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Italy V - 17-19 June: Bologna, Modena, Parma

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

The trip to the Rimini train station was a breeze, and after a 20-minute wait (yes, I’m almost always early for a train,) was en route to Bologna. While aboard, I checked the directions from the station to my hotel, found it extreme, so booked the much closer Hotel Marconi Express. Once there, the room wouldn’t be ready until 11, so I left my gear and took my camera out onto the street. Originally, my walking tour was for 2pm, but had been changed to 11am, and I had arrived just before then, so couldn’t make it. I walked to the cathedral, which is tightly positioned between other buildings on a relatively narrow street.

A view of the west and southern facades of the Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro, including the belltower to the rear. Bologna, Emilia-Roman, Italy (Taken from cramped quarters on the Via dell'Independenza
Cattedrale Metroplitana di San Pietro Apostolo, Bologna

Squeezing into a shallow doorway, the exterior shots I took all have other building in the corners, but best I could do was with the phone. Sometimes, I really want to enter a building across the street, head to the roof or upper floor and shoot from there with the Nikon.

The interior of the Cattedrale Metroplitana di San Pietro Apostolo aka Basilica di San Petronio is impressively large, and ornate below the vault in the nave. As it was a Saturday, confessions were being heard, a tradition I remember from childhood. Just inside the entrance, to its right, was a railed off space, where, below a large oil painting was a sculpture of 9 Calvary mourners. This was a different variation of the entombment of Christ than I’ve seen all over Europe: the dead Jesus lies on the floor while three women stand behind, the center (Mary) nearly collapsing. Alongside, John the Evangelist and Mary Magdelene observe the body. A bit forward, at His head and foot are the figures representing Joseph of Arimathea and another. The spread-out presentation was a sharp contrast to the cramped traditional representation where the 7 stand closely with the body at table level.

Numerous altars in chapels, adorn with carvings and multiple-colored marble columns lined the nave and into the arms of the transept. Reaching the nine stairs to the apse, the columns were ribbed, the indents filled with gold leaf. The wall behind the high altar has a series of full-height windows filling the curve under a half dome which shows Peter receiving the keys of the Church. Much higher, the crossing is filled with coffering on the arches, frescoes of angels and saints filling the bowed rectangle of the ceiling. The cathedra is an upright marble slab set with short armrests on a rough stone block – it looked particularly uncomfortable. Geometric designs of multicolored blocks of marble fill the floors, particularly in front of the baptismal chapel.

When looking for things to see and do, in my emails I had a newsletter from an English writer I occasionally read. He mentioned that in mid-June, choruses and choirs from all over the world would be arriving in Italy, moving from city to city, giving recitals. He put me in touch with the coordinating organization, and when I checked my itinerary, my only overlap was Bologna. So when I left the cathedral, I chanced upon a German group who were singing in a passageway. I would see more groups throughout the day, enjoying the entertainment.

As I continued through the Centro, I came to a large piazza where chairs had been set up facing a stage and screen. Along one side were steps up into the Basilica of San Petronio, a huge Gothic two-toned building. Faced in white marble at the base, the upper structure is red brick. Brighter inside than the cathedral, the brick-red colored marble columns and cream-colored walls were a significant contrast to those at the Metropolitan Cathedral. Elaborate ornamentation had been kept to the sponsored chapels, and to the quire in the apse, with an icon-like crucifix hanging from the baldachin. This church is dedicated to a fifth century bishop, while the cathedral is to the first Pope.

The sanctuary to the Madonna di San Luca was next on my agenda. Starting near San Petronico, I got a ticket and rode a train/jitney to the Colle della Guardia. Once underway, we soon were passing alongside the roofed arcade (Portico de San Luca), with 666 arches. This is a pilgrimage route, undertaken annually from the cathedral up to the twelfth century chapel.

As we approached the forested hilltop, I appreciated the ride in the warmth of the day. A domed circular building, the predominate colors inside are gold and cream, but veined marble and exquisite paintings fill the chapels. I queued up to pass by the image of the Virgin and Child, encased in silver and gold behind protective glass.

From the balcony, I looked over the manicured grounds, the surrounding forest and the green hills in the distance. I checked out the arcade, looking downward towards the city, but decided to ride back.

