Bologna … the delights and disappointments along the longest portico in the world, and where exactly is arch 666?

Every year thousands of tourists make the pilgrimage to Bologna’s Basilica Santuario della Beata Vergine di San Luca (also known as the Santuario della Madonna di San Luca in some guidebooks) more for the experience endured getting there rather than for religious purposes. Although the hilltop on which the church sits upon is only 300 metres above sea level, making the journey up there by foot is surprisingly testing on one’s stamina.

Those who then hope to enjoy stunning panoramic views of the city from this celestial position as reward for their efforts will be sorely disappointed. The only way Bologna city can be viewed from the basilica is to clip on a karabiner and scale the church’s dome, an activity the church does offer if booked and paid for well in advance (more details can be found at the end of this blog).

A stunning view of the Basilica Santuario della Beata Vergine di San Luca on the hilltop seen from the centre of Bologna. Do not expect the church to return the favour. There is no free public access to any city view of Bologna from this church!

A stunning view of the Basilica Santuario della Beata Vergine di San Luca on the hilltop seen from the centre of Bologna. Do not expect the church to return the favour. There is no free public access to any city view of Bologna from this church!

The path along which most people choose to reach the basilica is through the Portico di San Luca, a long baroque style portico that winds its way up the hill to the church above. The main reason for its popularity is that it holds the record for being the longest portico in the world. Completists who wish to walk the full length of the portico (around 3.7 km) begin their journey at Piazza di Porta Saragozza, south-west of Bologna’s old city, where the grand Bonaccorsi Arch marks the official start of the portico. Those who wish to conserve some of their energy can catch the number 20 bus close by and alight at the Meloncello arch that crosses the road ahead (around five stops away). This cuts around one-and-a-half kilometres off the walk.

The Bonaccorsi Arch, the official entrance to the Portico di San Luca, the longest portico in the world

The Bonaccorsi Arch, the official entrance to the Portico di San Luca, the longest portico in the world

Work began on the portico in the seventeenth century and took over one hundred years to complete. Although the portico remains reasonably in one piece, it clearly has seen better days. Evidence of neglect runs along the whole length of the structure, particularly close to the start of the portico.

From the very first arch (numbered in the top right hand corner): the San Luca Portico doubles as a shopping arcade for the first kilometre

From the very first arch (numbered in the top right hand corner): the San Luca Portico doubles as a shopping arcade for the first kilometre

It is also along this first section of the portico where the worst evidence of neglect can be seen

It is also along this first section of the portico where the worst evidence of neglect can be seen

Bologna Portico di San Luca, arch 255 and graffiti

Thankfully, the local street artists appear to not have the stamina to go beyond the first two kilometres of the portico, and from the Meloncello Arch where the path starts to becomes a steady climb, one can enjoy the grandeur of the structure almost graffiti-free.

From the Meloncello Arch, about half way along the Portico di San Luca. The journey from here begins to get tougher ...

From the Meloncello Arch, about half way along the Portico di San Luca. The journey from here begins to get tougher …

... but the splendor of this structure now becomes more evident

… but the splendor of this structure now becomes more evident

Along the route are snap shots, albeit few and far between, of how the portico interior may have looked in centuries gone by

Along the route are snap shots, albeit few and far between, of how the portico interior may have looked in centuries gone by

Bologna Portico di San Luca, arch detail of Virgin Mary and child

Bologna Portico di San Luca, arch details

Sadly, more often than not, there is evidence of the portico's decay and neglect, with seemingly half-hearted attempts at salvaging the structure

Sadly, more often than not, there is evidence of the portico’s decay and neglect, with seemingly half-hearted attempts at salvaging the structure

Apart from the occasional grotto or memorial plaque to add a touch of welcomed variety …

Bologna Bonaccorsi Arch, grotto

… the walk along the portico does become aesthetically boring after a while and a little claustrophobic by the almost endless stretches of arches.

