Thursday, January 2, 2014


Ravenna, a city of 147,000 people, was much different than anything we had seen so far along the Italian coast.  Gone was the graceful and time honored uniformity of the crème-colored buildings and luxury hotels all in a line, replaced by an industrial beach town with a big white light house, tidy marinas filled with row-upon-row of handsome sailboats, an interesting mix of seaside homes – large and small – and an okay beach with modest waves.  It could have been almost anywhere along the east coast of the United States, minus the neon and seashore delights.


Ravenna is the mosaic capital of Italy – even though we had previously been told that Florence held that honor.  I guess it’s like Annapolis and Newport, Rhode Island both calling themselves the “sailing capital of the world”.

We could have stayed close to the ship and just explored Ravenna, a city of ancient charm and beauty.  But Bologna beckoned about fifty miles to the west.  And I have always loved their sandwiches.
Having learned from our previous mistakes, we knew enough to book the self-guided tour, “Bologna On Your Own” which got us a cushy bus ride, a knowledgeable guide to tell us about the region and lead us to Bologna’s central square, and a map that highlighted a walking tour of the city’s top places to see.

The entire day is yours as you explore, relax and enjoy this city in a variety of different ways, including the celebration of traditional Italian foods and wine, fashion, shopping, history, and culture. In the city’s charming, historical center, you’ll find many ancient palaces and churches which stand as witness to the cultural relevance of Bologna.

-Escorted transfer from Ravenna pier to the Bologna city center (approx. 1 ¼ hrs each way)
-A day in Bologna to explore and shop at your leisure

Full Description:
You will join the motorcoach at the pier for the approximately 1 hour and 15 minute drive to Bologna. There you will disembark from your coach and begin your tour with a walk to the monumental heart of Bologna, the Piazza Maggiore. The tour escort will identify the meeting location and time for the return trip. Then, the next 5 hours are yours to explore the beautiful city on your own. You may choose which monuments you wish to visit and which restaurant to enjoy a sandwich or typical Bolognese lunch such as lasagne or tortellini.

You may spend your entire time shopping or visit one or more of the local venues such as the University of Bologna, the oldest in Europe. Here you will discover the many coats of arms which represent the first noble families to attend university courses.

Around Piazza Maggiore are Bologna’s primary sights. You’ll find impressive medieval buildings such as the Palazzo del Podestá and the Palazzo Comunale. In the adjoining Piazza del Nettuno, you’ll see the Palace of King Enzo, built in 1244. Here you will also have the opportunity to admire the Neptune Fountain, the masterpiece by sculptor Giambologna. The most impressive building in the square is the Basilica of San Petronio. It is one of the largest churches in Christendom and one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Italy.

Nearby you’ll see a beautiful palace known as the Archiginnasio. The Archiginnasio once served as the first university campus in Europe. This historic building was home to the first medical theater to specialize in the study of anatomy. From here, you can proceed to the Leaning Towers, the iconic structures which have come to symbolize the city of Bologna.

In the afternoon, you’ll meet the tour escort at the designated location to re-join your coach and return to the pier.

Once away from the sea, the whole character of the area changed as we went from beach town to a marshy estuary. Little fishing boats were docked in front of large shacks on stilts along the meandering Po River Delta which looked very much like the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Each shack had a large seine net hanging in the air to dry and looking like bird nets. And just like back home in the Land of Pleasant Living, the shoreline was even covered by that unstoppable Eurasian invasive phragmites.  I felt like I was driving around Chincoteague Bay.

There were birds everywhere we looked, mostly magpies, terns, gulls, and even a few flamingos.

The road west to Bologna followed a busy motorway with numerous tolls.  All of the Italian highways pretty much look alike, two-to-three lane divided highways with no shoulders and everybody hauling ass in tiny cars.

Within a few miles, the topography changed again, this time to flat agricultural land.  On both sides of the highway, stretching as far as the eye could see, there were expansive farms with dark rich fields that had recently been plowed at seasons end.  Most of the farms consisted primarily of tidy orchards with well-tended rows of grape, apple, and lemon trees.  According to our guide Sophia, 40% of the land in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy is agricultural.