As we descended, we passed the football stadium with the signs of urban civilization behind. Once back into the Centro, I remembered that the cathedral tower would be open and headed back. This is a double tower, where the smaller is within the outer. The steps are shallow, the passageway narrow (one way) and not a serious climb, but the views were spectacular. We were able to view the multiple bells and their supporting structures.

Once back down, I took advantage of descending into the crypt. While a simply decorated space, there are remnants of old art on ribbings, bits of frescoes on the walls. Leaving the chapel underground, we went through a doorway and were “up close and personal” with the old foundations and artifacts unearthed during archeological work.

The midafternoon pause in the performances of the choruses had ended, so I found a comfortable spot to sit and listen to four gay groups – Loud & Proud Choir (Scotland), Gay Men’s Chorus of DC, Coro Antonella Alberari (Bologna), and, after a short break while I listened to a Regensburg group rehearse, Out Aloud LGBT Chorus (Sheffield).

Alex, a young man I’d met (former DC singer) who’d sat near; we left, walking and talking as I headed towards my lodgings. He’d been in town much of the week, so gave me a few recommendations for dinner, as he headed to his first party of the evening.

At the Ristorante Enoteca Da Lucia, I had Tagliatella al ragu, followed by Coscia d’anatra confit, fondo di prugne, lattuga et germogli di soia (duck confit with prune jam, lettuce and bean sprouts.) To drink, a ’21 Terenzi Morellino di Scansano, a sangiovese, that I enjoyed so much I had 3 glasses! The pasta was good, but I really didn’t get enough freshly grated parmesan cheese (for me); the duck was tender and tasty. And for dessert, Ganache al frutto della passione, caramello salato, lamponi, piccola meringa e crumble al cacao: a dolci with chocolate and raspberries? No questions, it was divine!!

From the restaurant, I walked to the hotel and got registered. The room was small, with a single bed. I needed a shower as the day had been quite warm, and then I did my journalling to catch up on the day and backed up my pictures. When rolling over in my sleep I jammed my left knee into the concrete wall, exacerbating the hip jam I’d done on the San Luca tram.

My plan was to be on the 9:33 train from Bologna to Modena. I was up and out of the hotel by 8:40 and positioned on platform 3 in no time. About 9:20 I realized there were 2 platforms numbered 3, and I was on the wrong one. I made the change in time, boarding a very full train which had no luggage space. Once in Modena, while the route looked short, the streets and sidewalks were not the best, particularly while hobbling with a hurt hip. The Hotel Europa was ready for me (expecting 2 persons) so upgraded me to a larger single bed.

Exterior view of Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano in Modena, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano, Modena

Out and up to the cathedral, where, on my way, I walked through a piazza where maybe two dozen sports cars were lined up. After a few pictures, I continued where I got a few outside shots of the rear of the Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano before entering to attend Mass. After the service I took the inside shots. With a footprint more basilica than cruciform, an interesting feature is the eastern end, the apse as it were. Stairs on either side of the main altar go up to an area where the old high altar and the organ sit in the middle of the floor, with beautifully carved wooden choir seats against the curved wall.

This altar is actually table-like, open, with thin pairs of columns at the center and in the corners. The arch of the half dome was decorated with icons of the Old Testament prophets, while the Evangelists filled the walls below the depiction of Christ crowning His Mother.

After taking a few shots of the dark nave, I descended to the space below where I’d been, behind the current sanctuary. Well lit, the ceiling arched, supported by short columns. Descending further, the actual crypt was also dark, but the walls and ceiling were all finely decorated. Returning to the nave, I found the covered baptismal font in front of a fresco which I hope gets conservation soon.

Exiting, I spent a few minutes trying to find my angle so that I could represent the cathedral with its tower and still some depth. A red brick building stymied me from getting the north side, which I perceived would be best.

Pagani car on display near the Cathedral in Modena
Pagani car on display on the Modena piazza

My phone buzzed, and my ViaHero concierge Elisa was looking for me. With her husband Jacopo, we strolled back to the Piazza Roma, where those sports cars were on display. Elisa works for Maserati, and the display honored the twenty-fifth anniversary of Pagani. The couple impressed on me the significance of my timing – I was able to see so many these vehicles together, a rarity. Unlike earlier, however, the bonnets were all closed. Nonetheless, it was a treat to see and take more pictures.

