No travel now for nine months so taking a look back at good times in Italy…
Have Bag, Will Travel
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I had bought with me to Italy high expectations of Bologna but I am sorry to say that on balance I was disappointed and was happy to leave.
After a final futile search for the lost credit card we made our final packing adjustments and closed the door on the apartment where we had lived for three days. Odd that, that you can live in a place for three days or three years or three decades and then close the door and just leave. All you leave behind are memories, or perhaps a misplaced credit card.
We walked to the railway station of course and found it curiously calm. We purchased our tickets and with forty unexpected minutes to spare found a café in the sunshine for a coffee before returning to the station in good time for our train which rather unusually turned up just a few minutes late.
I didn’t look back as we left Bologna (the sixth most visited city in Italy) and just a few miles out of the city the scenery improved and happily became more picturesque. To the south were the blue misty Apennine Mountains shrouded still in early morning fog and to the north the fertile plain of the Po Valley, in late September the rich colours of harvest and autumn, umber, terracotta and gold. The train picked up speed and began to hum and predictably Kim fell asleep.
An hour so later we arrived in Rimini and stepped out of the railway station into streets bathed in a glorious golden glow of late morning sun, we ignored the line of taxis of course and set out to walk the mile or so to our hotel on the beach-front strip.
I have to say that didn’t have high expectations of the Hotel Diplomat Palace on account of how cheap it was at only €40 a night bed and breakfast but the lobby was well-appointed and the reception desk was efficient and welcoming and we were allocated our room on the fifth floor. What a result that turned out to be as we had a top floor room with an uninterrupted sea view looking out over the beach and we congratulated ourselves on our very good fortune.
The beach was a surprise I have to say. Rimini is a popular holiday resort and hundreds of thousands of people visit every year and when they do the beach looks like this…
But when they go home and the sun-beds and umbrellas have gone then it looks like this…
In late September the holiday visitor season was over, everything on the beach was being dismantled and stored safely away until the following year and the view from our balcony provided a panoramic scene of ten miles of sandy beach stretching in both directions to the north and the south.
With the accommodation approved we returned to the streets to take a walk along the promenade and to assess suitable dining options for later. We actually walked further than we originally intended until we reached the swanky marina and could walk no further north so we turned inland and continued to walk to the city centre along the Porto Canale through the fishing port area of Rimini. From here approximately one hundred boats operate daily and although it was well into the afternoon there was still some busy trading activity taking place.
Eventually the Porto Canale came to a dead-end so this is where we agreed that we should find a route back to the hotel but we had unexpectedly found ourselves in the trendy district of Borgo San Giuliano, originally a poor fishermen’s settlement but now a charming neighbourhood of small cobbled streets, trendy piazzas, and colourful street murals. This is now one of the most picturesque places in the city and one of Rimini’s most popular areas, with narrow streets and squares, colourful small houses and many frescoes representing characters and locations of Federico Fellini’s films.
The neighbourhood is closely linked to the famous Rimini filmmaker who despite being born and raised on the opposite side of the city is said had a special affection for the Borgo. In 1994, the Festa del Borgo was officially dedicated to him and many of the most striking murals lining the walls of the buildings depict scenes and characters from his films.
The district was once a lot bigger but it a lot of it was demolished during the frenzy of the Fascist redevelopment period of the 1930s and it suffered more damage in World-War-Two. On account of that it didn’t take a great deal of time to walk around and soon we were plotting a route home with only an inadequate tourist map to assist us.
After several interpretations we eventually arrived back at the coast somewhere close to the Rimini Grand Hotel, an elegant building of shining white stucco and Art Nouveau decoration. This wasn’t where we were staying of course but I checked later and although it looks like a hotel for the travelling elite it was surprisingly inexpensive. Fellini liked the Grand Hotel and he kept a suite there permanently reserved for himself.
We made our way back to the much more modest Diplomat Palace, sat on the balcony for a while and then went to the beach and had a swim in the sea and collected some driftwood to take back home to reboot the boat building hobby.
Later we dined at a simple restaurant and declared ourselves satisfied that we had changed our plans and arrived a day early. We liked Rimini. We had walked seven miles today.
Back in Bologna after the morning in Ferrara we continued our walking tour.
