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Living the italian dream; Fast cars and slow food make Bologna a great place to discover the Italian way of life says Kathryn Williams.

TRAVEL

WHATEVER you do in Italy, don't use a knife to eat your gnocchi, or any pasta for that matter or you'll quickly be spotted as an impostor.

Eating and drinking was what attracted me to going to Italy - anything else was just a bonus. But combined with a trip around the Music and Motor Valley of the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy, it made for a truly memorable trip.

After flying into Bologna with Ryanair it wasn't long before the eating commenced.

But first I checked into the Bologna Art Hotel Novecento. Set in the historical centre of the city, this elegant hotel offers panoramic views of the city from the top floor.

My first stop was the centre of Bologna where the red basilica, churches and porticos gave the city one of its many nicknames "the Red" and as with most European cities, the main square is at the centre of the action.

The piazza Maggiore is home to the city's main monuments, the Basilica of San Pet-ronioone of the world's largest churches, built in the 14th century and completed in the 17th, it contains beautiful frescos by Giovanni Da Modena.

Bologna has the oldest university in the western world and on piazza Netunno, is the Sala Borsa, now the city's main library. The building has seen many changes over the years from a stock exchange, a basket ball court and is now home to one of Europe's biggest multimedia libraries.

Its clear floor allows you to catch a glimpse of the remains of older civilisations.

The city's restaurants boast a mix of traditional and modern cuisine. My first port of call was Le Stanze Caf, a former 16th century chapel with floor to ceiling frescos. It provides an unusual and eclectic backdrop to DJ sets and bistro-style lunches.

Here I sampled Bologna's signature dish for the first time, pasta ragu (or bolognese as we know it). It's usually served with tagliatelle and is nothing like Loyd Grossman's version.

The dry, intensely meaty dish is miles away from any served in a UK Italian chain, and is delicious. It's usually also served as one of two pasta dishes, coming straight after a platter of antipasti - local meats, salami, mortadella and prosciutto, and promptly followed by a meat course and dessert.

After such a generous lunch there's no better way to walk it off than by taking in the musical history of the area. A good place to start is the International Museum and Library of Music.

Opened in 2004, it charts the history of great composers who learnt from one of the most eminent names of 18th century music - Father Giovanni Battista Martini.

If you want to see today's maestros in action, visit the Teatro Communale in Carpi where I saw a moving production of La Traviata.

For dinner we were spoilt for choice, but went to the rustic Cantina Bentivoglio in the university district, where jazz musicians entertained us as we ate.

I tucked into more delicious pasta, a lemon and bacon tagliatelle, which proved that Italians are the best at making tasty dishes with the simplest of ingredients. A main course of pork escalope served with rosemary potatoes was out of this world - the best pork I've ever tasted The Emilia Romagna region will definitely rev your engine if you are a car lover. Lamborghini, Ferrari, Panini, Stanguellini, Maserati and motorcycle masters, Ducati, all have their own museums.

And at one I actually had chance to have a test drive - and sitting inside a Lamborghini Murcilago LP640 with its 640 horse power I was anticipating that we would go quite fast. And we did. Around corners, in the rain, on a public road - it was amazing.

Though top for audience participation, the Lamborghini factory at Sant'Agata Bolognese, was no match for the Galleria Ferrari at Maranello, where if you don't dress completely in red you look out of place. The outstanding collection of cars should keep you occupied for an afternoon. You can even book a table at Ristorante Paddock, where you'll find the gnocchi quite a challenge to finish off.

In Modena I stayed at the Hotel Real Fini Via Emilia. Very business-friendly, the staff were welcoming and helpful.

The town has many non-motor orientated activities to keep you busy. The traditional Balsamic Vinegar House at Villa San Donnino is worth a look for the chance to taste the best balsamic vinegar and dressings, some aged for more than 25 years. Traditional Modenese cuisine is a must and the Taverna Dei Servi did not disappoint, incorporating the local product into their delicious risotto and meat course.

The Italians certainly know how to live, and Bologna and Modena are examples of the best the country has to offer. They like their cars fast, their food slow and their music varied.

FIVE THINGS TO DO Violin VIP: Go behind the scenes of Emilia Romagna's musical side at violin maker Bruno Stefanini's shop in the centre of Bologna - it's a treasure trove of musical memorabilia. Via Delle Belle Arti, 9/B 40126, Bologna. www.brunostefanini. it Rev it up: The Stanguellini collection of cars is definitely worth a look, if not just for the race department, the traditional workshop that still repairs cars for customers and museum alike. An appointment must be made to look at this stunning collection. Stanguellini, Via Emilia Est, 756-41100, Modena.

www.stanguellini. it View from the top: South-west of the city centre sits the Santuario della Madonna di San Luca. The church is a half hour climb through a 4km portico, but the view at the top is well worth the wait.

Taste of the region: Take a step away from the more traditional tavernas and try Ristoranate Twinside. Promoting local products and local vineyards it's still a taste of real Bologna. Via de Falegnami 6, 40121 Bologna.

Shop around: Visit Bologna's quadrilatero area, the food and wine market district and pick up fresh meat, vegetables, fish and of course the local prosecco.

FLIGHTS Flights to Bologna from Stansted with Ryanair start from pounds 12.99, keep searching for the best deals at ryanair.com.

Boutique hotel Art Hotel Novocento can be booked for 145 euros per night, for a single room with breakfast included, or 210 euros for a standard double room, www.bolognarthotels.it.

Our second stay at Hotel Real Fini Via Emilia cost 165 euros for a twin room, including breakfast. Go to www.hotelviaemilia.it for details and special offers.

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Delicious food and fast cars made this an Italian trip to remember Some of the beautiful architecture in Italy
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 30, 2009
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