“How about a motorbike tour of the city?” he offered.
It was a warm evening and the cobble-stoned streets were lined with twinkling lights, young Friday night party revelers, college coeds, and couples with hands intertwined, enjoying all that the city had to offer. It reminded me in some ways of my college town, where everyone hung out as if in one cohesive group, bringing a warmth and energy to our small city that is rare to find elsewhere.
“Absolutely,” I replied. Riding a motorbike on a warm night has quickly become one of my favorite things.
I have to be honest, when I think about “my place” in the world, almost nowhere in Europe really comes to mind. I feel very at home in Asia and I never have been able to discern why. I guess it was just the friendliness of locals in the small towns, the natural beauty, and the innate cultural warmness and inclusiveness that tends to be present in so many places in Asia. I thought it just had to do with the difference in Eastern vs. Western culture, and figured the rest of the world simply lacked that kind of warmth.
Then I came to Bologna in Emilia Romagna, Italy, and realized that it has all of that and more.
In the past, the various places in Europe haven’t really given me that welcoming feeling, but I understand why now: I was always firmly on the tourist trail.
Off the beaten path travel is all about finding smaller towns – places that haven’t yet been overrun by tourism and don’t leave locals feeling exhausted by the occasional bad egg.
Bologna, and especially the smaller surrounding towns, like Modena and Nonantola, truly felt different to me. I don’t know how else to explain it or put my finger on it, but places are always about the people, and the people just seemed really nice in this part of Italy.
Included in this group is Francesco, a med student in Bologna whom I had met via couchsurfing. He takes pride in both his cooking ability (and rightly so) and hospitality. He delights in taking visitors around Bologna, showing them the awesome street art and historical sights.
He knows every little secret of the city – things that a guidebook can’t tell you. It’s experiences like this, hanging out with locals, that always really make a place for me.
“It feels really safe here,” I said to him. It was 1am and the streets were still bustling with young people, running around, laughing, and enjoying the warm evening.
“At least 120,000 students live in Bologna,” he replied to me, “almost every family has someone here, so it has to be safe.”
It made sense. I didn’t walk around clutching my bag, scared of being pick-pocketed like I was in Rome. I didn’t get practically bowled over by hoards of people like I did in Florence, and I didn’t have rude men cat calling after me here like I did in Sorrento. I felt completely alright walking around by myself, walking around at night, and trusting my intuition which told me that things there were different, in a good way.
I went to Italy with no expectations and left with a heavy heart, because it really captivated me.
Europe definitely warrants a deeper exploration, so I think I’ll stick around this continent a bit longer than originally planned and see what other beautiful gems it may hold.
*Thanks to BlogVille in Emilia Romagna for helping me rediscover Italy. I was a guest of theirs but all opinions are my own.