I had read in a guide book that a visitor should allow three to four days to fully appreciate the city (the seventh largest in Italy) but we were rapidly coming to the view that only in our second day we were running out of things to see and do. We are like that, we do things in a rush, I call it speed sightseeing!
We walked first at what might be described as the new town which was sadly featureless and drab. Bologna suffered a lot of damage from Allied bombing raids in World-War-Two and hasty ill-considered post-war reconstruction resulted in a whole district of utilitarian concrete buildings. As the new town expanded Bologna built over most of its canal network and the water and the history inevitably drained away below the tarmac of the streets and pavements.
We weren’t disappointed to leave this part of the City and made our way back to the historical centre where we made time to have a very late lunch in the market hall where we rested with a beer and some simple artisan food. All markets seem to have a food hall these days with plenty of good things on offer. The market is always a place to go for good food.
We wanted to put the new town far behind us and, let’s be honest forget about it so leaving the market we headed in the opposite direction towards the Cathedral. We visited it of course but all this did was to confirm Kim’s theory that they are all pretty much the same and I have to say that I can remember little about the visit.
Close to the Cathedral was the Basilica of San Domenico which is best known for a sarcophagus containing the remains of Saint Dominic who was the founder of the Dominican Order of Monks sometime in the thirteenth century. To prove it there is a x-ray sort of photograph of the interior of the stone coffin which clearly shows a collection of human bones. Maybe they are Dominic’s.
I like Saint stories but only the hard to believe far-fetched one and I am sorry to report that my research has thrown up nothing much of interest about Saint Dominic in this regard. In contrast to the Cathedral this church was quite interesting but it was near to closing time and before we had really finished an official came along and told us that we would have to leave. I was surprised that a church would close for lunch.
We were in a much more interesting part of the city now with grand boulevards, Renaissance Palaces, all Government Department buildings now and more history around every corner, we liked this side of the city a whole lot better.
On the way back we stopped at a bakery to buy some cake, then at a bar close to our accommodation for a beer and finally to a mini-market for a bottle of cheap wine, this isn’t especially interesting information but I mention it here to provide an audit trail for what was to happen later.
As we drank the wine we reflected on our stay in Bologna, we liked it but the plain truth was that we had seen everything that we wanted to see and were ready to move on. We were tired of walking and weary of cities, we didn’t like the endless graffiti and we felt a need to get to the coast so we checked with our next hotel in Rimini, they could fit us in for an extra night so we made the decision to move on a day earlier than originally intended.
Even though we were wasting money by leaving Bologna with one night bought and paid for we were pleased with that decision and after we had packed our bags we set off for one last meal in the city.
We went to the same restaurant as the previous three nights. We always do that, our logic is that once we find somewhere we like why risk going anywhere else and there is enough choice on the menu anyway not to have to repeat a dish. A friend told me that it is a well known fact that surprisingly you cannot get spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna and maybe that is specifically true but tonight I enjoyed a pasta dish (not spaghetti, I concede) with a Bolognese sauce.
We liked our meal and looked forward to moving on and then I came to pay and discovered my credit card was missing. Kim said not to worry I must have left it in the room so I paid by cash and so relatively unconcerned we strolled back to the bed and breakfast place.
It wasn’t in the room. It wasn’t in the room and I know that for certain that it wasn’t in the room because I searched everywhere for it several times over. It wasn’t in the room. If something is true there is no point wishing it isn’t and eventually I had to concede that it wasn’t in the room, there are only so many times that you can look in the same place and get the same result so I went to the streets and went over the audit trail. It was in none of these places so I was forced to ring the credit card help-line and report it lost. Luckily it hadn’t been stolen and used but now I had no credit card for the final few days of the travels.
We walked almost eleven miles today but a lot of that was pacing around the room looking for my credit card!
In the night I had a dream that I had found it inside my pillow case so I put on the lights and searched for it. It wasn’t there. Kim wasn’t amused.
Our original travel plans included several train journeys from Bologna to the nearby cities of Parma, Modena and Ferrara but after eight days we were tiring of railway stations and the pushing and the shoving and the shoving and the pushing and the graffiti scarred trains so we hastily changed our plans.
So far Northern Italy had been something of a disappointment and it occurred to us also at this time that Parma, Modena and Ferrara might all be rather similar, the same even as Bologna in fact (they are all very close by) so we agreed that we would visit only one and we chose Ferrara because at only thirty miles to the north it was the nearest.
