On a recent trip through Italy, we had a few days in between destinations so decided to explore Emilia-Romagna, specifically Bologna and Modena. Since I’d been to Bologna many years ago, I was anxious to get back and see if it really was as charming as I’d found it back then. No surprise… it was. It’s not on the main tourist route, and that’s a plus. The city is not terribly crowded, the locals are very friendly, and you can still get into great restaurants without a days-out reservation.
Since we came into the city via train, I’d booked a hotel just west of the train station. My first tip is, don’t do that. The hotel was lovely, but it was somewhat distant from the main attractions. Next time, I’ll book something maybe halfway between the station and Piazza Maggiore – not a long way to haul the luggage, but not such a hike to all the sites and good eateries.
Speaking of Piazza Maggiore, it’s an ideal place to start your exploration of Bologna. Having been laid out in the 13th century, it’s one of the oldest and largest public squares in Italy. There was an open-air market there until the mid-1800s with products imported from all over the world. On the right side of the piazza is Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune’s Fountain). Built in 1564 and featuring a naked Neptune – quite scandalous for the time — it served as an early source of water for the city.
At the back of the square, you’ll find the Basilica of San Petronio, who is the patron saint of the city. Begun around 1390, it was at first planned to be a much larger structure but is actually unfinished. Seems once the Pope realized the Bologna Basilica would be bigger than St. Peter’s in Rome, he called for an end to its construction, which is why the front was left with that odd brick facade. It’s still a dazzlingly beautiful place with its impossibly high vaulted ceilings and elaborate side chapels, so do plan a trip inside. It’s free to enter but will cost you (currently two euros) if you want to take photos. Money well spent, in my opinion.
Another building on the piazza worth at least a “stroll by” is the Palazzo D’Accursio. Originally it was the home of a Roman jurist named Accursius, but in the 14th century it was combined with other buildings to house the city’s administrative offices. Today, it’s still the city’s Town Hall, and also houses the civic art collection and the town libraries. Outside, be sure to stop and say “thanks” to the statue of Pope Gregory XIII above the entrance. He made a modification to the old Julian (Julius Caesar) calendar and it’s the one we still use today, which is why it’s called the Gregorian calendar.
Ready for lunch? One very good eatery we tried while there was Trattoria La Mela, just down the street from Piazza Maggiore. The dining room is smallish, so if weather permits, opt for their outdoor patio area, which is actually out on a larger piazza in front of some other restaurants. Ask at the door and one of the nice waitstaff will escort you out there. The La Cucina Bolognese is very good – a classic, meaty ragu — as are the seafood dishes and the pizza.
Also down the street from the Piazza Maggiore is another not-to-be-missed site. While everyone is familiar with the one Leaning Tower of Pisa, Bologna one-ups that with two Leaning Towers – Le Due Torri. Constructed between 1109 and 1119, they are believed to have been built by the families they’re named after. Back then, there was a sort of competition in “tower building” – supposedly, the taller the tower the more powerful the family. The taller tower here is Asinelli, at 319 feet. The shorter one is Garisenda, which started out at 200 feet tall, but was then shortened to 157 feet in the 14th century when it very noticeably began to lean, as it still does today.
A short walk from the towers brings you to the university area. Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna is said to be the oldest continually operating university in the world. Originally organized around universitates scholarium, or societies of students, it has a fascinating history which you can read here. Famous alumni include Nicolaus Copernicus, father of the sun-centered universe; Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy; Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless telegraph and a radio pioneer; Enzo Ferrari, yes, founder of THAT Ferrari; and Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose.
One more interesting feature of Bologna is its arcades – and no, not like pinball machines. These are the arches that you see along so many of the city’s streets, at the base of the buildings. (See photos.) They’re a “thing” in Bologna. At several intersections you can look at the four corners and see four different styles of arcades. Just a beautiful detail in a city full of beautiful details, both architecturally and in the citizens themselves. Everywhere we went, we were greeted warmly and treated as guests. There’s lots of civic pride here, and rightly so. It’s one of those cities where the longer you stay the deeper you can dive and discover a truly enchanting place.
A SIDE NOTE: During my research I came across a blog written by anative of Bologna at www.BolognaUncovered.com. I would highly recommend reviewing her blog and website and maybe even hiring her for a customized consult on what to see & do, where to stay & eat, etc. She also has advice on hikes in the hills surrounding the city and on visiting the rest of the Emilia-Romagna region. I wish I’d found her info before we took our trip! Check it out.