12th-century Bologna was a high-rise metropolis…
It is recognized by many terms of endearment…‘La Rossa’ (The Red One) for its vibrant brick architecture, ‘La Dotta’, for its first University of the western world, ‘La Grassa’ for its traditional dishes like tortellini, mortadella, lasagne, tagliatelle with meat sauce and ‘La Turrita’, for its more than 180 towers from an illustrious medieval past. Many nicknames…much love. It’s been labelled with many official names too…4th-century name Felsina of its founding Etruscans to the Bononia of the Romans (meaning ‘fortified place’) to Bologna. Solid history, deep foundations. So quit thinking of reasons to skip the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, the authentic hotbed of Italian gastronomy. There just aren’t any!
Outside Parco Montagnola, barely 10 minutes from the train station, the ruins of a magnificent castle (symbolizing the Pope’s control), set the tone. Down Via dell’Indipendenza, begin navigating the tightly woven 350 acres of Europe’s second largest historic centre, speckled with medieval, renaissance, and baroque structures. No overwhelming, grand monuments like in Florence or Milan here. Something better. Allure of medieval streets along a quintessential Roman grid town layout, 50 shades of red-hued buildings, endless porticoes and incredible skyscrapers. Ogle away. Till you’re red in the face and have a crick in your neck!
Defined by endless porticoes
Activate your inner architect nerd: Inside the three circled walled city, are 38 kilometres of porticoes built from the 11th to 20th century. Blame the student population explosion during the 12th century and an innovative home extension law. A little push outward from the house (called a sporto), became a little bigger extension, with oaks trunks of oaks used as support. The resulting arcades housed shops and offered shelter from rain and summer heat. See the real deal at Casa Schiavina on Via Clavature and Casa Isolani on Strada Maggiore. Eventually, of course, tree trunks were replaced by columns of brick and stone, as they stand today. Elegant and aristocratic to dark and narrow, from secluded and serene to crowded and noisy…the porticoes have multiple personas but one unified soul.
Melt into magical moments: Let the porticoes take you into their fold. Walk. Walk. Walk. Under pretty decorative arches, by delicate sculpted cornices, over detailed frescoed stairways, besides solid medieval walls. Lean against a column under the colonnade, watching the hectic morning rush hour and following the beat of footsteps echoing off the stone pavements. Exhaust your memory by searching for color adjectives for the buildings around…burnt sienna, salmon red, coral pink, sunny yellow, pumpkin orange, earthy ochre and more. And when your leg muscles protest, flop at the nearest cafe table, order your coffee, pore over your map and indulge in more street-watching…because its never enough. Ponder over the faded palazzi colors…pollution or ravages of time? The shadow play is hypnotic…the subtle lengthening of tall, narrow columns and the imperceptible curving of soft arches. Time goes on but time stands still. The church bells toll and the evening socialising kicks in. Horse carriages, sturdy benches and wine barrels morph out of nowhere. How can you be in Medieval Bologna? Everything is possible in a dream!
Salute the iconic best: Looking for the ultimate porticoed perfection? Head to the Holy Shrine of St. Luke’s Madonna through the longest arched corridor in the world. The Portico di San Luca, built in the 17th century for pilgrims, is a 3.5 km long winding portico consisting of 666 arches. Brace up for an illuminated stroll…unreal slices of light lie ahead.
Remnants of a skyscraper town
Activate your inner architect nerd: Go ahead, shake your head in disbelief…but its true. Bologna was a Medieval Manhattan way back in the 12th century. Really. Competitive rivalries between factions supporting the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor actually gave rise to high-rises in the town! Defensive towers were built as lookout spots for the safety of different clans and privileged members were granted access through underground passages or bridges from upper stories of their houses. The higher the tower, the more influential a clan. Bare brick, no frills and fancies. Some nervous wrecks, those Bolognese must have been. Living in constant ‘warring fear’.
Melt into magical moments: Imagine an era where much of the world was sheltering in thatched roofs and mud huts while Bologna residents jump-started progress with stores, workshops and multi-storied buildings. As many as 180 skyscrapers over an urban sprawl of red-tiled rooftops! More than Tokyo, Shanghai and even Dubai can claim today. Blocks of flats inside…modest homes at least, if not condo-quality. That’s incredulous, even unthinkable, but psyche yourself into this fantasy world for a moment. Most of the towers demolished, collapsed or crumbled to ruins…but thank you Italy, for laying the foundations of urban metropolises as we know them.
Salute the iconic best: Go in search of the symbol of the city…’Due Torri’ (Two Towers of Bologna) called Asinelli (97 metres) and Garisenda (48 metres). There’s that inimitable tilt again…yes, how could it not be? 498 steps and 3 Euro later, feel like a reincarnate of a guard from the middle ages, lanterns in hand, patrolling for security. Calm your pulse and fill your lungs after the workout. Because the red views are going to steal your heart and take your breath away again.
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