Europe,  Italy

There’s More to Bologna than Bolognese

Bologna - Ragù Bolognese

In the end it wasn’t too hard to drag ourselves away from the beauty of the Ligurian coast because the rain came. Storm after storm pushed through and ponds started to appear around the campsite. It was time to move. There are only a couple of routes through the Appenine mountains suitable for towing a caravan and so we first headed north in the direction of Parma. There were signs here saying that snow tyres were compulsory between 15 November and 15 April, so we were glad we weren’t here any earlier in the year. There were plenty of tunnels on the route and we followed the course of the river for much of the journey, but there were still a lot of long, slow crawls where the engine got hotter and hotter. We were relieved when we started our steady descent to Parma and then joined the A1 south east towards our next destination – Bologna.

We have been surprised how much more expensive everything is in Italy compared to Spain. Fuel is about €1.40 a litre compared with about €1.10 in Spain. Food is also more expensive, as are campsites. And it can be expensive just to drive around too – our 220km journey across from Liguria to Bologna cost us a whopping €29.20 in tolls, and the road wasn’t even in good condition! In fact, the roads here in Italy are generally in a pretty poor state.

We decided to get the bus into town and the journey from our campsite (Citta di Bologna) was short but bone shaking as the driver hurtled around the cobbled streets of the old town. A machine on the bus dispensed tickets for €1.50 each that lasted for 75 minutes during which time you could travel on any bus in any direction. Fortunately we had just enough loose change with us!

Getting off the bus in Bologna was like stepping back in time and history seems to ooze from every portico, every doorway and every paving stone.

Bologna - San Petronio cathedral Piazza Maggiore
The striking, and unfinished, San Petronio cathedral in Bologna

Bologna Cathedral: Basilica San Petronio

We started our exploration in the city’s main square, Piazza Maggiore, with Bologna’s unusual cathedral. This enormous building is named after the city’s patron saint, Petronio, who was bishop of Bologna in the 5th century. It was started in 1390 but then in 1514, whilst it was still only partially built, plans were put forward to extend it out to the sides in the form of a Latin cross that would make it bigger than St Peter’s in Rome. Apparently Pope Pius IV wasn’t happy with this idea and he halted the project, making sure it could never go ahead by commissioning the building of a new university on some of the land alongside it. If you walk along Via dell’Archiginnasio to the left of the cathedral, you can see where the stonework ends abruptly and can clearly make out where the side extension would have been.

Bologna - San Petronio basilica
Left: the central nave of the San Petronio basilica. Right: down the side of the basilica, you can see exactly where the extension was going to be.

The cathedral has never been finished and it is an interesting structure, a frozen snapshot of the medieval world, showing us the sort of incomplete view that people lived with for whole lifetimes as these monumental cathedrals were built.

Bologna - San Petronio cathedral model
This is what the cathedral should’ve looked like had it been finished,

Inside it is fairly plain, although it has some beautiful and impressive tromp l’oeil on the walls of some of the side chapels. There are also some unfinished sections of the main ceiling that hint at what it could’ve looked like had it been completed.

Bologna - inside San Petronio Cathedral
Some of the incredible Tromp l’oeil inside Bologna’s cathedral San Petronio.

Cassini’s Sundial

One of the cathedral’s most interesting features is the giant ‘sundial’ on the floor. Designed by Gian Cassini in 1655, it is the longest sundial in the world. The name confused us because we couldn’t understand how you could have a sundial INSIDE a building. In fact it should really be called a meridian line and it measures 67.7 metres, which is apparently equal to 1/600,000 of the earth’s circumference. It is basically a metal strip set into the floor of he cathedral with the days and months of the year marked out along it. Since Cassini was an astrologer, he also put the signs of the zodiac along it.

But we still couldn’t figure out how it worked. Until we looked up. On the ceiling near the start of the sundial, there is a tiny hole through which the sun shines at solar midday, sending a beam of light down onto the line below. The position of the sun on the meridian indicates the day of the year.

Bologna - San Petronio cathedral Cassini meridian line sundial
Cassini’s Meridian Line runs right across the basilica.  The tiny hole that emits the beam of light from the midday sun is at the centre of a painted sun symbol on the ceiling above.

Cassini called it a “heliometer” and he used it to determine the exact length of the solar year by measuring the time between two successive passages of the sun at the spring equinox. The length of the meridian meant it was extremely accurate and this helped astronomers like Cassini to verify the accuracy of the Gregorian calendar that had been introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.