Evergreens and Lombardy poplars lined the road as a visual buffer between the highway and farms, and we noticed several farmers with their ever-alert spaniels bird hunting along the edge of the farm fields.  It looked like perfect pheasant and grouse habitat.

This could have easily passed for the Eastern Shore of Maryland, except the white clapboard homes of Talbot County had been replaced by large, block-like brown or dull yellow brick farm houses.

Bologna is Italy's 6th largest city with 385,000 people.  It is a rich city, home to banking and insurance.  It is the home to Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and all the super-fast Italian autos that end with an i.  And this is also where they make Ducati motorcycles.  Speed rules in this part of Italy.

Bologna has three nicknames:

1. "The Learned One" because it is home to the University of Bologna, the oldest university in Europe, founded in 1088. This is, in fact, where the word "university" originated.  When the college first got started, it was set up like a business and the students could hire and fire their professors – a system that probably wouldn’t work as well these days, given the emphasis on grades versus knowledge.  Many noted scholars studied at the U of B, including Dante Alighieri, of the "Divine Comedy" and “Dante’s Inferno” fame.

2. "The Fat One" because it is known as the food capital of Italy.  It is also the Gelato capital where they make the world’s finest gelato machines.  According to our guide Sophia, the locals love to eat and they are noticeably heavier than the rest of Italians.

3. "The Red One" because of their red buildings and roofs.

Bologna has always been a commercial hub, dating back to 1000BC.  It was originally an Etruscan city, then the Celts took the reins for a few hundred years, and then the Romans ruled with an iron hand starting about 200 years before Christ.  The Roman street grid survives to this day and makes navigating the city a breeze – assuming you have a map that makes sense.  Unfortunately, the map we were given had apparently been drawn up by a drunk or a blind man.  The hot spots were there, all numbered so you could find them along the highlighted walking tour, but they were not shown correctly in their actual locations.  So trying to find them using the map was not just confusing as hell, but actually counterproductive.

In the Middle Ages, Bologna was one of Europe’s largest cities, with almost 60,000 people, and the historic City Center has been remarkably well preserved.  Basically, it’s a full-on Medieval City from the 12th Century.  When you take into account that as a major railway hub, Bologna was relentlessly bombed by the Allies during World War II, and that it was ground zero for the Italian resistance movement and the scene of relentless street battles, it is amazing that so much of the city’s past remains standing tall.


Bologna is a big muscular city, like Rome, with large stone-block streets and tall solid buildings that seem to loom over the narrow dark streets like windowed walls.  As in most of the old parts of Italian towns, the streets often seem more like alleys.  But unlike the slightly feminine feel of Florence or Venice, Bologna is an imposing masculine town.  It’s all business.


Dating from the 1200s, the city harnessed the waters of three nearby rivers through a series of canals and tuned Bologna into one of Europe’s textile giants.  That translated into lots of money flowing into town and many of the wealthy families started the odd habit of building ornate towers to honor themselves.  I’m talking serious towers, hundreds of feet tall, and at one point there were 180 of them in the heart of town.  Only twenty remain today, but they are something to see.  And there are two leaning towers because many of the heaviest structures are slowly sinking into the sandy soil below.  Given enough time, I’m betting that much of Italy will all fall over.

These days, Bologna is probably most famous for its porticoes – enclosed sidewalks with mosaic tiles and carved blocks of stone.  There are 22 miles of porticoes throughout the downtown area.  This means you can walk around most of the old city in the rain – as we did – and stay relatively dry.

The City Center is not that big and all of the cool stuff is easily accessible on foot.  And for those who don't want to walk, they also have an On-Off Bus for 12€ a day that you can catch at Piazza Maggiore, the old city's main square, where we started our very confusing walking tour.  They also have a ride share program with red and silver bikes.

Maggiore Square is ringed by the Basilica di Saint Petronio which is undergoing a major face lift, the Podesto Palace, and Neptune's Fountain.  The fountain was a sight to see, with a very well-hung, life size Neptune in the buff, standing majestically atop the fountain waving a Trident while below him buxom ladies rode dolphins with legs akimbo and pinching their engorged nipples.  We weren't sure exactly what it was all about, but it definitely caught your eye.

