We were barrelling southeast on the Milano-Bologna line at 320kms an hour.
The digital speedometer in our carriage flickered steadily up as the Emilia-Romagna countryside become a streaked blur.
It struck me, had an escapee cow ambled onto the tracks ahead, it’d probably go through someone’s roof in Beirut.
The sleek Trenitalia rattlers often hit 350kmh and are the most comfortable and efficient way to get around the country.
Just an hour after leaving Milano, we pulled into Bologna Centrale and dragged our Imelda-like baggage downtown to quarters on Via Otto Colonne.
We’d booked a modern, self-contained apartment, central and easy to find. Soon we were seated stoically at the kitchen table while a meticulous young manager delivered a lengthy address encapsulating extensive house rules, amenities and security codes. A stay in the Fort Knox bullion vault may have proved less complicated. Thankfully her melodic Italian accent made the ordeal bearable.
At last, with dusk descending, we were free to set off into the warm twilight to see the old part of this celebrated Italian city.
Bologna, Italy’s seventh biggest city, has been an important urban centre for millennia, first under the Etruscans, then the Romans. In the Middle Ages it was a free municipality and signoria, or self-governing city-state, boasting one of the largest city populations in Europe.
Recognised for its many porticos, towers, old shops, food provedores, civic buildings and churches, the city has a well-preserved historical centre ringed by lively neighbourhoods.
This 3000 year old city is less touristy than her glamorous siblings like Rome and Florence, and is vibrant, rather than crowded. It’s home to the the world’s oldest university, established in AD 1088, and hence has a large student population, adding a youthful air to the town.
Like a number of strategically important centres in northern Italy, Bologna suffered extensive damage from Allied bombing during World War II. By the end of the war, 43% of buildings had been destroyed or damaged.
Yet drifting through the old quarter today one is barely aware such heartbreaking destruction, mainly thanks to a careful restoration and conservation policy that began at the end of the 1970s.
In recent years, Bologna has been one of the most prosperous cities in Italy; home to companies like Emilia Romagna, Ducati and Lamborghini. There’s even a Ferrari Museum (though we didn’t get the time to visit.)
Perhaps its greatest culinary claim to fame is spaghetti bolognese, arguably the best-know regional dish on the planet.
Then there’s the sausage: that well-known porky tidbit Bologna, or Baloney, was also invented within those ancient walls. Of course, baloney is now a staple the world over, particularly in school lunch boxes, swimming in tomato sauce and wedged between slices of soggy bread. But Bologna bologna is the real deal – traditional and very tasty.
Our evening walk, or la passeggiata, took us along Via Ugo Bassi and we soon arrived at the famed statue in Piazza del Nettuno. The Fountain of Neptune is the city’s most popular meeting place, be it friendly, romantic or furtive.
The fountain is a model example of the Mannerist taste of the Italian courtly elite in the mid-sixteenth century. Cherubs, dolphins and, rather curiously, explosively lactating nereids, surround the towering figure of the sea god. One almost expects a herd of puckering bambini to be creeping about among the pigeons, seeking showers of mother’s sustenance.
The corners of the monument represent the four rivers of the then known world, the Ganges, the Nile, the Amazon River, and the Danube.
We toddled on into the adjacent Piazza Maggiore, the lively epicentre of social and cultural life in the old city. The square features impressive palazzos from various epochs on three sides, and the massive Basilica di San Petronio on its southern flank.
The basilica is dedicated to the patron saint of the city, Saint Petronius, who was the bishop of Bologna in the fifth century.
Construction began in 1390 and, surprisingly, its front facade remains unfinished; however the magnificent cavernous interior houses 22 chapels and spectacular Christian artworks, sculptures, raised reliefs and important relics.
If you are a food fan, Bologna is a kind of Elysium, offering up great regional riches for gourmets and gourmands.
A minute’s stroll to the east side of the Piazza Maggiore is Via Pescherie Vecchie and here you can indulge to your heart’s desire at some classic cafes, restaurants and provedores.
We were after a quick bite on our first night in la citta so grabbed takeout dishes and a carafe of wine at Eataly Bologna Ambasciatori, then perched out in the street observing the crowds.
The area abounds with colourful locals, visitors, vendors and the ubiquitous uni students, all adding to the vibrancy to this culinary thoroughfare.
