Back to Bologna “alla Garibaldina”

Two years ago, on a visit to Lucca with my friends Barbara and Dee, we met two British couples in a restaurant, began a conversation with them (imagine that!) and invited them to join us for a Puccini concert later that evening. When we rushed the opening to get our front row seats, it took us a minute to realize that the four Brits were right behind us, having taken our suggestion to attend the concert. Afterwards, the two wives and the three of us posed for some photographs together, and we went our separate ways. A month or so later, one of the husbands who had taken my card e-mailed me the photographs, and I saved his address.

Last year, when I decided to go to London with the Sierra College semester abroad program, I contacted Colin and his wife, Pamela, to let them know that I was coming to England for three months, and ended up with invitations for Barbara and me to come to Sunday lunch at their home in High Barnett, along with Derek and Christina, the other couple we had met in Lucca a year earlier. We were treated to a wonderful meal and warm hospitality, had a second meal later with all six of us at the other couple’s home, but I didn’t expect that I would have a chance to see any of them again for a long while, if at all.

Out of the blue, I received an invitation from Colin and Pamela to come to Bologna, where Pamela would be singing the Anglican Church Evensong (vespers) service with the St. Mary the Virgin Monken Hadley Singers, about 20 singers from London. Colin was unsure of the dates, unsure of the performances, but still open to inviting me to come along to see Pamela’s group perform, since I was already in Italy. We tried to zero in on details so that I would know when to show up, and where, but I left for Bologna knowing the dates that Pamela and Colin would be there, a phone number that Colin said would work in Italy, and the address where they would be staying. I’m relatively certain that they left before I finally confirmed that I had purchased my train tickets, so they left for Bologna without know, for certain, that I was coming.

Now, the explanation of “alla Garibaldina”–a phrase that means spur-of-the-moment, without plans, without training or preparation, spontaneous. When Garibaldi set out with his 1000 men, to unify the city states of Italy, they were not trained as military fighters, had no particular plan, but managed to get the job done despite being so thoroughly unprepared, thanks to having virtually no opposition along the way. Garibaldi on his horse is in every city here, lauded as a hero, with a certainty of at least a street named for him, and probably a piazza with him and his horse, beard and big moustache and all. A dashing, and daring, figure, and instantly recognized in all his glory.

Since I had been to Bologna for the weekend of the Race for the Cure, I knew a hotel to book, and the central area of the city near the hotel. I arrived at the train station about 2 in the afternoon, dragging the little suitcase that gave up a wheel long ago as if it was a wheeling wonder (I just pretended it was rolling on two wheels).

One of the first sights greeting me was the most elaborate retaining wall I have ever seen, with steps on each side leading to an urban park about 20 feet above street level, and with beautiful marble sculptures embedded in the walls.

I checked into the Hotel Palace (same one as before), and took a walk to the Piazza Maggiore, the main square of Bologna, where we had watched the protest demonstration against the school cuts assembling.

This day, however, the protest was about poverty, and the mandate was to “Stand Up Against Poverty,” with several dozen empty director’s chairs symbolizing the persons who were “standing up” to help. Students had signs on their backs, and clipboards to enlist signatures and donations, all surrounding the same Neptune fountain whose “lactating ladies” seem to have the same problem of abundance.

I’m not at all “in” on the symbolism of these leaks, since the Florence Neptune fountain has horses, not ladies, and none of the horses are leaking, but this sight still makes me laugh. Too many sarcastic remarks come to mind (as a long-recovered nursing mother), and you will be spared ALL of them.

Settled in, I started trying to find out where and when Pamela’s performance would be. First, I checked with the hotel clerks, who had no information. Colin had loosely said that perhaps there would be posters all over the place, and all I had to do was show up and all would be revealed. NOT the case, I assure you. I went to the tourist information office and read through all the posters, with no answers. Next, I headed for the big cathedral in the Piazza Maggiore, hoping that the performance or an announcement of it would be there, but the admission fee and line helped to change my mind. I was beginning to think that I was in Bologna on an impossible mission (“alla Garibaldina”), and that I would be leaving without ever finding them or the performance. Next, I returned to the information office when the phone number I had brought from Colin’s e-mail did not work. The clerk suggested I add the country code (0044) to the number, in case it was a British phone—and that didn’t work, either. Next, the suggestion was to drop the zero at the beginning of the number, which didn’t work. I was now unable to call Colin to let him know I was in Bologna, so my last resort was to go and find the monastery where they were staying, and either find them or try to leave them a note.

