Walk 132: Bologna…food, history & fab!

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 3 miles (4.82 km)

Time to walk: If you just wanted to run round this walk, it would probably take you a couple of hours, but this is Bologna, one of the greatest food cities in the world & we promise you won’t be disappointed – so in our case allow 7 hours!!

Difficulty: Easy & all on hard, flat paths

Parking: Can’t comment as part of our short break

Public toilets: Bars, cafes etc

Map of the route:

Do you like Italian food….????

Answer: No…well maybe this walk’s not for you. Yes…well welcome to this amazing city with its incredible amount of fresh food. Just one word of warning…NEVER ask for Spaghetti Bolognese!

Bologna is the capital & largest city of the Emilia Romagna region of Northern Italy. It’s the seventh most populous city in Italy, with about one million inhabitants

The city has been a major urban centre for centuries, first under the Etruscans, then under the Romans, then again in the Middle Ages as a free municipality & signoria, when it was among the largest European cities by population. Famous for its towers, churches & lengthy porticoes, Bologna has a well-preserved historical centre, thanks to a careful restoration & conservation policy which began at the end of the 1970s

Bologna has three nicknames..’La Rossa’ (the red); ‘La Dotta’ (the learned); & ‘La Grassa’ (the fat)

Many people think that ‘La Rossa’ refers to the red tiled roofs of the buildings, but it’s actually linked back to when Bologna was the anti-fascist capital during the World War II. It’s been socialist almost as long as it’s been a city &, during the war, was at the heart of the Resistance movement, & was a stronghold for Italy’s Communist Party for several decades after that

‘La Dotta’ refers to Bologna being home to the oldest university in the world, the University of Bologna, which was established in AD 1088

Perhaps our favourite nickname though is ‘La Grasse’ which refers to Bologna often being thought of as the country’s culinary capital. Some of the traditional recipes include the famous tagliatelle ragu, long & flat pasta strips with the ragu sauce usually made out of minced beef, onions, celery, carrots & tomato. Our favourite though was Tortellini in brodo (broth) which consists of small, rounded shaped pasta, said to resemble ‘belly buttons’, & filled with a mix usually made out of pork & Parmigiano Reggiano

Everything about Bologna is fabulous & it’s a great walking city so…

Let’s Walk!

1. Our walk can only begin in one place…outside Bologna’s two most famous towers, the Asinelli & the Garisenda at the junction of Strada Maggiore, Via San Vitale & Via Santo Stephano

In the 12th & 13th centuries, it’s thought that there were over 180 towers in the city, constructed by families to show their wealth. Today only 20 remain, the most important being the two that stand side by side here

Torre degli Asinelli is the tallest medieval tower in Bologna, standing 330 feet high. There is a legend that the tower was the dowry that was insisted on by a nobleman for his daughter’s hand. His daughter’s suitor was said to be a poor man who transported gravel & sand from the river bank to the building yards, on the back of his donkey. But one day, whilst digging sand, l’Asinelli found a bag of golden coins, a discovery that enabled him to build Torre degli Asinelli & to marry the noble girl of his dreams

2. You can buy a ticket to climb the tower online & are allocated a timed entrance, which allows you a 30 minute window to climb, look around & descend. The climb up the 498 steps is steep, narrow & tough going at times, especially in hot weather, but the views from the top are spectacular

The leaning Garisenda Tower next door’s about half the height of the Asinelli tower. It actually used to be taller than the tower of the Asinelli, but its top had to be cut off for safety reasons. Giovanni Visconti da Oleggio made the request for the resizing of the tower in the 14th century. It now stands a mere 167 feet & leans by 3 metres & is not open to the public

3. Once recovered from ascending the tower, turn down Strada Maggiore. In Roman times, this was part of the Via Aemilia, a trunk road in the north Italian plain, running from ‘Ariminum’ (Rimini) on the Adriatic coast, to ‘Placentia’ (Piacenza). Completed in 187 BC, the Via Aemilia connected with the Via Flaminia which led to Rome, & had been completed 33 years earlier

In the picture above you can see something else that Bologna’s famous for…it’s porticoes. No other city has anything like the number of porticoes, or covered walkways found in Bologna. They were originally built out of wood & allowed the buildings to expand outwards, without hindering peoples’ journeys along the streets

4. After 100 yards, across the street’s one of the original 13th century wooden porticoes outside Casa Isolani

You’ll see lots of people standing under the portico looking up at the wooden ceiling. They’re trying to spot the three arrows that form part of the legend connected to this building. It’s said that a rich Lord asked three assassins to kill his cheating wife with arrows. However, she threw them offguard by appearing naked, prompting them to shoot into the ceiling, where the arrows have been stuck since! We could only see the outline of two

5. Walk through the entrance to Casa Isolani, following the ‘arrows’ & exit into the large Piazza Santo Stephano on the other side

