Climb up the tallest of the Two Towers, Bologna’s leaning landmarks, to gaze down on Italy’s most serious and progressive city.

‘You must write all the beautiful things of Italy,’ said the Venetian on the train, but the man from Bologna vehemently shook his finger. ‘No, no,’ he insisted. ‘You must write the truth!’

And it is precisely that, a fervent insistence on the plain truth as opposed to the typical Italian delight in appearance and bella figura, that sets Bologna apart. A homespun realism and attention to the detail of the visible, material world are the main characteristics of the Bolognese school of art (recall Petrarch’s comment that, while only an educated man is amazed by a Giotto, anyone can understand a Bolognese picture). The city’s handsome, harmonic and well-preserved centre disdains imported marble or ornate stucco, preferring honest red brick. Bologna’s municipal government, which was long in the hands of the Italian Communist Party (now the PDS), is considered the most efficient of any large city in Italy.

In the 11th century it was the desire for truth and law that led to the founding of the University of Bologna, whose first scholars interpreted the law codes of Justinian in settling disputes over investitures between pope and emperor. And it is Bolognese sincerity and honest ingredients in the kitchen that has made la cucina bolognese by common consent the best in all Italy, a fact recently confirmed by the opening of Fico Eataly World, the world’s first theme park dedicated to food.

Bologna Emilia-Romagna Italy by Gaia Ciolli, Shutterstock
Bologna’s historic centre is one of the best preserved in Italy © Gaia Ciolli, Shutterstock

The city’s historic centre is considered one of the best preserved and maintained in Italy, to the credit of its policy of ‘active preservation’, developed in the 1970s – old houses were gutted and renovated for municipal public housing, maintaining the character of the old quarters. Nor is this the first time Bologna has found a creative solution to its housing needs.

One of the first things you notice is how every street is lined with arcades, or portici. The originals date from the 12th century, when the comune, faced with a housing shortage compounded by the presence of 2,000 university students, allowed rooms to be built on to existing buildings over the streets.

Over time the Bolognesi became attached to them and the shelter they provided from the weather. Along with the absurdly tilting Two Towers, they are the city’s soul, its identity; to the Bolognesi, their special world is the pianeta porticata, the ‘porticoed planet’. The city claims 70km (including the single 4km portico that climbs up to San Luca), more than any other city in the world.

La Dotta, La Grassa and La Rossa (the Learned, the Fat and the Red) are Bologna’s sobriquets. It may be full of socialist virtue, but the city is also very wealthy and cosy, with a quality of life often compared to Sweden’s. The casual observer could well come away with the impression that the reddest things about Bologna are its bricks and its suburban street names such as Via Stalingrado, Via Yuri Gagarin and Viale Lenin.

But Bologna is hardly a stolid place – its bars, cafes and squares are brimming with youth and life, and there’s a full calendar of concerts from rap to jazz to Renaissance madrigals, as well as avant-garde ballet, theatre and art exhibitions.