My day in Bologna

As a child, one of my favorite poems was “Jill Came from the Fair” by Eleanor Farjeon, which was in my copy of The Big Golden Book of Poetry: 85 Childhood Favorites. I loved the rhythm of the poem and the two-page-spread illustration that accompanied it.

Walking into Bologna center via Porta delle Lame.

My day-trip excursions sometimes remind me of that poem; although I don’t usually fit in quite as much as Jill does, I fit it in as much as I can, as I did on a recent day trip to Bologna.

My first moments in Bologna reinforced my sympathy for the tourists who complain about the lack of public bathrooms in Florence. One advantage to arriving anywhere by train is the availability of bathrooms in the station, but the same-day train ticket price was prohibitive, so I drove. There was no bathroom in the tourist information center, which I thought odd, but a staff member suggested getting a coffee in the bar next door (a technique often used to access a bathroom) or paying to use the bathroom in the library nearby. I don’t mind paying—it’s worth 50 cents or a euro for a clean bathroom—but it wasn’t clear that only one bathroom in the building was accessible to non-library-card holders. However, after finally finding the bathroom, I was more in the frame of mind to appreciate the main hall of the library.

Biblioteca Salaborsa.

My primary objective for visiting Bologna was to see the meridian line in the Basilica di San Petronio and witness the sun crossing the line around noon (due to summer time, it’s actually a few minutes after 1:00 p.m.) or, to put it more accurately, the earth turning so that the sun falls on the meridian line. The line was constructed by Gian Domenico Cassini in 1655 and is 67 meters long. In combination with the hole through which the sun’s light passes, it’s a very large sundial! It was fascinating to see another example of church as solar observatory (Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence is another).

The disk of the sun on the meridian line.

After exploring the rest of the church, it was time for lunch. I chose a restaurant at random and had a specialty of Bologna, tagliatelle al ragù. It was served in a ‘bowl’ of parmesan cheese and was delicious. I followed that with one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever eaten, and followed that with a vow to make an overnight visit so I could fit in more meals. In a country know for its wonderful food, it says something that numerous articles state that Bologna is known for its cuisine.

I still had some time before the designated time on my ticket to climb the Torre degli Asinelli, so I decided to look for a nearby geocache; it was especially appealing because I could have gotten a FTF (first to find). I didn’t find the cache, but I did find an interesting story. The cache was at Le Tombe dei Glossatori: the mausoleums of the glossators. In the Middle Ages, glossators wrote commentaries on Roman law to aid in understanding it. According to the cache owner, they were named after glosses—side or margin notes in law books. (Thanks to cache owners like these, one learns a lot as a geocacher!)

After my unsuccessful search, I headed to the tower, prepared to climb 498 steps. The young woman ahead of me bounded up the steps but my pace was a little slower. I tell myself that I am carrying my camera and two lenses, so that accounts for my pace! The views at the top were worth the climb.

As I waited to start my climb down, a man was coming up the final flight of stairs. The treads were so narrow and the pitch so steep, that I went down backwards, as if I was on a ladder. He, on the other hand, was wearing flip-flops, which have got to be one of the most impractical types of footwear for walking cobblestone streets and climbing towers like this one.

Back on the ground, I took pictures of the tower I had just climbed and the Torre Garisenda; together, they marked an entry point to the city in the 12thcentury. My sister and I have a running conversation about how neither of us can shoot a straight horizontal or vertical line, but in this case, the Tower Garisenda (on the left in the photo) really is leaning!

Le due torri: Garisenda e degli Asinelli.

I finished my day by visiting a great yarn store and buying yarn for my next crochet project. And so I came back from Bologna.

Images © Melissa Corcoran.

A day in Montepulciano

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Images © Melissa Corcoran.

What bad could happen here?

If you could see the village of Vallucciole as I saw it today, you would wonder—what bad could happen here? This small, isolated village is located in the hills of the Casentino, which at this time of year are awash in the bright greens and colorful flowers of spring, set off by a deep blue sky.



However, on the night of April 13, 1944, German soldiers, accompanied, according to some reports, by their Italian allies, massacred all 108 inhabitants of Vallucciole. The massacre was in retaliation for the killing, by partisans, of two German officers at a nearby mill. Men, women, and children were killed and houses looted, then burned.

Ruins of houses.

Ruins of houses.

We attended a memorial Mass in the small chapel above the village. We did not need to understand Italian to realize that at one point in the Mass, the celebrant read the names of all of the victims. Banners representing local groups were held high and the church bells rang. It was a very moving moment.

Memorial in the chapel.

Memorial in the chapel.

