Monday, 13 August 2012

Walking the Porticos of Bologna

Following a short train trip from Milan (approx 1 hour), we arrived in Bologna. Jules had particularly chosen this town as she had read of its reputation as one of the major food centres of Italy and the chance to experience the best of local dining and produce was simply too hard to ignore. To be honest, in the end it didn’t really live up to all the hype, as tends to happen with most of these things. Sure, there were some terrific food and produce shops, with a wide array of cheese and meats, but no less impressive than the offerings of our very own Central Market back in Adelaide. Likewise on the restaurant front, the meals were enjoyable and certainly cheap, but really no better than we had experienced throughout other locations in Italy. However, Bologna did have one major asset in its favor that we hadn’t considered and that was its ‘authenticity’. Unlike most of the provincial cities we had visited, it appeared largely unaffected by tourism and therefore provided a very genuine Italian experience. There were far less foreign accents to be heard and the older parts of town generally lacked the polish and presentation of the more visited destinations. Sadly, there was far too much graffiti for our liking, which often defaced the towns beautiful and unique historical buildings. Yet looking through all that, we felt that there was certainly a uniqueness about Bologna that had strangely not been fully capitalized by its own citizens.

It quickly became apparent that the most unique feature of Bologna was its architecture and particularly its street level porticos that are said to stretch out some 38 kilometres in and around the city. These arched covered walkways were largely built in the middle ages to sensibly protect its citizens from the natural elements as they made their way around. Most of the porticos are beautifully constructed, often with marble flooring and elaborately painted ceilings. With the light streaming in, they would often appear like a scene from a De Chirico painting, while at other times they had an endless quality that perfectly demonstrated the converging lines of perspective drawing. Such was the case during the long walk we undertook to San Luca Basilica. We began by catching a bus to the site of one of the entrances of the ancient wall that had originally surrounded the city centuries ago. From here we wandered along an extensive stretch of porticos that slowly made their way upward into the foothills. With over 600 archways to pass through, strangely the walk had a remarkable similarity to our climb through the Tori Gates in Japan. While the designs were completely different, the scale and endless nature of the arches was in many ways similar. Eventually we took the final steps at the end to reveal a beautiful terracotta coloured church overlooking the city, which incidentally appeared to spread far wider than we had previously thought.

Throughout our stay, we found the Bolognians to be particularly friendly folk; they were happy to go out of their way with help and advise, as if surprised that we had chosen to visit there town rather than more popular destinations. Another surprising quality we discovered was their love of cinema, apparently buying the largest number of movie tickets per head of population in Italy. They hold a number of film festivals throughout the year, with the most popular being the Sotto le Stelle del Cinema, which is held in the summer months in the open-air of the Maggiore Piazza. After dinner one night, we thought we’d take a ‘passagiata’ (an evening stroll) to the piazza to see what was happening. Being a free event, it was absolutely packed, but there was a terrific atmosphere as people were settling in for the evening with a cold glass of vino or a melting gelato in hand. With the huge screen set against a backdrop of buildings from the middle age, I can’t think of a better setting for watching a movie on a warm summers night. Amazingly the movie (‘The Kings Speech’ that particular night) was in English with Italian subtitles, as apparently the film aficionados prefer their films to be presented in their original language.

The next day we woke to another sun drenched day and to find a huge open-air market had set up close to our hotel. Spreading out far and wide, it effectively doubled the already large collection of shops in the central business district and local residents were already up early searching out bargains. If you were looking for cheap shoes, clothing, leather goods or electronics, this was certainly the place to be. Indeed, Bologna generally seemed to be a very affordable city to live, which no doubt suits the large student population who live here. The city has the notoriety of being the location of the one of the oldest universities in the world (University of Bologna, founded in 1088), which further adds to its somewhat understated history. As we continued to discover, there was much about Bologna that could be further promoted to enhance the city and attract more visitors. However, the question is whether that is what is actually wanted or in the end, whether it will ultimately change the cities truly authentic character.

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