Back to Bologna


Thirty years ago I spent almost a year studying in Bologna under the Erasmus Programme, a student exchange programme that was then entering its second year. I had spent a year taking Italian classes to prepare myself and was going to do research for my subthesis. It was a fascinating time with many challenges, the making of new friends and alliances. I spent most of my time getting books out of the library and studying them in our favourite cafe, where you could count on always seeing one of the gang at any point in time. For most of us it was our first time living overseas and so it was a formative time.

I had held off returning to my old “home” until the summer madness had settled down but by late September it was time to return and see if it still looked like in those heady days of 1988-89. Since I’ve been here I seem to have a particular knack for always picking the weekend that some major event is taking place in the location I’m visiting and Bologna was no exception. In this case it was the Coldiretti that had taken over the entire centre of Bologna with their white tents.

It takes only an hour to get to Bologna from Milan on the Frecciarossa and once I made my way out of the caverns of the station (the high speed station is about three floors down from the ground) I steered towards Via Irnerio to find my old “way” to university. Thirty years may have passed, but the city itself hasn’t changed and the university area is still full of graffiti as it was back then and as is any student area in any city. It felt surreal to be walking the streets, having moments of recognition, moments of feeling lost, trying to remember if it was this corner, or whether it was further on, walking past the library where I spent so many hours and then suddenly, when I had given up on finding it, I walked straight to Bar Piccolo – my cafe! (now called Piccolo & Sublime and still looking the same yet different. Admittedly, nothing special to look at, but for me it holds special meaning). I had to stop there and have a coffee and a spremuta for old times, memories flooding back. I wonder where everyone is now and what they’ve done since those days that we shared these experiences in this particular location.


Fortified by coffee I made my way to the Due Torri, the two towers of Garisenda and Asinelli, where I found large tourist groups milling around them. It was a shock to the system; Bologna had been a quiet place, undiscovered by tourism back when I was studying here. The place where the Due Torri stand was quiet, somewhere you passed on your way to somewhere else. Now it is a sight in itself.


From there it wasn’t far to the Santo Stefano complex, seven churches all connected together. I remember going there once with one of my UK friends who was studying art history and who made me see the paintings there in a different way; an experience I’ll never forget. Now it is a stop on the tourist trail with many people visiting. And I find it difficult to see many visitors snapping photographs non-stop, to hear them talking loudly. I’m not religious, but I can still respect someone’s house of worship and I will generally not take any photographs inside churches or other places of worship. These places should remain sacred to their users.


Dodging the Santo Stefano crowds for other crowds I made my way to Piazza Maggiore and the San Petronio church. Coldiretti had taken over Piazza Maggiore and I sought refuge in San Petronio, still as beautiful as ever. From there I walked around the back streets, in search of a lunch spot. Over lunch I contemplated the best course of action for the afternoon and decided to opt for the walk up to the Basilica di San Luca. Duly fortified by tortellini in brodo I set out for the long walk uphill.


First I made my way to Porta Saragozza and from there followed the covered walkways leading out of the city and finally commencing the climb uphill, steep in part (paying forward for sins to come like gelato). When I did it years ago it was mainly old men, priests and nuns who walked up here. Now the lycra clad fitness crowd had adopted it as their workout of choice. I worked myself into a sweat walking uphill, feeling old and old-fashioned, but when I got to the basilica it was such a joy to arrive, take in the views and enjoy the restorative coolness inside of the basilica. Once I had cooled off I slowly made my way down the steps again, returning to the Piazza Maggiore, Neptune’s fountain and finally Via Indipendenza for an aperol spritz before heading back to the station and that gelato en route.


I still feel I only had a fleeting visit to Bologna and really want to go back another time to explore the areas I did not go this time to avoid the crowds. I’m thinking mid-winter could be a perfect time for that. The tourists will be gone and it might remind me of those winter days in Bologna during my student days. It is lovely to revisit the past, but also a slightly melancholy exercise. I don’t know who said this, but “Some days I wish I could go back in life, not to change things, just to feel a few things twice” sums it up nicely for me.


Dolomites Delights

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The Dolomites have been on my to do list for a while and once the summer crush was over, I managed to convince a friend from Germany to join me for a week of walking. We planned for a flexible itinerary and a good thing we did, as the weather forecast turned increasingly bad for the first day we would be there. So we revised our initial plan and dodged the rain – and as it turned out snow! – by alternating sitting in the steam room of the hotel with testing bars nearby for the best aperol spritz.

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For our first day of walking the day cleared to a beautiful blue sky, but it was cold and the snow line had moved significantly lower on the surrounding mountains, making for some spectacular scenery. The planned walk was the Sassolungo circuit, which involved first making our way up by cable car to the Rifugio Demetz. That cable car was an experience in itself, but it did make for some neat photos (the photo above was taken from inside the cable car). Having arrived up high we stepped out in howling winds that were whipping up the powdery snow that had fallen overnight. We added an additional layer before tentatively exploring the path downhill. Fortunately someone had already broken trail and so each armed with a walking pole we descended carefully, occasionally sliding in the fresh snow which reached up to our mid-calves at times.


