Bella Bologna: A Journey Through the City | La Vita Nuova | Year Abroad Adventures

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Bella Bologna: A Journey Through the City

Going back to Bologna with ESN and my fellow Erasmus students was a real treat – I'd visited the city for the first time back in Easter with my family, but it was great to go back with a student's perspective. In fact, with the help of our guide (who was a student at Bologna's university), I learned a lot of new, interesting things about the history of this "red city"!

One of the original gates into the historical city
After arriving by train, we started the day in a similar way to how we started our Trieste trip: with a tour by student guides. We began at one of the original gates to the city – unfortunately not all of them still exist, but it's still nice to see history being preserved. The impression I got from Bologna on this visit is that it's full of intriguing stories, although many are tinged with a mythical element so it's hard to tell what's true and what's not!
Bologna's streets are characterised by their arches
Walking through the distinctive red streets (most of which are filled with people more often than not!) and arches, we heard about all sorts of city legends. These included the Latin inscriptions hidden under arches which translate to "bread is life, cannabis is protection, wine is happiness", the fact that the façades on buildings around the Piazza Maggiore apparently only serve to make it look nicer, and the story of three villains being distracted by a naked woman, missing their target and shooting arrows into the ceiling (where they remain to this day at the entrance of Corte Isolani)... I was overwhelmed by the amount of stories I learned about, but I'll describe some of the most interesting ones for you guys!
Palazzo ComunaleStatue of Pope Gregory XIII
The first relates to the Palazzo Comunale in Piazza Maggiore, and its enduring statue of Pope Gregory XIII. The story goes that when Napoleon arrived in Bologna and ordered that all papal effigies be destroyed, this beloved statue was preserved by fooling him into thinking it was a saint instead. How, you ask? A staff (a common signifier of a saint) was placed in his raised hand and the Latin text "Divus Petronius" (Saint Petronius/San Petronio) was inscribed above the statue. Amazingly, the plan worked: today the statue can be seen with the staff removed, but the "Divus Petronius" text remains as a memory of those events.
The outside of the San Petronio Basilica...and the inside.
Also in the Piazza Maggiore is a damaged pavement left by the American liberation tanks after World War II, preserved for the sake of memory. There's also the San Petronio Basilica, inside of which I discovered a gorgeous, peaceful church complete with an orchestra playing ethereal music! It was one of the most memorable visits to a basilica I've had so far (and trust me, you visit a lot of religious buildings while travelling around Italy). The building itself remains technically "unfinished" in a couple of ways. Firstly, the main decorative façade was never fully completed. More interesting to me, however, is the cut-off window which is testament to how the original vision for this building was never brought to fruition. The church would have been built in the shape of a cross and would have been larger than Rome's St. Peter's Basilica – however, the Catholic Church bought land beside the construction site (possibly because they wanted Rome's church to be the biggest) and forced these plans to be halted. The pictures below show how this fascinating window really does differ from those found on the rest of the building!
Normal windowsThe cut-off window
On the way to the final stop on our guided tour, the two Towers of Bologna, we stopped for a quick tale about the balcony on the Palazzo della Mercanzia (pictured below). The University of Bologna is the oldest in the world, but in the middle ages, it seems being a student there would have been much more stressful! A man would stand on this balcony every morning and scream the names of students who owed money to the university for everyone to hear. Since debt was considered much more shameful than it is today, this was very detrimental for families' reputations, so students were pressured to pay up.
Palazzo della Mercanzia
Of course, no trip to Bologna would be complete without seeing Le Due Torri (the Two Towers) – Torre della Garisenda (the shorter of the two) and Torre degli Asinelli. You can climb Torre degli Asinelli (since it's taller and doesn't lean as much as Garisenda), but I didn't for fear of the superstition that if you climb it as a student, you won't graduate. I'm not particularly superstitious but... I'd rather not risk it. Some other time!
Le Due Torri: della Garisenda (left) and degli Asinelli (right)  
After the end of the guided tour, I took my time walking around and going inside a few of the religious buildings, such as the San Petronio Basilica and the Basilica di Santo Stefano (also known as Le Sette Chiese – "the seven churches"). They were rather different inside and in Santo Stefano especially there was a lot more to explore than originally expected. If you're well-versed in the ways of visiting Italian churches, check them out!
Bologna's market streetsA guitar player by Piazza Santo Stefano
The market streets of Bologna are also very charming – there's something lovely about fresh fruit, vegetables and fish all being sold on the street, and I love that bustling environment! I'm a real fan of wandering around a new city and just seeing what you find; you don't always have to make a beeline for the main attractions to have a good time. Also, shout out to that guy owning it on the guitar! I came across a lot of street music that Saturday, from guitars to live singing to harps, which also added to the great atmosphere.
A Sex on the Beach cocktail at aperitivo! ❤️
I met up again with everyone for the aperitivo in the evening, because what's a day out in Italy without good food and drink?! In Bologna, our food was served in more of a buffet style, meaning you went inside to get a plate and grabbed however much food you wanted. It was awesome, and there were tons of options that the staff brought out throughout the evening to suit everyone! It was definitely one of my favourite aperitivo evenings.
Santuario di San Luca (close-up)From far away...
That was the end of the day trip with ESN, but, there's one more place I'd like to show you! Back in Easter I took the San Luca Express (a "bus" service that is actually one of those novelty train rides) up to the Santuario di San Luca (pictured above). You can also walk all the way up the hill to get to it, since there is a pedestrian path, but it really is a long trek so I'd definitely just take the "train" if you don't have at least half a day or so to spare! 😛 Regardless, it's an absolutely breathtaking building with a great view from the top of the hill, and I wouldn't want to leave it out of any Bologna article.
Le Due Torri as seen from below, at night
I'd like to learn more about local legends in Venice and other cities... if you guys have any interesting ones in mind, I'd love to hear them!


  1. Such incredible architecture - glad to see so much of it is so well preserved. I always love going on tours as you really get to learn so much about the place. That cocktail looks delicious as well! Now I fancy one haha. Great blog post - I love hearing about a city's history!

    1. Thanks for your comment Ella! :) I was so impressed with how little seems to have changed there!

  2. The city looks beautiful! May have to add it to my bucket list now!!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! And you should, it's definitely worth visiting! :)