The complex of religious buildings on the left are know as the Basilica Santuario di Santo Stephano, or locally as ‘Sette Chiese’ (Seven Churches). According to tradition Saint Petronius, a bishop of the city during the 5th century, built the basilica over a temple of the goddess Isis. The saint wished to have a building that recalled the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

The different parts of the complex include:

  • Church of Saint Stephen or of the Holy Crucifix (8th century, presbytery reshaped in 17th century), with the Crypt
  • Church of the Holy Sepulchre (according to tradition: 5th century)
  • Church of the Saints Vitale & Agricola (4th century, rebuilt first in the 12th century)
  • Courtyard of Pilate (“Santo Giardino” 13th century)
  • Church of the Trinity or of the Martyrium (13th century)
  • Chapel of the Bandage (“Cappella della Benda”) dedicated to the strip of cloth worn around the head by the Virgin Mary as a sign of mourning

6. Turn away from the complex & walk up the piazza…

…passing, on the left, the pink, ornate Palazzo Bolognini Amerind Salina, a renaissance architecture palace, which is still owned by descendant of the 16th century Senatorial family. Look up at all the different busts on the walls

7. At the top of the street on the right’s ‘Al Pappagallo’ restaurant, which offers a mixture of fine Bolognese ‘fusion’ dining. Apparently one of the Bologna staples dishes of Tortellini served in Brodo (broth) is on the menu, but the broth is coffee flavoured!

8. Exit Via Santo Stefano to arrive at another of Bologna’s well know spots, Piazza della Mercanzia where on the left’s another fine example of an original porticoe

This building was once connected to the ornate one on its right, which is the seat of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Agriculture & Crafts & which has managed the city’s trading & business activities since the late 14th century

The small balcony in the middle, between the windows, was where the judges of the merchants’ court would read out their sentences. People who were convicted of fraudulent bankruptcy were chained to a post in front of the central pillar to be publicly humiliated

9. It’s time now to explore the narrow alleyways that are full of food shops etc. This route is only our guide, but these are streets that you can lose yourselves in for hours, stopping at all the cafes on the way

Cross the road & walk up Via Capraire…

First stop recommendation on the corner with Via Drapperie on the left is ‘Tamburini’, an incredible Italian deli. However, wander into the back, especially at lunchtime & you’ll mix with the locals eating plates of amazing food

10. Turn left along Via Drapperie…

…where you’ll find more delights including the Mortadella sausage, Parmesan cheese & more than a slice of Parma Ham…

11. At the end turn right & walk up Via de Clavature to arrive at the walls of the Basilica di San Petronio. We’ll come back to look at this important building shortly, but for now, turn left along Via della Archiginnasio

On the left is one of the most important buildings in the city, the Archiginnasio of Bologna, once the main building of the University of Bologna. It currently houses the Archiginnasio Municipal Library & the Anatomical Theatre

12. Walk through into the beautiful courtyard & take some time to look around

The construction of the Archiginnasio dates back to the 16th century, & was commissioned by Pope Pius IV. It was inaugurated on October 21, 1563. The goal of the project was to create a single place where the Schools of the “Legisti (Canon and Civil law) & “Artisti” (philosophy, medicine, mathematics, natural sciences & physics), previously located in various places across the town, could be hosted together. The building of the new “Schools” was named Archiginnasio after the classical term which was used to designate the ‘Studium’, as the University was first called

Walk around the courtyard & look at all the emblems & badges donated by the families of the students who studied there

Past alumni include several Popes, Marconi & Georgio Armani

The Archiginnasio ceased being a University in 1803 when the University was moved to Palazzo Poggi where it’s still located today. From 1838 onwards, the building housed the city library, which is the largest in Emilia-Romagna & was first established to keep the books collected from the closure of the religious orders made by Napoleon. At present it boasts 850,000 volumes & pamphlets, about 15,000 16th century editions, 8,500 manuscripts, letters, collections of autographs, prints & drawings, & 250 archives

13. Come back out of the courtyard & continue left into Piazza Galvani. At the centre of the square’s a marble statue by Adalberto Cencetti representing Luigi Galvani, a famous bolognese scholar mainly known for his research on bioelectricity, while observing the famous frog he used to study!

This area hosted the silk market from 1449 to the 17th century. Throughout the years, the square was given several names: Piazza dell’Accademia, Piazza dell’Archiginnasio, Piazza delle Scuole, Piazza del Paviglione, until 1801 when it came to be known as Piazza della Pace as homage to the treat of peace between Napoleon & Austria. In 1871 it was finally named after Luigi Galvani

14. If you think this piazza’s beautiful walk through the archway into the courtyard, where you’ll find another of the city’s towers which is now a restaurant

Allegedly this square was once an area of ill repute, but it’s certainly changed. The exit from the square is opposite where we entered it…

15. Once through, you’ll find yourself in the wider, & bustling, Via d’Azeglio. Turn right in the direction of Piazza Maggiore. Pass Piazza de Celestini on the left…

