Visiting Unique Porticoes, Towers, and Churches in Bologna

Following our Lucky Strike train experience in Venice, we arrived in Bologna with a plan to stay up to 3 weeks. In our last post, I described the fabulous food we found in Bologna. Now, I want to share some other things we enjoyed in town even though our time in Bologna was cut short.

Getting to Bologna

Our train from Venice arrived a bit after 7 pm Friday, only slightly delayed by the day-long strike. The train station at Bologna was one of the most confounding stations we have ever seen. We arrived about four levels below ground but we didn’t know where to get a Bolt ride or a taxi and the signs were uncharacteristically bad. So, naturally, we went to ground level and left the station with our bags.

Once at the curb on a very busy street, it wasn’t obvious where anyone could stop to pick us up so we dragged our bags back into the station. Searching the signs again, we decided to go down to level two. Cars could come into this area but the place was deserted. We finally found a sign for a ride that you could get using a QR code to call for one. Eventually, we got a lift.

Once in the car, a quick ride brought us to a building entrance on a narrow street. We had difficulty coordinating our arrival with Wonderful Italy, the rental agency. Movie scenes of hapless travelers left roadside with their bags were going through my head. Happily, an agent was there to meet us. Then things went a bit downhill.

The Flat Fell Flat

It’s been a crowded tourist season in Europe as the Covid-weary has stretched its wings. Lodging in Bologna was relatively expensive, so we had to compromise amongst our desires for cost, location, and comfort/experience. (I just realized this is a travel variant of cheap, fast, and good). This time, unfortunately, we sacrificed too much comfort (good) in favor of cost and location.

Comfort in lodging usually comes down to beds and seating. Beds are difficult to judge remotely. Most rental apartment mattresses range from marginal to awful. This one was a bit below marginal. The impact was heightened by the fact that the seating was terrible. The couch was not only uncomfortable, but the animal dander in it also induced an allergic response in Diana, forcing her into very uncomfortable molded plastic dining chairs or back to the less-than-marginal bed for our entire stay. We hate it when there is no comfortable place to sit.

The initial response from Wonderful Italy was “It’s impossible there is dander in the couch; pets are not allowed”. They sent over some cleaners to vacuum the couch, to no avail. Their final response was “Oh well. It’s not our fault”. Not so wonderful, IMHO.

Comfort notwithstanding, our flat was well located, thanks to guidance from a friend and former native. We were in a great neighborhood with loads of energy and tens of bistros.

The Bologna Free Tour

We’ve been taking a number of free walking tours from GuruWalk this year. Our Bologna tour was given by a Yank who has lived in Bologna for 20+ years. In two hours, we covered A LOT of history in the area around the city center. Definitely worth the time and the tip for the free tour to me.

We started at the frozen-in-time San Petronio Basilica in the main square, Piazza Maggiore. Evidently, civic pride became a bit too ambitious in the 16th century when plans to build a cathedral larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome raised the ire of Pope Pius IV, who subsequently ordered all work on it to be stopped. You can see where laborers just walked off and stopped mounting marble on the outside 500 years ago. The Pope even had some buildings erected alongside to prevent expansion from resuming after his passing. As such, adornment inside and out is quite modest compared to other large city churches.

In 1566 a fountain of Neptune was erected in the adjacent, eponymous Piazza del Nettuno. The statue was commissioned to curry favor with celebrate the election of Pius IV by Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, the Pope’s nephew (of course). Our tour guide said legend had it that Neptune’s outstretched left thumb was fashioned to look like something indecent pointed towards the church because the priests required the statue to have smaller genitalia than the artist envisioned. Also notable, Neptune’s trident inspired the local Maserati brothers to create their automobile logo.

Towers of Power

The construction of towers was once the Bolognese method of keeping up with the Joneses. At one point, over 200 such declarations of power dotted the town. Our tour took us to visit the Two Towers, Asinelli and Garisenda, which are still standing in the center of town. Constructed in the 12th century to a height of ~200 feet, the Garisenda was the first of these statement towers to be built. Not to be outdone, the Asinelli family responded with a tower rising to roughly 230 feet.