Before this, we used the Julian calendar, which had been around since Roman times (it was named after Julius Caesar) and even back then they knew that the length of the solar year was 365 ¼ days and every four years an extra day was added to make up for the extra quarters. But in actual fact, the length of the solar year is only 365.242 days and astronomers realised that continually adding one day every four years is too much and over time the calendar dates and the seasons would get out of alignment. So, in the Gregorian calendar, the discrepancy is adjusted by skipping a leap year three times every four hundred years. This is done by making all century years (ending in 00) into non-leap year years except where the year can be divided by 400. So, in 1900, no extra day was added (i.e. it wasn’t a leap year), but in 2000 it was, because it is divisible by 400. Similarly, there will be no leap year in 2100, 2200 or 2300 but there will be one in 2400, and again in 2800. The rest of the time, the leap years happen as usual every four years.

What I find incredible is the accuracy with which they knew all of this, especially given their understanding of the universe at the time. Throughout history there had been scholars who had argued that the earth and other planets actually revolved around the sun, but the most widely held view was still that the earth was in a fixed position and everything else revolved around it. In 1543 Copernicus had put forward his arguments for the heliocentric view (everything revolving around the sun), and in 1632 Galileo had been put under house arrest for going against the Catholic Church and publicly supporting this view, following observations he had made using the telescopes that he created. But it wasn’t until Isaac Newton wrote about gravitation and the heliocentric theory in 1687 that it started to be taken seriously. Final proof came when Edmund Halley used Newton’s equations to predict that a comet seen in 1682 would return in 1758, and it did.

In 1992 the Catholic Church finally repealed the inquisition ruling against Galileo. 350 years after his death they pardoned him and admitted the heliocentric theory was correct.


Anyway, back to Bologna. One of the city’s most striking features is its porticos that seem to line the outside of virtually every building, framing all of the views in the old town centre. There are a staggering 38 kilometres of them and they were created in the late Middle Ages when the city was expanding rapidly: by extending the first floor of the houses and creating a covered walkway beneath, they were able to create more space for housing without taking up the street area. The porticos also allowed shopkeepers to work and display their goods outside their shops even in bad weather. And this is still true today: the picturesque walkways afford both visitors and locals great shade in the heat of summer as well as shelter from the rain. Their generous height is on account of the fact that they were built to allow a man on horseback to pass under them and they are a distinguishing feature of both Bologna and its surrounding towns.

Bologna - porticos
Bologna has literally miles and miles of elegant porticos surrounding virtually every building in the city.

Abbey of Santo Stefano

We also visited the Abbey of Santo Stefano, which is found at the end of a lovely triangular piazza of the same name. This is actually a group of churches that have grown up here over the centuries, joined by a courtyard and a cloister. It is on the spot where a pagan temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis once stood in the 2nd century and part of it is the oldest church in Bologna. It was quite an atmospheric place, each church leading via passageways into the next.

Bologna - Abbey of Santo Stefano
The Abbey of Santo Stefano with some of its delightful brickwork

The part I liked most was the church of Santo Sepulcro. This lovely octagonal building probably started out as a baptistery and it had the most beautiful brickwork all around it. One other curious feature was a courtyard – Cortile di Pilato – with a central basin in which Pontius Pilate is supposed to have washed his hands after condemning Christ to death. The basin was covered over and was obviously undergoing some sort of restoration or preservation. It is very old, dating from the 8th century, but not so old as to live up to the claims made for it.

Le Due Torri (The Two Towers)

Bologna also has two astonishing leaning towers, Le Due Torri, which seem to lean just as alarmingly as their more famous and way more decorative cousin in Pisa. The difference here is that, where Pisa’s tower is surrounded largely by grass and open ground, Bologna’s towers are right in the centre of the city amongst the palaces and porticos, which seemed to make them much more alarming.  The Asinelli tower is also the highest leaning tower in the whole of Italy.

Bologna - The Two Towers
Left: from this angle, the taller of the two towers, the Asinelli tower, looks almost straight (in actual fact it is leaning away from where we are standing). Right: the shorter, Garisenda tower, leans almost comically away from vertical!

