This article was originally written in Bulgarian for a travel guide on TravelSmart.bg about our 2016 trip to Italy (Bologna, Imola, Rimini, Florence, Mugello)
I love Italy. I lived there as an Erasmus student, but years had passed since I had last been there. When Stef got me an airplane ticket to Bologna as a present I decided to return the gesture and get him another kind of ticket for the racetrack in Mugello: one of the iconic sites of Moto Gran Prix, better known as Moto GP. We only had to link the two activities with a travel plan connecting Bologna (in the Emilia-Romagna region) and the city closest to the track: the magnificent Florence (in Tuscany).
Arrival, accommodation and daily trips
We travelled with Wizzair to Bologna, where I had booked a room at Christina Rossi Bed & Breakfast: a charming, family hotel ran by the children of the owners. The boy and the girl welcomed us every morning with a rich meal in probably the nicest breakfast room I have ever seen. The old building had the distinct high ceilings of mid-20 century architecture and everything the hosts served us on various glass trays put a real Bohemian charm to the whole experience.
All guests were seated around a single big table. So every morning you could meet all other travelers, share stories and start the day by with conversations in all kinds of languages.
Trains in Bulgaria are a last resort when it comes to travelling, but the rail transportation in Italy is convenient, well arranged and really affordable. The Trenitalia network covers a huge number of routes and, with the exception of its trademark delays (in Southern Europe you cannot really expect things to happen strictly according to schedule) a clock basis), trains are the perfect choice for travelling across the country.
For 4 nights in Bologna, we spent only a day and a half in the city, and the rest of the time we spent travelling to neighbouring cities like Imola (where the legend Ayrton Sena died) and Rimini (the birthplace of the great Federico Fellini).
Roundtrip train tickets for day trips from Bologna are in the range of 6-8 euros to most cities in the region (keep in mind that in peak hours and for fast trains, prices are higher). In general, big cities are great “headquarters: you can book a ho(s)tel or Airbnb there and then travel around and visit smaller places of interest nearby. Wherever you are in Italy, my advice is to spend the night in a big city and use the trains to explore the less famous places around your destination: you will be surprised how much Italy has to offer outside its biggest tourist destinations.
The first (still active) university in the world was opened in 1088 in medieval Bologna. Among the famous alumni of the institution are several poets, Nicolas Copernicus, Pico Della Mirandola, Petrarca, Marconi – the inventor of the radio, the great Italian directors Antonioni and Pasolini, Enzo Ferrari and others. The city is a center of science and culture with a remarkable history – it is not possible to cover all of it in one short article, so I will try to stick to the travel tips.
La Dolce Vita
Because of the famous university, the city is full of many young people (Italians and foreigners). A combination of its young residents, laid-back lifestyle and century-old history makes it easy to experience the “the sweet life” (la dolce vita).
Before choosing one of the many museums in the city (I recommend the Bologna Museum of History ): visit Cineteca di Bologna. In every major Italian city, there is a lot of history and culture but you will benefit if you combine them with “downtime” to really enjoy life, the Italian way.
Simply take your time and go with the flow: the city is too tiny for you to really get lost and you can only benefit from improvising and enjoying the energy of the people and the city. Without a map or a strict plan.
Eating and drinking like a local
If you want to be as local, order your espresso at the bar and drink it quickly as you are standing up. For extra points, glance through the local newspaper placed nearby while you are drinking.
A mandatory Italian thing to try is aperitivo. It is not just an aperitif drink (as in other countries) but an afternoon and early tradition: for every drink you order, you are served free snacks. Average bars (keep in mind that sometimes even expensive places are actually pretty average) only offer chips, peanuts and/ or mini pizza slices. Really good venues, however, offer everything from cocktail bites to small portions of pasta.
I recommend the Nearea bar (which was obviously popular with the students): they offer a buffet with a wide variety of food options. As a person with insulin resistance, this was actually great for me because unlike most other places they also offer a lot of salads and meat.
It is no coincidence that one of Bologna’s nicknames is La Grassa (the fat one): the city is famous for its fine food and beloved local staple food: fresh pasta, gelato and popular regional trademarks like mortadella or spuma di mortadella.
Imola is a small town popular mostly with the Formula One track named after Enzo and Dino Ferrari: Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari.
Stef is a great admirer of Airton Senna and we specifically included Imola on our route to see where the Brazilian legend died on May 1, 1994.