Then we drifted home through the streets, picked up some basics in a tiny deli, and settled in for the night.
The red, the fat and the learned
The next morning we grabbed fine local coffee and pastries before leaping on the double decker City Red Bus at Piazza Maggiore for a tour.
The good burghers of Bologna had kindly offered The Starfish a couple of Welcome Bologna cards, handy passes that provide entry at numerous attractions around the city. The Big Red Bus is one of them.
This roomy charabanc is a super way to get your bearings around town, discover the historic center and the surrounding hills, parks and monuments.
Patrons listen to an audio guide, available in 10 languages, and ours was a particularly well-informed Italian lady speaking impeccable English.
We sat on the top deck in the open-air (the weather mild for early November) taking in the highlights of the city they call “the red, the fat and the learned.”
It’s a peculiar soubriquet, but one that sums up the old town pretty well. La Rossa, “the red one” is a reference to the terracotta rooftops of the historic centre (but may also be a defiant reflection of the city’s well-known left and communist leanings); La Grassa, “the fat one” is a salute to its long and proud culinary history; and La Dotta, “the learned one” speaks of its long history as a university town.
You can hop on and off the bus as many times as you like at any of the conveniently located stops.
Many Italian cities have wisely avoided the miles of drab suburbia we have erected across Australia, so you can transit from city to countryside with no intervening shoddy residential fringe. And no nation does beautiful public parks better than Italy. Bologna has some beauties.
And so, after circling through the city hotspots the bus tracks outside the south side of town and up to the parkland at Belvedere di San Michele in Bosco, where we enjoyed sweeping views of the city below.
Then it was back into town to take a squiz at a few museums.
We stared with the Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna, which has been housed in the 15th-century Palazzo Galvani since 1881.
It contains exceptional archaeological collections from the former Museo Universitario, the donated collection of painter Pelagio Palagi, and from the excavations in Bologna and the surrounding area between the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century.
Its Etruscan section offers a starting point for discovering the culture of Etruria in the Po Valley, which had Bologna as its capital, then known as Felsina and dating back to 510 BC.
There are also masterpieces of Greek and Roman art, and a fascinating collection of Egyptian antiquities, one of the finest in Europe.
Just a couple of streets away on Via Castiglione is the super modern Museum of the History of Bologna. We literally stumbled upon this one and were very glad we did.
Opened in 2012 it consists of 40 exhibition rooms distributed over more than 6,000 square meters, recounting 3,000 years of Bologna history.
It offers a wonderful combo of high tech, interactive exhibits and displays intermixed with a fine collection of artefacts and relics. Visitors walk through the time periods listening to fascinating commentary and viewing the collection.
That evening we visited the Mercato di Mezzo, and snapped up some regional ingredients for dinner back at the pad. It was a good spread: an antipasto platter, followed by a Bolognese pasta dish, complemented by a very smart Romagna Sangiovese – the king of red wines in the region.
To the Towers with Them!
The next morning we strolled over to The Two Towers, Le Due Torri, famous Bologna landmarks, and decided to make the rather gruelling pilgrimage to the top of one.
Living in a tall tower in the Middle Ages was a sign of family prestige and wealth in some parts of Italy. The logic was simple: the taller ye tower, the more impressive and powerful ye were.
Hence towers grew increasingly, sometimes absurdly, high. Rivalries among tower owners took ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ to dizzying new heights – literally.
Jealousy and envy raged among tower-dwellers and some even rained down boulders, furniture, sewage and other unwanted items on neighbours, solely to stop them reaching the same lofty status.
Structural integrity and solid foundations must sometimes have been forfeited in the crazed quest for height, as it wasn’t uncommon for towers to keel over or collapse, plunging their over-extended residents at free fall speed into the strada below. Arrivederci, Signor Jones.
The Bologna towers are both leaning, giving them a rather precarious aspect. The taller structure is called Asinelli, while the smaller, even more askew one is called Garisenda, names derived from the rival families credited with their construction between 1109 and 1119.
We climbed the confined spiralling staircase the 93 metres to the top of Asinelli. It was difficult to fight off a niggling conviction, based on the said lean, that today may be the day the tower toppled, and we noted many white knuckles grasping rickety banisters as we puffed our way to the top. I’ve heard tell the same trepidation is rife at Pizza.
