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Ribboned by 17 miles of loggias - elegantly arched porticoes - Bologna's streets are unique in Italy, indeed, in the world. From its surrounding hills this Renaissance city, nestled between Venice and Florence, resembles a terracotta basket. With its walls flushed salmon, its rooftops red, Bologna is among the most visually sublime of northern Italian cities. To wander under its canopied loggias, stopping briefly to study the frescoes that decorate the facades of its palazzi and ancient university, is indeed the best introduction to a city whose identity is splendidly complex.

In the family of Italian cities, Bologna is the winningly eccentric relative - a crank, a genius, a tough visionary. And like all true eccentrics, there's a fiery logic to its schemes.

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It's impossible to be cool about Bologna. The most contentious - and, therefore, possibly the most Italian of cities - it inspires fierce partisanship. How can one be dispassionate about a city whose university, the oldest in Europe, predating even Oxford and Cambridge, hired women law professors to instruct Petrarch and Thomas a Becket? For centuries Bologna has approximated an urban ''Canterbury Tales,'' a procession of mad botanists, renegade friars, staunch jurists, and fiendishly brilliant inventors. A city so generous in its identity that Marconi could invent the radio; Charles V crown himself Emperor; and Rossini, in the best Italian tradition, settle just for the cuisine.

A stubborn individualism beats at the heart of this city. If, traditionally, Rome is the seat of Imperial will, then Bologna is its maverick counterpart. Doggedly improvising its independence, Bologna was the first Italian city to emancipate its serfs, the first to rekindle the letter of Roman law. It's this instinct for autonomy that, until the 15th century, allowed Bologna to resist genuflecting to the Papal States as well as to fascism during World War II.

Bologna is a city of gloriously lived paradoxes. The wealthiest nonindustrial city in northern Italy, it's run by the Communist Party. (In a city famed for its salmon-color walls, it gives new meaning to the term ''Bologna Red.'') Yet only in Bologna could party adherents surface at rallies garbed in gold sandals and designer jeans. In a country that glorifies long-suffering, theirs is no fierce denunciation of the worldly but of the material. Yet nowhere can one shop or eat as well as in this city. A showcase of temptation, it abounds in the forbidden: expensive foods, leather goods, textiles.

It's a city where Marx and MasterCard vie equally for the fiscal conscience. No matter; Bologna can tolerate that ambiguity. It's a bastion of intellectual inquiry. Yet the students slumped next to the Beckett posters aren't waiting for Godot, but for lunch, a time when no self-respecting militant would consider striking. It's this dedicated bourgeois approach that's earned Bologna its two sobriquets: dotta (learned) and grassa (fat). Students, collapsed in existential crisis, revive on cue to what is regarded as the finest food in Italy.

Initially, it's easy to get sidetracked by Bologna's most obvious paradox: Rebellion is institutionalized and institutions are forever fermenting with dissent. But its identity as a city runs deeper. There's an inner life to this city that brims like yeast in a bowl. Now when I visit Bologna, it's not the one-hour strikes I notice, but the astonishing life of its markets - eels slithering in white porcelain basins, freshly cut flowers, strawberries the size of a child's fist.

Sitting in the Piazza Maggiore, under a clock where for three centuries people have met, quarreled, and betrayed dates, I observe Bologna passing. It's here one's introduction to the city begins. Sit and study a cross section: the students, their faces masked in elaborate boredom; the old women, net shopping bags drooping from their arms; the black-suited businessmen, their shirts as crisp a banknotes; the teen-agers, new-wave urchins dotted in confetti clothes. In their tangerine-colored tights they look no different than their medieval ancestors who strutted in this square 400 years ago.

Unlike Florence, some 50 miles to the south, Bologna is a consciously insular city. If Florence is an open-air museum, its beauty stretching before us like an open palm, then Bologna is more furtive. While the Renaissance swept this all-brick city, its feel is decidedly gothic. Indeed, there's something almost Byzantine about Bologna, the consequence, perhaps, of its ancient Masonic tradition, its history of religious and political syndicates.

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Even its architecture supports that irony. In a city famed for its loggias - those covered arcades that ribbon 17 miles within Bologna's walls - one can circle endlessly without ever penetrating its core. Bologna's identity rests largely within its institutions - its academic and civic faculties, its monastic network. The 19th-century traveler, primed with fortitude, would seek these out by instinct. Bologna's hidden treasures - its 14th-century lecture halls, its sanctuaries, its tombs of medieval lawyers and saints - were the reward of a strategic imagination.

Unwilling to spend unmarked time, today's traveler, content with a cathedral shot and a fistful of postcards, leaves Bologna strangely unsatisfied. What have I missed? he asks. One of the great cities in Italy, one that demands work. Bologna is like a sonnet - tightly constructed, its parts interrelated, full of austere poetry. To fathom its institutions - for example, the Archiginnasio, the Piazza Galvani's magnificent library - takes more than a good map. It requires a healthy disregard for authority. In Bologna, where bulldogging bureaucrats is a national sport, a useful phrase is: ''But, sir, I've come all this way to see. . . .'' In this regard Bologna satisfies travel's deepest instinct: getting into places where one shouldn't be.

