The lively university city of Bologna is a great medieval townscape with Renaissance palaces and miles of ochre-coloured arcades. The city centres itself on twin piazzas, Maggiore and Nettuno - handsome public spaces surrounded on all sides by medieval palaces. 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 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.
Bologna is also a city of porticos, which stretch for nearly 25 miles (40 kilometres) in the city centre, and of the Garisenda tower, the only real leaning tower in Italy (the leaning tower of Pisa is in fact a bell tower). As an Etruscan settlement, Bologna later became a Roman town (Bononia). During the medieval period, the city developed into a free commune which reached the peak of its power in the 13th Century. Despite falling under the control of the Papal States in the 16th Century, the city maintained legal and political autonomy. Bologna town centre is one of the best conserved in Europe, and is full of beautiful palaces and churches packed with art that bear witness to the cultural importance of the city over the centuries.