Jacopo had made lunch reservations for us at Ristorante da Lucia. We sat outside, nominally because, while cooler, it was crowded inside; however, I suspect it was to allow him to smoke. We split a half liter of white wine while I had Gnocco fritto con prosciutto crudo, a Modena dish, followed by Pappardelle al cinghiale. I treated the newlyweds.

Strolling through town, I caught them up with my travels, particularly my time in Venice which Elisa had helped organize. She had gotten me a phone case, so we made a quick stop at a mobile phone case shop for a protective screen. We arrived at their car, and we set off for the nearby village on the hill of Castelvetro. Quaint, a short tower oversees the cobbled streets. After some time enjoying the view from the lookout, we entered La Vecchia Dispensa, a small shop, to do a balsamic vinegar tasting. We were offered 6 tastes, and I chose to have pairs of two shipped back to the States: one from the collective and the other a 20-year Riserva from the shop’s cellar.

Gelato shop counter in Modena
Gelato shop in Modena

Returning to Modena, Elisa’s sweet tooth directed us to her favorite Gelato shop. While I’m not much of an ice cream person, I was convinced to try, selecting the red fruits and salted pistachio for my cup. Excellent! Jacopo’s back was bothering him, so they drove me to the hotel before returning home to their dog. headed out.

Seafood appetizer plate at Orlando Ciusi, Modena
tagliere mare at Orlando Ciusi, Modena

Once in the room, I tried the WiFi without success, so I grabbed my journal and The Pagani cars were still in the piazza, so I took a few more photos (which wouldn’t upload to Facebook) and then settled at Orlando Giusi. As the AC wasn’t working well, I had a seafood appetizer plate, tagliere mare, which was plenty for me. And back to the hotel for the night.

My plans for Monday 19 June were to travel to Reggio Emilia, to visit the cathedral which my research said would be closed until the afternoon, and then continue on to Parma. Up at 7:40, out at 8:30, I had to deal with the station. No lift on the station side, so I walked to the end of the platform and took a ramp down to the subway, which brought me to an elevator to get up the platform. The 9:17 train was fairly full, but I found a seat by the door to keep an eye on the luggage. I’d plans to use BiciBox, a bicycle shop that also offers short term luggage storage, but I couldn’t see them when I walked out of the Reggio Emilia station. (They are immediately out the front to the left, but hidden by foliage.) So I left my bags with the news stand and headed into town. Most stores were closed as it was still before 10, but after 15 minutes I approached the Cattedrale di Beata Vergine Assunta. And both side doors were open!

Exterior facade of the Cattedrale di Beata Vergine Assunta, Reggio Emilia
Cattedrale di Beata Vergine Assunta, Reggio Emilia

The cathedral is set between what looked to be office space, with an octagonal tower near the entry and a dome set back over the crossing. The façade is white marble at the street level and brick for the higher two stories. Black and white marble laid in a diamond checkboard fills the floor. Thick Romanesque columns separate the aisles from the nave, supporting a curved coffered vault. The sunlight entering from the south windows bathed the whole space in a warm golden light.

Most of the side chapels are behind iron gating, but looked impressive. The main altar seems to be comprised of two large rectangular blocks of rough-cut white stone, with lettering carved into one end. I was able to descend into the crypt where less ornately carved choir stalls with awesome seats filled the curve of the apse. The arches where they connected to the columns were covered in lovely paintwork, mostly flowers.

Returning along the main street through Reggio Emilia, I spotted a sole proprietor’s men’s clothing shop having a sale. Somehow, window shopping yielded 3 new polos, all lighter weight than most I was lugging around. For much of my return journey I was able to be in the shade, as the Palladian arches supported the covered walkway. As it turned out, I was a bit behind schedule, but with the train 5+ minutes late, I retrieved my bags, stashed the camera, and got to the platform with little time to spare.

