Bologna (Rosso?)

Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
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Flag of Italy  , Emilia-Romagna,
Sunday, September 18, 2011

“This place is not really Red Bologna like it was,” said Fabrizio mournfully. “There are more and more fascists here now.”

Fabrizio, a born-and-bred Bolognese, had seen Bologna change dramatically over the course of his 30-something years there. The elegant, seemingly unending rows of arches lining virtually every city centre street, and the delicate baroque frontages of the city’s numerous palazzi suggest that Bologna should be a contender to become another Verona or Venice, brimming with brash tourists, over-priced food and souvenir shops. However, this beauty is surprisingly well-hidden from the major Italian tourist trails. Such understated ease on the eye also belies a
city which was a stronghold of anti-Mussolini resistance guerrillas – 14,000 in all – and a tradition of radical politics that far surpassed the USSR-controlled Italian Communist Party in both richness and popularity.
Road names give clues to its past: Via Antonio Gramsci, Via Marx, Via Rosa Luxemburg. A vast collage of photographs off the main square commemorates the 2,000 anti-fascist partisans who perished in the struggle to liberate the city, many of whom were various shades of anarchists and anti-Soviet communists. An unassuming plaque elsewhere commemorates the Bolognese who slipped out of Mussolini’s Italy to fight Franco’s forces in Spain. Public spaces, if one looks hard enough, are left with traces of the city’s impressive track record.Beyond these official commemorations, however, there is a powerful sense that Bologna has undergone a transformation to a high-tech industrial centre which has changed the economy and culture of the place. Transnational companies have set up here to form vast clusters of industrial plants and offices on the city’s periphery, bringing new money and new social and cultural dynamics.

Even the Bolognese dialect, which was until recently very strong among the city’s inhabitants, is in decline, as the global connections that have been forged demand a greater standardisation of language. Flora, Helen’s second cousin, who works at one of the industrial complexes, gestures towards an Italian-Bolognese dictionary. “I have this, but I don’t use it very often. It’s really only the older generations who still speak Bolognese.” She reflects on her previous sentence, and clarifies: “It’s a shame, really.”

In our travels so far, Flora is a life-line to family and British culture. Although we have barely travelled a few hundred miles so far, Italy feels quite alien in a number of ways – especially the little everyday things we take for granted such as the correct way to wash up or the order in which to eat different foods. Despite this, the transitions that she is connected to are ones similar to changes that have taken place back home, and it is possible to find parallels between these economic changes and ones in places like Leeds or London Docklands.

Our hotel is itself at the centre of an industrial area. Such is the life of a traveller, a budget hotel is sometimes cheaper than a youth hostel – the bastion of budget travel. As a relatively undeveloped industrial area, Pianoro is surrounded by grey cuboid factories and office blocks, contrasted with a backdrop of wooded hills on either side. The hotel is typically shabby – complete with faded floral carpets and browning net curtains – but seemingly well-used. An Eastern European tour bus arrives at the same time as us; among the throng, stern-looking 40-something women scour the lobby for their teenage offspring while they wait impatiently for the hotel’s one small lift to chug back to the ground floor.

After finally making our way through this sea of bodies with our €2.50 take-away pizzas, we cracked open a bottle of Domaine Carret wine, thrust insistently into our hands by Vincent the previous evening, and watched the film Airplane on the laptop. This confluence of cultures – amidst a background hum of Eastern European coach tourists seeking out their rooms and high-tech manufacturing firms based just outside our window – is perhaps not such a strange mix after all. The city they called Bologna Rosso has been somehow reinvented by the carving-out of a particular identity that is increasingly entwined with a range of transnational networks of capital.

Pondering this fact over an incredible ice cream from the quintessentially Bolognese (and constantly packed) Sorbetteria ice cream shop in the old city, this reinvention seems a long way away. However, a group of stylish, alternative-looking Bolognese in their late teens exit the shop deep in conversation and it is hard to imagine them as part of the 1940s left-wing resistance. It seems on the surface that the reinvention of Bologna is complete, and the relics of past radicalisms are now simply historical documents. Leaving the Autostazione for our next farm, we pass by a distinguished old Neoclassical building marking a major intersection. On closer inspection, this building is emblazoned with an anarchist red and black flag. Perhaps this transition is not so complete after all.
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