Ciao Italy: Bologna

After much delay, I return to documenting my time in Italy. I’m hoping to be able to finish up the bulk of these posts before I go off to Sydney in the middle of February. However, the deeper I get into this, the more I realise that it is wishful thinking on my part. In the interests of actually getting these posts written up, my next few posts about Italy may be a touch shorter. It also helps that these were just short day trips that I took!

This was another semi-last minute trip. Most of our friends were busy on the weekend, but along with one of my friends I was determined to explore a little more and visit this bustling city.

Upon exiting Bologna Centrale station we decided to trust our gut and walk in the direction with the most people and tall churches. This proved to be an excellent decision. Before too long we soon found ourselves in front of Porta Galliera. We could immediately deduce that this was one gates of the old Medieval walls of the city. It felt strange to see such an ornate structure, smack bang in the walkway with nary an explanation for it.

Although we were aiming for the centre of Bologna, we veered off course and into the Park of Montagnol. Although the steps and fountains leading up to the park, the same could not be said for the park itself. I imagine that the statues were once rather imposing and grand, but now they were gated and rather unkempt.

From up in the park we couldn’t miss La Piazzola. This is a weekly market that houses almost everything imaginable. We weaved through the white tents, looking at people hunting for bargains amongst piles of clothes and shoes.

When we hit the main road, it was almost like we were in a different city. The road suddenly became wide, paved and covered. We followed the shops down to Piazza Maggiore, at the centre of many of the tourist attractions of Bologna.


Neptune’s fountain is perhaps the focal point of the piazza. This imposing fountain has seen better days, but that didn’t stop it from being interesting. Upon closer inspection, it appears as if the mermaid like creatures are lactating, which is an odd touch to any monument really.


Basilica di San Petronio stands towering over Piazza Maggiore. The church is striking not only due to its large size, but also due to its unfinished façade. The interior of the church was on the plainer side. Impressive vaulted ceilings and chapels surrounded us, but it was less ornate and gaudy than many of the other churches in Italy.

For me, the highlight of our trip was the University of Bologna. Apparently, it is one of the oldest universities in the world. As one of the first Universities in the world, many have traveled from far and wide to its doors. This can be seen in the numerous crests adorning the walls. We couldn’t help over hearing a tour that was being conducted around us as we wandered around the halls. Turns out that not all students left their mark, simply because not all the students had crests. From the symbols, you can tell where the students came from. For example, the two headed dragons are very typical of German families.

Although the University is rather small, you also have access to the anatomical theatre and law chambers. The anatomical theatres, in particular, was quite the sight. The wall and the roof were adorned with an equal mix of revered scientists and gods of mythology. I imagine that it would have been rather intimidating to be sitting there, crowded in with other students, attempting to peer over them to the dissection at the table, all while surrounded by these greats.


The chambers were not nearly as grand, but they housed an impressive collection of books. We were able to peer further into the library, where an almost unimaginable number of books were kept. I believe that the majority of this collection is locked away from the public due to their age and rarity.

With little else planned we meandered over to Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vita. This building is probably best known for the terracotta statues inside, depicting sorrow over a dead Christ. On the world scale, these statues aren’t particularly well known, but it was easy to tell that they were real masterpieces. The expressions on the faces of the mourners and the sense of motion that they captured were simply amazing. The rest of the church felt rather secretive and peaceful. For the most part, we were the only people looking at the frescos and wandering around.

Having completed a fair bit of sight-seeing, it was time at last for lunch. Google maps helped me locate the tucked away Trattoria Gianni. Apparently, this place is fairly popular, but on a lightly drizzling Friday we managed to snag a table for two with no problems. We couldn’t go to Bologna without trying their most famous dish: ragu alla Bolognese. This is the forerunner to the now eponymous spaghetti Bolognese. Unlike the spaghetti at home, this was served on beautiful fresh tagliatelle. Rather than being saucy, it was slow cooked down to a complex meaty coating for the pasta. If you ever stumble upon this place, do save room for dessert. The semifreddo was also incredibly delicious.

The filling lunch was just what we needed before tackling the two towers of Bologna. Although Bologna is home to many towers, once part of the city’s fortifications, these two leaning towers are now the symbol of the city. Move over Pisa, the title of tallest leaning tower in Italy actually belongs to the larger of these two towers. Only the larger tower is accessible to the public. This is probably a good thing considering how precarious the shorter tower looked.


Climbing the tallest leaning tower in Italy was no easy feat. The stairs were often uneven and could only accommodate one person at a time. This meant a lot of shuffling and waiting at landings for people going the other way. I kept thinking that we were almost there, but the climb kept going until the steps got almost impossibly steep. Somehow, we made it all the way to the top to be greeted by some truly impressive views. It started spitting lightly again as we relaxed and took in the medieval city.


Let’s just say that going down was challenging but a lot easier than going up. At the end of that very long journey, we sat down to have gelato, of course, and contemplate the rest of the day.

Somehow we found ourselves in Basilica di Santo Stefano. This church is currently the number 1 thing to do in Bologna according to TripAdvisor. Once again, this was a rather austere church, or rather collection of churches. The complex consists of a cluster of different buildings built throughout the ages. Walking through all of them and comparing the architecture and examining the many years of wear and tear was particularly arresting.

Basilica di San Paolo Maggiore turned out to be our last stop. At this point, we were almost all churched out. I know that’s not a word, but I feel like in Italy it should be.Wandering into the church we noticed musicians setting up and tuning their instruments. The promise of a free musical show in this beautiful building was just too good to pass up. We lingered, missing a train, but enjoying the moment before finally saying goodbye to Bologna.


More than anything else Bologna was a city of contrasts. Whilst we were walking around we were approached by a number of suspicious characters, more so than in any other city. However, the luxe shops, porticos and sports cars hinted at the other wealthier side of Bologna. There’s a lot of history in this medieval city but also a lot of human interest, from the bustling markets to a group of students dressed in historical costume that we lazily tailed for a while. Given the chance, I would love to revisit Bologna. I feel like I’ve really only scratched the surface.


PS. To my disappointment, we didn’t get to visit the most famous church in Bologna: the hilltop Basilica Santuario della Madonna di San. This is a fair distance away and requires some planning re: transport timing. As we were doing everything so last minute, this didn’t really eventuate. If you’re keen to check it out, remember to be organised!


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