A photo gallery of Bologna, called La Rossa, either for its red roofs or its red politics

A Photo Gallery of Bologna, Italy's "Red" City

Capital of the region called Emilia Romagna, Bologna sits almost exactly at the midpoint of Italy and it certainly has occupied a central position in its history. In the 4th century BC it was a valued ally of the Etruscans, and it beat back several Roman invasions, even offering its help to Hannibal and his Carthiginians. Alas, the Elephant Man and his North African armies were defeated, and in 189 BC Bologna became a Roman colony called Bononia. To get there from Rome, the legionnaires built one of their famed consular roads called the Via Emilia, which still today marks the cardinal center of the city of Bologna.

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In the ensuing centuries, the city had its ups and downs, alternating from stronghold to dominion. This uncertainty led the citizens to defend themselves, first and foremost by erecting no less than three city walls. Porta San Vitale, one of the 13th-century entrances to the city, is still standing today.

Even despite the fortified walls, some of the local aristocracy felt the need to convert their own homes into towers from whose bastions they could keep an eye on marauding invaders. By 1256, it was thought there were as many as 180 tower-homes in the center of the city.

Today, two of those towers have become symbols of Bologna. Standing tall in the very heart of the city, Garisenda and Asinelli remind us of the city's glorious past.

Modern-day marauding invaders (aka "tourists") can climb to the top of Asinelli, if they have the fortitude.

During the 11th century, what is now known as the oldest university in Europe was founded here. Among its students were Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch, and it still thrives today as a renowned institute of higher learning. Bologna was among the first cities to legally abolish slavery (known in the Middle Ages as "feudalism"). By the end of the 13th century, it had become the sixth largest city in Europe, but the Black Plague of 1348 killed as many as 60,000 of its inhabitants. At that time, many homes in the city might have looked like Casa Seracchioli, with its Gothic doors and windows, and ground-floor portico.

Eventually, so many porticoes were built that it became possible to walk from one end of the historic town to another without getting rained or snowed upon. You will not be able to miss them; indeed, it is said that there are no less than 41km of porticoes in the center of Bologna! This clever innovation has been copied today in many countries with harsh weather.

Another public endeavor of which Bologna could be proud was its extensive networks of canals, which brought water and mechanical energy into the city from the mighty Po River. In the 1950s, many of them were covered over, but some can still be seen today.

In 1506, Pope Julius II invaded Bologna and forced it to become part of the Papal States. Perhaps as a token of its importance to the realm, Pope Clement VII chose its center square, Piazza Maggiore, to be the place where he crowned King Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor.

At that time, Bologna would have looked much as it does today. Because it is one of the most staunchly left-leaning cities in Italy, there is much debate about whether its nickname "Bologna La Rossa" (Red Bologna) refers to its politics or its roofs.

For a modern visitor, one of the most fascinating sites to see in Bologna is the anatomical theatre in Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio at the University. It was built in 1637 and consists of a round "theatre" in which students sat to observe surgical operations and autopsies.

In 2005, UNESCO included Bologna in its Creative Cities Network, naming it the City of Music thanks to its long history of promoting musical creativity, and its ongoing efforts to make music an integral part of the present-day economy of the city. We highly recommend a visit to the International Museum of Music, where you can see numerous historical instruments displayed in elaborately furnished and frescoed rooms that are similar to those of the fabulously wealthy sponsors of the composers we still love today.

The old stock exchange is a magnificent building that offers free Internet access, multimedia terminals, restaurants, cafes, a wine bar and a cafeteria. At ground level, excavated Roman ruins can be seen beneath the glass floor.

The last great local celebrity, and one that perhaps attracts more foreigners than any other, is its food. While la cucina bolognese is famed for its elaborate meat dishes, perhaps the most beloved local specialty is a simple pasta soup called tortellini in brodo. Be sure to try some while you are here!

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To make the most of your time in Bologna, consider a private walking tour of the historic center.

The Teatro Anatomico is in Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio, Piazza Galvani 1. Tel. (051) 276-811.

The Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale is in Palazzo Sanguinetti, located at Strada Maggiore, 34. Tel. (051) 275-7711.

The stock exchange (Sala Borsa) is at Piazza Nettuno 3. Open Tues-Fri 10am-8pm, Sat 10am-7pm, Mon 2:30-8pm. Tel (051) 219-4426.

More photos of Bologna La Rossa