Every city in Italy has it's Piazza.
Some are world famous such as San Marco or San Pietro but each fills a communal need to promenade, relax or be part of the city that they live in.
One of the most impressive is the Piazza di Maggiore in Bologna. It dates back to the 12th century with its gothic buildings and palaces and from here the ruby colonnaded streets fan out in a great wheel shape. To sit in Piazza di Maggiore is to watch the great show that is living in Italy where academics sit and read newspapers, old men walk up and down, and teenagers talk into mobile phones. And take a look around - no tourists! Just how many cities in Italy can you say that...
The star of the show is Piazza di Maggiore. All roads in Bologna lead to this magnificent piazza and the two main shopping streets Ugo Bassi and Via Rizzoli spoke out from its northern edge. Ugo Bassi is an elegant shopping street enhanced by medieval porticoes (see photo).
Here the shoppers can wander from Benetton to Prada without being exposed to the elements and can concentrate on looking good as they do it. It is not just enough to shop in Bologna but to look good as you shop as well. At the end of Ugo Bassi near where it opens up into the Piazza is a medieval fountain. Water has been gushing into a horsetrough here for 700 years, and as have probably the old men who sit nearby commenting on every passing signoria who struts past.
But as you approach the Piazza your eye will be drawn to the Fontana di Netune (see photo). This baroque masterpiece was erected in 1640 and looks its best when a sunny sky shows it off against the orange buildings behind. It is a dark marble statue of the Sea god with trident who is poised above four seagoddesse's with water gushing from their breasts. It is the focal point of the city and there are always a few teenagers sitting at its base.
As you continue the Piazza opens up and its size can be appreciated (see photo). On the west side is the Palazzo de Enzo which dates from the 14th century and is topped with dark crenellations and a green statue embedded halfway up the wall. On the north side is the incredible Palazzo de Podesta with its porticoes and cafes which spill into the Piazza. Next year Bologna will be one of the European cities of culture (one of ten!)and it was festooned with flags from all the 56 European nations.
Underneath its porticoes is a very useful touristico (tourist information office) and they can sort you out a walking tour of the city or help in any way they can. But the pride of the Piazza has to be the church of St Petronius. Built in the 13th century as principal place of worship for the university and it's dons it is one of the most important buildings in the city. We were lucky to catch the end of a Sunday service and the air of devotion was very contagious. Not brilliantly endowed with statues and frescoes this is a community church rather then a tourist attraction but worth your time nonetheless.
To the right of the church is the start of Via Massimo D'Allegio. This delightful porticoed street was full of fashionable boutiques and shops. In the early morning sun it was bright orange in colour and it was fun to window shop and imagine you can afford the 300,000 lira hand-crafted shoes.
If you follow this round you will come across Piazza Garibaldi. Nearly every street in Bologna is named after a revoloutionary and this one had a white marble statue. Set off against the apricot buildings and sapphire sky - this became my favourite Piazza in Bologna. Under its porticoes is one of the best academic bookshops in Bologna, and its English language section is excellent and can absorb you for hours.
But Piazza di Maggiore and around really comes alive at night. The Bolognese take their 'passeigetta' seriously and dress up in their best clothes. They make a circuit of the Piazza, nodding to friends, and taking a coffee in the cafes while listening to bands playing. You too can join in the performance and take a table under the Palazzo de Podesta. Arm yourself with a cinzano, put on your dark glasses, and - who knows? - you may get away with being an Italian.