As it turned out the railway station was surprisingly quiet today and train travel was quite straightforward and the journey to nearby Ferrara took just about fifty minutes. I didn’t however like the gipsy beggars who kept getting on and off and leaving slips of paper explaining how poor they were, how many children they had and how they had no money. I ignored them of course and held on tightly to my wallet.
Stepping out of the railway station into this UNESCO World Heritage city it immediately felt different, the air was fresher, the grass looked greener, there wasn’t a tourist bus in sight and most importantly there were no beggars and no graffiti. It was all rather a nice surprise. We walked to the centre and then found a pavement table in the sunshine and simply sat and enjoyed it. It was all delightfully tranquil, not like Bologna at all.
Historically Ferrara was the domain of the powerful Este family, in power and prestige rivals to the Medici of Florence who endowed the city with its signature building – a huge castle complete with moat positioned right in the city centre and we sat beneath its towering red brick walls, finished our drinks and set off to walk the streets.
The Este’s managed the city through the transition from medieval to renaissance and planned and built a city that seamlessly passes from one age to another and back again and we soon found ourselves in a perfectly preserved historical city that has probably remained effortlessly unchanged for hundreds of years.
It was most noticeable that the streets were quiet, almost deserted. Ferrara is less than a hundred miles away from Venice you see and everyone who visits this part of Italy goes to La Serenissima, a sort of sponge which drains the tourists away from places like this. Ferrara welcomes less than a quarter of a million visitors each year, Venice is a tourist sweatshop that endures thirty million, almost double the resident population.
I like Venice, who doesn’t like Venice? everyone likes Venice, but I don’t like staying there, it is just too busy and expensive. I blame the cruise ships most of all, I hate the cruise ships and the swarm of visitors that they deliver. The last time I visited Venice I stayed in nearby Padova which was a really good way of seeing Venice without staying there.
In Ferrara we walked first to the main square and the Cathedral, a formidable Romanesque building with a dazzling façade of shining pink and white marble which provides a stunning contrast to most of the city that is largely built of terracotta brick. We headed towards the entrance but it was closed today on account of interior construction work. It seems the Cathedral was damaged in an earthquake in 2012 and the repair work is ongoing. I sighed, looked at Kim and watched the blush of disappointment spread slowly across her face.
So we turned our backs on the Cathedral and wandered off into the network of streets and alleys that leaked away from the main square into a medieval labyrinth of shadows and secrets, shafts of sunlight spearing through the occasional gaps in the buildings, a criss-cross of tiny jumbled streets, packed with churches, cloisters, old palaces and houses. Eventually we came to the city walls which remain complete and encircle the old centre. We walked for a while next to the red bricks until we were in the Renaissance part of the city where all is space and dignity with parks, palazzi and grand houses.
It was a gentle walk but Ferrara is only quite small so soon we were back at the castle so with things still to do in Bologna we made our way back to the railway station.
If I had been disappointed with Milan and Bologna in Ferrara I was beginning to fall in love with Italy again. On the train back to Bologna I reflected on a good day and wondered now if we had been a bit hasty in our decision not to visit Parma and Modena. Kim fell asleep, she always falls asleep on a train journey.
Half way back it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a statue of Garibaldi.
We had seen Girolamo Savonarola who was born in Ferrara in 1452 and was the famous medieval Dominican priest and leader of Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498. He was known for his book burning, destruction of what he considered immoral art, and hostility to the Renaissance. Even Christians have fundamentalists!
Ferrara was certainly different!
My first impressions of Bologna were not especially positive I have to say.
We arrived in the late afternoon and after we had settled into our accommodation we walked the short distance to the city centre. What a shock. I can hand on heart say that I have never seen so much horrible graffiti anywhere else on my travels. Not in Lisbon, not in Ljubljana, not even in Naples. If I lived in Bologna I would open a spray paint shop and make an absolute fortune!
Should I have been surprised? Probably not, graffiti is after all an Italian word that has found its way into World-wide vocabulary. Bologna has a history and reputation for insurrection and disobedience. Graffiti generally betrays anger and distress.
