Published: June 3rd 2011April 27th 2011
23rd - 25th April 2011: Bologna, Ferrara, Ravenna
London can seem like the coldest and greyest city in the world in February. I had been dreaming about Italy for months; the food, the wine, the buildings, the language (I had been taking Italian classes in preparation and really enjoying them).... but most of all the sunshine. I told people confidently in the week running up that as long as I got to sit at a pavement cafe in the sunshine, with some nice wine and a book, I would need nothing else from my holiday. It was therefore a rather nasty shock when I got off the plane in Bologna to drizzle and a lowering dark grey sky!
Bologna is probably not most people's first choice of city to visit in Italy, especially for their first time in the country (with the exception of a family trip to Lago di Garda aged 14). However a university friend had spent six months here on exchange and had a fantastic time, and the city sounded interesting - medieval, red-bricked and home to one of the oldest universities in Europe. Bologna's reputation as 'La grasse' (the fat one) for its hearty Emilia-Romagnan
food, may have also been a draw...
One of the drawbacks
of the city is that there is a surprising dearth of budget accommodation, with only two grim hostels way out of town, catered only by infrequent bus services. I am one of those awful people who tends to prioritise the cheapness of accommodation over other such menial concerns such as cleanliness, comfort, privacy, etc. After all, you are only going to sleep there! Yet in this case I had "no choice" but to book a hotel, given lack of other options. Having not stayed in a hotel with breakfast and all that jazz in years, I found myself oddly excited about it, and the Albergo Centrale lived up to expectations. By the time the shuttle bus dropped me into town the rain had cleared up, though the skies remained gloomy, and I immediately set out for an orientating stroll and some lunch.
Bologna's architecture is distinctive. Almost every street is flanked by its famous porticos - columned shady walkways decorated in a hundred different ways and lit up at night. In contrast its towers and palazzos (palaces) are tall, thick-built and forbidding, undecorated brown or red stone
enlivened only by tiny square holes punched into the brickwork. They seem more like castles than stately homes. The churches are similarly decorated, with rather ugly facades of stepped castellations. Its main streets were wide, although mostly vehicle-free, though its back alleys and the old Roman quarter of the Quadrilatero had the photogenic nooks and crannies of every city in Italy I visited.
My first attempt at ordering food in Italian did not go well... the restaurant owner completely failed to understand me. Nor did she speak English. Clearly my language 'skillz' weren't quite as awesome as I had envisaged! I was slightly worried that all my work had come to naught, but this turned out to be mostly a one-off. It had been a very early plane after a rather raucous birthday weekend, and after exploring the main centre of Bologna and scarfing down some food, I headed back to my hotel for a nap (a definite novelty - naps in hostel dorms are rarely possible). In the evening I ventured out again for aperitivo in the bustling piazzas, a newish Italian trend whereby restaurants put on a deal that allows you access to an early evening cold
buffet for the price of a drink. I met with various standards over the holiday, but my first, in the university quarter of Bologna, was a good one, rice salads, pizza and pasta adequately washed down by a delicious glass of kir.
I always like seeing cities early in the morning when everything is still quiet and only a couple of people are up and about. Consequently the next morning I went for a stroll before breakfast through the deserted Piazza Maggiore and the empty echoing colonades before returning, very excited, to my first hotel breakfast in years. What a breakfast it was! Meat, cheese, yogurt, fruit, bread, every type of hot and cold breakfast you could want, but most importantly, cake. Yummy cake. Of all different types. Continental breakfasts rock.
When I ventured outside again (slightly later by this point!), I was surprised to see the city still slumbering. Given the quiet, I ventured over to Bologna's famous leaning Due Torre (two towers). Yep, Pisa doesn't hold the monopoly on non-vertical edifaces. Bologna once had 200 towers, construction of such monuments being the major way to show off wealth and power in medieval Bologna (or to compensate
for something... but we won't go into that.) Only 20 or so remain now thanks to bombing during the Second World War, and the unstable soft ground has meant that these two are now somewhat precariously slanted. Indeed, the smaller of the two: 'Garisenda', is now so out of vertical that it is unsafe to climb. Undaunted, I clambered my way up the taller 'Asinelli' for a birds eye view of the peaceful city with its distinctive red roofs and five gates in the old ring wall. Hardly a vehicle was stirring on the roads (helped in part that you need a permit to drive in Bologna's old town), and when the hour struck you could hear every church bell chime across the whole city.