It is a very emotional place even if you are not a diehard fan: the area around the monument is full of flags, t-shirts, flowers, letters and little presents left there in memoriam by fans from all over the world (including messages in Bulgarian).
The track is surrounded by a huge park with beautiful alleys and a wide variety of plants, birds and animals. It is like a mini-botanical garden open to the public.
It is an extremely enjoyable place for a walk, and visitors who are interested in Formula 1 can visit the museum next to the track. If you are lucky enough you can also catch a glimpse of race laps with Lamborghini or Ferrari cars outside the race season.
Rimini is one of the most famous seaside resorts of Italy. Although it is not a very large city (about 150,000 inhabitants), there are over 1,000 hotels, including the favourite place of Federico Fellini – Grand Hotel Rimini, which film buffs have seen in movie classics like Amarcord.
We visited the city before the beginning of the season: the Ferris wheel stood uncannily still against the rainy grey sky and the streets were still empty. Even so, it was obvious that the city takes pride in being a popular holiday destinations and I bet it is full of life in the summer.
We walked under the arch of Emperor Augustus (the oldest still-existing Roman arch in the world, built in 27 BC).
We saw kite surfers, rushing to the beach to catch the right wind.
We walked around the marina.
We drank espresso in a small bar with old photos of Fellini on the wall where the owner proudly told us the great director was once a frequent client.
What a great day.
Beauty & History
It is difficult to name just one place as “the most beautiful city in Italy”! Actually, I take my words back: it is downright impossible.
But one thing is certain: Florence deserves to be shortlisted among the most beautiful and historically significant Italian cities. Even if we do not mention the contribution to Italian culture, economics and politics by the Florentine Medici family, it is enough to mention the names of Galileo, Machiavelli and Michelangelo: just a few of the great historical figures buried in the Santa Croce Basilica.
The city is full of amazing museums, squares full of famous sculptures and magnificent churches with artworks like David by Michelangelo, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, Perseus with the head of the Medusa, the dome of the cathedral designed by Brunelleschi and many more.
If you love fine art, do not miss the Uffizi gallery, but reserve your tickets in advance or go with a guide at the earliest possible time: the lines are huge and an impromptu visit will cost you a few hours of waiting. I visited the museum on my first trip to Florence more than 10 years ago and I still remember it (but then again I really love fine art, so it might not be everyone’s cup of tea).
The Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral (Saint Mary of the Flowers) is a stunning work of art. Find a good tour guide or dig into the story of the building because it deserves to be appreciated both for its beauty and its historical significance (see this BBC documentary if you want to learn more).
Be careful! The cathedral and the area around Piazza della Signoria are brimming with pickpockets. Tourists who are stunned by the architecture and the famous sculptures in the piazza (or who are trying to break their personal record for most selfies per minute) are the ideal target. Keep your things safe and if you want to ask strangers to take a photo of you and you are not into marathon running to catch yo choose a less crowded spot.
Personal recommendation: Giardini Boboli
If the weather is good, make sure you visit the Boboli gardens to the Palazzo Pitti palace, after touring your favorite museums and galleries. Our walk through the park of Boboli was such a great experience. I highly recommend it if you enjoy spending time outdoors in beautiful calm settings with a view (from the highest point of the park you can see the entire city of Florence).
If you want to see more of the city away from the crowds take a stroll along the streets on the other side of the Arno river, beyond Ponte Vecchio in the direction of Palazzo Pitti.
Steak Fiorentina and other things you can eat in Florence
Florence is full of tourists, but the highest tourist per square meter ration is around the cathedral, so: the farther away you are, the greater the chance to find good local restaurants (rule of thumb: touristy restaurants never offer the best food).
Steak Fiorentina will cost you a bit, but it is the trademark meal of the city and in good restaurants it is really worth it. Also: please, whatever you do, do not ask them to make it medium rare or well done. A good chef will most probably yell at you in despair. A bad one will take your order and ruin the steak. There is a recipe which makes it steak fiFiorentinand the being well done is not part of it.
Nevertheless, if you want to enjoy good street food near the main tourist attractions, stop at All ‘Antico Vinaio: there is a good reason why all these people to queue across the pavement. The little store sells local delicacies (cheese and sausage), but also makes sandwiches and regularly wins the best street food in Italy. The products are fresh, the region is beautiful and wonderful. As with the steak: do not ask the staff to add ingredients on your whim: the combinations are carefully selected to blend in together and venues like this pride themselves not to be like Subway where you pick what goes into your sandwich.