Look up at the building on the right side of the piazza to see the fabulous mural outside Lucio Dalla’s house. Dalla was born in Bologna & began to play the clarinet at an early age, in a local jazz band. The band won numerous awards & acclamations & he also undertook a career as a solo recording artist

The song “Caruso”, released in 1986, has been covered by numerous international artists such as Luciano Pavarotti & Julio Iglesias. On the morning of 1 March 2012, three days before his 69th birthday, Dalla died of a heart attack in Montreux, having performed in the city the night before. An estimated 50,000 people attended his funeral in Bologna

16. There’s lights above the street commemorating Lucio all along the street

At the end of the street you’ll emerge into one of Bologna’s highlights…Piazza Maggiore. Bear with us as there’s so much to see here

17. The piazza remains pretty much as it was laid out in the 15th century & is dominated by the massive Basilica di San Petronio

Looking at the outside, it appears rather strange…even half finished. That’s because it is!! Construction began in 1390 & you can see that half of it’s in marble & the other in stone. Original plans called for the basilica to be larger than Rome’s St Peter’s, but in 1561 Pope Pius IV blocked construction by commissioning a new university on the basilica’s eastern flank. It was therefore never completed

Armoured cars are always in evidence outside due to the building being a major terrorist target. Several planned terrorist attacks to destroy the cathedral have been thwarted by police over the years. The reason? Giovanni da Modena’s 15th century fresco, housed inside the Cappella dei Re Magi, depicting Muhammad being devoured by demons in Hell.

18. It’s free to enter, but you have to pay a small price to take photographs, which we did as it’s quite spectacular

What’s extremely interesting is the church hosts a marking of the meridian line, which we’ve also seen on several of our walks including the one at Greenwich

19. The high altar area is an amazing sight…

…but it’s also worth walking round into the treasury room on the left, especially to see the scriptures

20. Back out of the Basilica, look at the large raised platform in the piazza. Undergraduates of the University will tell you that if they walk on it, they won’t get the grades they hope for!

Directly across is a large building that houses the Palazzo del Podesta & Palazzo Re Enzo…

We can highly recommend the cafe on the left side of the arches where you can enjoy coffee for less than €2 – an absolute bargain to watch the world go by for as long as you like & really friendly waiters

21. To the left of the above building’s a fountain called Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune)…

The bronze figure of Neptune was completed around 1567 & was an early work by Giambologna. It’s a rather strange concoction & we noted the “lactating ladies”

22. Want to experience something incredible? Walk though the arches past the cafe we recommended & turn left into the arched centre of the building

You need a partner to experience this, but if you both stand diagonally opposite, facing the alcoves & whisper, you can hear each other! This was used when the plague was prevalent, people could talk without risking catching the disease. Fabulous

23. Walk straight through & over the road down Via Fossalta, then right into Via Altabella & left into the narrow Via Sant Alo to come across the exquisite & beautiful Torre Prendiparte, which was a prison in the 1700’s

It’s now a hotel with rooms on each of the twelve floors

24. Turn right onto Via S. Nicolo & then right again at the beautiful deli/cafe La Prosciutteria

Pass Piazza San Martino…

25. Walk into the alleyway of Via Valdonica…

The ‘Blue Hand’ on the wall tells you you’re now entering the Bologna ghetto. In 1555 Pope Paul IV ordered that ghettos be established in all the territories of the Papal State. The Bologna ghetto was allocated an area in the medieval part of the city central, between today’s Via Zamboni & Via Oberdan. The ghetto was separated from houses outside it by specially built walls, which limited access to it to just three entrance gates. The entrances were closed each night & constantly watched over

The Jews lived in the ghetto until 1569, when they were expelled from almost all territories which were directly governed by the Church, & the area of the Bologna ghetto was occupied by new tenants who demanded that the walls & gates be pulled down, & eliminated all traces of the Jewish presence

In 1586 they were readmitted to the city for a few years, but in 1593 were banished permanently, & only allowed to return two centuries later in 1796, when the French arrived

26. It’s quite a sobering place, even today, Walk up Via Dell’ Inferno. You can see the tower ahead again now…

At No. 16, is the building which once housed the synagogue. Sadly this is now an Indian restaurant 

27. Continue up Via del Carro to exit the old ghetto through another of the gateways…

The small piazza you’re now in is quite beautiful & worth a look around. The designs on the church are quite exquisite

Opposite the church is a large building which houses the Museo Ebraico, which tells the history of the Jews in the city

28. Walk up the hill to return to the two towers, where we started this walk…

So that’s our short walk round a beautiful city. Although the walk covers the central area we can also recommend a visit to the Mercato dellle Erbe which, as well as having amazingly fresh food, also has some great restaurants inside it. The nearby church in Piazza San Francesco is also stunning

Whilst in Bologna, do not miss the opportunity of an hours train journey to Ravenna to see the stunning mosaics. Parma & Modena are also just a short train journey away

Reggio Emilia is a wonderful part of Italy so…

Go Walk!