City Walks: Feast days

24th July 1998 at 01:00
Bologna is even more famous for food than for culture and anarchy. The ancestors of today's stylish Bolognese, who eat non-stop and still manage to get into their scrummy leather jackets, spent much of the 18th century constructing porticoes throughout their unspoilt and underexplored brick-red city with the noble aim of keeping the rain and sun off their gelati.

A dinner in the regional style of Emilia-Romagna (home of Parmesan cheese and Parma ham) starts at 7.30pm with a bowl of posh pickled onions (shallots in red wine vinegar) and ends four hours later with a cartload of desserts. Publishers who attend the annual international children's book fair consume one of these dinners most evenings. By the end of the four-day fair nobody can look a ladle of rag in the face, and a walk is inevitable.

Bologna is built for walking - it's flat inside the city walls and the porticoes offer protection from runaway Vespas. If you get tired, public transport is efficient and easy to grasp (buy your bus tickets in advance from a tobacconist's kiosk).

Start with a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the Madonna of San Luca in the gentle hills south of the city. If you go on a Tuesday, when the pizzeria outside the basilica grounds is closed, you can avoid food for a few hours.In a city where every few steps takes you past a bar laden with antipasti,a cheese shop with mascarpone by the bucket or a greengrocer's where bunches of rocket cost less than a cabbage at home, this is an achievement to dine out on.

It's a generous hour-and-a-half's walk from the city centre along Via Saragozza, or join the route halfway at Arco di Meloncello, just beyond Piazza di Porta Saragozza. March briskly past the bar and ice-cream shop, then cross the top of the arch for the steady climb along Via di San Luca with its 3.5 kilometres of continuous portico. The faithful do this section on their knees, but you can cheat and walk - or double-cheat and get a bus or taxi to the top (but then you'd miss the occasional intriguing glimpses of domestic life behind the portico doors).

When you get there, the Virgin is a 12th-century Byzantine model, and there are good views from the basilica walls of the city and the Apennine foothills. An hour at San Luca can feel like a day in the country.

Return to the city centre by the same route. If you walked up, you might want to take a taxi back, but I recommend walking the entire length of Via Saragozza in at least one direction for the window-shopping alone.

You won't find the designer shoes and sleek household artefacts of Via dell'Indipendenza and Via M D'Azeglio, but there are strange one-off establishments like the doormat shop (only open in the mornings) that makes cat mats for cat flaps. Plus, of course, the delicatessens and pastry shops that hold no interest for you.

Turn left off Saragozza into Via Collegio di Spagna (with a peek into the college's imposing courtyard, covered in wisteria) and head for the elegant Piazza Cavour, where the portico ceiling is a painted, gilded marvel.

In the neighbouring Piazza di San Domenico, you can look through the window of a stunning cake shop before cutting across Via Castiglione to the Abbey of Santo Stefano. There was a Roman temple to Isis on this site around 1ad and the Christians started using it within a few hundred years. Today, you get four ancient churches for one entrance fee.

Follow the imposing Via Santo Stefano to the Torre degli Asinelli, the tallest of the two surviving towers of medieval Bologna. From the top, you can plan the rest of your route. You haven't yet set foot in the Piazza Maggiore, where Renaissance palazzi square up to the Gothic church of San Petronio, or seen the Neptune fountain.

Hungry yet? Schedule some food shopping in the network of streets between the Piazza Maggiore and Via Castiglione, where the temptation to slip just one more kilo of Parmesan into your hand luggage becomes overpowering.

As well as an older cheese for fashionable shavings to scatter over your bunch of rocket, you need a younger one for eating in larger chunks which you can chip away with a Parmesan knife (what else?). If there isn't enough choice in the tiny covered market, detour to the huge Mercato delle Erbe in Via Ugo Bassi.

Then head up Via Zamboni into the medieval university district, which ensured that Bologna was called "La Dotta" (the learned one) as well as "La Grassa" (the fat one). There, in Via delle Belle Arti, is the best pizzeria in town - possibly in the world.

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