Students from an organization known as CEFA were carefully laying out large blue and white dinner plates in long rows in Maggiore Square to raise awareness about hunger in the Sudan.  They were very happy and excited to tell us what they were doing. Interestingly, and unlike all the places we had previously visited on our cruise, hardly anyone spoke very much English in the home of Italy’s most revered university – their Harvard.  It took five students to collectively explain the whole plate thing to us.

A Dixieland band was playing "When You're Smiling" over and over again in front of the archaeological museum where a festive party was taking place to celebrate the last day of the annual Potato Festival.  Apparently, Bolognans really love their potatoes. Who doesn’t love potatoes?

Just off the main square, we stumbled onto a large wedding in the building housing the Mayor’s Office where about a hundred sharply-dressed guests waited in a long line outside the arched entrance way.  Italians are total fasionistas who take great pride in their appearance.  They all look like models.  We Americans look like hillbillies in comparison.  And it isn't just about being handsome people ­– which they are – or their clothes – which are beautifully handmade – but really more about style.  The bride walked into the outside atrium and was stunningly gorgeous in her long, tight white gown.  The audience clapped and we joined the applause.  We felt like we were in a movie.
On Sundays they close most of the downtown to cars and it turns into a giant street festival.  People stroll in the middle of the broad avenues, eating gelatos and taking in the sights.  In my humble opinion, there is something incredibly enlightened and civilized about banning cars from the heart of a city – at least occasionally – so that people can walk in the street like kings and queens.  And the fact that Bologna does it every Sunday – not just for some special event – will always endear the city to my heart.


A jazz quintet complete with drums and horns played an eclectic set of tunes, including the theme from "Star Wars" and "The Pink Panther", under a portico in front of a closed department store.  Hardly any of the stores were open because it was Sunday, and being a Catholic country the people don’t work on the Sabbath, so everyone was just window shopping even though there was nothing to buy.  It was hard to imagine such a thing ever happening anywhere in America.


Inna wanted to check out the University.  We still didn’t realize that our map was all backasswards, but it was clear that the numbered destinations, including the university, did not correspond to the street names.  We were standing on a busy corner near the Via Zamboni, trying to figure out where the hell we were going, when a smiling and very chipper law school student named Salvatore offered to help.  We asked him how to get to the old university, and he quickly offered to show us the way.

Inna’s son Arthur graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and when I went to the Naval Academy we played lacrosse against most of the Ivys, so we were no stranger to grand old American colleges.  But in comparison to the ancient beauty of the University of Bologna, Harvard looks like Anne Arundel Community College.  There were stunning medieval churches and Byzantine museums integrated into the fabric of the school and it was like stepping back into the Renaissance.  If Dante had come walking out of one of the classroom buildings it would have seemed perfectly natural. 
We were snapping pictures of everything and I got so flustered that I dropped Inna’s brand new camera on the cobbled street and it broke.  Inna was so entranced by the sights around us that she didn’t even bitch at me – until later.

Salvi left us at the Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna Art Gallery where we decided to check out the Foto Industrial exhibit, featuring artistic photos of Italian industrial wastelands, like sunrise over some coal mine slag heap with large earth movers basking in a reflective shade of morning pink.  It was a very odd perspective indeed, and weirdly captivating.

On our way back toward the city center, we stopped by the lovely Nisea Di Palazzo Poggi-Scienza E Arte Museum that looked amazing, but which, unfortunately, was closed on Sundays, other than the main entrance and stairway.  But even that took our breath away, with its white marble staircase and elegant statuary and mosaics from the past.
Next up, we caught the end of a sparsely-attended sermon in the ornate Basilica di Saint Franseco.  You can't swing a cat around Italy without hitting the Basilica of some long dead saint.

We soon found ourselves at a bustling intersection, once again trying to read our squirrelly map, when up popped our young friend Salvi who had finished running his morning errands and offered to give us a guided tour, starting with Bologna’s most spectacular gem, the Basilica Di Saint Stefano, known locally as the Seven Churches, an amazing maze of churches adorned with timeworn frescoes, stone effigies, rare paintings, mosaic ceilings, golden chalices, Byzantine archways, and a museum gift shop that sold a wide selection of religious booze with a very happy, cassock-draped priest at the counter.

