Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Bologna - City of Porticoes

Watch our video of Bologna here.

In 2007, we spent the month of July travelling around Italy, at the start of a nine-month trip around the world (that would include more of Europe, the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia). On Day 12, we met a man at a roadside stop overlooking the extraordinary town of Pitigliano. "Bella," said the man. "Very bella," I whispered in return. He was a doctor from Bologna, visiting Tuscany on his holiday. He asked about our plans for Italy, and was visibly miffed that those plans did not include Bologna. 

Pitigliano, Italy

"Everyone goes to Rome, Florence, Venice…but they forget about my beautiful Bologna. Promise me you will go." We could not promise that as our plans did not have us venturing any further north than Florence, but he didn't seem any happier that we wouldn't be seeing Venice either. He had spent a great deal of time exploring his home country, but, "Bologna is my favourite." We went our separate ways, him back to his home, us around the world (but avoiding Bologna).

From that moment on, I had this little dream of Bologna in my head. It was twelve years before we would make our way back to Italy, and it would probably annoy our doctor friend that this time, we would spend a week in Venice but only three days in Bologna. Venice, Verona, San Marino, and Bologna. Finally we were here.

As I looked back on the pictures this past week, I realized that I still hadn't given Bologna the attention it deserves. One of the city's most striking features, is its forty kilometres of porticoes. Yes, forty kilometres, a full marathon's worth, of covered walkways. And not just something they threw up to keep the rain of our heads, but beautiful, arched walkways that are worth visiting the city for on their own. When the university opened in 1100 (yes, 1100), students flocked to the city. With a need for more living space, buildings were expanded on the street side, from the second floor up, creating both more rooms for students, and covered walkways at ground level. You can walk all over the city on a rainy day and only feel the rain when you have to cross a street.

A few covered walkways in Bologna

The most amazing continuous portico is along Via San Luca, a four kilometre covered path up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, where you will pass by 660-plus arches on your way up to the church. Despite the warm spring day (for a couple of prairie Canadians) several Italians passed us by wearing light parkas. Many people used it for light daily exercise or a strenuous and quick run.

Heading up the path to San Luca

Brilliantly sunny on the way up.

Kind of cloudy when we neared the top.

The top of San Luca in the distance.

Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca

Bologna is also home to a number of stunning churches, from the Basilica di San Petronio in Piazza Maggiore to the Seven Churches complex in Santo Stefano Square, along with many others: Basilica di San Domenico, Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro, Basilica di San Giacomo Maggiore, and more.

Part of Santo Stefano Square showing some of the seven churches.

I can't actually remember what church this ceiling is in.

If you're looking for opulence, you'll find it here.

This is one of the cooler churches I've been in.

Another highlight is the climb up the tallest of The Two Towers: the degli Asinelli (the shorter being the Garisenda). From the top of the Asinelli (be sure to book a time the day before at least) you'll have an absolutely extraordinary view over all of Bologna and the surrounding countryside. If you're just a little bit competitive (like me), you will stand in line first (or second, behind a family with young kids...rats). It's an arduous climb, so if you race to the top as fast as you can, you might have as much as ten minutes to yourself up there before the rest of the pack arrives.

Asinelli on the right. Looking out from the top, the Garisenda tower looked pretty tiny.

Piazza Maggiore is in front of the large church, centre left, and San Luca can be seen on the first hill left from the middle.

San Luca on the left, and you can make out the entirety of the portico heading up there from the city.

A little bit more of Bologna.

It's a colourful place, that doctor's Bologna.

Detail of a ceiling in one of the porticoes.

Random dog enjoying some "me time" in the courtyard of Santa Maria dei Servi.

Not run-of-the-mill flooring under these porticoes.

Old Bologna on the right. The path leading to San Luca starts in the middle, goes along the south edge of the "suburbs," before heading up into the hills. Our hotel, Albergo Centrale, is the little red dot in the middle right, and straight up from that, the arrow points to the train station just outside of this image.