Everywhere was daubed with paint and mindless slogans and I couldn’t help wondering which part of a moron’s brain doesn’t develop properly which allows them to think that this appalling behavior is acceptable. The famous colonnades and porticos daubed in paint, doorways disfigured and shop fronts vandalised. It was bad, very bad and it made me feel sad, very sad.
So we walked for a while and eventually found a restaurant that served good food that filled our appetites and cheap house wine that stained our lips and after a hearty meal my mood improved and I looked forward to seeing the city in the morning. We had walked nearly six miles today which wasn’t so bad considering the fact that we had spent almost four hours on the trains.
In the morning I have to say that the graffiti didn’t appear quite so bad, it seemed to get swept away by the bright sunlight that percolated through the colonnades, soaked up and washed away by the activity of the day but then the problem was beggars and looky-looky men on every street corner. Later I looked in a mirror in the room to see if I had got a neon-sign on my head that said ‘please pester me’
Almost at the centre we came to the landmark site of the city – the two towers. In the early middle ages there was a frenzy of tower building in Italy and nowhere more so than in Bologna and by 1400 it is estimated that there were as many as one hundred and eighty of them.
The tallest one remaining is called Asinelli (after the family that built it) and for a modest fee of €5 it was possible to climb the four hundred and ninety eight steps to the top of the three hundred foot tower. I can’t help thinking that what a shame they didn’t make it a round five hundred. I like round numbers. It leans in an alarming way similar to the Leaning Tower of Pisa but this one is nearly twice as tall. In fact it is one of the highest towers in Italy, second only to the one in nearby Cremona which is about fifty feet taller.
Getting to the top was a bit of an effort, hard work with knees trembling, muscles straining and a heart ticking over faster than an Italian taxi driver’s charging meter but at the top it was all worthwhile with wonderful views over all of the city below and the countryside beyond.
Back down at street level we walked the city and made our way to an area called the Quadrilateral which is a maze of streets dedicated to food. Meat, fish, vegetables, bread and cakes, here there was Parma Ham, Balsamic Vinegar from Modena and cheese shops dedicated only to Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Here too was the speciality of Bologna called Mortadella which according to Wikipedia is a “ large Italian sausage or luncheon meat made of finely hashed or ground, heat-cured pork, which incorporates small cubes of pork fat and is flavoured with spices”
I bought some of course, it would have been rude not to and later we tried it back in the hotel room.
Mortadella let me tell you is what we call SPAM, it is just processed meat that is tasteless and nasty and is a curious pink colour as though part of an unpleasant medical procedure. And this is supposed to be the gastronomic speciality of Bologna. I can remember SPAM when I was a boy, it was horrible then and it was just as horrible now. It tasted like a bicycle tyre inner-tube.
We threw half of it away. Well, almost all of it actually.
Mort translated to English is dead so I can only suppose that Mortadella means ‘Dead Delli’, I don’t think that I will ever try it again. Rather a disappointment I thought, this region of Italy is supposedly famous for food but Bologna has only horrible SPAM!
This is interesting however, how many times do we use an everyday phrase without really understanding where it came from? Mortadella, or Bologna Sausage is so full of crap that this is where we get the expression ‘ A load of old Baloney’.
After the Quadrilateral we walked some more and found ourselves near to some canals. Apparently Bologna used to have a large network of transport waterways but these were filled in and paved over in a 1950s building boom. We found the one or two that survived the post-war reconstruction and inevitably it is called ‘Little Venice’
Other places have their own versions of ‘Little Venice’, London, Birmingham, Amsterdam, St Petersburg and Prague are examples, in fact almost anywhere with a little stretch of canal.
There is a Little Venice in Michigan USA and another in Bavaria in Germany and there is even one entire country that is called ‘Little Venice’. The name ‘Venezuela’ originated from the Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci who led a 1499 naval expedition along the northwestern coast of South America. When he landed he saw natives living in houses on stilts and using boats that were shaped like gondolas. He thought that the place resembled Venice so named it Venezuela, which means ‘Little Venice’.
By late afternoon our day was nearly done but before we finished I was determined to find the inevitable statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi and an especially fine statue it turned out to be and after we had found it we wandered back to the accommodation and ignoring the graffiti found history on every street corner with a time-line stretching from Romans through Popes, Revolutionaries, Communists and the terrorist Red Brigade.