After getting the lowdown on a few more grand palaces, and one in particular, the Palazzo Pepoli Campgrande, which had a roof line covered in lifelike human heads, we climbed the tallest tower in town, the Torre Asinelli, with its 500 creaky steps.  We paid the 5€ entrance fee for Salvi to join us and it turned out that it was his first trip to the top of the tower.  He was very excited.  The climb up the narrow, black wooden staircase was scary, heart pounding, and claustrophobic with barely enough room for people to pass one another in near darkness.  But the panoramic view of the city was worth every step, and gazing down on the red roofs of the city, it was easy to see how Bologna earned its "Red City" moniker.


Back on the ground, we walked along the Bologna’s upscale shopping district, its stores all closed, but showing off the latest fashions in their windows like out of the pages of Vogue 

We came to a busy intersection where we stumbled onto a very strange Peruvian street ceremony that sounded and looked like a New Orleans funeral, with a uniformed band playing a slow march as the devoted carried a golden shrine down the middle of the street as wild old ladies wailed like witches and priests waved smoking incense pots.  The mood was solemnly festive and not what we were expecting to see in a conservative Catholic city like Bologna.  But I guess that Pope Francis, the first South American Pope, has emboldened Latinos to freely worship in their own unique ways.  A beaming old beggar lady dressed in white with her face painted in thick white paint was begging in front of the parade like some zombie Grand Marshall.

Near the end of our tour, we had coffee and beer at an outdoor cafe overlooking Piazza Maggiore and Salvi, who was from the island of Sicily, which sits off the coastal toe of Italy like a football island, patiently answered our questions about modern Italian society.  Salvi’s English was a bit sketchy, and he admitted that the main reason he had befriended us was to practice his English, which was fine with us.  Getting a local guide essentially for free for the whole day was a great deal for us, and Salvi liked answering our questions.  It was a win-win all around.
The first thing we wanted to know about, especially when he told us he was from Sicily, was what every American always wants to know about Italy: Is the Mafia still all-powerful?  Salvi said it was complicated.  The Mafia has become integrated into the Sicilian power structure and is branching out where it can.  Their goal is to become legitimate and they have recently gotten heavily into green energy, buying solar companies and preaching the gospel of a clean environment for the next generation.  As a general rule, they can only can make inroads where there are lots of poor people and it is unsafe.  Those are the places where they can provide "protection" and peddle their drugs.  We asked Salvi what he thought of "The Godfather" movies.  He shook his head and said he didn’t like them because they glorified the Mafia.  For most Italians, the Mafia is an embarrassment.

We asked Salvi to explain why the former President of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, who had recently been convicted of embezzlement, still seemed to influence all political life?  The smiling fat greaseball was front and center wherever we went around Italy.  Salvi explained that Berlusconi controlled the phones, TV, and newspapers, so he still had the power to influence public opinion whether he is was in or out of office.  The masses still loved him and he might get re-elected again one day.  Italians are very forgiving of their shiniest stars, even those who are deeply flawed.  It sounded a lot to me like the Marion Barry Syndrome.

Our last stop was the Cathedrale di Saint Pietro, a dark hulking celebration of native stone, towering into the sky like the word of God.  Inside, the icons and ageless religious antiquities hammered home the fact that pretty much anything in the U.S. is almost brand new.

And then it was time to get back on the tour bus for the hour-long ride to Ravenna.   We hugged our new friend Salvi and told him to come visit us in the states.  He said that he would very much like to study at one of the universities around Washington, D.C.  We told him to check out George Washington or George Mason, and he said he would. 
On the way out of town we passed the busy Bologna Train Station where a white clock sat atop the imposing building's Romanesque entrance.  The clock is stopped at 10:25, the exact time when terrorists exploded a bomb and killed over 80 innocent travelers in August 1980.  Like America's 9/11, this national tragedy burns brightly in the memories of all Italians, and bears witness to the fact that our lives can change in the blink of an eye.

It seems stereotypical to say, but Italians who speak English always add an "AH" onto the end of every last word in a sentence.  Like the phrase we kept hearing all the time during our trip to Bologna, "It is a beautiful life-ah."

And you know what?  It is a beautiful life-ah.


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