Stranger Danger (Italian edition)

I’m starting to get the impression that I can’t have a proper holiday anymore without putting my life in the hands of at least one stranger. That’s not, of course, including the pilot who I’ve implicitly trusted to get me to my destination in the first place.

I recently enjoyed a long weekend in Italy and managed to see three cities in four days: Bologna, Modena and Milan. For most of my trip I was able to rely on the excellent hospitality of my friend, who I was out there visiting, and who I’d promised for far too long that I’d eventually come and see him.

For my first day, however, I was set adrift, alone, to explore Bologna. Although I should probably say ‘my first afternoon’, seeing as by the time I had suffered through the inevitable Ryanair delays and landed, it was already about 2pm.
I then proceeded to do my best impression of a headless chicken.
I’d lost an hour of my time in the city and by the time I was out of the airport, had only half an hour for a much longer journey to the Asinelli Tower, which I’d booked to go up at 2.45pm.

In my dash across Bologna to see everything I possibly could in a very short amount of time I:

  • Arrived 10 minutes late to my Asinelli Tower booking, red-faced and sweating, having run across Bologna from my bus stop (although I did pause briefly to take a very important picture of a canal).
  • Begged the man at the door to let me go up the tower anyway in my best desperate tourist voice.
  • Legged it up 498 steps to the top of the Tower because I’d promised the man I’d be back down by half three so the next group could go up.
  • Managed to visit the Basilica di San Petronio, the Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio and the church of Santa Maria della Vita twice because I didn’t realise they were all also on the walking tour (and I’d had to pay for entry to the theatre).
  • Didn’t have time for lunch in a city famous for its food.
  • Showed up late to my walking tour because I’d tried to find the Quadrilatero food market, missed out on collecting one of the headsets and spent the entire tour looking like a freeloader who’d just decided to tag along and not pay.
  • Walked up and down the same street multiple times after realising that getting cash out was more important than seeing another portico.
  • Managed all of that whilst also lugging around my luggage for the next three days (luckily it was just a rucksack).

By the time the walking tour was over I was exhausted and a little bit overwhelmed, but Bologna is a beautiful and interesting city and I wanted to see more before heading off on my train to Modena.

I really wanted to see Santo Stefano before it closed; I’d heard it was a fascinating collection of architecture over the centuries. Why have one church when you can stick seven of them together?

I had a whole list of other things as well: the seven secrets of Bologna, the Roman road which is randomly displayed in the basement of a very modern furniture store called Roche Bobois, the Bologna National Gallery, the Torre Prendiparte with a view of the Two Towers, the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca at the end of the longest portico in the world. Nothing was going to slow me down.

It was at this point that I met my elderly knight in slightly nicotine-stained armour. Not that I particularly needed saving; despite how my summary comes across I felt like I was doing pretty well overall, but I like the imagery of my kindly, slightly neglected knight.

I’d gone into the church complex, peered through the glass doors of the already closed museum to try and work out what I’d missed, and was just wandering away to see more of the grounds when I noticed an older man trundling towards me speaking Italian. I just about understood ‘museum’ and ‘closed’ so I smiled politely and made to race off to my next destination.

But he had other plans. He stopped walking right in front of me and the stream of Italian continued. At that point I had to play the ‘I’m sorry, I’m an ignorant tourist and can’t understand’ card, to which he responded ‘Inglese?’ and I nodded. He then went on what I think was a mini rant about how everything was English nowadays, which was fair enough because I have the same grievances with Berlin. To defend my own case against being the standard ‘arrogant English tourist’, I also told him I speak German. This didn’t really help us, however, because he spoke about as much German as English, with the words ‘zurück’, ‘Deutsch’ and ‘Bahnhof’.

He gestured that I should follow him to the model of the church buildings and without any warning, or any warning I could understand anyway, launched into the history of Santo Stefano. And so began my hour and a half tour of Bologna.