I walked the 10 minutes to the monastery, and asked the woman at the desk about the British group there to sing in the church. She assured me I was in the right place, but she didn’t have a room for me. (NOT what I was asking.) After lots and lots of my fumbling Italian explanation of why I wanted to find the group, she directed me to San Domenico, the huge cathedral almost next door, where they we rehearsing (she said). Opening the door that she had directed me to go to, I was greeted by three monks in white hooded robes, and I asked for their help. They changed direction, and started taking me through parts of the church that were probably off-limits, otherwise. We drifted past priests putting on their vestments for a service later, as if I were in an NFL locker room but invisible. I never could have retraced my steps, with all the little corridors and rooms of carved wooden railings and lattices and cabinetry, but I just kept up with the monks until they handed me over to the church caretaker, who told me that the group had finished rehearsal about 20 minutes earlier, and had left. Ushering me out the front doors, at least he had shown me the flyer on the billboard, so I knew I was “getting warm.”

I tried to go around the cathedral square, back to the monastery to leave Colin a note, and found that several of the obvious routes were dead ends. Finally making a huge circle, I got back to the monastery, left a note with their room key giving my cell phone number and hotel, and went back to the Piazza Maggiore to await a call—my only hope of contacting them. I was getting frustrated, still wondering if this was going to work at all. Meanwhile, I was solicited for the hungry in Darfur (a donation got me a keychain, which I declined), I browsed the many shops around the piazza, got a licorice gelato (first time I had ever see THAT flavor—it’s brown), and found a gifted puppeteer on the piazza that was mesmerizing the little kids—and me.

He was playing music on a little boom box, but his mobile puppet stage with little red curtains had drawn a crowd of kids and parents. His ballerina leaped and threw her head back for drama, and the kids saw only the puppet, not the strings.

This guy had about 8 characters, from ghosts and country bumpkins to witches and ballerinas and fairies. Often the characters would leave the stage for the ground, picking up props set there for them, and still the kids saw only the characters, not the puppeteer or his strings. I admit I have never seen anyone this good with puppets (marionettes, probably, controlled with strings from above).

Finally, at about 6:30, Colin called my cell phone and I was reassured that the weekend wasn’t for naught. He and Pamela were receiving the schedule just about the way that I was, and had just been informed they were boarding a “Pullman” (bus) for Imola, a town outside of Bologna, where they were performing as the guests of the bishop, who was also treating them to dinner in Imola. It was too late to arrange to get to Imola to watch the performance, but we arranged to meet in the piazza the next morning. (Thank goodness Imola wasn’t the ONLY performance!) I found out, though, that I almost had his phone number when I dropped the zero (didn’t work) and added the UK country code (didn’t work). If I had done BOTH, I would have gotten through. Either way, I captured the number from my phone, and we were in business.

I began wandering around the old city, and the marketplace was open between the leaning towers and the Piazza Maggiore, with lots of stalls of fruit and vegetables, and fresh fish.

The deli that had impressed me with its workers in white hats was open, and I caught a man packaging some Bolognese sauce for take-out. That deli is always packed with people placing orders for prepared foods, and the window display is mouth-watering.

On the street near the vendors, I saw a glass window revealing a store of Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheeses, with Parma being only a few more miles north of Bologna. Bologna is often said to be the food capital of Italy, with the Parma ham and prosciutto, the Parmesan cheese, the mortadella and prepared meats, and many other specialties of Italy all originating in the area.

I dined on the fruit and a roll I had found in my wanderings through the shops, and finally headed for the hotel.