Here’s how they compare in height and lean:

Leaning Tower of Pisa:  57m high. 3.9m lean
Bologna Torre degli Asinelli:  97.6m high.  1.3m lean
Bologna Torre Garisdena:  48m high.  3.2m lean

From certain angles and viewpoints the towers seem perfectly straight, but then approach from a different direction and they are almost comical in their leaning. Looking at the base, you can see exactly how far they have sunk.

Bologna -  base of Garisenda tower
Looking at the base of the Garisenda tower, you can clearly see how far it had sunk!

Apparently Bologna once had more than a hundred such towers and there are now only 17 left, of which these two are the most famous and are the symbol of the city. At one time every important family in the city had its own tower, the height of which showed the extent of their power. Apparently when a family was defeated, their tower was cut down. The two towers stand (or should that be lean) over the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana and were built by the Asinelli family between 1109 and 1119. The taller of the two is open to the public, although to get to the top you have to be prepared to climb its 498 steps up a wooden staircase. Bologna is a university town (it has the oldest university in the world, which was started in 1088) and local superstition says that students who climb it will never graduate.

The Real Name for Bolognese

Bologna of course gives its name to the tomato and meat based sauce that is served with spaghetti the world over. But Spaghetti Bolognese is subtly different to the dish from which it originated and which is served all over the city: Ragù. In Bologna, ragù contains minced beef, pancetta, onions, celery, carrot, passata, meat stock, olive oil, wine and milk. It is less about the tomatoes and more about the meat than what most of us think of today as Bolognese sauce. And if you want to be really traditional about it, you need to serve it with fresh yellowy egg noodles – tagliatelle – and not with spaghetti.

It is thought that British and American servicemen ate ragù when they passed through this area during WWII and fell in love with it. They then tried to recreate it when they returned home and that is how the beloved spaghetti Bolognese came about. So particular are the locals about the culinary heritage of their sauce that in 1982, the Bologna contingent of the Accademia Italiana Della Cucina deposited the official recipe for Ragù Bolognese (better known all over the world as Bolognese Sauce) with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce.  Don’t believe me? You can read the recipe here (hint – open it in google chrome and it will translate it for you).

As well as Bologna’s most famous dish, we tried some cured meats and another local speciality – pillows of deep fried bread called Crescentines. They were so light and soft yet with a pleasing crunch – heavenly!

Eating out in Bologna was a rare treat for us and we were also lucky enough to try another local specialty: crescentine fritte. These are light, deep fried, hollow, pillow-shaped, slightly crispy, bread-like morsels and for us they rivalled focaccia for their deliciousness.  The ragù Bolognese was pretty good too!

Bologna definitely had bags of personality and history and it rivalled some of its better known neighbours for its charm and energy.  But for now we said ‘farewell’ and got the bus back to the campsite – tomorrow we drive to Mestre, just outside Venice.


  • John Skelley

    Fantastic Sarah. I was very impressed to see that you’ve covered a lot of ground both literally and metaphorically. Topics in KS3 Science include: “The Formation of Metamorphic Rocks ” “Discovering the Universe” and “How Science Works” All of which you seem to have embraced.
    Keep up the good work. Following you with interest. John & Louise.?

    • Sarah

      Thanks John! The opportunities for learning on a trip like this really are endless and we are ALL learning so much. It is good to hear that we are covering some useful scientific topics in addition to the history, geography, religion, languages, culture etc.
      Hope you and Louise are both well. Xx

  • Liz Wetherby

    I love all the ancient buildings and am amazed all over again at the incredible artisanship involved in the tile work decorating these beautiful old structures, never mind the creative builders who figured out how to actually build these buildings that are still standing over a thousand years later. (Even though some of them may be leaning a bit) 🙂 What is the difference between Bolognese sauce and Marinara sauce? That dish you were eating (Bolognese sauce and noodles) looked wonderful!! The other thing I found so interesting is the porticos – tall enough for someone to ride a horse through. You would think something so mundane in purpose would not have the time and effort spent on it to make it so beautiful. Wow! And then there’s the sundial – that just boggled my mind! Such breadth of knowledge without any electronics or machinery!!!! E and M will be the best educated young women in their school from here on out!

    • Sarah

      Thanks Liz! I so wish you could visit some of these places with us as I know you would enjoy them so much!
      Bolognese sauce has minced beef and pancetta (pork – a bit like bacon) in it, whereas Marinara is just tomatoes I think. Either way, it was delicious. Xx