I knew which of Bologna’s top sights I wanted to see during my two-day break en-route to Rimini. Piazza Maggiore was high on the list as were the medieval twin towers and the charming hidden canals of the city. Food, of course, was a huge draw and I was keen to indulge in some serious gelato tastings. But the sight that captivated me most was the city’s intricately decorated porticoes. I was constantly drawn back to the colonnades and pillars which filtered the sunlight and drew shifting shadows across the marble walkways creating an ever-changing perspective as the sun crept across the city.
Bologna is scorching hot in July and the russet, terracotta and ochre colours of the city exaggerated the feeling of heat so I welcomed the shady arcades lining the piazzas and vias that allowed me to explore away from the sun’s glare.
The 53 kilometres of porticoes have protected the Bolognesi from the elements for over 1000 years; sometimes known as the city’s umbrellas locals are happy to walk out in the rain sure in the knowledge that they can arrive at their destination without getting wet.
The porticoes came about as a result of homes being extended out over the pavements supported by wooden beams resting on large blocks of stone – some of the original wooden structures can still be seen. Initially the structures were viewed as obstructions but after realising the practical advantages they were sanctioned by the city and it was decreed that the portico beneath the extension be relegated to public use – even those that had been built by property owners on their own private land. In 1288 Bologna, unlike other medieval cities, made porticoes mandatory for all streets useful to the public and from then they became an integral part of the city’s planning and a distinctive architectural feature.
Sculptures and carvings decorate arches and huge wooden doors with gleaming brass knockers lead from the porticoes into elegant hallways and cool courtyards. Nowadays the porticoes are display areas for small shops and boutiques. Bars and cafes are plentiful and are the perfect spot for a cool drink whilst resting weary feet and deciding which of Bologna’s treasures to visit next.