By the time I descended from my lofty heights it was almost noon, but the streets still had little bustle to them. It was of course the university holidays, and on top of that, Easter weekend, but I was surprised all the same. Exploring the back avenues of town, deserted in the sunshine, made Bologna feel oddly like the Cittagazze of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials'; the idyllic Mediterrean ghost town. Torre Asinelli was
weirdly close to my imagined 'Torre Angeli' too. I had a late lunch on the main square that afternoon, the busiest place in town that day. After (successfully, this time) ordering my tagliatelle a ragu, the sun properly came out for the first time and I soaked up the rays with a gelato for several hours - my only real sun of my time in Bologna. I went walking again in the late afternoon, visiting the city's many churches and the deserted university, but was driven back to the hotel for a fairly early night after the evening chill descended and I was too frozen to eat my evening meal! Pavement ristorantes are a delight, but only when its above Artic temperatures.... Managed a delicious glass of spumante (Italian champagne) before I was forced to turn in though - who needs food when you have that?
The following day was my last in Emilia-Romangna before I moved onto Florence, and I had been debating whether to take a day trip to Ferrara or Ravenna. One was fairly small and rural but sounded nice, the other was the home of magnificant Byzantine mosaics. After some deliberation I decided that I
should walk off all this pasta on the town walls of Ferrara, and set off on my first Italian train trip. I was to take lots of these over the holiday, and was impressed by how easy, efficient and (mostly) punctual they were. Perhaps we have one thing to thank Mussolini for?
Almost immediately after arriving in Ferrara, I began to completely relax. The streets were leafy, gates leading into gardens bursting with blooms. As I strolled from the station into the centre of town, innumerable cyclists pedalled past me; mostly large groups of pensioner-age men, gossiping as they cycled in the Ferrara equivilent of a morning promenade. The sun was shining, though I still still hoodie-enclosed, and the locals were clearly making the most of the morning. Tourists were few and far between, and Italian heard everywhere as kids played ball in the street and people bought their bread and caught up with neighbours. The atmosphere felt like the 'real Italy' I had been waiting for.
Ferrara's main square held a gorgeous pink-and-white-striped birthday cake of a cathedral, flanked on either side by teeny tiny houses on stilts built onto the side walls. I had no idea
what these houses were actually for, as they would have been nearly impossible to stand up in, but they were extremely picturesque. The interior of the cathedral was decorated in elegant gold and grey, and I ducked in for a quick peek before it closed for its lunchtime siesta. The central squares of Ferrara were surrounded by palazzos in the same brown-red stone as permeates Bologna, and populated by market stalls selling jewellery and local produce. The most impressive of these palazzos was Castello Estense, the seat of power of the local lords (and later the papal representatives) when Ferrara was still a big player in Italian politics. This huge castle was surrounded by a moat, and I spent the morning wandering its halls, learning about Ferrara's history, and gazing in awe at its spectacular decorated ceilings.
To work off my lunch (and accompanying Bellini - I have developed a worrying taste for champagne cocktails) I then participated in Ferrara's other favourite pastime, walking its 15th and 16th century city walls. A beautiful shady tree-lined path ran along the top of these walls for long stretches around the city, and I had it all to myself apart from the
occasional cyclist. Looking over the wall there was a tree-lined grassy park, and on the other, intriguing glimpses into hidden courtyards and gardens of the gorgeously designed Italian homes. At one point the wall was lined with white cherry trees, carpeting everything in white blossom. If you haven't guessed yet, I really enjoyed it. Having circled about half the city, the wall descended to allow a road to enter through gates, and I happened upon a large street market and what looked like a mini-fairground thronged with people. I strolled through the stalls, mainly selling clothing and lots of very sticky treats, and eventually made my way back to the centre of town via the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter.
