of thought and creativity went into planning this museum and there were fascinating facts. I was too rushed, so that may affect my opinion, but the audio tour was almost painfully dry and very, very long. I wanted to hear ALL the info, but it would have been hours of audio, I think. I think it covers almost too much. (Note: I think it's more than fair for museums to not translate every display into English, but it is something to be aware of if that's important to you.)

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Bottega Portici This place is not for traditionalists in terms of atmosphere, but you order at a screen, take a buzzer and pick up your food when it's done. The pasta is made fresh on site as are the sauces. After the guruwalk, it was (again) difficult to find a place that would allow us to sit for lunch and we were freezing (Elena, if you ever read this, you are such a lovely person. Thank you for finding a lunch spot with me!) I thought we were settling, but it was delicious and affordable and the restaurant was clean. I didn’t have better pasta my entire trip.

I Panini di Miro- In the university district, this is little more than a stand, but there is a heater and a few tables and the sandwiches are huge and cheap. Despite the price point, they are made with fresh bread, quality meats and lots of fresh toppings, homemade spreads and grilled veggies. The staff is lovely and you can get a wonderful spritz for $4.

Fabbri Piadinerie- I skipped dinner one night and then changed my mind after trying to sleep with my stomach growling. I ran in about 15 minutes before close, but they were already cleaning up. They guy asked his boss to let him make me something and they said I could pick from 2 options, lol. It was nothing special in theory but I’ve craved it ever since! Cheap and good.

Il Gelatauro- This made a lot of lists and it did have interesting flavors, but they were a bit bland and had a gritty-ish texture. The real issue is that the shopkeeper served everyone in line behind me until there was no one left and then blatantly overcharged despite posted prices and charging others less for the same thing. (Others paid by card too, so it wasn't that.)

Forno Quadrilatero- Pizza stand near Piazza Maggiore. Fresh and delicious, but another older guy who shamelessly overcharged me. (I ordered a single slice. He was not confused.) Despite a lot of warnings, before Bologna I hadn’t had this happen to me anywhere in Italy (not cab drivers or anything) so it caught me off guard.

Mercato di Mezzo- After making several errors in judgment about being able to get food inbetween flights and busses, I got a takeaway container of pasta here before leaving Bologna. White tablecloth or not, it was better than either of my white tablecloth pasta experiences but the line was looong.

Double Trouble Bologna- An artisan shop where they make the popular leather tortelloni keychains & change purses. I didn’t buy anything, but it’s a fab place to get a gift and the sweet designer is on site.

Mercato delle Erbe- Here I got Parmigiano Reggiano to take home. One stand tried to push pre-packaged grocery store cheese on me (nothing wrong with that except I told him I wanted 36 month and he told me 24 was “better for you”, haha). I found another shopkeeper who happily cut me a chunk from a wheel and held it up for me to show him the size I wanted, then vacuum sealed it for free so I could travel with it.

Finestrella- Near my place, but the canal was dried up while I was there, so not much to see.

Bologna was a fantastic base and if I'd stayed longer, I'd have done quite a few more day trips. I found it easier to get in and out of than Rome and there are more "big" destinations within a couple of hours, in my opinion.

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6279 posts

Sleight, thanks for the trip report. We spent about 5 days in Bologna last summer, and loved it.

I'm sorry to hear you were cheated a couple of times; we didn't encounter that, thank goodness.

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Sleight, I love reading all of your details! Thanks so much for a thorough report where we could picture being there with you.

I’m surprised that Juliet’s balcony is so popular in those weather conditions! The first time I saw it, my husband and I were just wandering the lanes after eating our dinner to walk off some of the jet lag, finishing up our very first night in Italy. The gate was locked, but the courtyard was slightly illuminated giving a beautiful surreal setting to the Juliet statue and balcony. Definitely different than what it looked like the next day!

I was sad to hear that you weren’t treated fairly in Bologna, plus having some bad gelato! : (

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@Jane
The two transactions cost me only a few euros. I'm budget conscious, but that is still negligible. It was a bummer is because it put me on guard just a hair and I prefer not to approach things with suspicion. I think tourism is very complex and I understand locals being frustrated. If a euro or two made them feel any better about it, so be it, but it's possible it was just an assumption I was too ignorant to notice.

Bologna was very different from other cities I love in Italy, so I enjoyed it a lot and I'm glad you did too.

@Jean
That sounds like a lovely moment in Verona. To be fair, the gelato was not what I would call bad... just not great to me. It could be that the product was so natural that not adding additives made it less smooth and no artificial flavors made it bland by comparison.

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Sleight,

Thank you for writing this Trip Report. Super helpful and informative, and perfect timing for me personally because I am planning a trip to Northern Italy and searching for a town where my husband and I (early 60s) could live like locals and work remotely in the evenings. We are considering all four of the cities you visited.

