Based in Bologna for five nights, we had a most enjoyable tour, taking in Bologna, Ferrara, Ravenna, Parma and Mantua. Few of us had been to this region of Italy before and yet it is home to towns and cities with mediaeval hearts that are a delight to stroll round and which house some really marvellous works of art; all without being overrun by tourists, at least when we were there. Moreover, we were fortunate to have a good hotel, a great guide and wall-to-wall, warm sunshine every day.
(For more photos click here for the photo gallery)
We travelled on Monday morning by coach to Gatwick and then by Easyjet to Bologna airport, where we were met by our brilliant guide, Anna, and coach driver, Matteo, for the short drive to our hotel. This proved to be very comfortable and friendly, was located close to the centre of town and gave us excellent breakfasts. After time for an amble, our tour got off to a great start with a welcome drink reception, memorably served to us on the hotel’s roof terrace with views over the terracotta roofs of Bologna as the sun went down. It was then just a short walk round the corner to a restaurant for our first night’s dinner.
Bologna sees itself as probably the foodie capital of Italy and we saw many deliciously tempting things in the markets (some of which found their way into luggage on the way home). Our group dinners in different restaurants, though, were somewhat longer on friendly service and great quantity (especially the pasta courses) than real culinary finesse! Still, we were a large group (38 in all) which can make catering more difficult for restaurants. The same couldn’t be said of our hotel breakfasts, which were excellent.
The next day we were soon meeting Anna for a walking tour of Bologna. The heart of the city is characterised by attractive brick or stucco facades in mellow colours of yellow, ochre, terracotta and red and with many of the streets having old columned arcades along their length. Anna, born and bred in Bologna, and with a first class degree from the university, had fluent and very clear English and proved to have both immense historical and artistic knowledge and a great sense of humour. We also each had a very effective audio headset, so she didn’t have to raise her voice.
We saw so many wonders of art in just a few days that it’s hard to do them any sort of justice in a short report. Suffice it to say that some of the highlights in Bologna were the vast serenity of the cathedral and its extraordinary frescoes, the interconnected churches of Santo Stefano, some parts dating back to the 5th Century, and the old university buildings (Bologna has the oldest university in the Western world), where we saw the marvellous carved wood anatomical theatre and parts of the old library.
After lunch Matteo brought the coach round to take us to the walled city of Ferrara, once seat of the powerful D’Este family, where we had a further walking tour. Our party was divided, as for most of our walking tours, into two manageable groups, each led by a guide. (Anna proved to know a whole coven – should that be sorority? – of lady guides, all of whom were excellent). Some of the old buildings here were shrouded in scaffolding as restoration work takes place to repair damage caused by an earthquake in 2012. Apart from the impressive castle, cathedral and mediaeval cobbled streets, Ferrara proved to have some other unusual sights e.g. a pig on a lead and a man with a cockatoo on the front of his bicycle! Good ice cream too.
Wednesday brought probably the highlight of the tour for many of us – Ravenna and its stunning mosaics. When expectations are high, sometimes the reality can fall short – not so in Ravenna. As soon as we set foot in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare at Classe, once Ravenna’s port, we were transported. The plethora of intricate mosaics here, the earliest from the 6th Century, are made of glass not stone and so the colours continue to look as fresh and bright as if they were made yesterday – and all beautifully interpreted for us by Anna.
In Ravenna itself, with its attractive little streets and main square, half a dozen more UNESCO World Heritage sites with amazing mosaics awaited us, as we again divided into two groups for a walking tour. This was followed by free time for lunch and the afternoon to explore more of the mosaics, frescoes and other treasures of the town by ourselves.
A more worrying thing we learnt about Ravenna is that for many centuries the whole area has been gradually sinking. All the historic buildings we visited have had to have major work done, clearly evident in many cases, either to keep their original ground level but protect them from a rising water table or to raise their ground level. Shades of Venice.
Many of us probably didn’t really know much about Parma before except that it makes ham and cheese. On Thursday we found out how much more there is to this city. Again we had a walking tour followed by lunch and then the afternoon at leisure to explore. The guide for my group was Melanie, originally from England but having lived in Italy since 1971. She was a hoot and told us not only about the wonders of the city but also, for example, about the importance of ladies having a great selection of scarves to protect the neck from the cold draughts to which Parma can be prone!
A good grasp of the complex history of the cities we visited, with their bitter feuds between warring families, other cities and often Popes, is a pre-requisite for guides. Parma was no exception, the Sforza and then for a long period the Farnese dynasty ruling the roost. The remains of the Farneses’ huge, gaunt Palazzo della Pilotta dominates one side of the town but the artistic highlights were the extraordinary frescoes in the Camera di Corregio in what was originally the Benedictine convent of St Paul, and the much decorated cathedral and baptistery.
Our last full day was spent in Mantua. After crossing a mist covered river Po, Italy’s largest river, the mediaeval walls, towers and domes of Mantua emerged enticingly before us in hazy sunshine across the long bridge over the lakes by which it is surrounded on three sides. It was a real gem and yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. Maybe Romeo should just have stayed here! Before lunch we had a tour of the labyrinthine Palazzo Ducale, built by the ruling Gonzaga family between the 14th and 17th Centuries. Its most famous feature is the Camera degli Sposi (bridal chamber) with its simply wonderful 15thC frescoes by Mantegna.
After lunch some of us took the option to go with Anna to visit also the fantasy world of the Palazzo Te: an early 16thC palace built for Frederico II Gonzago as a kind of grand summer retreat (in reality a large palace) and incorporating his stables. We wandered through room after room of amazing frescoes with horses and mythological and often romantic scenes, culminating in the Giant’s Room, where every inch is covered by striking images of the giants swept away after their rebellion against Zeus.
Overwhelmed with so many stimulating artistic and historical sights, many of us chose to spend our last morning at leisure shopping in Bologna, but those that went with Anna to tour the Bologna’s national gallery were again treated to her superb knowledge as she showed them the wealth of mediaeval, renaissance and later art.
Soon it was time to say goodbye to Anna and Matteo, leave the warm Italian sunshine and pursue an uneventful way home, with time to reflect on all that we had seen and the good company we had enjoyed.