A Glaswegian tourist and his early teens daughter made the ascension ahead of us, and it seemed the wee lass was having an attack of acrophobia. Clearly she possessed a strong grasp of structural integrity, or lack thereof.
On reaching the top platform she was terrified and clung to a wall like a petrified limpet, gibbering brogue and turning an oyster tinge.
We watched her as she pulled out a mobile and called her mother in Glasgow. “Moomy, moomy, ‘es dragged mar up a toowar that could collapse at any mooment!” she squealed down the phone. “I cudd day arp ‘ere!”
Moments later the set-upon father’s phone rang and he copped a blast from somewhere nigh the Clyde.
Despite the unfolding Pictish predicament, the views out over the city were fabulous, making a trip up the tower a must if the ticker is good and the knees not too creaky.
We helped the tremulous Asinelli Rapunzel back to ground level (where she immediately got back on the blower) and headed off along Via Ugo Bassi and Via Rizzoli to drift through the shops.
Along with Via dell’Indipendenza and Via D’Azeglio, all the top Italian designers can be found along these thoroughfares, as well as a proliferation of antique and book stores.
A lazy stroll along the bustling Via Santo Stefano is also a great way to meet the locals and explore. A must stop is the celebrated Cremeria, a gelato and chocolate den of iniquity that teems with Bolognese sweet tooths.
Walking or riding a bicycle is the best way to get around Bologna, and we covered many happy kilometres that afternoon discovering some wonderful streets and historic places.
Any Portico in a Storm
You can’t move around Bologna without using the famous porticos. There are almost 40 kms of them adding unique beauty to the city.
Since 1100, when the growth of the university led to the need for new urban spaces, the porticoes become private and public open-air locations where people would socialise and conduct trade. At one time they were also used by horse and carriage traffic when the weather was bad.
One of the most impressive porticos is Dei Bastardini in Via D’Azeglio, so called because an orphanage was located under its vaults until 1797.
The widest portico in the city is the four-sided portico of the basilica of Saint Maria dei Servi in Strada Maggiore, designed at the end of the 14th century; the highest is in Via Altabella at 10 metres; while the narrowest is located in Via Sanzanomeand and is only 95cms wide.
But these all pale into insignificance at the Saragozza Quarter, which is the start of the most famous portico in the city and the longest in the world, leading up to the Basilica of the Madonna of San Luca. The Portico di San Luca, built between 1674 and 1793 is made up of 666 arches and measures a staggering 4 km in length.
We decided to check it out aboard the San Luca Express, a small, rather kitsch motorised ‘train’ that follows the portico out of the city and up to the basilica on nearby Monte della Guardia.
The weather started to turn a bit stormy as we left town on the last tour of the day, but the hill top sanctuary was well worth the visit in our sodden choo-choo.
A chapel existed on the hill for about a thousand years up until the 12th-century when, legend has it, a pilgrim from the Byzantine Empire came to Bologna with an icon of the Virgin and Child (the latter with a striking resemblance to a middle aged Bela Lugosi) from the temple of Saint Sofia in Constantinople.
In 1160, the bishop of Bologna assigned the icon to the chapel where it was attended by two holy women, Azzolina and Beatrice Guezi. Construction of a grander church began in 1193; then in 1294 some monks of the Dominican Order from the monastery of Ronzano came to the site, remaining there until the Napoleonic suppression of 1799.
The impressive Basilica on the site today was constructed in 1723 and you can still see the ancient icon of the Virgin above the main alter.
Arriving on the hill top we were somewhat pressed for time (‘Express’ accurately describes this tour).
We dashed through the rain into the church, had a quick squizz at the icon, snapped a photo, then ran back to the train, hurtled back down the hill in gushing torrents and screeched to a halt back in the Piazza Maggiore. In hindsight, perhaps we should have walked the 4km beneath the portico instead.
The next morning found us over near the Central Station picking up a rental car for our odyssey back to Rome.
We had seen, learned and discovered much in our short Bologna stay, but felt we’d only scratched the surface of this captivating ancient Italian city.
But there will certainly be a next time!
Thanks to Bologna Welcome, who recently sent us this visual reminder of their beloved city.