Later we dined in the same restaurant and had pasta and house wine. We walked nine and a half miles today. I enjoyed the day in Bologna but I have to say that it is never going to get into my list of top ten of Italian towns and cities…
Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…
The previous day we had walked east around the lake so today we walked west. We thought that we might take a boat trip later but even as early as ten o’clock a long queue was beginning to form at the booking office so we decided to leave that until later. We are not very fond of queues.
So we walked past the boats and the ferry terminal and set out towards the expensive side of the lake where the nineteenth century palaces and villas all enjoy wonderful views across the water. What a place this must have been before all of the daily tourists arrived. This was a walk past fabulous houses and gardens, private jetties and boat houses, a place where the European rich would gather for their holidays and show off their wealth.
Gianni Versace lived in Como and so did the singer Madonna and the actor George Clooney, also Julia Roberts, David Beckham, Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta Jones. It is that sort of place, glamorous and filthy rich. I am completely unable to explain what we were doing there!
As we walked we came across a diversion around possibly the best villa of all on the lake, all fenced off and swarming with security guards, the sort of people who want you to look at them in a funny way so that they have an excuse to punch you in the face. This was all because this was a party weekend to celebrate the engagement of Isha Ambani and Anand Piramal who are two of the richest people in all of India, probably the world, and the expense here was obscene.
Why Como I wondered, probably because they were too embarrassed to have such a lavish event in their own country in front of the hundreds of thousands of really poor people.
As it turned out these mega-rich people had taken over the whole town for the entire weekend and much of it was off-limits to people like us. We couldn’t visit the gardens that are normally open to the public, we couldn’t walk down some of the roads in the town because they were cordoned off and worst of all we couldn’t go into the Cathedral because these two Hindus were having an engagement celebration in a Roman Catholic Church and stopping other people going inside. Filthy rich, dirty money, no manners. I’m not jealous!
So we kept walking until there was no reason to walk any further and we turned back and walked back the way the same way. I asked a security guard what was going on and that is how I learned about Isha Ambani and Anand Piramal and got the black eye!
We hoped that the queue for the boat might have magically got shorter but it hadn’t, it was even longer now and as we sat at a pavement bar and had a leisurely coffee it occurred to us that we didn’t really need to go for a boat ride anyway. We had walked both east and west and as the lake is less than a mile across we were unlikely to see anything different anyway, so we saved the cost of a boat ride and had a beer instead.
I liked Como, I had never thought about going to the Italian Lakes before, I always thought that they were for old people, but I am an old person now myself so it seemed the right time to go there. I didn’t really need three days there I have to say, maybe a day trip out of Milan would have been enough, it is nice but it is not very exciting.
Later we found the inevitable statue of Garibaldi…
We had walked ten miles today along the lakeside. We dined at the same restaurant, went to bed, had breakfast and left.
This was not a good day on the trains I have to say. We got on a train to Milan which turned out not to be going to our destination station so we got off half way to change only to find that the train that we wanted had been cancelled so we had to get back on a train to Milan which also wasn’t going to our destination station. This involved a change and an irritating delay. We planned to be in Bologna by early afternoon but now the clock was ticking.
And then things went disastrously wrong and travel plans started to completely unravel. I bought some tickets for the fast train to Bologna but then got on the slow train to Bologna by mistake. By a cruel twist of fate two trains were leaving Milan at exactly the same time to Bologna, the fast train was going to Naples, stopping at Bologna but we didn’t understand that so we ignored it and got on a train going only to Bologna.
Sadly it wasn’t only going to Bologna. The fast train took just an hour, the slow train took nearly three. The train crawled along like a long distance runner with a pulled muscle, it stopped at every tiny station and remote halt along the way and would occasionally stop in the middle of absolutely nowhere. As we were wondering why, the modern fast train would suddenly thunder past at the speed of light with a loud whooomp that made our carriage rock with the aftershock and then after a minute or so our old arthritic train would creak back into life, roll backwards for a while and then crawl slowly forward.
The only thing that made me feel better about the whole thing was that another couple a few seats away had made exactly the same mistake. Finally we limped into Bologna about four hours behind schedule and ignoring the line of expectant taxis walked the mile or so to our accommodation on the edge of the historical centre.
Click on an image to scroll through the gallery of Como…
Click on an image to scroll through the gallery of Bologna…