Bologna emerged in the 6th century BC and over the course of its history it has been conquered by a wide assortment of invaders including tribes from Gaul, the Romans and then the Visigoths, the Huns, the Goths and the Lombards. During the 12th century, the city was the site of a leading European university and the wealth of the region was displayed prominently as over 160 towers were erected, each one meant to outdo its neighbour.
A tight array of stunning palazzos graced the cityscapes within the medieval walls, and over 40km of colonnaded walkways were constructed to shade the residents from the intense summer sun and shelter them from the winter rains. In 1860, Bologna became part of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy.
Today Bologna is famous for its culinary delights and is considered the food capital of Italy. The large numbers of university students keep the streets and lively and energized. The buildings within the city walls were spared much of the damage during WWII that hit the industrial buildings hard. What remains has been well preserved and restoration work continues in a big way.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We had resigned ourselves to the fact that the heavy mist in Munich would probably be even thicker and bleaker over the Austrian Alps. We climbed aboard the train in Munich and settled in, keeping our Scrabble game handy in case we needed to spend some of the next seven hours entertaining ourselves because the view was non-existent.
To our surprise and delight, within a half hour of leaving Munich, the fog lifted and we were treated to a brilliant, sunny day and terrific scenery to make it even brighter. We sat back, put our noses to the window and enjoyed the Alps in all their glory. It wasn’t until we reached the highest point in the pass between Austria and Italy that we faced any significant amount of cloud cover, but this too disappeared as we started to make our descent to the low hills of the piedmont.
We pulled into Verona and we both kept an eye out for the infamous ‘two gentlemen’, and when we couldn’t spot them anywhere, I asked my favourite gentleman to pose beneath the station’s sign while we waited for what appeared to be a crew change. To our surprise, the train backed out of the station and we found ourselves facing backwards for the remained of our journey that day. I was thankful that we were breaking our trip up into two segments, and that we were stopping for two nights in order to spend a day exploring Bologna.
We’d read that Bologna is best explored on foot and after a long train trip from Munich; we were only too keen to walk to our hotel to stretch our legs. We set off at such a pace, we were overheated before too long and had to stop to remove our jackets and loosen our sweaters. From what we could see in our guidebook, we would be able to walk to the medieval centre in less than 15 minutes, so we just settled into our hotel room and got caught up on our email and listened to the news headlines before sleeping.
One never knows what to expect for breakfast at a new hotel, but we were pleasantly surprised with the hearty offerings and great coffee on hand. Fortified, we set off to explore Bologna, and as soon as we crossed the traffic circle that held a remnant of the old city walls, we entered the first of kilometres of the covered walkways that make Bologna quite unique.
We roamed the piazzas, courtyards and narrow streets of the city centre for the next few hours, enjoying a wonderful clear sunny day, surprised and delighted at the warmth after the chill in Munich. Breakfast had fuelled us for the challenge of climbing the tallest of the 22 remaining towers, all 498 steps to the top. We weren’t sure what the staircase would be like, but paid the small admission fee and started up a circular stone staircase. To our surprise, it quickly opened up into the wide-open area between the four stone walls of the tower. We made our way onto the slightly rickety wooden staircase that hugged the walls; making right angle turns every twenty or so steps.
We looked up, and up and were more than a little overwhelmed by the task ahead of us. I was only too happy to see that there were stone floors every so often so that I couldn’t see all the way up, or all the way down for that matter. At one point, after observing the steel braces that had been added to stabilize the tower, I began to feel panic rising in my chest.
I was reminded of a recurring dream that haunted me as a child. I regularly dreamt that I had climbed a very tall tower and that it was beginning to sway back a forth. I wasn’t at all sure that I could continue climbing. It wasn’t the exertion that was difficult; I just had to control my sense of panic. I focused on putting one foot on the step at a time and didn’t let myself look down.
I had read that it was built between 1109 and 1119 and that today it leans 1.3m off vertical. Apparently, superstitious students believe that if you climb the tower, you will never graduate. Rats, that’s another recurring dream that I had following university, that I was somehow one course short and that my BSc degree was being revoked.
Here we were, climbing a 97.6m high tower, leaning at a relatively slight angle compared to its neighbour, one that is definitely out of bounds because of its tilt; it’s 3.2m off vertical and looks like it could collapse any day. Thankfully, it seems to be leaning away from the tower that had attracted us. We met a few hearty souls coming down as we climbed and climbed, and they all told us the view was well worth the effort and the fee.
It was. My head cleared considerably once we arrived at the top and I found we were encaged in metal. If the tower didn’t collapse, I didn’t have to worry about falling or having a sudden gust of wind sweep me off the leaning tower. The views were incredible and I took a series of photos, capturing the city far below in all directions. It wasn’t until I looked at the photos later that I realized that a couple of then had the shadow of the tower splayed out across the terracotta rooftops. Priceless.
Our knees were more than a little wobbly after climbing back down the very narrow 498 steps. The descent was more difficult than the ascent, what we needed was an ice cream cone to restore our blood sugar levels. We found a McDonald’s hidden nearby, no golden arches here thank goodness, and the ‘secret’ code on our receipt let us use the toilets too.
Of all the remaining charms of Bologna, the one remaining sight that I wanted to see was the 17th century Teatro Anatomico. A stunningly beautiful palazzo, seat of the city’s university for over 250 years, houses an incredible room where anatomical dissections were carried out for students and the public alike. I have to say I was surprised that Anil was willing to seek it out with me. I had a little speech prepared on how the blood and gore was surely long gone; the building had been severely damaged by a bomb during WWII, but has been faithfully restored.
Much of the building now houses the Municipal Library’s 700,000-volume collection. We didn’t tour the library, but admired the hundred’s of coats-of-arms of the former professors and students that lined the halls and stairwell ceilings. We stepped back out into what would have been very bright sunlight if not for the covered walkways, many with surprisingly beautiful ceilings and marble tiled flooring.
We began to make our way back towards our hotel, but stopped for a light lunch and a glass of Bologna wine, on a little terrace near a stone square. We didn’t head for a five-star restaurant, but satisfied ourselves with some five-star people watching and whiled away a leisurely hour or more.
I was a little sad to say goodbye to the city walls and walk along the streets, which modern times had neglected to cover with stone and mortar. There were more churches to enter, colonnaded walkways to wander down and lovely food to sample, but we felt we had a satisfactory overview of Bologna.
Our minds were turned to Naples, Pompeii, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast and it was easy to say goodbye and hop aboard the Eurostar the next morning. We had surfed the web and learned that the weather was fine. We hadn’t travelled south of Rome on our previous visit two years earlier; it was time to see what the ‘real Italy’ was like.