So many people on the Forum and others are talking about Bologna, Modena, and Parma. And even Cameron Hewitt from Rick Steves posted a blog about Modena: https://blog.ricksteves.com/cameron/2022/01/italy-best-destination-anywhere/

Bologna seems to get mixed reviews because it is an older, grittier city and the students have left their mark with some graffiti, trash, etc. Did you find Bologna a little "rough and tumble" to use a phrase that Rick uses?

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@Calimom

Bologna, I think, is perfect if you want a working city where you could feel like a local-- and there is so much good food. The locals mostly seem less rushed than in larger cities and more likely to strike up a conversation. The train station looks average but it has multiple layers of modern platforms underneath with constant runs all over, both high speed and local. You could get to Venice in 90 minutes and Lake Como in a mere 2 hours! (I'm itching to get to Bergamo, and it sounds like you'd enjoy that too.). Florence is less than 40 minutes high speed, so you could just pop over for dinner if you wanted!

It is gritty. There is a lot of graffiti (but graffiti is in the nicest neighborhoods in many cities in Italy), but also phenomenal murals and street art. The homeless are more visible in the city center than in some larger cities. I personally take issue with those without homes being considered a scourge in and of themselves, but it can indicate an issue with local government and economics, though I think expats in Italy would say that bureaucracy is problematic all over Italy? (I don't know enough to expound, so I will leave it at that.) In Modena and Parma, homeless people were more visible on the edges of town than in the center, which only indicates the local government is better at keeping them out of sight than of fixing anything. There is plenty of city buzz, but far fewer street sellers than Rome or even Florence. It felt the political climate was a more liberal than Parma or Modena, but I'm sure that's because it's a University town. I think neighborhood choice would make a big difference in your experience.

Parma is absolutely gorgeous and has wonderful food, but it is a luxury destination. The shops are high end and as one tour guide said, "If you are a dog, you want to be a dog in Parma!". The dog fashion and grooming is quite competitive and they often have designer clothes and even jewelry. Apparently people compete for dinner reservations as well, lol! I would get bored there since it's not large and it seems shopping is the primary diversion, but by that description, it's an ideal vacation spot by most standards. I wouldn't choose it if I wanted to live in working city and feel like a local.

Modena, I think, has plenty of boutiques, but felt a little more "real" than Parma, rougher around the edges, by a small margin. It does, very much, seem to be a combination of Bologna and Parma in terms of feel to me. For some a happy medium, for others, maybe missing the best of both places if you're looking for all of that instead of being in love with Modena itself. It is a culinary destination in its own right.

Hopefully you can get in touch with some expats in Italy, but I'd also take some long strolls on google maps in the areas you are considering.

Very exciting!!!

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Thanks for all your trip reports, Sleight!
I enjoyed them very much.
I travel solo about 50% of the time, mostly in Italy, so it's great to hear another woman's point of view.
You are younger than me I think, still having teens at home.
You have made me feel better about going to Sicily solo!

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I sooo appreciate the detail Sleight. How did Verona compare to Modena, Parma and Bologna?

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@Calimom
Verona felt just a hair more metropolitan to me? This is all feel, mind you, and I'm a highly sensory person, but it "felt" less exclusive than Parma but with all of the charm and more to do? I was won over. I would happily return to all of the places I went, but my kids and I were discussing going to Italy and I found myself saying "We have to go to Verona if we ever go back (to italy)!"

I'm going to be in Rome and my S.O. does not like crowds. I seriously thought about shuffling everything to go to Verona and have a more relaxed stay.

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We were in Verona for 3 nights and absolutely loved it. It was walkable, charming, and affordable. We stayed near the train station which not the charming area but it was very convenient and certainly pleasant enough. We walked to the historical area once and took the bus there a second day (but walked back).

My husband has been wanting to go to Bologna so I was very interested in your impressions.

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Thanks so much for this report and the many details. I am definitely flagging it for frequent future reference. I have wanted to get into the Emilia-Romagna area for years and years, but the world is big and I am only just getting back to thinking of Europe. Now as a retiree, I am looking for longer stays to get out of my Canadian winters. So many people say Winter isn't the time to visit northern Italy, but I appreciate that your trip talks just about that. (albeit with a Christmas time vibe). I am thinking a month next February with Bologna as a base. I'll have an apartment so meals would be less of an issue, but I was sorry to read how difficult it was to get service, and some of the other attitude as a solo customer. I am old enough to make a scene and I think the guy at Il Gelatouro would have been wearing it without being paid.

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3203 posts

Must have missed this when you first posted, but I am researching a trip to these areas of Italy next year, so happy I found it, thanks for sharing.

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Sleight: Thanks for posting. For my 2025 trip, I want to hit this region, and I am bookmarking against my future need. Trip reports off the Rick trail are one of the most important resources on the board, and you've written a banger. Thank you.