Towns / Cities Visited: 145
Countries Visited: 25
Steps Taken Today: 13,840
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,759,118
We rose to what we would soon discover is a public holiday in Italy. Having read in multiple places that parking in the centre of Bologna was nigh on impossible, we opted to take advantage of public transport; however, a rudimentary online search the previous night had offered little information about how to go about such an endeavour. In fact, if nothing else, we learnt that the public transport websites of this region were likely built in the early 90’s and had simply been left alone since then: hard to navigate and incredibly outdated. Still, my partner managed to find what looked to be a bus route in. Despite sounding like tickets could be bought on board, we stepped on to discover that the outer suburb buses do not, only the inner-city ones do. We would, of course, have bought a ticket at a nearby retailer, but, as I said, it was a public holiday, and everything was shut this far out of town. Our bus driver spoke zero English, but we hand gestured through understanding he’d let us on and, as the bus trundled off, a kind fellow passenger translated the rest to us. He would take us to the first stop of the inner buses onto which we could change, buy tickets on board, and complete our trip that way. A kindness we were grateful for given that the next bus wasn’t for another hour and a half and we had a booking to make.
Our rather fumbled journey eventually delivered us to the old but still beating heart of this quaint northern city, and we breathed a sigh of relief as we alighted the bus into the quiet streets of Bologna on this most hallowed All Saints Day. Wandering into the old town the difference in architecture becomes more obvious. Whereas the outer suburbs are a collection of somewhat run down buildings, the heart of the city is swathed in the red brick romance of historic Italy. The centrepiece, and one of its biggest touristic drawcards, is Le Due Torri, the two towers. Pisa might house the most famous crooked tower, but it seems that shoddy tower construction, or at best questionable foundations, is prevalent across the country. Standing at the base of them its mildly unsettling given the lean of these brick towers, especially the shorter of the two. As the story goes, they were built between 1109 and 1119 by two feuding families trying to prove who was the most powerful, and they are named after said families, Asinelli Tower (the taller one), and Garisenda Tower (the shorter of the two). Like many of these stories though, there is little evidence to support it, but why let that get in the way of a good tale. Originally, they were of similar height with Asinelli standing at 70 metres and Garisenda at 60 metres; however, Asinelli was raised to its current 97.2m, and has a lean of around 2m, whereas Garisenda was shortened to its current 48m in order to prevent this 3.2m leaning tower from toppling over. Funnily enough, they do not lean in the same direction, and this only adds to the higgledy-piggledy look of them. Despite appearing close to collapse, they have stood for almost a millennium, and stood up to fires, severe lightening damage, and small partial collapses.
We had booked to climb Asinelli tower, the only of the two open to the public, but we had a little spare time and a desire to answer the call of nature first, so we went in search of public facilities. A brief wander was fruitless, and even a drop into the visitor centre could not answer our request. Eventually we did the only thing we could think of, we stopped at a cafe off of the main town square, my mother ordered a coffee, and we thankfully used theirs.
Unburdened by the need to relieve ourselves, we headed back to the tower and joined the line to ascend. Now, the interior is similarly as ancient as the exterior, meaning that the journey up is via the ageing wooden stairs which wind around the inside. The stairs are narrow, as to be expected, but as a result it means that entrance is only allowed in allotted groups, and the next group can only enter when the entirety of the first group has left. Eventually, the last stragglers emerged, and we ducked in to begin the 498 stair journey to the top. We were at the front of our group, so we set the pace, but luckily by the time we were struggling with the last hundred stairs, everyone behind us was feeling it too.
As painful as it was, the view as you step out onto the roof makes it all worthwhile, and what little breath we had left was taken away. The panorama below is a sea of red brick roofs perched atop mustard yellow walls so common here, and we did our best to snap as many photos as we could before the rest of the group joined us and the jostling for space began. From ground level, it is hard to gauge the height difference of the towers but looking down on the stunted twin that is Garisenda the variation becomes glaringly obvious, although the lean is less noticeable from the lofty heights. The weather may have been dreary, and the roofs may have been sporting a fair few less than enchanting satellite dishes, but it’s hard not to be enamoured by Bologna.
