The lively university city of Bologna is a great medieval townscape with Renaissance palaces and 40km (25m) of ochre-coloured arcades. The city centres around twin piazzas, Maggiore and Nettuno - handsome public spaces sealed on all sides by medieval palazzi. Here, amid the pigeons, the Bolognese come to shop, to pray, to chat and, of course, to demonstrate.

Bologna's russet cityscape and left-wing reputation has earned it the nickname La Rossa ('the red'), while its hearty appetite has led to the nickname La Grassa ('The Fat'), and its penchant for all things cultural has resulted in the moniker La Dotta ('The Learned') - Umberto Eco teaches at the university, as did Romano Prodi before he went into politics.

The renown of tourist honeypots Florence, Rome and Venice, means that Bologna is often bypassed by the holidaying hordes, and is all the more appealing for it.

The local cuisine goes far beyond the world famous spaghetti Bolognese (something the locals never eat - they call the sauce ragu and would never mix it with spaghetti, but with tagliatelle). Other local specialities include mortadella (baloney) and tortellini, and the region offers some robust and interesting local wines.

The best times to visit are spring and autumn, when the climate is mild (summers are hot, and winters decidedly chilly). Even at the height of the season, tourist numbers seldom become too suffocating. July and August are baking, and a good time for day trippers to head to the breezy Adriatic beaches, less than an hour away.

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