Afterwards, we lit a candle at the memorial at the back of the chapel and then walked down to the village. Some of the houses have been restored and are inhabited at least part of the year, but several others are still in ruins. It is hard to reconcile the beauty that is part of everyday life with the atrocities committed here. In the nearby cemetery, entire families are commemorated on headstones and it is then that you realize how young some of the victims were.

The cemetery.

I wish I knew how to end this post, but sadly, this is a story that has no end.

Images © Melissa Corcoran.

Henry James on Ravenna

One of the things I liked best about Ravenna were the placards along a main thoroughfare titled “La vie dei poeti. Appunti di viaggio / The street of poets. Travel notes.”  Each placard had a story about or a quote from visitors to Ravenna. This quote from Henry James was one of my favorites:

“The greyness everywhere was lighted up by the scintillation, on vault and entablature, of mosaics more or less archaic, but always brilliant and elaborate, and everywhere too by the same deep amaze of the fact that, while centuries had worn themselves away and empires risen and fallen, these little cubes of coloured glass had stuck in their allotted places and kept their freshness.”

James, Henry. Italian Hours. London: William Heineman, 1909. Print.


I’m waking up from a dream, one filled with glowing color and intricate patterns. The dream is called Ravenna and the colors and patterns are those of the Byzantine mosaics.

With several early Christian monuments on the Unesco World Heritage list, I had expected the mosaics of Ravenna to be wonderful, but I was astounded by how beautiful they are. My first visit was to the Basilica di San Vitale and I found myself sinking, if one can use that word when looking up, into the intricacies of the mosaics that cover the apse and presbytery. I tried to note every detail, not just of the scenes depicted, but also of the decorative elements, but it was impossible – there was too much to absorb all at once. Thanks to an app I downloaded before my visit, I took a moment to look down at the floor of the presbytery for a maze traced out in stone. Following the arrows leads one to the center of the basilica.

Basilica di San Vitale. Left and top right: mosaics. Bottom right: the maze.

That first visit whetted my appetite for the four monuments I would see the next day. All of the mosaics were beautiful but at each monument, there were one or two elements that stood out to me. At the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, it was the glimpse of shimmering gold I saw from the doorway before entering the church. I gasped loudly and I guess the man punching tickets was used to that reaction because he didn’t check to see if I was okay! Again, I looked at as many details as I could, but the magnificent procession of figures on each side of the nave was the highlight. These long panels are topped by individual figures, probably prophets, set between the windows. On the uppermost level, scenes from the Bible are illustrated in mosaic.

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.

At my next stop, the Battistero Neoniano, it was the mosaic embellishments around the edge of the embrasures that had me taking pictures, including squeezing behind the construction scaffolding in front of one embrasure to get a photo. It was interesting that the embellishments were symmetrical but not identical. In the atrium of the lovely Cappella di San Andrea, I looked for the duckling with one red foot and one black foot, the only bird in the pattern of birds and flowers with this distinction. My jaw dropped (actually, that happened a lot) when I walked into the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. The plain exterior of this building is in contrast to the magnificence of the mosaics inside, including the representation of the night sky in the dome. The mausoleum is small and the dim light makes the mosaics glow, rather than sparkle, to lovely effect.

Detail from Cappella di San Andrea showing duckling with one red foot and one black foot (scan of postcard).

I thought that after all this magnificence, I would be too visually exhausted to look at anything more, but my last day found me walking through the Saturday markets in the piazzas and loggias around the city center. I stumbled across the Battistero degli Ariani, another monument on the Unesco list, when I was trying to figure out what a gentleman with whom I spoke was telling me about a nearby church. The dome of this baptistery had a similar theme to the dome of the Battistero Neoniano – the baptism of Christ and a procession of the Apostles.

Battistero degli Ariani.

I visited Dante’s tomb because I didn’t think I could go back to Florence without having done so. I went into the Basilica di San Francesco to see the flooded crypt; there are mosaics on the floor and goldfish in the water! I visited Museo TAMO (Tutta l’Avventura del Mosaico) which was so-so – I had hoped to see more about how mosaics are made – but I loved the faded glory of the church, San Nicolò, in which it is housed. On my way back to where I was parked, I had a Carl Gustav Jung moment when I couldn’t find the piadina sandwich board I had seen earlier when on that same street. (When Carl Gustav Jung visited the Battistero Neoniano, he saw a mosaic in which Christ is holding out a hand to Peter, who is about to drown. The mosaic does not exist.)

Street signs.

Street signs.

I ended my time in Ravenna with a visit to Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe, another of the monuments on the Unesco list. While the mosaics aren’t as immediately stunning as those in some of the other monuments, they are worth seeing, as is the light and airy church.

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Left: the nave. Right: detail from the apse (scan of postcard).

I hope I have this dream again!


For more about Ravenna and the Unesco World Heritage list, click here.

Images © Melissa Corcoran, with the exception of scans of postcards.