My route into old Bologna is Via Stalingrado.
At the rental car desk some years back, in the pre-cellphone era, I asked the guy handing me car keys the best way into the city. Following his advice, from the tangenziale, which cruises through town next to the A-14 toll road, I took the Via Stalingrado exit and somehow found my way to Piazza VIII Agosto, where there is a large underground parking garage. Bologna is a big city. When I drove into Manhattan to visit our son, I found one way into the city and stuck with it. Same thing here. When I get to Via Stalingrado (formerly Via Masceralla, until 1949), I know the way. I can breathe easy.
We’ve come into the city to walk the road up to the church of San Luca. We’re here for that road. It’s known for its 666 porticos, for its 300 scalini, which is the number of stair steps you climb, though when I do a little research, I find a runner who claims there are actually 500 scalini, while another guy, probably quoting his Fitbit, reports 6500 steps. Suffice to say, it’s a long walk, all uphill, 2.8 miles to the church, and then, if you are a glutton for punishment, another 111 steps up a narrow spiral staircase to the church cupula and astonishing views. All total, we’ll walk about 10 miles before we’re done.
Where you are in Italy, there’s always a church to see.
We’ve also come to Bologna for gluttony. On our drive into the city I suggest to Tizi that we walk up to the church first. If past is prologue to present, we’ll have a heavy lunch, which will mean more to carry up those steps, however many there are.
“What about lunch?” she says.
For years now, every time we’ve flown into Bologna, she’s looked up at the church of San Luca, on top of that hill, and said we should walk up there. I am not a great fan of walking uphill, unless there are mountains and vineyards and castles and seasides involved. Then I saw pictures of the porticos on Via San Luca. So today is the day. We’re going to walk the walk. But she has priorities.
I share her concern. I suggest to her we can try to find lunch, after.
“But what if the walk takes longer than we thought it would– .”
“–and we can’t have lunch?” Restaurants in Italy stop serving lunch at 2:30.
“That would be too bad,” she says.
She means a sit-down lunch, a bring-us-all-your-good-stuff lunch. Bologna, also known as la grassa, “The Fat One” (and la rossa, the Red one, hence Via Stalingrado), is home to such invitations to excess. You want to cast restraint to the wind.
“Missing lunch,” I say, “would be very too bad.”
In the interest of ensuring we have a nice lunch, we decide to bum around, eat big, then take the penitential walk in the afternoon.
Our usual first stop, once we leave the parking garage, is Enoteca Italiana, on Via Malcontenti (great name), for a morning sandwich. Tizi has coffee, and pronounces it great. I have a 10:00 a.m. glass of crisp white wine. Also great. And the bread is a delicious sin, as is the mortadella, with its pearls of fat.
At the edge of San Patronio, Bologna’s main church, in the Quadrilatero area, we walk the streets and see some of our favorite store fronts—and a fruit and vegetable lady, and a flower lady, and a fish monger. Tizi ducks into a chocolate shop we love while I linger in the street taking pictures.
For lunch, we return to Trattoria Da Gianni (Johnny’s place), where we have eaten a couple times, and where we both have the artichoke lasagna. After that Tizi has a stewed rabbit, I have a pork shank, because it is called stinco and I love that, and also because it is delicious..
Then, the walk.
“The fifth mystery,” I say to Tizi. We’re on our way up. It’s two miles from the city center to the beginning of Via San Luca. We walked that. Now comes the challenge. The day is cool. Traffic on the Via is light. Couples, small groups, solitary souls meet us as they come down the steps. Couples, small groups, solitary souls pass us on their way up. Everyone is silent. That’s nice. I’ve been counting mysteries, wondering how many of them it will take to get to the end of this road. I was raised Protestant, which is relatively mystery-free. Except for the big one. I ask Tizi how many mysteries there are.
“Where’d you see that?”
“A plaque back there,” I say. Along the way are chapels, each with fading frescoes, some of them almost completely gone.
“Twelve?” I ask. It seems like a good number for mysteries. Plus that would mean we’re almost halfway there.
She says she doesn’t remember. Then: “No, more than twelve.”
Each chapel is little more than an indentation in the wall, a little turn out, where pilgrims can sidestep and stop for devotion. Unfortunately, each chapel is now behind a wire fence, possibly to protect the frescoes from hands holding pens instead of rosaries. Maria Vittoria was here. Tommaso loves Giulia. Go Juventus!
Where forms and faces are still visible, I press close to the fences and try to make out what’s happening, what chapter of the Story is depicted, what mystery portrayed, wondering: Who were the artists? Men–probably all men–who came to work every day for years, cycling and recycling Christian imagery in their work, then went home to family, probably in humble circumstances, and ate and drank and slept, then started over again. Any museum or church you walk through in Italy, you see the same art time and time again. “How is that even interesting?” a friend wondered once. Well, it’s not, really, if you look at the big picture. Which is why I photograph feet. (See Houses and Skin, Spaghetti and Feet). My inclination is also to look for faces at the bottom or the side of the painting, someone unimportant, a bystander.
This guy, a court figure, would not be me.
This guy, holding the hammer, he could be me.
Often on these faces, you see looks of horror. What has man done? What atrocity is he capable of? They are the same faces we’re seeing on the people in Ukraine, the same faces of people standing outside Sandy Hook. This can’t be. But also, children. And angels. Looks of adoration. This also is man. Horror and adoration and, always, work.
We go up, we come down.
There are 666 porticos. Why that number, associated with the devil? Good triumphs. We can hope. Those with the gift of faith believe.
The faces in the frescoes remind me of Meursault, in The Stranger, by Albert Camus. A priest asks him before his execution, When you look at these prison walls, does a face—the face of God—appear to you? No, Meursault says. The priest: How do you picture the afterlife? Meursault answers, I do not. But if I did, it would be a life just like this life, where I can enjoy the pleasure of food, a cigarette after dinner, and the smell of Marie’s hair on my pillow.
Earthly and heavenly musings. A day in Bologna.