“You may not want to hear this,” says Naima Scognamiglio, looking embarrassed, “but…” She points towards one of Bologna’s spectacular medieval buildings: the Palazzo della Mercanzia, the city’s chamber of commerce since the Middle Ages. The original recipes for many of Bologna’s trademark dishes — including tortellini, tagliatelle, ragù — are preserved here, Naima has told me. But it’s the open space in front of the building she’s actually pointing to — the spot where a tavern once stood. “They say the delivery boys from the market used to come here to drink wine… and eat cats.”
Welcome to Bologna, and a new breed of tour guide. Naima may be a history of art graduate but she sees herself as less of a teacher and more of a show-woman. That’s where the cats come in.
Welcome to Bologna, and a new breed of tour guide. Naima sees herself as less of a teacher and more of a show-woman. That’s where the cats come in. I’m getting a bespoke tour of the sites of historic inns. Although we’re close to where most food tours take clients — the Mercato di Mezzo, the knot of narrow streets and old market beside the barn-like Basilica of San Petronio that’s still full of shops and delicatessens — we’re heading south of the Via Emilia — the ancient Roman trading route from Rimini to Piacenza. We arrive at an area that was once home to a warren of pubs and hotels. Naima has taken me here to bring an ancient Monopoly-style board game to life. Created in 1712, each of its 60 squares bears an illustration of a local pub sign and the name of the dish the establishment was best known for.
In the case of Li Quattro Pellegrini (‘The Four Pilgrims’), the game suggests ‘buoni gatinazzi’, or ‘great cats’. Sadly, the taverna is long gone. Because much of Bologna was destroyed or hidden over the years — its intricate canal system tarmacked over, most of its famous medieval towers destroyed in political feuds, part of the old market being converted into an outpost of the ever-expanding Italian food hall brand Eataly — tour guiding here means reimagining the past in a way that isn’t necessary in Italy’s other major cities.
“I didn’t want to be like a schoolmarm, teaching facts and dates,” Naima says. “You have to say stuff in a different way. Nobody remembers the date of when a tavern opened, but everyone remembers the place where the man found his wife with another man.” The L’Offesa di Dio tavern where that particular domestic drama took place, along with most of the other ancient inns, is long gone. Naima takes me past their modern incarnations, where Bolognesi crowd around outdoor tables heaving with platters of prosciutto and local cheeses, onwards to find historical remains. The Osteria del Sole, which opened in 1465 and is still going strong (it serves only wine, but you can bring your own food to accompany it), is closed today. But we find Vicolo Colombino, a sleek modern restaurant on the site of La Cervetta; a taverna once known for its ‘buoni colombi’ (‘good doves’), according to the board game.
Osteria de’ Poeti, where we finish up, is a subterranean restaurant dating back to 1600, with giant barrels embedded in the walls and wine-mixing equipment hanging from the vaulted roofs.
Naima loves the underdog. My tour opens a window on working class Bolognesi life through the ages, from the wine porters to the country girls who came to work in the silk mills but got laid-off and ended up in the city’s brothel. Naima points to the spot where it once stood, on Vicolo della Scimmia (‘Monkey Alley’ — named after a long-gone tavern on the street, La Scimmia, which in turn spawned the Bolognese saying prendere la scimmia (‘to take the monkey’, i.e. get royally drunk).
“Sometimes I try to imagine this city in the past, how colourful it was,” Naima says wistfully. Thanks to her, I feel I already know it.
Half-day tours for up to 20 people from €100 (£95). wanderingwithus.com
Kirker Holidays has three nights in Bologna from £649pp, including flights, transfer, and B&B accommodation at Hotel Corona d’Oro.
Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)