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

 

 

Quick trip to Madrid

Whilst randomly searching flights online with mum one afternoon, it soon became apparent that we could fly to the Spanish capital after work on a Friday afternoon and get home in the early hours of Monday, giving me just enough time to catch up on sleep before returning to work.

So, with money left on our Ryanair voucher to spend up, it ended up costing us less to fly to Madrid that a train ticket to London, so it was a no brainer and as neither of us had been before, we had a full itinerary soon planned out.

We had an apartment booked, and a free taxi curtesy of Booking.Com that took us right through the heart of the city on our way to the accommodation. Seeing the incredible buildings, tree lined streets and vibrant nightlife bursting from the streets, gave us a taste of what was to come. But we had had a long day, travelling almost straight from work and with my 75 year old mother, meant once we had arrived in our apartment and kicked off our shoes, it was almost 11pm, so we decided to call it a night, and would hit the ground running in the morning.

When I say ‘hit the ground running’, I actually meant grab a shower and walk 5 mins round the corner to Chocolateria 192 to grab breakfast and when I say breakfast, I mean Churros.

As well as its convenient location and excellent reviews, another selling point of Chocolateria 192 which won out over its local rivals for me, was the fact they offered a dairy free chocolate to dunk your churros into and it was delicious.

Boosted by caffeine and chocolate, it was only a short walk to the Royal Palace, via a statue by Salvador Fernández Olivawhich we spotted just off the Calle Mayor, it was of a man with a shiny bottom, so of course I felt obliged to give him a friendly pat.

The Royal Palace is an impressive 18th century Baroque building, built on the site of a Moorish castle, it’s no longer used as a permanent residence for the Spanish royals, meaning a lot of the rooms are now open for the public to explore.

Its a very popular tourist spot, and although it opens at 10am the queues form much earlier, so mum got in line, and I went off to take some photos whilst it was relatively crowd free.

At over 3000 rooms, it’s the largest palace in Western Europe, and although you only get to see a small portion of it, the rooms on display are the most interesting and ornate ones. No photos allowed beyond the entrance hall, but from memory the Throne Room, the Gala Dining room and Charles III’s bedroom were all as elaborate as you would imagine.

Facing the palace is the Almudena Cathedral, I really loved this building, and to save mums legs we took the lift up to the top of the dome. It’s well worth making it to the top as the views across the city are spectacular, but even more so is the inside of the dome, which is a beautiful square cupola painted dark blue and gold.

When you get back down to the main part of the cathedral, make sure you look up at the nave ceiling, it has an incredible multicoloured geometric pattern, I hadn’t seen one like that before. The apse at the front of the cathedral is hard to miss though, with more colourful paintings and modern stain glass windows and with the sun streaming in, it cast an incredible rainbow light across the walls, it was heavenly.

What should have been a short walk to the Metro station, turned into quite a long walk down and round the back of the palace to Ermita De San Antonio De La Florida. Not that we got lost, but there was quite a lot of construction work happening and the direct route to the church was blocked off.  Had we known how long it would take us, we probably would have turned around, but happy to build up an appetite we powered through and made it to the small church with the Spanish painter Franciso Goya’s famous painted fresco’s. No photo’s allowed, but I managed a quick sneaky blurred one before we left, as pay off for the long walk to get there, apologies for that.

We finally made it to the metro station and bought our tourist card and loaded it with 10 single trips, you can share it between people, so basically it was 5 trips each for me and mum for €14.70. The metro is easy to use, safe, inexpensive and has stops all across the city, close to pretty much all the sights you would want to see, so we ended up topping up our card during out stay as we found it so convenient to use.

With the Spaniards taking their main meal of the day in the early afternoon, we decided to follow suit and went to the vegan restaurant B13 Bar for a big lunch, before grabbing a coffee to go at Celicioso and then headed back down to the metro onward to the south of the city.

I love Atlas Obscura and always take a peak at the website before a trip to see if there is anything I fancy adding to my hit list. The Rocker Grandma is a statue in the south of the city, a short walk from the Nueva Numancia metro station, and was erected in tribute to la abuela rockera, who discovered rock music in her 70’s. After starting to attend rock shows she became a famous figure within the Spanish rock scene and as I’m a bit partial to some loud music myself, I had to go and pay my respects.

We then hopped back on the metro and alighted at Estacion del Arte, not surprisingly because we had planned a visit to one of the famous art galleries. Museo Reina Sofía is Spain’s national 20th century art museum and is part of Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art, along with Museo del Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza National MuseumWe chose Reina Sofia because of the large number of Picasso, Dali and Miro available to view, and mum especially wanted to see Picasso’s Guernica, his famous black and grey anti war painting. No photos were allowed of this particular piece, but there was so much more to see, and although we only managed to visit a portion of the gallery, we still managed to cram a lot in.

