Ravenna, Bologna, and Ferrara
09/25/2014 - 09/26/2014
For the rest of the first leg of our trip in Italy, we settled into a pattern of using the morning and early afternoon to walk around the city in which we had spent the night, then stopping in another city for a couple of hours, and then arriving at the next overnight destination at about dinner time. I had originally planned to stay in Ravenna, but instead made it a stopover city once I decided we should visit Bologna. Ravenna is best known to travelers for a large collection of intricate Byzantine mosaics that can be seen in churches and museums around the city. Again, this wasn't exactly our thing but it was the largest city on the way to Bologna and also was supposed to have a fairly substantial market in the city center. I found my way to the center with some difficulty and eventually parked in an inexpensive lot, unsure if my car had crossed into the forbidden central zone. We spent the first half hour hunting for the market, only to learn that it had been discontinued two years earlier. However, Ravenna was a colorful and pleasant town and we walked through the wide streets and piazzas for about an hour.
We eventually found ourselves following a stream of pedestrians towards a large structure which turned out to be the Basilica di San Vitale, home of some of the most famous mosaics. The church itself was an enormous and beautiful structure, and Cleo stretched her legs on the grassy lawn outside.
Inside were the mosaics, of course. Even without knowing much about art, it was clear that assembling the tiny pieces into such intricate images must have been a Herculean task.
Bologna wasn't on our original itinerary, as I had heard that it was more industrial and functional than its romantic neighbors. Stopping there turned out to be a great decision, as Bologna proved to be one of our favorite large cities in Italy. As usual, I had some difficulty navigating our arrival and once again entered a forbidden area with the car. I initially passed by our street because it seemed so narrow that I wasn't sure the car could turn into it. It took about half an hour to sort things out and chart a course back to that point via the maze of one way streets, and we had to race to unload the car before we became an obstruction to traffic. Our accommodation was very unique, a two-level apartment inside of a cavernous building with a central atrium. On the second floor of the apartment was a bedroom with a balcony that looked down into a large room that was a combined living room, dining room, and study. The ceiling was covered with a beautiful hand-painted fresco.
By the time we had unpacked and cleaned up, it was dark and time to get dinner. We pushed the gondola through the rather grotty University Quarter to Osteria dell'Orsa, which seemed like a good choice from the Lonely Planet because it was casual and open late. The place turned out not to be a great choice for a family with two babies as it had a raucous atmosphere filled with students drinking liter-sized beers. They fit us in on the lower level, meaning we had to disassemble the gondola and lug the parts as well as the kids down the stairs and find space under the table to stash everything. Cleo got caught up in the energy of the place and wouldn't sit on the bench, but she learned her lesson when a waiter came galloping down the stairs and literally knocked her flying through the air. Fortunately, the only thing hurt was her dignity. We ate the Bolognese specialty of pasta with ragu (meat sauce) that was filling if not subtle.
On the way back to the apartment we passed through many of Bologna's famed porticos. These covered walkways supported by long series of arches were originally built to allow homeowners to build out the upper stories over the sidewalks. Apparently this allowed the homeowners to generate more rental income from the university students flooding the city, although I am unsure if this is actually an urban myth. Regardless, it creates a beautiful effect in the streets and provided welcome protection from the occasional rain showers.
The next day we set out to find the Mercato delle Erbe, a covered produce market not too far from our apartment. Par for the course we had some trouble locating it, but just when we were about to give up we found it somewhat recessed from the sidewalk on a block we had already crossed several times. Inside, the market was clean and pleasant with numerous stalls containing the usual fruit and vegetable standbys as well as a number of interesting specialty stores. A common sight was large, lobulated hunks of mozzarella in both fresh and smoked forms.
For lunch, we found a Japanese store in the market and we combined some of their delicacies with mozzarella and other goodies we had bought elsewhere in the market.
We next made our way to Piazza Maggiore, the center of the old town and home of its most famous landmarks including Fontana del Nettuno and the Basilica di San Petronio. The unique feature of this basilica is that the marble facade only extends halfway up the front of the building due to the sudden half in construction before the church was completed. When Cleo is on a roll, she doesn't feel like stopping for pictures.
Adjacent to Piazza Maggiore is an area known as Il Quadrilatero for the four streets that define it. Besides being crammed with food markets, delicatessens, and cafes the neighborhood is also a center for craftsmen and jewelers. We found some snacks in a crowded food court but we were already too full from lunch to take full advantage of the area.
On the way back to the apartment we stopped to admire Le Due Torri, two improbably rickety towers dating from the 12th century. Apparently well over a hundred towers were originally built and many of them survive to this day, but these two in central Bologna are the best known. The reasons for the construction of the towers are not well understood, but they may have had military uses or may simply have been status symbols. As can be seen in the pictures, they lean to such an extent that the shorter tower is closed to the public. The other can be climbed, but not with a squirming 30 pound child strapped to one's back.
To many travelers, spending less than 24 hours in a city such as Bologna might seem a sacrilege. Keep in mind though that we are mostly unencumbered by the desire to see the insides of museums, churches, and palaces which allows us to cover much more ground in a short period of time. Twenty-four hours is actually quite a reasonable period of time to absorb the ambience of a city and the nature of its denizens, and to decide if it merits a return visit at some time in the future. In the case of Bologna, I have no doubt that one day we'll return.
Our last city in Emilia-Romagna was Ferrara, a mid-sized city best known for its attractive Duomo and an enormous medieval castle, Castello Estense. We dutifully admired these structures from the outside but probably our most memorable experience in Ferrara was buying walking shoes to replace my tattered sneakers.
After Ferrara, we had plenty of time to get to Verona and check into our next accommodation in Verona. As it turned out, we were going to need it.