La dolce vita in Bologna and Turin

Life in northern Italy as an Erasmus student

Read more

La dolce vita in Bologna and Turin

Pizza, pasta, ice cream, centuries of cultural history, a Mediterranean climate and that beautiful language; no wonder Italy is such a popular holiday destination. But why not stay there for a longer period of time? TU/e students Jolijn Martens and Tom Plat travelled to the land of Verdi, Dante and Da Vinci with an Erasmus grant. They talk to Cursor from their address in Bologna and Turin respectively, about living in Italy and life inside their 'Erasmus bubble'.

photo Le Chat Noir / iStock

Bologna and Turin are two cities in northern Italy. Turin is located in the northwestern region, overlooked by the Alps. When you travel east, you’ll find Bologna, at the crossroads between Venice and Florence. By Dutch standards, both cities have a massive student population of approximately 90,000 students each.

Both cities have their own unique characteristics. Turin (900,000 inhabitants) is the second-largest city in northern Italy after Milan, with majestic streets full of baroque palazzi. The city is famous for the mysterious Shroud of Turin, said to contain an imprint of the face of Jesus. Bologna is smaller (400,000 inhabitants) and more compact, with small winding streets and the world’s oldest university, which was founded in 1088, some nine centuries before TU/e was founded (1956). Turin’s major landmark is the Mole Antonelliana, Bologna has two towers, both of which lean at a dangerously steep incline, just like their counterpart in Pisa.

Click the photos to enlarge

But there are similarities as well: both cities have covered colonnades that stretch for many kilometers, so that you can walk trough the city and do your shopping throughout the year, in rain and sunshine. And both cities have a highly sophisticated food culture, a street scene dominated by huge numbers of Vespas – and bicycles, compared to other Italian cities – and, as stated above, massive numbers of students from all over the world. Among them are TU/e students Tom Plat and Jolijn Martens.

Culture shock

TU/e student Tom Plat (22) originally planned to study in Singapore for a semester. When something went wrong with his registration, he suddenly had to come up with a plan B. “I chose Turin.” The master’s student Innovation Management (IE&IS) enrolled at the Politecnico di Torino. Apart from his Engineering & Management courses, he also takes Italian lessons.

Is he still upset about not being able to study in Singapore? “No, not at all. I was ready to expose myself to an entirely different culture, but I can tell you that you experience something of a culture shock here as well.” By Dutch standards, things aren’t always organized all that well, he came to realize.

“Lectures, for example, last three hours, with a break only if the teacher allows it. And they end when the next lecture starts, which makes it impossible to get there on time – let alone eat your lunch.”

Like a true Dutchman, Tom brought his bicycle to Italy. By now, he has had a number of near-accidents. “And to think that Turin is the ultimate cycling city, according to Italians. If that’s true, I’m not even going to try and ride my bike in other Italian cities.”


Many of the other cultural differences, however, show Turin’s positive side. “The Italians I meet are very hospitable. The students from the south a bit more so than those from the north.”

Italians also love food: they love to cook, dine, and above all talk about the best products and where you can find them. “My Italian housemates can prepare a wonderful meal with a few ingredients they happen to find in their fridge.”

“When I cook it’s usually some kind of pasta mash. Because if I want to make pasta carbonara, or some other classic Italian dish, I first need to answer all kinds of questions about the recipe. How many eggs do I put into it? Where does the cheese come from?”

Erasmus bubble

Studying abroad for a semester isn’t just about getting to know a different culture. It’s also about immersing yourself in the Erasmus bubble: a totally self-contained universe of international students with Erasmus grants who set out to explore the world. Tom is enjoying it to the full.

“At home, I often talk to the same friends, and my agenda is usually overbooked for the coming two weeks. Here, on the other hand, I meet new people every day and hardly plan anything in advance, I just go with the flow. We do lots of fun things together, like going on a wine tasting tour or to a Juventus game, but everything is very spontaneous. Erasmus students also organize weekend trips. For example, I’m going to ski in the Alps for a few days.”

The Erasmus students visit various squares in Turin when they go out for drinks at night. “One place serves the best aperitivo – a Turin ritual with drinks and free appetizers. Another place serves the best Aperol, the ultimate drink for students here. Yes, I’ve learned to appreciate it.”


Two Italy dilemmas to round off with. Pizza or pasta? “That’s a difficult one, but if I have to choose: pizza.” And: Italian coffee or beer? “Coffee and Aperol.”

Slightly in love

Jolijn Martens (23) had an ideal starting position when her Erasmus adventure began: “I’ve earned my required credits and I had some time left before I get started with my master’s thesis. A good opportunity to travel abroad for some time, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.”

The master’s student Data Science & Artificial Intelligence went looking for a university that offered courses that were in line with the subject of her thesis. “It’s about automatic object recognition in images.”

She found those courses at the Scuola di Ingegneria, a department of the Università di Bologna, which was rather fortuitous: “I was slightly in love with Italy already.”

Cramming words

Apart from her university courses, Jolijn also takes Italian lessons. “The university offers those lessons for free. It’s fun to learn a language again after six years of math and programming – cramming words, etcetera. I would otherwise never have done that.”

Lectures in Bologna last two hours instead of three. But like those in Turin, one lecture follows the next one without a break. “The teachers don’t mind if you get to class too late though, they’ve come to expect that.”

And the content of the lectures? “As an Erasmus student, you start in the middle of a different curriculum. Sometimes they dwell on something I’ve heard ten times already, and sometimes they move way too fast for me. But I find the lectures very interesting.”

Room hunting

How does she like living in Bologna? “It’s a nice, but very crowded and busy city. Everyone lives on a relatively small surface. The advantage is that I can go everywhere on foot. I don’t need a bicycle and hardly ever use public transportation.” The comparatively large number of students is evident as you walk the streets. “I practically only see people my age. There aren’t nearly as many families with children, for example.”

But that high number of students also has its disadvantages: “It’s really, very, very difficult to find a room here. Even more so than in Eindhoven. I’ve heard stories about Erasmus students who were forced to spend their entire semester in hotels and AirBnBs, but that’s impossible to afford. If you want to study here, start hunting for a room on time!” Jolijn was lucky: “A room became available in a student house where a fellow TU/e student lives.”


Joijn no longer embraces nightlife all that often, she says, but there’s more than enough to experience in and outside of the Erasmus community. “Bologna has two associations for international students, both of which organize many activities. There’s literally something new you can do every day: you can go out to dinner, practice sports together, take a walking tour of the city, or go on a weekend trip.”

She met some friends during those activities with whom she now undertakes fun things. “I try to travel a lot. Bologna is conveniently located; the train gets you everywhere you want fast. I’ve been to Venice, Verona, Milan, Cinque Terre and Florence, and I’d like to go to Rome this weekend.”


Like Tom, Jolijn also has a hard time choosing between pasta and pizza. “That’s a difficult one. When we go out to dinner I order a pizza, because I don’t make that at home. But pasta offers more possibilities. My favorite is pasta carbonara.” Not pasta Bolognese – Bologna’s home recipe? “No, but I like that too though. They call it pasta al ragù here by the way. If you say pasta Bolognese, they get angry.”

And after dinner, it’s time for coffee. “I try to obey the Italian rule that you only drink cappuccino in the morning. But as someone who clearly looks like a foreigner – I’m tall and blond – I get away with ordering a second cappuccino at lunchtime. It just tastes so good.”

Share this article