As we made our way back to the square, we paused a moment to admire the unusual architecture of the Basilica di San Petronio. Whereas most churches look well planned and well put together, this particular church sits unfinished despite construction beginning in 1390. The bottom half may be all nicely clad in marble facings, but the upper portion remains in its naked brick underclothes; a real shame considering how detailed the completed portions are. Still, it has a certain charm to it in all of its perfect imperfection: a silent message about how underneath all of our outward decoration, we are all simple beings and our strength is found in the fortitude of this internal foundation.
With rumbling stomachs, we tore ourselves away in search of a local dish famed the world over, spaghetti Bolognese. Spotting a pasta restaurant, we settled in an ordered ourselves a few plates to share, including a tortellini with Bolognese sauce, which was the unanimous favourite, and the classic spaghetti version, with a strangely slapdash addition of novelty peas.
Satisfied, we headed back out to admire a few more sights. Wandering back through the square we stopped to watch the playful splashing of the Fountain of Neptune. The fountain dates back to the mid 16th century, and sports the typical scantily clad Roman god of the sea, complete with trident and ‘just give me a minute’ hand gesture. At his feet sit cherubs choking the life out of dolphins, and at the base sit four sea nymphs suggestively squeezing water from their breasts. I swear, classical art is just downright strange sometimes.
Winding through some of the nearby streets, we passed the Basilica of San Dominico, another brick house of god which is watched over by a column topped with the figure of Saint Dominic, as well as another topped with the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus. The church houses the remains of the local Saint who lived in Bologna and died within the church during the 13th century, but given that today was a special religious holiday for the Christian population of Italy, we thought, as non-believers, it was best to refrain from entering just to ogle the extravagant interior. The square beside the church is home to two tombs, although we were not sure who their occupants were. A rather eccentric Italian man began talking to us, I imagine to try and answer that very question, but given that we are not fluent Italian speakers, we were still in the dark, even when he followed us, continuing to talk as we nodded politely, until he finally peeled off.
Making our way onwards, the walk took us past the statue of Luigi Galvani, the 18th century Italian physician who was a pioneer in bioelectromagnetics. For those of you unsure of what that entails, he discovered that a dead frogs muscles would twitch if zapped with an electrical spark. I little grim, I know, but the statue is quite impressive, depicting him in the usual aristocratic garb of the time, complete with leggings and curled wig, and poring over a pile of books stacked on a lectern.
Our last stop was the Archiginnasio of Bologna, an impressive 16th century building which used to be the main hub of the University of Bologna, but now holds the municipal library, and the anatomical theatre. The public holiday meant that we were not able to visit the library, but the inner courtyard is still open for viewing, and is home to a smattering of memorial plaques, coats of arms, and dedications. It is almost cemetery-esque in appearance, and the formality of it all commands respect for the scholars who once passed through this palace of a building.
It was time to turn in for the day, but not before picking up some supplies for dinner, and keeping up the tradition of buying gelato at every possible opportunity. A quiet night saw us resting before the next day’s travels further south to the first of the two micro-countries which reside landlocked within Italy. As I replayed the day in my head, whilst flicking through my photos, I couldn’t help being caught on something my mother had said to me as we reached the top of Asinelli Tower, a very proud ‘I made it all the way up without stopping!’. At the time it had seemed such a small comment, but as I considered it, it really settled on me. As children, we often see our parents as the encouragers, the ones we wish to make proud with our actions, and yet, amidst this, we so often forget to acknowledge their achievements. We become so used to praise and pride flowing down the generations, that we often overlook giving it back. My 56 year old, ex-smoker mum just walked up 498 steps non-stop despite only having average fitness, and while I was busy heaving from the feat of doing it myself, I forgot to acknowledge how much harder it must have been for her. They say there is a lesson in every day, and, I’m mildly ashamed to say, it took me to this day to learn that I really need to look at praising the small achievements of the woman who has always been so proud of mine. The woman who cheered on my first smile, my first word, my first step, deserves just as much praise for all 498 of hers today. Mum, if you ever get around to reading this one, just know I am proud of you, every achievement, big or small.