Here is what I think I learned:

  1. There is something important about Dante and a balcony in Santo Stefano and the inspiration for the Divine Comedy.My guide kept pointing at a balcony and saying Dante’s name – I think someone fell and twisted his neck around, but whether it was Dante, his grandma, his worst enemy, his best friend or his dog, I have no clue.
  2. Something about arches that go like this \ / instead of like this / \.
  3. There were pillars made of African marble.
  4. A set of Adoration of the Magi sculptures from the 1300s (maybe?), one of a kind and modeled on the real heights of people at the time.
  5. The first martyrs of Bologna died in 304 (probably my one concrete fact).
  6. The crypt of Santo Stefano was intended to be a mini Jerusalem and there was one pillar that was different to all of the others because it was meant to represent the height of Christ.
  7. Jesus was 1.7m.
  8. A sculpture in the main church of Mary and Jesus after he was taken down from the cross made of what I believe was papier maché.
  9. The little bird of Santo Stefano (I think a cockerel) on the brick façade, which was the mark of the mason.
  10. Romans had big bricks.

Now, after fact checking, I can confirm the following details:

  1. In the Medieval Cloister there are a couple of column heads with carvings of a naked man being crushed by a boulder and a man with his head twisted round 180 degrees. According to legend, when Dante was in Bologna he liked to come to the courtyard to think, and it was possibly these columns which inspired some of the atonement methods in the Purgatory of his Divine Comedy.
  2. I couldn’t find anything about the shape of the arches, but I did read that the lower level of the courtyard is pre-1000, while the upper part is an excellent example of Roman-Gothic architecture. So there you go.
  3. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there are seven African marble columns.
  4. Apparently the Adoration of the Magi sculptures are from 1370 and are the oldest of their kind in the world.
  5. The first martyrs of Bologna were the Saints Vitalis and Agricola, who died in 304.
  6. Apparently the idea behind the whole church complex, started in 430, was to build a basilica similar to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
  7. Unfortunately I cannot confirm the height of Christ.
    Although various sources on Google seem to believe he was somewhere between 1.55 and 1.6m.
  8. In the main church building, a sculpture from the 18th century that depicts the Lamentation over the Dead Christ was apparently constructed using playing cards which had been confiscated during the years when gambling was prohibited, so pretty much papier maché!
  9. I couldn’t find anything about the bird, but he’s definitely there, and I can certainly believe that the mason wanted to leave his mark somehow.
  10. And, because I know you’re all insanely excited about learning the history of the Roman brick, here you go (Sources: Wikipedia and Ancient History Encyclopaedia): A Roman brick is characteristically longer and flatter than standard modern bricks.
    • Shapes included square, rectangular, triangular and round.
    • The largest bricks found have measured over 90cm in length.
    • The Romans perfected brick-making during the first century of their empire.
    • In Italy, bricks were mostly used as a facing for concrete walls (and don’t get me started on Roman cement).
    • There was also a tradition of using unique identifying stamps on Roman bricks to identify where and by whom the bricks had been made so it’s not impossible to imagine that the mason included his own unofficial stamp during the build.

After we’d left Santo Stefano, I thought my unofficial guide and I would have an awkward goodbye, I would say thank you, and then we would go our separate ways, but little did I know, the tour was far from over.

He explained the history of Via Jerusalem and where you could see the Ancient Roman road, and then took me past some kind of restaurant or hotel with three arrows in its logo. I pointed excitedly at the arrows, trying to explain the story I’d read from the mid 13th century about three thieves who’d planned to murder a noble man.
The legend goes that just as they were taking aim, they were distracted by a beautiful naked woman at a window, stopped concentrating on their aim and instead ended up firing their arrows into the wooden ceiling of the portico on Strada Maggiore instead. And the arrows are stuck there to this day and I really wanted to see them.

I should have known, as the occasional tour guide myself, that you should never interrupt a pro in their flow. He shook his head, gestured to me and tried to explain something about something closing or something, so I shrugged my shoulders and followed him anyway. We walked a little further down the road and came to a venue which looked like it was preparing for some kind of event, with a bouncer on the door and a stage and musicians setting up in the courtyard. Another man was in the process of turning away some other tourists, but my unstoppable guide just walked straight in.

