Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Secrets of Bologna (Part Two)

A window onto a watery world  (Photo: Via @TravelWithKat)

If you peep through a discreet window in a certain nondescript street in Bologna, you'll suddenly find yourself gazing onto a scene not unlike a typical scene in Venice. One of the best concealed secrets of Bologna, a fact often missed by tourists (both foreign and Italians from other cities) is that Bologna is a city of buried rivers. It's quite a shock to see canals in the centre of such a seemingly dry city like Bologna. You see the city that once was. Bologna was once a city of waterways in a similar manner to Venice (albeit on a smaller scale) and was a thriving river port city. The rivers were used for navigation and to power grain mills and Bologna's thriving textile industry in the Middle Ages. In modern times, this system of hidden rivers explains why a metro has never been introduced to a key city like Bologna, as they have been in Milan and Rome. 

Unfortunately though, having underground canals does result in high levels of humidity during the summer months. The best times to visit Bologna itself are between April-June and then September-October when the weather  is warm, sunny but not stifflingly hot. In August, especially, the city is near abandoned by the locals and many shops are closed for the period. If you visit at this time, you'll see a sea of signs on shop doors with the words, "Chiuso per Ferie" ("Closed for the Holidays"). These "Closed for the Holidays" signs do beg the question: 

Where do Italians go on holiday?

 (Photo: via

Many Bolognesi are drawn to the surrounding countryside and hills where the temperature is noticeably lower and there is a refreshing sought-away breeze. There are a high number of Italians who have a second home either by the sea or in the countryside where they spend every other weekend or the whole Summer period. In the Northern Italy there are many Italians from the South who have moved there for university or in search of work. In the Summer they return to their family homes in the South and enjoy the gorgeous beaches and come back with unbelievable tans. 

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If you do visit Bologna, it's hard to miss the Two Towers (Due Torri) which define the Bolognese skyline but just as imposing is the huge Basilica di San Petronio which dominates the central square, Piazza MaggioreThe unfinished basilica is the 15th largest cathedral in the world. It would have been the largest in the world if it had been finished and would have even surpassed St. Peters Basilica in size and grandeur. Such ambitious plans however made the Pope suspicious that Bologna wanted to steal power from the Vatican and so pulled the plug on the funding. 

Basilica di San Petronio (Foto: Giovanni Dall'Orto 2008)

Construction stopped immediately and this is evident by several half finished frescoes and partially painted walls. Only the top section of the Latin cross design was completed and even that is imposing when you walk into the main square. The facade, which would have been very similar to the striped Duomo in Florence, remains bare from the waist up. This means you have an insight into the impressive cathedral building process and an inkling into what the Basilica might have been. 

Despite being unfinished, the Basilica still boasts many interesting things: the longest sundial in the world, dusty and gruesome relics of saints, and quite a bit of controversy. One of the larger frescoes at the front of the Basilica contains a scene based on Dante's Inferno which depicts Mohammad (pbuh) being tortured.  For this reason, despite being built nearly 1,000 years ago, it remains pretty controversial. Unfortunately, there have been several supposed attempts by terrorist groups to destroy the church within the last decade and therefore there is always a military presence within the square. This presence is not too intimidating mind, from my experience Italian security usually comes in the form of two soldiers leaning against a jeep and watching the ladies go by! 

Note: If you do wish to enter an Italian cathedral, do dress modestly and cover (at least) your legs and arms. Covering your hair if not usually required inside but don't be surprised if you are asked to put a plastic mac over your shoulders or refused entry because you are wearing shorts or a short skirt. 

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Click here for [Secrets of Bologna (Part One)]

For more photos and information about Bologna's canals click on @TravelWithKat's wonderful article, 'Uncovering the Secrets of Bologna.'


  1. Wow, at first glance the top right photo looked like a painting hanging on the wall!
    Oh i can't wait to visit all these hidden place's one day inshallah ^_^

  2. Ha ha - that's me in the first photo! Kathryn and I really enjoyed exploring Bologna :)


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