As evidenced from the picture above, Bologna is very walkable. It was a fifteen minute walk from the train station to the hotel. The walk up to San Luca was around an hour and a half, but could be done in under an hour.

Hotel website to book directly -

We also did a food tour with Delicious Bologna. It's both a great way to see and learn about the city, while getting filled up on the region's food specialties. Get in touch with Mattia, he's a great guy.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Granada, Spain

 The city of Granada, Spain, is well known for one main reason: the Alhambra, Spain's most visited tourist sight. And while Granada is a pretty Spanish city, probably the only reason you'd come here and not visit the Alhambra is because you didn't book your tickets ahead of time, and it was fully booked during your stay. We booked our tickets almost three months in advance, and even then, there were already a number of tickets bought up. We had read about this on pretty much every site talking about Granada, and yet we still met people who were trying to get tickets upon arrival (lady in the ticket office who was incensed that she could not buy tickets for the following day; two young backpackers who were walking up the hill after noon while we were on our way down).

Granada is attractive enough that it wouldn't be a total disaster if you missed the Alhambra, but let me be clear: Do not miss the Alhambra.

After a GPS mixup and a strong helping hand from Miguel, our apartment owner, we rolled into town in the early afternoon and managed to find a parking spot a few minutes walk from our flat. It was tiny, but it was perfect.

Living/bedroom of our apartment, patio out the door to the left. Yes, that is the Alhambra in our living room window.

We did a nice walk around the city, getting our Alhambra tickets for the following morning, supper in the main square, and retired early so that we would be refreshed for our early morning arrival at the Alhambra (I really like saying that word).
There is a back way up to the hill to the site and while it's not a long walk, it's a continual uphill walk which is pretty tiring for some people, so don't do this if you're in a hurry and are budgeting your breaths.
But it's a glorious walk all the same, past old stone walls and through picturesque gates.

We arrived before the doors opened, so we had a chance to mill about and have a look over all of Granada, exploring the older parts of the fort.

What a glorious morning

Then our time came to visit the main parts of this old Moorish estate/castle/palace. I won't bore you with a description of everything, just know that this sort of detail was a Moorish specialty, and there are few areas that remain unadorned. It is beautiful, and it is spectacular. Book three months ahead of time, remember.

Maybe it wouldn't be quite so amazing on a dull, cloudy day, but we didn't have to worry about that.

Up the hill from the Alhambra, and included in your visit, is the Generalife, a sort of gardeny summer home for royalty that is more or less next door to your main palace. 

Gate at the Generalife

View from the top at the Generalife

We spent the afternoon and the following day getting to know our Granada better, visiting several shops with a dizzying array of merchandise, discovering lost plazas, busy streets, and quiet lanes, and walking centuries' old cobblestone streets on our way to dinner.

The red, black, and white poster is for a meeting about "employers who are wanting to make slaves of workers in the hospitality industry." I expect I would have enjoyed attending.

One of the most pleasant things to do on a sunny afternoon is visit Mirador San Nicolas, the square where everyone gathers to sit and relax, sell their wares, or just enjoy the view. It has a real backpacker vibe, with lots of characters, some who look like they were just travelling through and managed to stick around for a few years or decades. The view is worth an extended stay.
There are quite a few attractive spots like this around the Albacin, the older area of Granada that sits on the hill to the north of the Alhambra, and it's fun to wander and explore in an attempt to find them all.

View of the Alhambra (right) and the Generalife (far left) from Mirador San Nicolas

Broader view of the plaza that draws a crowd throughout the day.

And at the end of every day, we'd wander back to our apartment, sometimes even in the middle of the day, to sit on our patio, put our feet up and enjoy our own private view.

Sadly, this little gem of an apartment seems to no longer be available, but there are loads of great ones that are. Just remember that no matter where you decide to stay or when you decide to go, book your Alhambra tickets early.
We'd originally found it through VeoApartments but these are the only Granada apartments they have available now (Oct 2021). One is quite pricey, but the other two are much much cheaper and both very cool with great views of the Alhambra.

Find more Spain here, and more of the world here.

Books about our travels can be found here.