It was a tale of two cities on a recent trip to Italy when we briefly visited two of the country’s great northern towns.
We were on our way to Florence, where British band Radiohead was performing in June, when we realised we had left it too late to book somewhere to stay. From just a quick glance online we discovered that a last-minute deal for reasonably-priced accommodation in this, one of the most famous cities in the world, was pretty much out of the question at peak time in the summer season.
There were very few other options for our relatively tight budget unless we wanted to stay far outside the city in a nondescript motel on the side of a busy motorway. And our usual Airbnb fall back option didn’t work out either, with the best offers being wardrobe- sized rooms nowhere near civilisation.
So, not wanting to blow all our cash just putting a roof over our heads for a couple of nights, we decided to take a closer look at the city we were flying into, Bologna.
We had selected Bologna as Ryanair doesn’t fly directly into Florence and it was pretty much the same distance away as the other flight option of Pisa, which was eye-watering expensive to fly into at this time of year.
Bologna’s ‘Two Towers’
The plan then, was to stay in Bologna for a few nights and travel by train to Florence before and after the concert. We worked out that it would be by far the cheaper option while also appreciating the opportunity to check out a city that we had never seen before.
Apart from being vaguely aware that it is associated with that quintessential Italian dish, Bolognese sauce, I knew very little about Bologna before arriving there. It is a major transport hub with a vast network of train routes and major road arteries running through it and is also an industrial town famous for its automotive works, (Ducati, Lamborghini) and footwear, textile, engineering, chemical, printing and publishing industries.
So, not a lot there then to put on a tourist brochure. But, after checking into a fantastic apartment on the Via de’ Carracci, conveniently located just across from the main train station that we had found online for a fraction of the price it would have cost us in Florence, we took a late evening stroll and realised we had stumbled on a gem of a city.
Simply put, Bologna is beautiful. It’s got great history, architecture, climate and people and even its own leaning tower, which of course, has been long overshadowed by its more famous rival to the west.
Nighttime in Bologna
And while tens of thousands of weekend breakers focus on Pisa or Florence, poor old Bologna is somewhat overlooked, which is probably a little bit of an injustice because if it was located in almost any other part of Europe it would easily rank as one of the continent’s finest cities.
Bologna is slap bang in the middle of northern Italy with both the Adriatic and the Ligurian seas almost the same distance away in each direction. But even though there are no fresh sea breezes to cool you down, walking around the city centre is a delight, even during the hottest hours of the day.
Because in the Middle Ages, the inhabitants had the beautifully inspired idea to build a vast network of arched walkways, or porticos, that connect most of the streets in the city centre. Cool and shaded, there are apparently over 40km of these ornate walkways that shield you from the sun as you walk along, while more modern humidifiers gently massage the air with refreshing drizzles of cool spray.
It’s just makes walking around at any time of the day a more relaxing experience. As you wander along you can take in most of the city’s sights shielded by the sun before joining the locals for lunch.
One of the most popular outdoor eating areas is located around the aforementioned leaning tower, the Garisenda, which alongside its straighter neighbour, the Asinelli are named, appropriately enough, the Two Towers.
Myself and Liz strolling along in Bologna
Its odd appearance becomes increasingly bizarre the closer you get to it. You can’t help but wonder, as you sit and drink under its leaning magnificence, how such a solidly built stone structure, built in the 1100s is still standing after all these years.
These towering symbols of form one of the city’s key landmarks and are located right in heart of the city, in the Piazza di Porto, a few streets away from another iconic monument, the Fountain of Neptune. It was closed off for renovations at the time we were there but we were so content spending a long, casual afternoon walking around this majestic city that it was almost with regret then, when it came time to leave for Florence.
We stepped onto one of the express train (27 euro one way) that whisked us into Florence’s main Santa Maria Novella train station in just 35 minutes. And from there it was just a short stroll from there, past the Basilica of the same name, into the city centre where we had some time before the concert to take in some if its more famous sights.
A street scene in Florence
There is no doubt about it, Florence is a spectacular city. While Bologna is undoubtedly impressive, the Tuscany region’s capital just blows you away. Home to some of the greatest masterpieces of Renaissance art and architecture in the world, from the Galleria dell’Accademia and Michelangelo’s ‘David’ sculpture to the Uffizi Gallery’s exhibition of Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ and da Vinci’s ‘Annunciation’, it boasts some heavy-hitters.
And over it all looms the majestic cathedral, Il Duomo, with its magnificent Renaissance dome that is so beautiful it almost looks unreal.
But with fame comes the cost of popularity and the sheer numbers on the streets can be overwhelming. It was simply rammed, and with hordes of tourists bumping and jostling each other to get the best shots you just about have time to take quick snap before you are hustled along.
There is no doubt that Florence is a stunning city
Making our way down to the Arno river for some respite, we pass by one heavyweight after another, from the imposing Palazzo Vecchio and the Loggia dei Lanzi before finally arriving at the Ponte Vecchio, one of the few original bridges left intact by the retreating Germans at the end of the Second World War. Again, there was just time to quickly take in its medieval arch, lined with jewellery and souvenir shops before we had to keep moving along to avoid getting trampled underfoot.
Eventually we settled down at a riverside café on the other side of the river, near the Ponte Amerigo Vespucci, that was obviously where the locals gathered to rest at the end of the day as it was far from the madding crowds.
The gig itself took place in the nearby Ippodromo del Visarno, a massive public open space that is the equivalent to our own Phoenix Park where 55,000 ecstatic Italian fans gave the Irish a run for their money in how to have a good time.
A view of the River Arno in Florence
As we shuffled into a deserted Florence after the concert to catch a midnight night train back to Bologna, we marvelled at how quiet it was after the tourists had departed. Apart from some fans flocking to the bars for a late night drink, we pretty much had the city to ourselves.
And what a delight it was then, to finally have the opportunity to fully appreciate the beauty of this wonderful city in the peace and quiet of the night with its age-old buildings casting shadows under the moon before it was finally time to go.