12 days in northern Italy

I aim to write a monthly blog. What with one thing and another, notably lots of disruption at home with workmen, and being at work, my planned June blog is appearing now at the end of July. Here goes…

On 7 June Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I embarked on our first overseas trip – excluding visits to see family in (kind of) English-speaking California and Arizona – for more than 10 years.

In preparation for our expedition Kathie was busy learning some Italian on a smartphone app. Kathie also worked hard to find our accommodation and read lots of guide books. My contribution was to throw in a few ideas now and then.

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View from our window in Bologna’s Hotel Paradise (image: Graham Brown)

We stayed in Bologna, the capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy, in the wonderfully-named Hotel Paradise. Very good it was too, helpful staff and in a good location for walking to the many ancient churches, historic attractions and shops – even the railway station was only about 20 minutes’ walk through attractive architecture.

I will not take you on a blow-by-blow, day-by-day account of the trip, and everything we saw, – phew! – but here are some themes that struck me.

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The 12th century Two Towers of Bologna – due torri (image: Graham Brown)

Elegant, cool and medieval – with graffiti

Bologna is a large city but the central historic and shopping areas are reasonably compact. Though temperatures reached as high as 35 C while we there – 95 F to Americans – we stayed reasonably cool thanks to the architecture. The city is blessed with miles, or, should I say, kilometres, of porticoes – arched colonnades covering the pavements (American: sidewalks) – which allow one to walk around in the shade.

The city has some fantastic medieval, Renaissance and baroque architecture – numerous churches, civic buildings and the two towers (due torri) reputedly dating from the 12th century.

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Some of Bologna’s graffiti makes a serious point, in this case about Syria (image: Graham Brown)

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And some of the graffiti is humorous – this reminded us of Roscoe back home (image: Graham Brown)

We noticed that graffiti seems to be tolerated. And by graffiti I do not mean the usual crude scribblings of names and swear words, but some fantastic pieces of art, some comic, some supporting political causes.

The city had, to me, a relaxed atmosphere with outside eating areas for most cafes and restaurants (like so much of continental Europe), and elegant-looking residents, even while riding their numerous bicycles, mopeds and scooters.

Monuments

Bologna, like all European cities, has its fair share of monuments and statues. Among the more unusual ones, to my eyes, was a large monument to partisans who fought the Nazi and Fascist occupiers towards the end of the Second World War – it was made up of numerous small photographs of the individuals involved.

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On the left, the many photographs of Italian partisans who fought the Nazis – it seems appropriate that young people are relaxing in the sunshine (image: Graham Brown)

A war memorial for Italians lost in both world wars, inside the Santo Stefano complex of churches, struck me as interesting as it listed those lost on both sides of the conflict.

But I think I was most touched – perhaps with recent events in London and Manchester in my mind – by monuments to the 85 who died in the Fascist bombing of Bologna railway station in 1980.

There is a glass panel in the Piazza del Nettuno listing all the names of those who died in the attack (and in two other outrages). There are further memorials at the station itself including the clock stopped at 10.25, the time of the attack.

We also visited a photographic exhibition, housed in a wonderful underground exhibition space, containing 500 photographs of Bologna’s history as well as film – including the chilling visit of Italian dictator Mussolini to the city.

One room of the exhibition was entirely devoted to the station bombing. A constantly evolving montage of photographs was projected onto the walls of the circular room, along with the sound of emergency services radio conversations. It was very moving – literally and emotionally.

Musica

Music, or musica as the Italians say, featured in our trip.

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Kathie Touin in Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica (image: Graham Brown)

We went to two fascinating museums – one of historic keyboard instruments, the other was Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica – it features Bologna’s collection of musical manuscripts, books, sculptures, paintings and instruments. The origins of the collection are an 18th century Franciscan friar, Father Giovanni Battista Martini, who numbered Mozart among his students.

We also enjoyed live music. We attended two brilliant piano recitals held in the Oratorio di Santa Cecilia, appropriately the patron saint of music. Stand up, and take another standing ovation, Enrico Elisi and Benedetta Conte, fabulous performers both.

And we went to Teatro Duse for a production of Gershwin’s Crazy For You musical. The songs were sung in English, the conversations were in Italian but we had read the plot outline beforehand so we could follow the story.