By the time we left it had gotten dark, so we wandered up the world heritage Paseo del Prado, to see if we could explore the light show inside the Botanical Gardens. We weren’t so lucky though, the queue was huge and sold out for the evening, so we joined others peeking through the gates, then made our way back down the tree lined Paseo del Prado, soaking up the Saturday evening atmosphere before jumping back on the metro.

Our final stop of the evening was to grab some food at the San Miguel market a 100 year old food market, selling everything from local fish, Iberian hams, fresh fruits, desserts and of course wine. There are over 20 stalls from which to sit down, sample and buy tapas and drinks from, although if you are vegan like me, you could struggle to find something, other than a fruit cup.

Luckily, I found an empanada place called Las Muns just outside, and got myself a hot pastry to go with my salad from the market, and we headed back to our apartment to rest our feet and prepare for the next day.

On a Sunday morning in Madrid, the place to be everyone told me, was to head to El Rastro. A large flea market spread along a beautiful tree lined street, jam packed with stalls selling both new and old, such as hand made cute tote bags, antique watches, colourful socks and leather bags. As it approaches lunch time, local tapas bars open up for those wanting a break from all the haggling, but we were still full from another breakfast plate of churro’s, so we did a full circuit of the stalls before heading onward.

One place I knew I wanted to see was the restaurant, said to be the oldest in the world, Sobrino de Botín. `It’s been serving local dishes, such as roast suckling pig and poached egg continuously since 1725, not that I was interested in actually sampling the food, being plant based, but I wanted to grab a quick picture outside, because one of my friends dad’s used to work there, and I wanted to send her a surprise text.

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On our way back to our apartment, we passed through Plaza Mayor, the original main square and heart of old Madrid. Although it was still waking up, people were wrapped up warm and starting to find spots to sit outside the many bars and cafe’s that line the edges of the square, drinking coffee and eating brunch. As well as a large Christmas tree in the centre, there were quite a few antique stalls selling stamps and coins, surrounded by Spanish pensioners all comparing their collections, giving it a real authentic, less touristy feel.

We popped back to our apartment to check out and store our luggage in the reception for the remainder of the day, then it was a short walk to the Sol metro station to take us over to newly Unesco certified El Retiro park.

This huge park is right in the heart of the city, close to all the main art galleries and the Paseo del Prado with them both sharing a newly awarded World Heritage status in 2021. We entered via the gate opposite the Retiro metro station, picked one of the beautiful tree lined paths and joined the many other tourists and locals enjoying a nice Sunday afternoon stroll. There are plenty of statues, fountains, a boating lake, a rose garden, cafes, a glass pavilion, 15,000 trees, including a 400 year old Mexican conifer as well as spaces for exercise, bike rental, a puppet theatre and library!

Highlights for me included the beautiful shimmering boating late, the famous ‘fallen angel‘ fountain (which is the only statue in the world known to be dedicated to the devil), we loved watching the children take rollerblading lessons and seeing the many dogs getting just as much enjoyment out of the park as the humans did.

We managed to walk pretty much in a full circle and exited the park the way we came in, so we could get back on the metro at Retiro and take Line 2 up to Ventas.

Neither myself or mum are supporters of bull fighting in any way shape or form, but had read that even if you aren’t a fan of the bloodsport, the building itself is worth a visit. The building is directly outside the metro station, making it really easy to quickly squeeze in a visit. You can take a proper tour of the stadium, to learn not only about the building but also about the history of Spain’s controversial sporting event that takes place here, but at almost €15.00 a ticket, its probably not worth it, unless you have a keen interest.

We did a lap around the ornate 4 storey, red brick bull ring complete with colourful tiles and a statue at the front depicting a matador and bull in mid-fight. Inside there is seating for over 23,000 people, there’s a museum, a chapel and a state of the art operating theatre, eeek, this is purely for the matador though, if the bull isn’t killed by the end of the match, then it’s taken out back and killed there instead.

Then it was back on the metro, and back to Sol to grab a late lunch/early dinner at Freedom Cakes, which doesn’t sound like it would serve full meals, but it does, and they’re all vegan and the portions are huge!

We then took a last stroll up the busiest and most popular street in the capital, the Gran Via for some window shopping and to take in some of the incredible architecture, before finishing up with a coffee and ice cream at the delicious and super friendly Mistura Coffee.

Once we retrieved our bags, we took the metro across to Atocha which is the central station, and here we boarded the train to the airport, taking about 30 minutes, terminating at terminal 4 and we reluctantly headed home. Madrid was truly surprising, friendly, easy to navigate and I’d definitely return, maybe using it as a base to visit some neighbouring towns next time as well as have another plate of churros of course!