A Day in Bologna

Bologna’s history reads like a blueprint for the major Italian cities; founded by the Etruscans, overrun by the Gauls, conquered by the Romans and then ravaged by the Barbarians.

From 1300 it became an independent and prosperous city state but was torn apart by violent feuding ducal families, before coming under the control of the papacy. Ultimately Napoleon and later Austria claimed supremacy over it.

Piazza Maggiore

We spent a day in its medieval centre, still largely intact, and a patchwork of tall, imposing brick arcades, towers, churches, palaces, piazzas and museums.

The showpiece is Piazza Maggiore which contains a gigantic bronze Neptune Fountain (sadly under scaffold), the 13th century governor’s palace and the unfinished church of San Petronio.

Basilica of San Petronio

Completed, it would have dwarfed St Peters’s in the Vatican City but perhaps unsurprisingly the church was starved of funds to achieve this. Only its main portal was fully finished in Veronese pink and white marble, and features exquisite carvings by Sienese sculptor Jacopp della Quercia. Inside a baffling sun dial stretches across the length of the floor but we couldn’t work out how to read it, nor could curious others.

We explored the old university quarter, founded in 1088 and the oldest university in the western hemisphere, home to a 17th century ‘dissection’ theatre and impressively frescoed library. Nearby the Basilica of San Domenico, whilst uninspiring from outside boasted a wealth of Italian art including statues by Pisano and the young Michelangelo.

Broad shopping streets such as Via dell’Archiginnasio were arcaded on one or both sides providing cool and shade from a ferociously hot midday sun. There was no point stepping into the stores as they read like a check list of Turin’s Via Roma – all designer clothes shops, shoes and accessories brands.

We ducked instead into the narrow streets of the old city market, the Quadrilatero. Busy at lunchtime with tables and chairs hosting diners on the local specialities, tortellini and of course, tagliatelle Bolognaise, the air was rich with the aromas of cooked meat, fish and seafood.

We found our own plate of ‘spag bol’ in the modern university quarter – cheap and filling, plain rather than tasty, but carb-giving energy for an afternoon’s walk around the sights.

Bologna ragu

Of the more than 180 medieval towers that dotted across the original city, only two now remain, the Torri Pendenti, or leaning towers. Both belonged to leading noble families and were referenced by Dante in his Inferno.

One of them, the Garisenda, was shortened in the 14th century to prevent its collapse and it still has an alarming lean towards the traffic circling its base today. It was not possible to climb either so we admired them from the ground, dodging the speeding cars and motorbikes bouncing along the cobblestone road. Only the Italians would make such a perilous monument a major roundabout!

It was time to find a place to unwind in some cool shade and we scaled the old walls, fortress-like red brick, to join locals in a small park. Boys played football, girls chatted, older people remembered other days and dogs chased each other. The temperature was 36 degrees and once again, everyone was taken by surprise. We had discovered that until a couple of weeks ago Italy had been unseasonably cold and was now experiencing hotter weather than in the typical high summer days of July and August.

In search of the basin in which Pontius Pilate reputedly washed his hands, I settled instead for plunging mine into a graceful mermaid and octopus fountain, mercifully close by was the bus stop back to the campsite.