Bologna, Italy: Pilgrimage for the Madonna di San Luca, stay for the heavenly food

Dates: May 19th – May 21st

Distance walked: 35.5km

Steps: 52,414

Temperature high: 26°C

It was a balmy summer evening when we arrived in Bologna on Saturday for our second trip to Italy as part of our travels. The city is classically Italian with artistic influence permeating the streets and architecture, bustling piazas lined with lavish basilicas and a deep passion for cuisine which is evident in the abundance of high quality restaurants.

Ravenous after yet another long days travel, our first stop, of course, was at one of these acclaimed eateries. The centuries old tradition of osterie is alive and well in Bologna and their prevelance here means that you are never more than a street or two away from one. Traditionally an osteria was a small establishment which typically catered to men and served only drinks however over time their popularity has only increased and now they vary greatly in clientele and facilities however are still generally small restaurants which serve simple food and a selection of wines.

It was one such place that we dined in on our first evening in the city, namely, Osteria Dell’Orsa. Exactly as you may imagine it this is a busy little place with no frills and plenty of heart. It would be sacrilege to come to the food capital of Italy and not try tagliatelle al Ragù which is one of my favourite dishes and the cities most iconic, so much so that generally in English-speaking countries we refer to the popular bastardized version with spaghetti simply as bolognese.

It’s a classic for a reason and a mainstay of Bolognese restaurants

I’ve always thought it strange that despite the ingredients being the same no matter where a dish is made, it always seems to taste better in the place where it originates. Whether it was the feeling of authenticity or just that I wanted it to be so, it was no different here. For anyone looking for a simple and delicious take on the local culinary classic you can do no better than Osteria Del’Orsa.

The streets of Bologna are designed in such a beautiful manner that you could happily walk for hours just enjoying your surroundings. Something we were very grateful for after our wholesome dinner. Arcade-style colonnades seem to line every street, sheltering the residents and providing sublime walkways from which to navigate the city.

We caught sight of the Le due Torri (The Two Towers), traversed the lively Piazza Maggiore in the heart of the city and took time to appreciate the unique and permanently unfinished facade of the San Petronio Basilica, the main church within the city as well as the stunning Fountain of Neptune sculpted by Giambologna.

An unfinished building which isn’t flooded in scafolding is a refreshing sight
Dark clouds swarming above the water deity

Eventually we put the brakes on the sightseeing and grabbed a drink at the uber cool upscale bar, Casa Minghetti at Piazza Minghetti. It’s a vibrant night time spot where you will find the fashionable residents of the Emilia-Romagna metropolis mingling and nibbling on the complementary finger food provided. After trying a few of the interesting ‘select cocktails’ in the relaxed outdoor seating area within the piazza, we called it a night.

At this point, we are seasoned veterans when it comes to scaling the great heights of Europe, thus far ascending the Rheintrum in Düsseldorf, the Belfry of Bruges and hiking to Santa Barba Castle in Alicante. As such we wasted no time getting in line for Torre degli Asinelli, one of the cities famous ‘two towers’ which stands a whopping 97 metres. Whilst not as outwardly aesthetically pleasing as the more famous tower in Pisa, Torre Asinelli, which also stands off-kilter, beats it for height making it the tallest leaning tower in Italy.

Our initial overconfidence caught up with us somewhere around the halfway mark of the 498 steps, making our efforts climbing the 366 steps in Bruges seem pitiful. We were rewarded eventually with a beautiful view of la rossa (the red) which stretches out to the surrounding hills and forrestry and permits one to appreciate the sea of fiery orange and red buildings which give Bologna it’s nickname. If you don’t mind a physically challenging climb up a precarious stairway and some mild claustrophobia at the top then this a fun and essential activity.

Reds, greens and whites on show in Italy’s tallest leaning tower

Our efforts provided us with the perfect excuse to try another of our food favourites, pizza. Only a ten minute walk from the centre we found MozzaBella – Pratelo, a gourmet pizzeria which uses high quality ingredients to provide unique and interesting flavours at reasonable prices. For pizza purists there are hundreds of alternatives in the city which will adequately provide what you are looking for, however for those yearning for a little adventure with their slice you need not look further.

We walked next to the Quadrilatero area, an energetic market comprised of several intertwining streets packed with shops selling cheeses, wines and meats and restaurants offering antipasti selections, seemingly packed with an even mix of locals and tourists no matter the time of day. We would return on our last day for a more hands on experience however, for now it was just a passing visit.

Instead we returned to the iconic two towers, more specifically a bar which sits nearby on via Zamboni, Bar Lime. We treated ourselves to a few zesty cocktails at the foot of the towers with a more grounded yet no less impressive view than we’d experienced above earlier. We rounded off the evening with more pizza for dinner (please don’t judge us) and chilled out in some laid back bars in the area near Piazza Maggiore.

Both towers are leaning, though thankfully the taller of the two is not quite as extreme

The final days main activity was an hour long trek to the Santuario di Madonna di San Luca however we were in need of a pick-me-up before undertaking such an endeavour so we stopped in at Mercato di Mezzo (The Middle Market). A historic three-storey indoor market which was saved from years of abandonment by a 2014 restoration and is now choc-full of locals from 0830 until midnight seven days a week. A cappuccino with a cream-filled cornetto pastry accompaniment provided the perfect kick to set us up for our pilgrimage.

A selection of sweets and pastries inside The Middle Market

The Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca is a basilica perched atop a hill on the outskirts of Bologna keeping a watchful eye over the city. It’s a popular voyage for catholics all over Italy and indeed visiting tourists and it is easy to see why. It’s a half hour walk from the city centre to Arco del Meloncello, an impressive arch marking the beginning of another of Bologna’s trademark portico walkways which runs all the way up the hill leading to the basilica.

Originally built for the protection of the icon of the Virgin Mary which is kept within the sanctuary and is paraded to the city once every year using the arcade, we appreciated the sentiment and welcomed the shade it provided us on the gruelling climb.

On the way up we passed through some 666 archways many of which are adorned with holy murals depicting the rise, fall and ascension of Christ. The gaps between columns offer brief glimpses of the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara, home stadium of local football team Bologna F.C. 1909 as well as stunning views of the city through the surrounding foliage.

A view from halfway up the hill

Inside the sanctuary the main attraction is obviously the icon itself. It is reputed to have been painted by Saint Luke and brought to the city in the 13th century by a pilgrim when it was then taken into the care of two nuns. We were able to get up close and personal to this little slice of divine history stored in befitting grandiose manner within the hilltops of Bologna.

Madonna di San Luca

From the pious isolation of the church in the hills we bounded back down the path whence we came and journeyed to the comforting humbleness of the Quadrilatero marketplace. Here we sampled an abundance of antipasti for lunch in La Baita, a deli which puts together breadboards of cheeses and meats assorted and presented loosely based on their region. The atmosphere is always buzzing, the quality of service and food beyond question and the experience is about as Italian as you can get.

The remainder of our final day was quiet, having squeezed in a pilgramage before noon we decided to unwind before our early rise the following day to journey to Prague. We did however have time to savour one last delicious taste of Bologna at Ristorante Da Cesari with another take on the symbolic dish we tried on our first evening, tagliatelle al ragú.

The exquisite looks on the outside are complimented by the tasty food inside

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