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The poster for Crazy For You – a fabulous show starring Manuel Frattini

The show featured Manuel Frattini who, judging by the audience reaction, is something of a star. And rightly so. He is an old-fashioned song-and-dance man who can sing, dance and be physically funny – Kathie said he reminded her of Gene Kelly.

It was an uplifting evening – enough to make you forget how hot the theatre was – with wonderful staging, dancing, singing and comedy.

Trains and Ferraris – vroom…

We spent 13 nights in Bologna so we had 12 days to be out and about. There was so much to see in Bologna that we never got round it all, bearing in mind we had to stop for coffees, ice creams and meals.

But we took three day trips out of the city by train, to visit Modena, Venice and Florence.

You will have read and watched much about Venice and Florence so I will not go into detail on those – just to mention that in Venice, on an overcast day, we were caught in an Orkney-style storm of heavy rain and strong winds. We sheltered in a passageway and the storm soon passed, our clothes were just about dry by the time we left this strange city.

The main purpose of our visit to Modena was to see the Enzo Ferrari House Museum, one of two Ferrari museums in the region (the other is at their Modena factory). There were some beautiful and ruinously expensive cars on display, both racing and road examples.

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Kathie Touin choosing a Ferrari to take home (image: Graham Brown)

I have to say I find modern so-called “super cars” not to my taste but the classic Ferraris on display were a joy to behold. By the way, if anyone is short of ideas for next Christmas, Kathie would like a Ferrari Dino.

Our train journeys were smooth, comfortable and on time, apart from a delay departing Venice because the above-mentioned storm had caused flooding on the line. The regional train services are not expensive either – our journey to Modena, and back, for both of us, admittedly only about 30 minutes each way, cost less than £15, and we did not have to pay in advance or trawl websites for a cheap deal.

Our trip to Venice – about two hours each way – cost about £50 for both of us. We travelled upstairs in a double-decker coach.

However, our trip to Florence was more expensive. We did not get to Bologna railway station until mid-morning, only to discover all the second-class seats were taken. So we had to travel first class – this, and the fact that the service was operated by a high-speed train, made it much more expensive, more than £70 for both of us one way.

Never mind, we enjoyed travelling in first class (though the second-class return was perfectly fine) and being on a high-speed train, even though most of the route was in tunnels.

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Slightly fuzzy night-time photo at Bologna railway station but on this train we travelled at 186mph – Kathie shows off her Florence shopping in an Orkney Maeshowe bag (image: Graham Brown)

On the return from Florence to Bologna we noticed that the passenger information displays were, at times, showing the train’s speed. We reached 299kph, which I calculate to be 186mph. I think this is a land speed record for both Kathie and me. The 67-mile journey took 31 minutes from the wheels starting to roll at Florence to standstill in Bologna. Wow. Incidentally, the ride was smooth with little impression of such speed.

What else?

General Election

The first day we spent in Bologna was also the day of the General Election back home in the UK. I do not think I have ever been abroad for a General Election before so we made sure we voted by post before leaving Orkney.

On the Thursday night I watched BBC World for several hours to follow the election results coming in. It was a strange election in many ways, made stranger for me because I was watching from afar.

Swifts

One of the notable sights – and sounds – of Bologna at the time of our visit was the hundreds of screeching swifts flying high above the city. It was wonderful to see these acrobatic birds, which even sleep on the wing, and to think of them heading back to Africa after their breeding season.

For us, we returned to the cooler weather of Orkney – but since being home we have been delighted to see the swallows nesting in our garage fledge four young.

Graham Brown

To find out – and see – more

More of my photographs on Instagram (no log-in required) – https://www.instagram.com/grahambrownorkney/

Guide to Bologna – http://www.bolognawelcome.com/en/

Wikipedia on Bologna – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bologna

The 1980 bombing of Bologna railway station – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bologna_massacre

Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica di Bologna – http://www.museibologna.it/musica

Wikipedia on Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museo_internazionale_e_biblioteca_della_musica

Website of pianist Enrico Elisi – www.enricoelisi.com/

An earlier performance by Benedetta Conte –

RSPB website on swifts – http://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/s/swift/index.aspx

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4 thoughts on “12 days in northern Italy

  1. Glad you had a wonderful holiday! I’d heard Bologna was worth a visit, it’s now definitely on our list!

  2. Excellent travelogue that really gave me a flavour of the city Mr B – you should be on the telly with Joanna Lumley.

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