Nearby was the chestnut man I had spoken with before—the one who freezes and poses when he sees a camera. I have danced all around the Italian love for chestnuts (“castagne”) without finding any love, myself. I have tried chestnut cake with rosemary (“castagnaccia,” developed a taste for it slowly), and pasta with chestnut sauce (made from chestnut flour and chopped chestnuts—bland, only O.K.), and roasted chestnuts (tasted burned to me). These nuts, though, are as popular on the street as our buttered popcorn would be, and the smell of roasting chestnuts has people standing in line for hot ones right off the charcoal fire.

The next morning, I asked the hotel to extend my stay until Monday morning, and was lucky that the wedding industry conference and exhibition had just left Bologna, since the hotel had been fully booked. In fact, looking at the sheet on the counter, there were only two other rooms occupied in the entire hotel. I had train tickets to change, too, since Pamela’s performance was at 8 p.m. on Sunday, just about the time I had booked my departure. I had expected a morning service, not one in the evening, and had just guessed when I had booked my Eurostar reservation.

I was sitting at a table with my cappuccino, near the “leaking ladies,” when Colin and Pamela walked up behind me. They had tea and coffee, we were happy to find each other.

In the piazza, as we had our drinks, a military veteran came around in his Mountain Regiment uniform and distinctive hat. I asked around to find out that the rooster tail hat was a sign of honor, since the Mountain Regiment soldiers are the elite, and I was also told that soldiers from Italy in Iraq and Afghanistan wear these same hats on dress occasions—the equivalent of our Delta Force or Rangers, and this man was proud to have been a former member of that specially trained unit.

After he passed us on his bicycle, a group of touring Italian folk dancers took over the piazza, and about 20 dancers and musicians began to perform.

The three of us watched the men punching each other and making sexual gestures in slow motion, all in choreographed routines, and then grabbed their women partners and twirled them around the piazza.

With the music and the dancing they had drawn a crowd in no time, and the laughter was coming loud and often.

We three set off for a walk around Bologna, just to spend some time together, with no particular agenda. Since I had recent experience with the Race weekend visit, I suggested we take a walk to the Giardino Margherita, the big urban park where the Race had begun and ended, and where Laura had worked handing out Race materials. The park was full of kids and families, with amusement rides that we hadn’t seen on Race day. There were chestnuts falling on the ground, along with lots of leaves for the fall, and the long lake that runs the length of the park had fountains spraying water up in arcs.

I asked Pamela and Colin to pause on the bridge for a photo, so that I could send home proof that we had found each other, especially for Barbara and Dee, and then we walked back toward the piazza, looking for a place to find lunch. When we walked past O Sole Mio, we had found our spot, and I enjoyed lunch as their guest. They went back to the monastery to rest up for the evening performance, which Pamela would be watching with Colin and me, since she had gotten a cold and could not sing. We agreed to meet at San Domenico before the performance, and have dinner afterward at the restaurant of MY choosing, near my hotel (same wonderful place Cheryl, Laura, Pat and I had loved).

I started wandering alone, on my way back to Piazza Maggiore, and came across several of the elevated tombs near the piazzas of the big churches.

As Cheryl and I had learned on our bus tour, Bologna was the home of the first great university, and these revered persons were not saints or war heroes, but the most esteemed professors from the university. Their tombs were hallowed ground, and only the most eloquent and beloved professors were given this honor.

The arcades, Colin explained, were also a part of the story of the university. (Almost every sidewalk in the city is under arches and covered—one of the special features of Bologna.) According to one of his guide books, when the founding of the university brought so many students to Bologna to study, there were not sufficient rooms for all of them, and they needed a solution. The answer was to cover all of the sidewalks and extend the buildings out the width of a room, so that all the students would have housing (over the arcades). Without constructing more buildings in the city, they could still add more rooms by this system, and thus the covered arcades and university were historically connected.

I was walking up a quiet avenue when a crowd came up from behind me, and I turned to see a procession of people dressed in purple carrying a platform with a religious icon. The ladies were marching ahead, swinging incense and facing backward toward the icon, dressed in purple dresses and with white lace coverings on their heads.

The men carrying the platform wore purple, also, and it was clear that the burden was heavy on their shoulders. Behind the platform, the band was dressed in dark blue, but there were about 40 musicians providing music for the procession.