I’ve never seen a more surprised bouncer in my life. The security guard made to stop my guide, but he’d walked in with such purpose that the bouncer had no clue what to do. I scuttled in apologetically behind him, gesturing and making facial expressions which hopefully conveyed the ‘I’m with him’ vibe.
We came to this gorgeous self supporting spiral staircase where I got a full and detailed explanation in Italian about how it worked architecturally. I’m sure it was fascinating. Then he started pointing up and telling me about the ‘finestra’ (window), clapping ‘quickly quickly’, and I realised he wanted me to go up. He wasn’t the fastest of fellows so he told me he would wait ‘ici’ (we also tried to communicate sometimes in our low level French), so I ran up as quickly as possible. When I got to the top, lo and behold, I saw the window he meant (it was pretty much the only thing up there) and I was lucky enough to have one of my best views of Bologna. It had just reached the perfect point of sunset, the horizon glowed and silhouetted the skyline, coordinating with the characteristic reds of the rooftops, and I could see the Asinelli tower and its tilted counterpart in all its glory. I heard the band starting up its sound checks, the birds singing, and it was so picturesque. I was sad that I couldn’t just stay up there for a bit, but my partner in crime was waiting faithfully for me at the bottom of the stairs so I raced back down to tell him how ‘magnifico’ it had been.

And I should never have doubted him: our next stop was the ceiling with the three arrows. Then he showed me the nearby Palazzo Rossini with an inscription on the façade that read ‘Non Domo Dominus, Sed Domino Domus’, which I understood to mean ‘I am the master of this house but the house belongs to the city’, but actually translates to ‘the owner should bring honour to his house, not the house to its owner’. Close but no cigar. It is a man (or woman)’s honourable character that makes a house truly grand, not the other way around.

My guide fully intended to show me more after that, and despite the fact that I was really enjoying myself, I had to insist then that I head towards the station to catch my train.

True to his valiant form, he walked me all the way to the station, which was a decent half hour or so walk. Although the whole time we were walking there, I didn’t actually know if that was where we were really headed.

In the process I learnt that his name was Duilio and that he had been a Geometra (which Google Translate tells me is a Quantity Surveyor). We spoke about our families: his had been Bolognese since 1500 (and he jokingly insisted that his ancestor was Julius Caesar) and I said that mine were all from mainland Europe. He said therefore that his ancestors were Roman and mine Longobards, so named because of their long beards.

I even learnt some Italian that afternoon:

  • Facile = easy (apparently Italian is and I should learn it).
  • Molto bello = very nice/beautiful (although he thought my use of ‘magnifico’ was funny).
  • We established that my ‘base delle operazioni’ (my base of operations) for the weekend was Modena.
  • Legna = wood (also the extent of the English words I taught him).
  • Domenica = Sunday.
  • And my personal favourite, Cangurina = a little female kangaroo, which I became after I told him that I wasn’t new to this travelling alone stuff and I had done it for a year in Australia.

I was quite sad when we left the old Bolognese porticos and cobbled streets behind us and arrived at the fluorescent light of the main station. I said ‘grazie’ as many times as I could possibly manage and he said what I think was ‘it was a pleasure’, but he could have been telling me to piss off for all I know. We made no promises to see each other again or stay in touch or add each other on Facebook because we were both content to leave things as they were and just appreciate the evening that we had had.
I really believe that his generosity was the best thing that could have happened to me that day. I was so frantically running around that I was barely stopping to appreciate where I was. Duilio forced me to do that. We walked at his pace, saw what he deemed important, and I didn’t have to worry about what I was doing or where I had to be next. I didn’t see everything that I wanted to, but at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. I got to enjoy what I did see.

Thank you, Duilio.

The rest of my Italian adventure was also excellent. I found another amazing tour guide; the friend I had gone out there to visit and we took full advantage of Italy’s well-deserved reputation for good food, visiting a cheese farm and the world’s oldest producer of balsamic vinegar. If you’ve never had a vinegar tasting before, you’re genuinely missing out. Before you turn your nose up at tasting a selection of off-wine, it’s delicious and you don’t know what you’re talking about.

He took me to his favourite gelato place, we ate pizza (naturally), breakfasted out like true hipsters with croissants and cappuccinos (and tea), assessed the cleanliness of Modenese cars, watched some Trevor Noah and road-tripped to Milan. Just as I was beginning to get twitchy feet again, it was the perfect antidote.

Published by Amber | Rambling London Tours

Hello, my name is Amber. A few things about me. I am a born and bred Londoner so I absolutely adore my home city, but I love travel too, which means I'm always excited about exploring new places as well as taking other travellers (like you) around the places I love. I have been working in tourism on and off since 2014, both in the UK and briefly in Australia, and in 2020 I qualified as a professional Blue Badge Tour Guide for London and the South East of England. I love history, I have a History degree, and I think tourism is the perfect way to make sure I always keep learning, meeting new people, while also giving me a career where the world is my office! Hopefully I will have the pleasure of meeting you too.

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