Fortune did not favor the Garisenda tower, which began to lean so badly that some of the top needed to be removed, down to its current height of 157 feet. Even today, the tower leans slightly more than another notable one in Pisa. Despite being alongside, the Asinelli tower has less of a lean and has been extended to 319 feet. Clearly, the Asinelli won that fight.

Bologna Porticoes Galore

Recently added to the World Heritage List for cultural and artistic significance, the porticoes of Bologna stretch a collective 24 miles. The longest is the Portico of San Luca, at nearly 2.5 miles. They provide a decent way to traverse the city during rain without an umbrella. Almost all are stone. Only a few wooden ones remain, due to fire.

They exist because of… money. The city required sidewalks for buildings, but owners in the Middle Ages learned they could build over sidewalks to expand the living space of their upper floors, thus creating the porticoes. Kind of a Middle Age twofer.

Canals and the Seven Churches

Our tour guide then told us about the town’s canals. Although barely noticeable today, Bologna once had many canals to facilitate trade and the movement of goods. Shipbuilding even took place here, despite the town being in the middle of Italy. Most of the canals were covered over in the 1960s, though the water still moves through them.

The oldest church in Bologna was constructed in the 5th century by San Petronius, the patron saint of the city. Over time, additional churches were built adjacent to the original. Together, they form the so-called Seven Churches, which is mostly an interesting maze of interconnected, modest buildings. Due to reconstruction in the 1880s, only four of the seven churches exist today, but the name remains unchanged.

The First University

Another stop on our tour took us to the University of Bologna, founded in 1088, arguably the first university in the world. Early on, informal classes held around town morphed into a formal institution conveying doctorate degrees in a variety of disciplines. Interestingly, it took 500 years for the university to occupy a permanent location. Beforehand, classes were held in salons scattered around town.

A discussion of the unexpected early evolution of the university can be found on this Wikipedia page. In a nutshell, it served through collective bargaining to defend the rights of foreigners living in a town in addition to education. Moreover, the unified students could dictate course content and professor pay.

A notable hall in the University is the 17th-century Teatro Anatomico, where dissection in a theater setting for medical education was first performed. A corpse was placed on a marble slab in the middle of this large room. Elevated landings surrounding the slab allowed centuries of students to watch and learn. Disappointingly, no dissections were being performed that day (or any other for a very long time) nor and only one explanatory placard of the room, but it was cool to see.

The Light And Music Not So Extravaganza

Upon arrival in town, I was excited to see there was to be a free concert and video show in the Piazza Maggiore by the Bologna Symphony. The piazza was fairly crowded when we arrived, so we were unable to get close enough to watch the symphony but we could easily hear the music. Still, the entire piazza had a good view of the laser projection on the front of the San Petronio Basilica. The light show was mostly images of potential, unfunded church facades.

After a lengthy (25-minute) introduction, the concert and projection started. I was hoping for some animation, but the display was basically static, only changing a couple of times over the first half hour. Ultimately, the standing-only crowd got bored and started talking over the symphony, so we left. It was fun but not as special as I think it could have been.

And… We’re Outta Here

Even before our arrival in Bologna, we felt we might be on borrowed time, which altered our approach to this visit. On the train from Trieste, we had received a middle-of-the-night-local-time call that a family member was in distress and we might need to return to assist. We will discuss it in a future post (spoiler: everyone is fine now).

Since we left early, there were some local experiences we couldn’t enjoy. So, we have unfinished “touristing” in the Bologna region and we will return someday. Another chance to enjoy the Food Capitol of Italy!

What was your last laser music show experience like?

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1 comment

  1. > What was your last laser music show experience like?

    Not exactly laser based, but the show projected against the facade of Chartres cathedral is really well done. And that is just the headliner in a town-wide animated light show every night. There are other light projections against various buildings and bridges. It was almost surreal.

    And a runner-up shout out to the projection against the facade of Amiens cathedral. It is a static projection of what the cathedral would have looked years ago when it was painted in bright colors. Up close it is amazingly precise, dressing the hundred or so life sized figures in the facade with colorful clothes.

    Oh, and speaking of Chartres there we had a strange response from our apartment host when we asked where toilet paper was stored. He texted back “in france we dont wash our ass after poop”. I think he was trying to be funny but you can see how his response might not be received well.

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