It was now mid-afternoon, and, spurred on by the success of my day, I decided to make the most of my final evening and travel onwards to Ravenna. The train journey was longer than expected across the plains, and I arrived with a tight time frame to see the major mosaics of the town. Ravenna seemed, frankly, scrattier than either Bologna or Ferrara had, its streets dusty and drab and lined with lounging young men who hissed at
me in what I suppose was meant to be a flattering manner, but was actually quite sinister! Undeterred however, I set off, map in hand, to navigate my way as speedily as possible between the major churches.
Ravenna's mosaics date from the 5th and 6th centuries, after the Emperor Honorious moved his seat to the seat and made it the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Even when that Empire collapsed, Ostrogothic successor Theodoric The Great continued to encourage Ravenna's artistic wealth. The mosaics are Byzantine in style, and made of of hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces so the images look seamlessly fashioned in gold or lapis lazuli. I wasn't sure how I would feel about them, as I tend not to be a huge fan of over-ostentation, especially with gold, or the Byzantine style in general, but actually all the mosaics were so beautifully worked and so graceful and delicate in design that I only wished I had longer to see them.
The pinnacle of the Ravenna mosaics were meant to be those in the Bascilia Di San Vitale, but my personal favourite was the stunning Battistero Neoniano, originally a Roman bathhouse that was converted into
a baptisry, then covered in beautiful blue mosaics depicting the apostles and the baptism of Christ. I also really loved the tiny darkened Mausoleo Di Galla Placidia, a tomb covered head to toe in mosiacs and glittering like a disco ball. During my trek through the city I also took a quick peek at Dante's tomb, where a lamp burns eternally with oil from Florence, sent in penance for exiling the great man from their city. Florence may claim the glory of Dante, but they weren't such a fan of him at the time, and Ravenna was where he actually wrote the Divine Comedy
, as well as where he spent the last 20 years of his life.
Once all the churches and their respective mosaics were closed (sadly it was too early in the season for them to be lit up at night, which sounds amazing) I was at leisure to explore Ravenna itself. I dutifully wandered the town and had some gelato in a pavement cafe, but seemed to spend most of my time getting lost in its frustratingly-difficult-to-navigate streets, so much so that I almost missed the last train back to Bologna. Ravenna's mosaics are stunning and
well worth the trip, and I could have done with another hour to appreciate them fully. From what I could tell though, the rest of the city did not live up to its magnificent past, and I was glad I had not missed Ferrara to spend the entire day here.
The following morning was my very last in Bologna, and I got up early to finally catch a glimpse of the Quadrilatero in its full glory; market stalls piled high with every type of fruit and vegetable, shops filled with row upon row upon row of hanging pigs and huge wheels of cheese and every type of fresh and dried pasta available. No wonder they called this city 'La grasse': so much of it looked tempting! The people were finally emerging from their Easter hibernation, and I was sad to leave just as the bustle started again. It had been a surprisingly lonely three days, not only because of the quietness of the city as a whole, but because people really didn't strike up conversations. Being English, and therefore with copious quantities of the legendary national reserve, I find it hard to approach others, but am very appreciative when
others do! Perhaps it was silly to expect a thriving backpacker scene such as I had discovered elsewhere, for the tourists I saw throughout the week were overwhelmingly couples or families. Next time I holiday in Europe I shall remember to bring friends!
Nevertheless, Bologna had grown familiar to me in my short time there, and I had particularly enjoyed my 'last stroll of the evening' when the dark had descended and the buildings were all lit up. When the students are all in town I imagine it's a really fun place to hang out. My time was up however, and Tuscany and my far-less-luxurious hostel were calling, so I hoisted my backpack, said goodbye to the colonades, and set off for Florence.
There are more photos below