Posts Tagged Italy
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.
On Wednesday 14 June we woke to grey skies. We couldn’t complain, as we’d had glorious sunshine for all six of our full walking days. But now it was time to move on. We took a taxi to the nearest railway station, and a train to Nova Gorica, on the Italian border. Then it was farewell to Slovenia!
We’ve been lucky enough to visit Italy, several times, but we certainly haven’t seen all of it. We’ve long wanted to see the opera in the great amphitheatre at Verona; Bologna was also on our bucket list. Needless to say, while planning and researching this trip we thought of several other places: ‘While we’re there, we might as well…’. We ended up with no fewer than 13 cities to fit in!
Until about a year ago, we’d never heard of Udine. Then Sandie read a Guardian travel article about Friuli, a region of Italy largely undiscovered by tourists. It included a photo of a beautiful square in Udine; we learned that Friuli is in the north-east corner of Italy, making Udine an ideal first stop for people coming from Slovenia.
We were at first rather disappointed with Udine. The castle has an art gallery, but the building itself is unexciting; ditto the cathedral. The Piazza della Libertad has buildings and statues modelled closely on those in St Mark’s Square, Venice, but the piazza is not really a square, more of a thoroughfare, and it is not surrounded by cafés, as we imagined. Part of the problem, however, is that the weather was bad (grey and wet) when we arrived. The next day was fine, the sun was shining, and the city looked much more attractive.
The Piazza della Libertad looked more beautiful, but was still spoilt by the scaffolding and netting put up to cover fountains and statues which were being restored. We actually preferred the Piazza San Giacomo, which has (in our view) a greater claim to be called the main square of the city: a big square with one fountain, and no statues, but surrounded by cafés and buildings in a variety of colours.
The guidebooks refer to Treviso as the ‘little Venice’ – it’s not far away, and has canals! It really cannot compare, but it is interesting in its own right. There are of course a number of churches. Sandie was politely asked to leave the cathedral, as she was wearing a sleeveless top! But after she’d changed, we went back and were able to see the famous painting of the Annunciation, by Titian. Other churches had walls covered with frescoes – there’s no point in our trying to list them all, even if we could remember which work by which artist was in which church.
The centre of the town is picturesque, with narrow medieval streets, and canals with willow trees and water wheels. We walked round a section of the city walls, and returned there in the evening as it was the location of the ‘Elvis Days’ festival, which we thought might be worth a look. Bizarrely, it reminded us of the Italian festival in Venice (Florida) back in February. There were crowds of people, stalls selling all kinds of food, drink and other goods, bands playing and people dancing. The only additional thing here was a contest for Elvis impersonators – we saw three, and were amused rather than impressed.
Prosecco is a popular drink in Treviso, and we enjoyed a number of glasses while there. There is a restaurant which claims to be where tiramisu (Ian’s favourite dessert) was invented, so he had to sample that. We had a very nice apartment for our two-night stay; as it was now 11 days since we had left home the washing machine proved very useful!
Our visit to Padua did not start well. It is no great distance from Treviso, and we caught an early train, so we arrived at 9.15. We’d booked a hotel near the station, so the plan was to dump our luggage there and be free to explore. However… we found the road easily enough, but could see no sign of the hotel. We tried a different road where it appeared to be signed, but no luck. Sandie asked a man who did not know, but used his phone to get precise walking directions to the hotel, which it said was just four minutes away.
Unfortunately, the directions were completely wrong, and we ended up back at the station! What made it worse was that a wheel had come off our big case, and Ian was struggling to carry it. He found a visitor information office on the station, but the woman there had not heard of our hotel either. Eventually we tracked it down – it was further along the road we’d walked in the first place. Not far at all, but we had to use a taxi, because the case was so heavy.
Luckily for us, the hotel receptionist was very kind, and spoke excellent English. She managed to find a room we could check into immediately, and suggested places where we could buy a new suitcase. The nearest was a ‘Chinese shop’, which had a large selection, all very cheap. Ian took our new case back to the hotel, while Sandie went on to the Scrovegni Chapel, to collect the tickets we’d pre-booked for 4pm that afternoon.
The Capella Scrovegni is famous because of the brilliantly coloured frescoes by Giotto which cover the walls. Yet more frescoes … but these really are something special. They are carefully preserved by keeping the chapel climate-controlled and restricting the number of visitors. It is necessary to book in advance for a specific time. On the side of the chapel there is a waiting room – a kind of airlock which seats 25 people. Every 15 minutes, the doors open just long enough for one group to enter, another group to move through to the chapel itself, and a third group to leave the building. It is very highly organised (and if you miss your slot, you’ve had it!) but it works and it was well worth the wait.
The other main attraction in Padua is the Basilica di Sant’Antonio – not really to our taste, but impressive for two reasons. First, the interior decoration is incredibly ornate – as Ian remarked, it’s over the top and down the other side. Second, we were amazed by the crowds of people there: we had not realised that it’s still a major pilgrimage destination. But photography was forbidden, so we cannot show you what it is like.
We also visited the Palazzo de Ragione, a vast hall covered in (guess what?) frescoes!