The place I personally enjoyed the most was Osteria Santo Spirito. Wonderful rabbit stew, great wine and huge portions. I ordered 1/2 of the stew (this is the only restaurant I have seen where you choose whether you want a full portion or half) and my plate was brimming with food.
Heading to Mugello: on foot through Tuscany
Pre-planning saves you a lot of time and nerves during each trip, but if you want to go and watch a race on Mugello (one of Italy’s most famous tracks), it’s a good idea to plan very carefully where you will be staying and travelling.
Please check the address carefully if you are looking for places on Booking or AirBnB! Results which look like a place near Mugello are usually not near the Mugello circuit, but near a town with the name Barberino di Mugello (20 km away). The track is outside the town of Scarperia e San Pietro which, to add further confusion, is a different town from San Pietro a Sieve. So if you decide to use regional transport or even GPS: triple check all names!
The best way to get to the track is (if you love long motorbike trips) to go on a moto-trip through Europe. The second best way (if you do not have local friends) is to rent a car (in Italy, the person driving the car should pay with a credit card for the rental).
We realized the advantages of a rental car at a later stage, but during this trip was our first time and naturally, we chose the worst option: a combination of public transport and walking.
Normally, this is a great way to see most places in Italy, but not Mugello. The elevated terrain between Scarperia and San Pietro a Sieve limits the options for train transportation and frequency of buses is quite limited (1 every hour or every few hours). It was easy to get from Florence to Borgo di San Lorenzo. The beautiful landscape and the climate of Tuscany lured us and we thought “Well, instead of waiting for a bus, why don’t we just walk? Afterall, 6 km is a negligible distance for people who have gone on a 25-kilometre-long hike through the Rila mountain, isn’t it?”.
Well not really.
The first kilometer outside Borgo di San Lorenzo was wonderful: we enjoyed the sun, the Tuscan hills, the outdoor hike. However, we quickly realized, the space for walking narrows down to a small strip of grass on the side of the road, next to the passing cars.
On the map, it looks like there are many fields and green paths but in reality, there is no convenient and safe hiking route for the relatively small distance between Borgo di San Lorenzo and the Mugello racetrack. There were other enthusiasts like us (a group of at least 10 people): we laughed and turned the whole ordeal into a fun experience. When we are together we always manage to have a good time, but in the end, I agreed with Stef: if we go back to Mugello it will be either on a motorcycle or a car. And we will never walk this way again.
Mugello, Moto GP & Valentino Rossi
Watching Moto GP in Mugello was an exciting experience because Valentino Rossi was competing. He is an Italian, and in his homeland, he has the status of semi-God (I am not exaggerating).
People really love him, and he has a long history on Mugello. Tribunes descended into euphoria each time he approached. It was fun to listen to the commentators who spent about 40% of their time talking about what was happening on the track, 30% sharing stories when they first saw Rossi and 30%: screaming in extasy if he managed to get ahead in the race.
For Stef as a fan of the sport, the race was more interesting than for a casual viewer like me. But it was great to be part of the event and observe. The throttle of the engines, the excitement of the audience: it makes such a huge difference to see it in person.
The only unpleasant thing was the huge lines for food and toilets in the pauses. If you go to a race, pack water and snacks. The food at the food truck is mediocre at best and quite expensive. Plus you have to wait a lot for your turn.
Also: make sure you bring sunscreen. There is no shade above the racetrack and the tribunes! Although we were there in the beginning of May, after a full day of sunshine, we looked like a pair of Irish people fallen asleep on the sand at the end of August …
On our way back from the race, we saw that many locals noticed the high demand for transportation and started offering people to give them a lift. It sounds like a really nice gesture but you should think of it as a taxi, not as a favour. Our driver asked us for money in the end even though it looked like he was volunteering to pick up hitch hikers. He also asked for much more money than the ride was worth, so be careful.
On our last night, we stumbled on a small street concert across the river. We ate a homemade pasta in the Osteria Santo Spirito with rabbit stew and red wine (our sunburnt skin was the only thing with a darker shade of red than the wine).
The next day, I even managed to see my best friend from Erasmus, who had travelled 4 hours just to meet me and spend several hours together…It was so great I did not feel like leaving.
How can you not love this place?