It’s been 17 years since my first and only visit to Bologna. I had been here on a ‘Grand Tour’ with an old boyfriend at the tender age of 19, at that point woefully untravelled, full of wide-eyed wonder at the simplest differences from life back home and incapable even of appreciating any foodstuff other than a margherita pizza. Indeed, on that first trip to Italy I ate the aforementioned pizza for lunch and dinner every day for three weeks.
It was a more sophisticated and well-travelled Rachel who returned to Bologna this weekend, gratefully dispatched here on a work trip, of sorts, to fly an exciting new helicopter with a view to writing an article for a general aviation magazine. The less said about the journey down here, the better; suffice it to say that it involved a 20-hour flight delay, 24 hours at Heathrow Airport and actual tears of frustration. When I eventually landed in Bologna at 7pm yesterday I was whisked straight off to a nearby airfield to fly the helicopter before the crew went home for the weekend – the poor blokes having had to hang about all day awaiting my arrival thanks to more and more delays from hapless BA. I had great fun flying the helicopter and I’ll write more about that another time. In the meantime I thought I would share some scenes from the few hours I’ve had to explore Bologna today, to help while away the time sitting at the airport waiting for my flight.
My hotel was conveniently located right by the side of the still-unfinished Basilica di San Petronio, which certainly takes the “unfinished” bit of its reputation pretty seriously, as you can see.
Keen to get a view of the city as a whole, I booked, for the modest sum of €5, a ticket to climb to the top of the Torre degli Asinelli. There are two towers: a stumpy leaning one, and a VERY tall one reminiscent of Barad-Dûr in Lord of the Rings.
It’s the latter that you can climb, and you have to get a timed ticket owing to the logistical difficulties of allowing many people to ascend and descend the single narrow, steep staircase that winds its way round and round and round the inside of the tower.
There are 498 steps altogether. No, there is no lift. And yes, this endeavour was every bit as arduous as it sounds. I would not recommend it if you are at all claustrophobic, scared of heights or unfit.
Your considerable labours are rewarded with views along the lines of the following when you finally emerge, sweaty and out of breath, at the top.
I asked some fellow Brits to take a photo of me to prove I’d achieved this impressive feat.
Having dutifully admired the views from all sides of the tiny summit of this Everest of towers, one is confronted by an even worse prospect: getting back down. While physically less demanding, it is most assuredly tougher mentally, for while you are going up, you don’t really look down. While you are going down, you can’t help looking down – down at the endless spiral of thin, worn wooden steps and the drop separated from one’s person by what often seemed quite unsubstantial wooden railings. Not only that, but the steps are so steep in places (think the sort you’d see on HMS Victory) that twice I elected to go down them backwards. Don’t forget, this tower is so tall that this is how small the one next to it looks from the top:
I think my relief must have been palpable when I finally descended the 498th step and the dark confines of the tower spat me back out into the blazing sunshine. Staying firmly at ground level for the remainder of the morning, I wandered street after street and found the shady colonnades most agreeable in the heat of the midday sun.
In my rambles, I stumbled upon the delightful remnants of a Medieval canal system, which drew obvious comparisons with a certain lagoon-based Northern Italian city.
I also found myself in the ‘foodie’ quarter of the city – Bologna being renowned for its cuisines – an area replete with shops selling cheese, pasta, fruit, cured meats and all manner of other delicacies.
For lunch I felt I ought to have something typically ‘Bolognese’ and eschewed my natural inclination towards pizza in favour of tortellini with ragu. In case you didn’t know, ragu is what we think of as Bolognese sauce, and they don’t have it with spaghetti here (sacrilege apparently!). It seems to be with tortellini or tagliatelle only.
I promise you there is some tortellini underneath all that Parmesan!
As any proponent of Italian travel might agree, dessert is best passed by in favour of a gelato, and this one from Cremeria Cavour did not disappoint.
With that appreciatively devoured, it was time to make my way back to the airport, from which your correspondent is now writing. Please wish me luck for my return journey – I don’t think I have it in me to get through another journey like the one I had down here!
–originally posted on Substack in June 2022–