The scenery was out of this world: sheer rock faces dusted by snow, luscious green hills beyond and the faint outline of the actual snow-capped Alps. Magical. After an hour we reached Rifugio Vicenza and treated ourselves to a hot chocolate. From there we were snow-free and walked the path towards Rifugio Comici where we had an excellent late lunch, before finishing up at our starting point on Passo Sella. Our aperitivo waited for us in Canazei after the obligatory steam room.


The next day the snow line had retreated a little and we made our way to Campitello to take the cable car to Col Rodella. From there we walked the well-frequented Sentiero Federico Augusto to Rifugio Sassopiatto and then returning through the Val Duron to Campitello. A far more popular route, we found ourselves with many more walkers on the trail and enjoyed seeing the Sassolungo from a different angle. The descent was hard on the knees and when we thought the worst was behind us, there was a very long walk on road surface (and at one point very steep) to get back to Campitello.


For our third day of walking we had chosen the Viel del Pan, described as an easy walk. When the bus we were supposed to take didn’t arrive, we opted to take the car to drive to Alba and take the cable car to Col dei Rossi to start our walk. Another blue bird day meant spectacular views all around (the photo above is a composite panorama of Sassolungo on the left and Sella Group on the right) and the walking was easy (and again quite busy). After an hour and a half we got to the point where we would commence our descent to Passo Fedaia, another descent requiring hard work from our knees.

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Once we got to Fedaia Lake we walked across the dam to the other side to see if the lift to the Pian dei Fiacconi was working. Well, if we thought that Monday’s cable car was interesting, we had something else waiting for us: metal baskets for two people at the time, with the door bolted shut after you and up you went, standing for 20 minutes or so in the open air as we ascended. Great views of course, but not sure about the WHS aspects of this contraption! At the top we met some people who had walked up, which had taken them three hours of tough walking, particular as conditions high up were challenging in the slippery snow on steep terrain.


Although there are many more walks to do in the Val di Fassa area, we decided to move to Cortina d’Ampezzo to explore another area. An early start the next day was well rewarded when we didn’t have to queue for too long to get access to the parking area at the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (at a steep 30 euro for the privilege). This is another very popular walk and an early start is really worth it to avoid the crowds.


Even so, we walked in between large groups of people, but once we moved off the main path to continue on our circuit, we were almost by ourselves, enjoying the views, which almost make you feel you’re on a different planet. By the time we finished our circuit the first drops of rain started to fall, further confirming our excellent timing that day. In Cortina the sun was shining and we enjoyed a nice aperitivo on a terrace in the sun.


On our last day we made our way to Ortisei, a beautiful village, specialised in woodcarving and did some sightseeing before checking into our luxury accommodation of the trip in Hotel Jakoberhof, just outside of Ortisei itself. More spa and aperitivo time, and an outstanding dinner to finish up a great week in the Dolomites. The problem now is that I want to go back for more walking, but winter is here…



Lago D’Orta


At the end of July I took my father, who was staying with me, on a short weekend escape from the sweltering temperatures in Milan. I didn’t want to join the crowds on Lago di Como or Lago Maggiore, but was looking for something a bit quieter. On the advice of others I opted to go to Lago D’Orta instead and was very glad I followed that advice.

Lago D’Orta is an approximately 1.5 hour drive from Milan and very easily accessible. I had booked into a small hotel on the lake itself, but outside of the village of Orta San Giulio itself. We arrived in good time and were able to go for a dip in the lake, which was particularly welcome after the seriously high temperatures in Milan. Dinner was on the lake itself with a spectacular view to the mountains surrounding us. One of the features that stood out was the Santuario della Madonna del Sasso, a sparkling white church built on an a high outcrop of rock across the lake (indeed it is that white building on the rock in the picture below).


The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we set out by car to reach the Madonna del Sasso, which involved some interesting hairpin bends, narrow streets through villages and really elevated my driving skills to the next level. Big kudos to my father who stoically sat through the drive, although I’m sure his eyes occasionally nearly popped out of his head! But we got there and the drive was absolutely worth it. And I was grateful I wasn’t one of the cyclists who laboured their way up the hill.


The promontory allowed for beautiful views over the lake and the surrounding mountains. There is always something special about going higher up for a different perspective on your environment. After we descended again to the village of Pella, we continued our drive around the lake until we were back to our starting point.

The next day, after we checked out, we drove to Orta San Giulio itself and went to have a look at the very picturesque little village. Having negotiated the steep descent into the village and the cobblestone streets, we arrived in the main piazza from where boats run to take people across to the Isola San Giulio. Legend has it that once upon a time the island was infested by dragons and mad snakes terrifying the local fishermen. St Giulio used his cloak as a boat to reach the island and with few words and no violence he convinced the monsters to leave. Therefore sadly no dragons to see here, so we skipped the visit to the island, but had a coffee in the piazza instead, before driving back to Milan, with a little detour along the lakes of Lago Maggiore.


As mentioned earlier, Lago di Como, Lago Maggiore and Lago di Garda are the tourist (both foreign and local) magnets. In summer Bellagio is overrun with visitors and the at times narrow roads around the lake become clogged with cars. It is similar with Lago Maggiore, but to a lesser degree; roads around Lago di Garda also become very congested. For those in search of serenity, Lago D’Orta is a much better choice. It’s very pretty, an easy drive to get to, nice and affordable hotels and not as hectic as elsewhere. There are also lots of walking trails in the surroundings, so those who like to be a bit more active, will enjoy this too.