I never found out what the organization was or what the icon represented, but they seemed to be Hispanic, not Italian.

A priest followed and the parade stopped for his reading, and then I moved on and out of the crowd that had formed.

I was passing the medical school bookstore, located near a wax museum of medical models that Colin tried to get me in to see (closed on Sunday), when I noticed the permanent visitor back in the back of the store, with a cigarette in his mouth. Just a curiosity, I guess—and a message. I took a photo, but kept on my way to the stazione to trade in my ticket for a seat on a Eurostar train Monday morning.

That evening I met Pamela and Colin, we got seats near the front of the church in San Domenico, and I got ONE photograph of the choir processional to the front of the cathedral. I balanced my camera on the prayer rail, and shot blind, trying to keep the LCD in back from being seen (not a place for cameras, I assure you). With the choir performing at floor level, we could hear them and their beautiful voices, but barely see them at all, even from near the front.

We could, however, see the director from the loft, where he alternated playing the organ for the Evensong pieces and turning to direct the singers from the organ loft. (poor photos, without the ability to use a flash when I was not supposed to be taking photos–had to be sneaky.) It was a service with some irony: a British group singing the Anglican service in a Catholic church full of white-robed monks and Catholic parishioners, and me. The service the evening before, in Imola, was a huge success, presided over by the bishop, himself!

We left for MY restaurant, Incrocio Montegrappa (“intesection of Montegrappa,” the street), and dinner was on me (wrong end of that bargain, but thanks, Mike!). We had a wonderful evening of fine food. Colin had pasta with wild boar sauce, Pamela ordered calamari grilled on skewers, and I had an arugula salad and mixed fried fishes of many kinds. We ended with a limoncello, the whole icy bottle brought to the table with chilled glasses, and the restaurant provided us with a melon liquor as well, just to try if we would like. Pamela and Colin went on their way back to the monastery, and we each thanked the other for a wonderful day and a good excuse to get together again.

The next morning I was up and packing, on my way to the station. First, I passed the McDonald’s restaurant at the station, and found a deal that I have never seen elsewhere, including in Florence: a 280 gram (“half-pounder”) hamburger offered with Parmesan cheese. If there are McDonald’s outlets in Parma, I suppose Bologna would not be unique in offering a better cheese on a burger.

I had extra time before my train and had read about the terrorist bombing at the Bologna stazione in 1980, done by a group of Italian terrorists. Many people had been killed, and I understood that there was still a hole in the floor where the bomb had been detonated. I hesitated to ask about a bomb in a train station (figuring my Italian was just about good enough to get me in handcuffs), but found an information officer who directed me to the waiting room, which had been filled with passengers awaiting trains when the bomb exploded. The names and ages of each of the victims is carved into the memorial there, with a clear indication of the large student population based on the number of victims of college age. There were small children and old people, too, but mostly there were students killed. I sat and waited for my train about 20 feet from Ground Zero in the waiting room, looking around at all the filled seats and seeing how deadly a similar bomb would be.

That was the Bologna weekend—finally meeting up with Pamela and Colin after it seemed I’d made a futile trip (“alla Garabaldina”), and getting to watch the performance, even though Pamela was at my side, not in the choir performing. It was delightful to get to spend a day and a lunch and a dinner with them, and I no longer assume it will be years until we see each other again. I was wrong once already, and I hope I am again!

3 comments to Back to Bologna “alla Garibaldina”

  • laura hollis

    hey………so when are you going to bologna AGAIN. I never did see the Race pixs. Did you post them? Have a great time and we will talk. Laura

  • Dee LeVan

    What exactly are the guys with the red handkerchiefs doing? Great blog of Bologna, BJ, and so glad to see the photo of Colin and Pamela. I do remember a lovely evening with them in Lucca. I bet the MacDonald’s burger with parmesano reggiano is a definite step up!
    much love, Dee

  • “BJ”
    As usual, a great blog. I do enjoy receiving these. The men and their red handkerchiefs do raise some questions, but the “Leaking Lady” takes the prize. As for nursing motherhood, I can only imagine. Great trip!
    Happy trails to you!

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