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October 4, 2019

Italy: Bologna, Ferrara or Bust and the Portico di San Luca


 

The Portico di San Luca works its way towards central Bologna.

The best-laid plans don’t always work out.

We woke in our hotel on a rainy October morning intent on a train ride from Bologna to Ferrara for a day trip. The short trip would serve double duty. We would see Ferrara, which promised to be interesting. It would also be an opportunity to take our canine companion Gigi with us and see how the dog logistics worked out on Italian trains. If it was easy enough to take Gigi to Ferrara then we could plan on more train travel with her in the future.

Bologna’s train station is located across the street from the hotel where we were staying. We walked over to the station to buy tickets forty-five minutes before the train was scheduled to depart, a massive feat of pre-planning by our typical standards.

The Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca at the top of the portico

At the station we asked at an information desk about taking Gigi with us. We were told, incorrectly, that we needed to buy a ticket at the manned booth. (The canine supplement for the train we wanted can be paid at the ticket vending machines, as we learned later.) After waiting in the line fifteen minutes, we purchased the ticket from an agent. Before we left we asked which track our train would come to. The counter person told us that we’d need to check the departure board in the lobby. I asked to confirm that the final destination of the train was Ferrara as it could have been an intermediate stop. The person told us no, the final destination was not Ferrara. We should be on a train to Venezia, Venice in English. This didn’t seem right so we asked again and the man was insistent: We needed the train heading to Venice and we would get off at Ferrara, an intermediate stop.

This did not seem correct to us but there was no ambiguity about what agent said. Dutifully we headed to Track 17 where the only train to Venice that was scheduled to stop in Ferrara would board. There were no other trains to Venezia showing on the board. If this wasn’t the correct train we would have a long wait.

Bologna’s train station has been expanded over the years. As we discovered Track 17 was in a new section of the complex, a considerable distance from the ticket office. With Gigi, we couldn’t take the escalator and there were no convenient stairs, at least not that we could see. It forced us to take zig-zag route back and forth using four different elevators. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at Track 17 just in time to see our train arrive.

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As a matter of habit, I showed a conductor our tickets before we loaded to confirm we had the right train. To our surprise we were told that no, we did not have the correct tickets for this intercity train. Indeed, the tickets we had were for a different train company. (In Bologna, as we just learned, there are two different train companies providing service.) This left us with no choice but to dash back to the ticket office.

Fifteen minutes later, we were back in the main part of the station, annoyingly the only place we found with a departure board. The trains we initially planned to take to Ferrara had recently departed. We asked at the information desk about the next train to Ferrara and were told it would depart in two hours. Our planned day trip to Ferrara would now be a dash from the Ferrara station to the middle of town and back. The three to four hour visit was now cut down to thirty minutes to an hour of sightseeing. It was no longer worth going. Tickets wasted, we decided that it was best to stay in Bologna for the day and do laundry. Ferrara would have to wait for another visit to Italy. We still want to go. It looks interesting. But maybe we will go by car next time.

The following day, rather than risking more train confusion with another run at Ferrara, we decided to head up the hill to see and walk the Portico di San Luca. At 3.8 kilometers in length Portico di San Luca is touted as the longest portico in the world. We weren’t willing to commit to hiking the 8 kilometers to get up and down the 800-foot hill. So instead we had the hotel call for a taxi that would accept a dog.

When the taxi arrived Gigi learned she would have to suffer the indignity of having to ride on the floor of the backseat of the car. Fortunately for Gigi the ride to the top took just twenty minutes. She was happy when the driver stopped to let us off in front of the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca at the top of the portico’s steps.

Covered walkways continue through the city after the end of the portico

Before we descended the portico we wandered around the outside of the church spending a few minutes checking out the view of the surrounding countryside. We tried to peak inside but the sanctuary but it was closed for services. Instead we headed to the top of the steps and started on our way down.

Built between 1674 and 1793 to protect yearly Ascension Day procession, the Portico di San Luca connects the Cathedral of San Pietro in the center of Bologna to the sanctuary church dedicated to the Madonna of San Luca. An arcade with 666 labeled arches, an odd number for a building with a Christian religious purpose, covers the walkway connecting the two churches.

As we worked our way down the steps the numbers on the arches very slowly clicked down. The numbering destroyed the illusion that the end might be just around the bend and emphasized how impressively long the portico is.

Today the Portico di San Luca seems, aside from Ascension Day, to be predominantly used as an exercise route for locals with a small number of tourists and dog walkers in the mix on the steps. No doubt the path up hill gets the heart rate going more than the way down that we took. Like the number of the arcades suggests, it is a bit of a beast to walk.

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We visited Bologna in October of 2018.

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