The capital of Emilia-Romagna province, Bologna is situated at the northern end of the Apennines. The focal point of Byzantine, Roman, and Lombard culture, Bologna - as today - was an important toll junction to the south. By the year 1000 Bologna was already a commune, its collective agrarian ownership signaling the demise of the old feudal order. With the rise of trade in the 12th century, Bologna's mercantile nobility cultivated its pearl - the university.

Claiming to have received law directly from the ancient world, Bologna has Europe's oldest law school. (In 1988 it celebrates its 900th anniversary.) From 1125 on, it lured foreign scholars, among them Thomas a Becket, a student from 1143 to 1148, who, it's said, brought Vacarius, an Italian lawyer, to Oxford, where he delivered its first lecture on Roman law.

By the 13th century Bologna numbered 10,000 students. The paucity of student housing - a problem plaguing Bologna today - spawned its architectural hallmark: the loggia. (Casa Isolani on the Strada Maggiore is the best-preserved example of the earliest extended facade.) Loggias did more than shelter students. By linking every house in Bologna, they promoted trade and spawned social communication. Urban democracy has no more concrete symbol than Bologna's loggia.

The best time to see Bologna is on an early Sunday morning before the city stirs. Start at the Piazza Maggiore and the Piazza del Nettuno, intersecting squares which, with nearby Piazza di Porta Revegnana, form the heart of Bologna. Piazza Maggiore, the focal point of Bolognese life since the 13th century, is dominated by San Petronio. A fine example of late Gothic architecture, further construction of the church was curtailed in the 15th century, when Rome feared it might rival St. Peter's. Its luminous basilica and the Bologini chapel frescoed by Giovanni da Modena are particularly noteworthy.

Between the Piazza Maggiore and the Piazza del Nettuno (so called for the Gianbologna statue) is the Palazzo di Re Enzo where King Enzo, poet son of Frederick the Great, was imprisoned from 1249 to 1272. Heading east along Via Rizzoli, stroll to the Piazza di Porta Revegnana. The most characteristic square in Bologna, its landmarks are two leaning towers - the Garisendi and the Asinelli - erected by feuding nobles in the 12th century. Brave the Asinelli's 486 steps for an unrivaled view of Bologna, its medieval streets shooting toward the city's 12 gates.

From the Piazza di Porta Revegnana, head east on Via Santo Stefano till you reach Santo Stefano, a complex of originally eight (now four) churches St. Petronius conceived in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Bologna's second-most impressive church is San Giacomo Maggiore on the nearby Via Zamboni. Built in 1267 and reconstructed around 1500, it's where the Bentivoglio family celebrated its illustrious members. Lorenzo Costa's frescoes of Giovanni il Bentivoglio as well as tombs of medieval lawyers make this stop imperative.

Bologna boasts innumerable art museums, the finest being the Pinacoteca Nazionale (Via delle Belle Arti), which houses such Bolognese masters as Jacopo di Paola and such ''foreign'' painters such as Raphael and Vasari. Many of Bologna's great art treasures, however, reside in its churches. Niccolo dell' Arca's all-wood Pieta, in which mourners are caught in tragic frenzy, is tucked behind an altar in Santa Maria della Vita (Via Clavatore).

The real tour of Bologna begins when the guidebook ends. Or so I learned from my friend, Paola, a university lecturer who, like her medieval role models, is resolved to Bologna's contradictions. We went off to the real Bologna: the markets, the restaurants, the shops.

Bologna is the heart of Italian cuisine. If you're indifferent to food, this isn't your city. Its markets burst with freshness - shiny eggplants, sun-ripened tomatoes, spiky artichokes. Food stores like Tamborini's off the Piazza Maggiore are a miracle of presentation: tissue-thin Parma ham, scaled like a medieval coat of arms; glass jars, triangulated with fruit; cheeses, piled like cathedral stones.

Threading our way through the day market near Bologna's cathedral, San Pietro , we hopped into Paola's car, which has survived Bologna's demonstrations and its drivers. I'm not sure how we got to San Luca, the shrine atop Monte della Guardia, as I had my eyes closed most of the way. But I was glad we went. The shrine commands a view of the Apennines as well as the Adriatic. But its real attraction is the 666 arches that compose the loggia that connects Bologna to the shrine. Undulating up the hill, the loggia was built as shelter for the shrine's pilgrims.

Today it is pilgrims like Paola and myself - modern pilgrims in this Italian Canterbury Tale - who come to survey the beauty that is Bologna. With its slanted roofs and leaning towers, its Renaissance palaces and medieval university, there's little hint of the inspired dissent that keeps Bologna forever in turmoil, forever unique.

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