On Sunday 17 June, we left Padua, and moved on to Bologna.
If Padua was better than we expected, Bologna was a bit disappointing. It may have been that our expectations were too high. It was a pleasant city, and we enjoyed our time there, but we would not rank it among the best cities in Europe, or even in Italy.
We did like the miles and miles of colonnaded streets, and the colourful buildings (red, pink, orange, yellow). But the sights… Our B&B was conveniently situated close to the Two Towers, one of which (by far the shorter of the two) is regarded as unsafe (not surprising if you’ve seen the angle it leans at). But you can climb about 500 steps in the taller tower, and enjoy wonderful views from the top. In theory, that is. We were about to go in when we saw a sign saying that the tower was closed for restoration, until July. So much for that!
One of the iconic sights of Bologna is the Neptune Fountain – but we could not see it. It was boxed in for restoration. Later than day, we had lunch in a pleasant park north of the town. There is a big (and doubtless impressive) fountain there, but it was shut down (guess why?) for restoration.
The places that we could visit were mainly churches. Several had impressive frescoes, but the one we liked best was the Basilico di San Stefano, a whole complex of churches and cloisters dating back to the 11th century, and built on the site of an even earlier church. We also visited the Palazzo d’Accursio, which includes a museum and an art gallery, and the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, the former home of Bologna University, where in the Teatro Anotomico dissections of dead bodies took place in the name of medical science.
Our guidebook suggested Ferrara as an easy day trip from Bologna, so we decided to take their advice. What we didn’t realise was that Ferrara was on the train line from Padua to Bologna, so it would have been even easier to stop there on the way. Not to worry – however much pre-travel research you do, there’s always more to learn when you are on the spot.
The main feature of Ferrara is its castle, right in the centre of the city, but not on the top of a hill, as castles usually are. It is one of the few European castles to be surrounded by a water-filled moat, but we did not find its appearance ‘dazzling’ (as per the guidebook): grim and foreboding would be more accurate, in our view. Still, there were lots of interesting things to see inside, including dungeons as well as ducal apartments.
There were several other places on our ‘ought to visit’ list for Ferrara, but some were closed. The cathedral was ‘in restauro’: we managed a brief look, but it was very dark and gloomy. The Palazzo Schifannoia had some interesting frescoes, but only two public rooms, so our visit did not last long. However, we enjoyed the rest of the day exploring back streets and walking along the city walls.
While Bologna was on our bucket list, Perugia was an add-on to our itinerary. But it was definitely our favourite Italian city so far. The capital of Umbria, situated on a hill-top, smaller and quieter than Bologna (main streets pedestrianised), and so picturesque! We very much enjoyed our time exploring the city. The narrow streets are a real maze, so it is easy to get lost. As there were relatively few sights recommended in the guidebooks, we did a fairly random walk, looking at churches and other places of interest we happened to pass. Because the town is on a hill, we did more climbing than we’d done since leaving Slovenia. But it was worth it – the views over the city and surrounding countryside were superb.
We saw the oldest church in the city, and the biggest church in Umbria. We saw an Etruscan arch, and an Etruscan well. We walked along an ancient aqueduct, and took escalators that led us down through old fortifications to a lower level of the city. One place we found particularly interesting was the tower of San Angelo. We climbed the stairs to get a great view – but on every level there was a display of musical instruments from different periods, linked in with photos of relevant drawings. And music playing. It was incredibly well done.
The weather was very hot, so we needed to spend a lot of time drinking (that’s our excuse). In Italian cities we’d noticed many people drinking a really lurid orange drink, and wondered what it was. In Perugia we asked a friendly waitress who explained that it was ‘Aperol spritz’, which we subsequently discovered is the most popular aperitif in Italy. We tried it and loved it, so now it’s one of our favourite drinks. Only problem is, when you order a drink here, you are given large quantities of nibblies with it (crisps, nuts, cheese biscuits, chunks of pizza etc etc). We don’t look forward to weighing ourselves when we get back home! And Ian will need to visit the dentist – his bridge tooth has come out again!
Assisi is not far from Perugia, and in some respects it is similar – another picturesque Umbrian hill town. But it is dominated by the story of St Francis, and the many pilgrims who come there. On our arrival (Friday afternoon) we walked up to the castle which overlooks the town. This meant that the next day we could focus on churches (and dress appropriately, although the code did not seem to be as strictly enforced as the guidebooks suggested).
The Basilica of St Francis is obviously the main focus of the town. It is huge, with essentially two churches, one on top of the other, quite different styles but both decorated with frescoes. What seemed strange to us was that the piazzas outside the basilica were quite empty – no bars and cafés, as we expected, but barriers forcing you through a narrow entrance way where armed guards were on duty (though they did not inspect you or your bags).
It was the same story at Santa Maria degli Angeli, a basilica a couple of miles outside Assisi, which we reached via a pleasant walkway, passing by fields of sunflowers and with views back to the town. In this basilica there is a chapel which was the nucleus of the first Franciscan monastery – a kind of church within a church.
In the town of Assisi itself we visited the Basilica di Santa Chiara (founder of the Poor Clares) and the Abbazia di San Pietro (plain, but with some interesting modern artwork). In the cathedral di S. Rufino, we went down into the crypt and saw some atmospheric vaulted archways and Ionic columns, as well as more religious paintings. (We also visited the Foro Romano, and saw more evidence of ancient Assisi.)
Note that several churches in Assisi ban photos, so we are limited in what we can show you.