Quick stop in Bologna

The plan was to get to San Marino, the 5th smallest country in the world, and landlocked inside Italy. The closest Italian city is Rimini, but with no direct flights from where we live, mum and I decided to fly to Bologna instead, a further 68 miles up the coast.

Neither myself or mum had been to the World Heritage city of Bologna before, so we decided to stay for 1 night, before travelling south onward to San Marino.

We landed early morning, giving ourselves one and a bit days to explore the capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region, known as the Fat, Red, and the Learn’d City, because of it’s rich food, red roof tiles and is home to the oldest university in the western world.

After dumping our bags at our hotel, the centrally located and friendly Hotel II Canale, we set off to explore and almost immediately found ourselves walking underneath the famed porticos, that define this city. There is nowhere else on earth that has as many of these extravagant porches as Bologna, they were built to extend living spaces, in part because of the large number of students attending the university, as well as the increase in people that moved into Bologna from the surrounding countryside. They originally were made of wood, until 1568 when it was announced they were to all be rebuilt in stone and brick, therefore ensuring they are still standing strong today.

We wandered aimlessly through as many of the portico’s that we came across, but there are lots of guided tours available if you want to immerse yourself in the history further. Just make sure you don’t miss the longest one (Portico di San Luca), the tightest one (Portico Via Senza Nome) and the most painted one (Portico Via Zamboni).

Next we ventured inside the Bologna Cathedral,  this grande Baroque style building dedicated to Saint Peter was finished in the 17th century, and features some well preserved fresco’s, a cedar wood crucifix and ‘La Nonna’ an incredibly heavy bell atop the bell tower, which you can climb if you have the stamina (we didn’t“).

As we wandered towards the unmistakable two towers of Bologna, we spotted an inviting cafe and went in for lunch and had the most delicious coffee, we had truly arrived.

Only one of the towers is opened to the public, and you needed to book in advance, so we had to skip that, plus at almost 500 steps to climb to reach the top, it wasn’t something either of us fancied straight after lunch. But, we had fun peering into more shop windows, watching chefs preparing pasta for the oncoming evening and explored more Porticos, finding a rare wooden one on Via Marsala.

After a peek inside the Basilica of San Domenico to view some of the artwork inside, including an early Michelangelo, on mum’s insistence we had to visit the university.

I admit, visiting a cities university isn’t top of my list when I’m on my travels, with the exception of that time I visited Princeton, but it is a must when visiting Bologna. The University of Bologna, or UNIBO is the oldest university in continuous use in the world, incredibly it is said to have opened its ancient doors in 1088, although didn’t grow large enough to technically become a bone-fide university until about 100 years later, regardless that still makes it 850 years old!

The highlight of any visit will be to see the beautiful and huge library, full of shiny wooden bookcases carefully labelled and organised into subjects such as zoology and astronomy, and any spare space of wall was covered with elaborate coats of arms of the previous instructors who have taught over the years.

Everywhere you turned there was something to investigate, another gem was the anatomical theatre, once used for medical lectures, its wooden walls adorned with famous physicians of the time, such as Hippocrates.

When we visited mum and I just turned up and were able to enter the buildings without a booking, but while researching for this blog post, it appears the situation may be currently different, possibly due to Covid, in that you had to book a slot or a guided tour prior to arrival. This is the link for the most up to date information should you fancy it.

One thing that you may not associate so much with Bologna is the canal system. Mainly hidden from view if you are just staying within the confines of the city centre, the Canal Navile provided an important job transporting goods too and from Bologna Port, from Medieval times up until the port was dismantled in 1934. But there is a place where you can spot this piece of history, and that is at Finestrella where you can open a small window situated on the Via Piella and look down on the Moline canal gently flowing beneath you. If you walk one block east to Via Giovanni Brugnoli, you get an even better view as you peer through the love-locked gate and see the canal continuing to flow, nestled between the striking orange buildings on its way to the Adriatic.

For dinner, we were spoilt for choice, each window invitingly advertising their speciality, of course in Bologna the most famous dish is ragù alla bolognese and I think that’s what mum had, but I went for a delicious veggie pasta dish and we shared a gluttonous dessert.

To work off some of the calories of our delicious dinner, we took another walk through more porticos, and soaked up the atmosphere around Piazza Maggiore, the square lit up all around the perimeter with musicians playing and cafe’s bustling.  Then it was a short walk across the Piazza Netunno to see the Fountain of Neptune all aglow and less crowded than earlier in the day, the statue casting a powerful shadow on the wall behind him.

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The next morning, we started our day with an espresso, it would have been rude not too, then we checked out of our hotel, took a last walk around the main square, and headed to the train station.

Along the way we passed a curious looking ruin, which turned out to be one of the original gates to the city, leaving me thinking there was definitely a lot more to explore here, as well as more pasta to eat, and as we boarded our train to Rimini, I made a mental note to return someday.

EATS – We were only in town to enjoy one evening meal and randomly picked Osteria della Orsa. But the town is famous for its stuffed pasta dishes such as Tortellini, its sausages, cheeses and hams as well as the renowned Ragu Bolognese, meaning you are overwhelmed with choice on where to eat. If we had more time, we would have explored some of the food markets, always a great way to eat well and on a budget.

COFFEE AND CAKE – Again, it was such a whistle stop tour, I didn’t have time to sample nowhere near as much as I wanted, but I had an incredible coffee and cake at Pappare  and they had lots of delicious plant based dishes too, I suspect I would have gone again if we’d had time. Speaking of next time, I’d love to visit Stefino in the Bolognina district to sample some of their vegan ice cream!

TOP TIP – Bologna has a superb location in Northern Italy and coupled with a great train network, you can easily travel to Milan, Modena, Palma, Florence all within 90 mins. We took the train south to Rimini taking 1hr 25 mins and costing just under €10.

ALWAYS BE POLITE – Ciao – Hello, Per Favore – Please, Grazie – Thanks