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Bologna: the city of a gazillion porticoes

The very first things F and I noticed, as our taxi took on the streets of Bologna, are the warm colours of the buildings which help the city earns its nickname of Bologna la Rossa – Bologna the Red, and the astounding number of porticoes. Strangely enough, there isn’t a particular nickname linked to the latter, supposedly a famous feature of Bologna.

(Bologna has two other nicknames: the Learned/Educated – la Dotta – a reference to the oldest university in the world, University of Bologna, founded in 1088; and the Fat – la Grassa – celebrating the culinary legacy of the capital of Emilia-Romagna, which gives you the familiar ragù alla Bolognese!)

Bologna

Bologna

I’d like to declare Bologna the “City of a Gazillion Porticoes”, because it really felt like it. (I subsequently learned that there are nearly 40km of porticoes within the historic centre itself!) Inevitably, some are more elegant than others, some are more lavishly decorated, some rely on floor tile motives to stand out, some stay hidden unless you peek into unexpected courtyards and doors, and some could do with serious restorations. Regardless, they all make great shelters from the elements.

Bologna is utterly charming and we fell quickly in love with the city. Just as well we were buying train tickets as we went along, and that we had not yet booked for our accommodation in the next city on our itinerary (actually the only city we didn’t book in advance), because it meant we could easily prolong our stay here. And we did. We had to move to another B&B since the one we were in was fully booked, but the next one was amazing too, so no complaint whatsoever.

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

While there are countless palazzi and museums to visit, we did not set foot in most of them. We spent our days walking around, like we always did, but this time, with a little map and guide from the tourist office, we self-guided ourselves through the historical centre of Bologna. We would have love to follow a guided walking tour, except the limited number of visitors that make it to this city means such an offering is confined largely to the weekends.

Our starting point was the Neptune Fountain adjacent to Piazza Maggiore, where the gloriously nude (no fig leaf!) god of the sea rises above questionable posed nymphs. From there, we made our way to the piazza to look at the surrounding palazzi and the Basilica of San Petronio. Before long, we continued along the via dell’Archiginnasio to get to a palazzo bearing the same name. It was the first unified seat of the University of Bologna.

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

We snaked our way around Piazza Cavour to get to San Domenico for a visit, and this specious and airy basilica is a veritable treasure of Italian art. There are magnificent chapels within which I’d love to photograph but was admonished by a guardian nearby from doing so, yet somehow he let another Japanese couple happily snapping away. Not quite sure what was up with that.

Popping back towards the Quadrilatero District – which had an amazing buzz in the evening and contain all kind of delicious things – we spotted the church of Santa Maria della Vita and decided to have a look inside, despite its omission from the tour map. It was well worth it. Within, we found the most expressive terracotta sculptures of “Lamentation over the Dead Christ” by Niccolò dell’Arca, and in the adjacent oratory, the interpretation of “Death of the Virgin” by Alfonso Lombardi, also in terracotta sculptures.

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

A short walk away is the rather wonderful Piazza Santo Stefano. The triangular square is flanked by two rows of museum and buildings converging into via Santa Stefano, while on the third side is the basilica of Santa Stefano. This is no ordinary basilica. Built as if it’s a series of churches, they are actually linked under one roof. Four churches make up today’s floorplan but there used to be three others too.

Next up on the itinerary is the Asinelli Tower, one of the two leaning and iconic towers of Bologna. A total of 498 steps we had to climb, narrow and quite slanted in some parts, and often a little give-and-take needed as other visitors came along in the opposing direction. This is the tallest tower and therefore the best spot to be for the amazing vantage view of the city.

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

For a city that used to boost over a hundred towers, only about 20 remains today. They still stand tall over the rest of the buildings, many adjacent to basilicas and cathedrals. We counted some but certainly missed a few along the way. What caught our attention most was a lone building on a hill far far away. I made a quick mental note to check at the tourist office of what that may be.

After we got down from the tower, we made a half-hearted effort to sightsee in the university quarter, but our stomachs were protesting rather vehemently that a lunch break was required. We ended up at an acceptable restaurant for some pizza but charged a fortune for the coperto. We decided not to track back after that, so ended up spying the open canal of Bologna from a high window on via Piella.

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

The last stretch of our tour took us down via dell’Independenza, today a busy thoroughfare, lined with all kinds of shops possible on both side of the road. Still, it was not all about consumerism here. The Bologna Cathedral stood out and it too, like Santa Maria della Vita, hosts terracotta sculptures – this time, it’s the “Lamentation of Christ” by Alfonso Lombardi. Seems like terracotta sculpting was a “sexy” field around the region…

Taking a leaf out of Italian life essential, we tried to get some rest during the day so our poor feet got a break from all the walking. Siesta in our very artistic B&B room was definitely something to look forward to. When it was cooler in the evening, we ventured out again, usually in search for more delicious grubs. We were not always successful though…

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

We consulted our B&B host for recommendations, but for some reason, those we tried to find ended up being closed on their rest day or under renovation. A random aperitivo seemed to save the day each time we bumped into gastronomical dead-ends like these. The Quadrilatero District was perfect for it, and between the wine and the snack selections we made, we ate very well indeed and a little bit of everything.

Ice cream break came on a regular basis, as you can imagine, and we were incredibly lucky to be staying a mere couple of minutes walk away from La Sorbetteria Castiglione, reputedly the best gelateria in town. So many wonderful and rich flavours to try, so little time! When we finally decided to try another place, we found we still preferred those from La Sorbetteria Castiglione better, and switched back. Only the best, only the best.

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

Bologna

On our final morning in Bologna, we were chancing it with the local bus system which we were not familiar with at all so we could get to the train station. The kindest old lady, who spoke in rapid Italian, made sure we got on the same bus as her so she could point exactly where we should get off and where to go.

Throughout the journey, she continued to chat with us despite my very limited capability in speaking Italian. Nonetheless, I managed to decipher the fact that she was 76 and has lived in Bologna all her life, and frankly, in her opinion, we should have spent more than 3 nights in Bologna because nowhere could rival Bologna in terms of history, architecture, gastronomy and culture. She had us made a promise that we would be back, and enjoy the region to the fullest. We agreed wholeheartedly!

Bologna: full photoset on Flickr

All posts in this series:
Italy: Postcards: Centro Storico di Roma | Flickr Photoset
Italy: Postcards: 2-hours in Florence | Flickr Photoset
Italy: The walled city of Lucca | Flickr Photoset
Italy: Dining in Lu.C.C.A – L’Imbuto
Italy: Sunsets of Cinque Terre
Italy: The villages of Cinque Terre | Flickr Photoset
Italy: Postcards: Lost in Parma
Italy: Bologna: the city of a gazillion porticoes | Flickr Photoset
Italy: The Sanctuary of Madonna di San Luca
Italy: Verona: a lot more than a Shakespearean drama | Flickr Photoset
Italy: Postcards: In search of Padua
Italy: A very picturesque Bassano del Grappa | Flickr Photoset



Category: Europe, Italy, Travel

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2 scribbles & notes

  1. med says:

    Great food, great room and great buildings!!!
    So bolognese originated from here eh?

    • Lil says:

      It seems so, although we didn’t have any ourselves… we need more time to explore the food possibilities here out of summer holiday season!

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