Tipping the Hat to Al Cappello Rosso in Bologna, Italy

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When the popes of yore held considerable temporal power, they made sure to stamp it firmly on Bologna, installing weighty bronze statues and chiseled coats of arms throughout the city. Joining many of the triple tiaras are the wide brims and hanging tassels of the cardinals, who kept a firm grip on local scene on behalf of the pontifex maximus in Rome. From these potentates, Al Cappello Rosso takes its name, logo, and rich red colors, but happily, little of the spirit.

Instead, the hotel draws inspiration from Bologna’s revolutionary spirit that endowed it with the nickname “la rossa” and gives it a four-star polish, primarily by bringing in artists to enhance the inevitably cramped spaces of a building originally put up in 1375. The effect not only expands the sense of space but brightens the property far more than the sunlight filtering through the windows.

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Like Italian cuisine itself, Al Cappello Rosso’s design savvy doesn’t hit you on the first moment, but takes a time to develop. In fact, after strolling across Bologna’s gorgeous Piazza Maggiore  and hanging a left down , the first steps through the lazy sliding doors don’t—and can’t—enrapture to the same degree. To the right, a lounge with bare white walls fields a few mildly quirky pieces of furniture, including a red leather couch, a few stacked suitcases, a vintage travel trunk serving as a coffee table,  and another, opened and turned on its side to create a make-shift bookshelf. Opposite, a white sofa curls around the other wall and front window.

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Turn left from the entry corridor and find the reception desk, itself a way stop into yet another lounge area that turns up the design element. This time, a Tetris-style wall of lime-green shelves hosts a collection of books and assorted knickknacks: a vintage record player, a mandarin-colored vase, a bronze ant sculpture, and even the house fire extinguisher. On the opposite walls, sawed off suitcase tops jut out of the wall like footholds on a climbing wall, with bottles of cologne and perfume perched on each.

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If you forswear the elevator and take the stairs, you’ll see yet more cute touches on the way up, including full-sized bronze statues out the staircase windows that look into a central service shaft no guest can visit. It’s an impressive effort considering it probably translates to no more than a blur in the corner of the eye to most who pass by. On the corridors of each floor, the playful attitude continues, with quotes stenciled on the wall (“Il monde e come un libro, e chi non viaggia ne legge solo una pagina”) and mini take-a-book, leave-a-book libraries for guests.

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But the real gusto is saved for the rooms themselves. Over the years, Al Cappello Russo has brought in individual artists to decorate rooms according to their whimsy, including one “typewriter room,” which lays out an entire vintage keyboard on the ceiling above the bed to tap mentally while lying on your back. The top and bottom half of the walls are bisected by a painted red-black ribbon, adorned in one spot with a quote by Ray Bradbury: “I don’t have a computer. A computer’s a typewriter. I already have a typewriter.”

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For many, the favorite rooms are the five decorated by artists related the International Comics Festival Bilbolbul, which occurs annually in Bologna. My room, 304, (starting at $115 per night) indeed unfolded like the panels of a comic strip amid the cardinal red bed spread and lamps, with Batman-like shout outs (Argh, Gasp, Bam) among other whimsical doodles by Giulia Sagramola scrawled on the walls. Two full sides take a more gallery approach, with framed art from many festival participants depicting all manner of comic fantasy—an octopus and owl here, a nude woman and anime action hero there. Whichever picture you turn to, it’s worth a moment’s linger, and usually more.

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But that’s probably the only reason to spend any real time in the room besides sleeping and bathing, as size-wise, there’s little more than a bed, desk, and about an arm’s length of space around, which isn’t much. Nor does the bathroom or product beckon any long soaks in the tub.  But in one of the most charming and walkable cities in Europe, sleeping is about all you should use the hotel for, especially as the hotel’s super central location ensures nearly all of the city’s main sights are in easy walking distance.

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The exception is Al Cappello Rosso’s osteria, which aims “to bring the smells, flavors and atmosphere of traditional Bolognese taverns back to life in modern-day Bologna.” This is pretty much the same for just about every restaurant on the city that trades on the city’s rich culinary reputation (think tortellini) and indeed it must be quite a challenge to convince guests to stay in when so many incredible dining options surround. But the osteria acquits itself remarkably well, serving the typical dishes at “honest prices” (according to my Bolognese friend) and is worth at least one meal if you are staying more than a night. If not, you’ll simply see it at breakfast.

It’s a testament to Al Cappello Rosso that it continues to rise in my estimation in the weeks following my stay. Although not all the rooms get the artistic treatment (so choose carefully), spaces can be cramped at time, and noise from the street continues through much of the night, the hotel makes every effort to go beyond its limitations, physical or other, and largely succeeds. Should I be lucky enough to return to Bologna, it’s the first place I’d look for a room, and the first I’d recommend to you.

Go to the hotel website to check rates and make your reservation. You can also compare rates and book through one of the many online booking sites such as Travelocity or Hotels.com.

Mike Dunphy stayed as a guest of Al Cappello Rosso

All photos by Mike Dunphy

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