Exterior view of the Baptistery of Parma, scaffolding to one side
Baptistery of Parma / Battistero di Parma

Arriving in Parma about noon, I made only a small misstep in locating the hotel, causing me to walk around the block. Bad sidewalks seem to be indigenous to the Emilia Province, as once again I was fighting the stones as I pulled my bags along. The room wasn’t ready, so I again removed the camera and headed towards the cathedral. Here research indicated that it should be open all day, so my hopes were dashed – I would need to wait until 3pm. There appear to be two towers, and the sightlines to squeeze in both and the full western façade had me moving around. From the northwest corner of the square, I could barely see the dome. The diocesan museum and the octagonal baptistry were open, for 10€, but nothing really enticed me to view. I bailed, leaving the Piazza del Duomo and moving slowly (hip was still tender) as I walked the main shopping district, checking out the stores on the shady side. I dropped into the Chiesa di Santa Cristina, a small church with ornate painted surfaces, especially the scenes on the vault.

Continuing along Strada della Repubblica, I noticed the Chiesa di San Sepulcro and its tower, but it was closed. Next door, however, Zinelli, a bistrot winebar, was open. I had glasses of Ribolla Ronchi di Manzano and a pecorino from Fontefico, which were served with chips and peanuts. As it was nearing 3, I began my wander back towards the cathedral.

I still had some time to wait, so I dropped into Osteria della Zingaro for a salad with chicken, apples and walnuts and glasses of Ermacora: Ribola Gialla and Sauvignon. While there, I text chatted with the tax rebate folks to determine how to handle my purchases and tax refund. Finally the church should be open, so I began my approach After admiring the façade of the Chiesa di San Giovanni Evangelista, I decided to visit it first. This basilica is a large building, inside has 4 sets of columns which are faced with red silk banners.

The outermost aisles are used for gated chapels while the central aisle is about double the widths of the side aisle. The floor is tiled in rhomboids of marble in three colors, in a pattern which evokes Escher. Murals, gilding, plasterwork, trompe-l’oeil: the art was intense, jaw-dropping.

Outside front facade of teh Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, Parma with bell tower
Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, Parma

The Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta is across Borgo Pipa, and the second tower I’d been trying to include in the photo was the belltower for St John’s. I walked along the south side between the baptistry and the cathedral’s belltower. Similar in floorplan to the basilica I’d just left, the central nave has arches three stories high, with the walls of the gallery and clerestory windows covered in scenes in dark blues and grays and rising up to a ribbed vault of gold and browns. I kept looking up as I walked down the side aisles, and then glancing into the gated chapels. A simple main altar stands at the foot of 17 steps to the sanctuary.

A rounded baldachin covered in gilding protected the white marble reredos of the high altar. For the second time during my journey, I spotted the cardinal’s hat hanging from the ceiling – a tradition that has stopped, as a galero is no longer given to a new cardinal.

Leaving, I felt like sensory overload – the intensity of both churches was overwhelming. I checked in at the baptistry (it was staffed while the cathedral seemed without guides or aides) to ensure I’d spotted the cathedra, which was a blocky modern-looking stone chair. Hearing that I’d been to three cathedrals in two days, they asked which I preferred, and I admitted to Modena for its simplicity.

When I returned to the hotel, I was given room 203, and found the elevator not working. However, staff had brought my bags to the room before the maintenance began, and I was pleased. I did a brief unpack and took a brief laydown. Then out to search for a restaurant, alighting at Trattoria del Tribunale.

Nero d'Avola wine with dinner, Sherazade from Donna Fugata, Trattoria del Tribunale, Parma
Wine with dinner, Sherazade from Donna Fugata

Parmigiano Reggiano, Trattoria del Tribunale, Parma
Parmigiano Reggiano

Tagliolini al culatello  at Trattoria del Tribunale, Parma
Tagliolini al culatello

Risotto alla parmigiana ,Trattoria del Tribunale, Parma
risotto alla parmigiana

With eyes bigger than my stomach, I started with flan de carciofi con crema di parmigiano and a side of parmigiano reggiano (pieces of cheese.) Tagliolini al culatello followed with risotto alla parmigiana on the side. Yes, I was in Parma and I was going to enjoy its cheese as much as possible. And I was full halfway through the pasta. I did wind up taking pieces of cheese back to the hotel to enjoy at a later time. I got back to the room, did the backups, and tried to get on the internet without luck. With an early start in the morning, I crashed a bit earlier than usual.

Image of the book, Cathedrals to the GLory of God
Cathedrals to the Glory of God

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