As there are private homes and estates on the hill, the left hand side of the portico (on ascent) is one long, solid wall preserving the residents’ privacy behind it. Front doors to some of these properties can be found along the length of this portico wall. The wall on the right hand side of the portico (on ascent) is made up of open arches, yet the view seen through them is mainly of the vast number of trees covering the hill. Occasionally though, there is a gap between the trees and lovely views of Bologna suburbs below can be enjoyed instead. A fairly quiet road runs alongside the portico and it is worth stepping out onto it not just to see more of the available views but to also take a break from seeing arch upon arch upon arch upon arch.

Catching sight of Bologna's sports stadium (left) and west Bologna below

Catching sight of Bologna’s sports stadium (left) and west Bologna below

However, the hope of catching a glimpse of Bologna’s old city either from the portico or along the road beside it, is almost impossible.

Stepping out of the portico and straining my neck to try and spot the famous leaning towers of Bologna behind me. I could just about make them out from here but any further step sideways and I would have been in a ditch

Stepping out of the portico and straining my neck to try and spot the famous leaning towers of Bologna behind me. I could just about make them out from here but any further step sideways and I would have been in a ditch

A very rare sight along the portico ... a view other than of endless arches

A very rare sight along the portico … a view other than of endless arches

South-west Bologna

South-west Bologna

The end is in sight. The basilica and the top of the hill now not too far away

The end is in sight. The basilica and the top of the hill now not too far away

After ninety minutes panting up the portico path, I thought the combination of the sweltering heat and the seemingly unending tunnel of arches had finally made me delirious as I started to see heavenly visions ahead of me.

Is that cross really there or is it a mirage? (or have I gone completely mad having been so long in this portico seeing nothing but arches for the past hour and a half?!)

Is that cross really there or is it a mirage? (or have I gone completely mad having been so long in this portico seeing nothing but arches for the past hour and a half?!)

It turned out that the cross did physically exist, marking the end of the portico.

However, this cross also marks the beginning of a mystery that has shrouded the portico for centuries.

However, this cross also marks the beginning of a mystery that has shrouded the portico for centuries

Almost every guidebook and piece of literature online and in print states that the portico is made up of 666 arches. There are many theories as to why the portico is said to have this particular and religiously symbolic number. The most plausible theory is that the portico represents the devil both in the way the structure curls its way up the hill like a devilish serpent, and with the number of arches corresponding to the devil’s number of 6-6-6. Christians on a pilgrimage up to the church via the portico could thereby enjoy the idea of symbolically stamping on the devil with every step they took along the way.

It is a rather romantic theory and both tourists – religious or otherwise – and their guidebooks do seem to like the idea of the 666 arches. There is just one problem: the portico isn’t actually made up of 666 arches. As the following grainy and pedantic short film points out (apologies for the sound quality), it is made of at least 670:

As highlighted in the film, the basilica is closed between 12.30pm and 2.30pm daily for lunch (evidently, a rather leisurely lunch if two hours are required to enjoy it). When the basilica is open, visitors are allowed behind the altar to view a portrait of the Virgin Mary supposedly painted by Saint Luke. It is believed the portrait was brought from the Middle East in the twelfth century to the church that stood on this spot before the basilica was built in its place.

The Virgin Mary and Child according to Saint Luke (supposedly), poking out in parts through protective layering

The Virgin Mary and Child according to Saint Luke (supposedly), poking out in parts through protective layering

The grand and very blue altar of the basilica where the portrait of the Virgin Mary takes pride of place

The grand and very blue altar of the basilica where the portrait of the Virgin Mary takes pride of place

Bologna Basilica Santuario Beata Vergine di San Luca interior, cupola and columns

Bologna Basilica Santuario Beata Vergine di San Luca, copula interior

Apart from the portrait, the altar and the decorative interior of the dome, there isn’t really much else to see and admire inside the basilica. To my astonishment, there is even less to admire outside it. Rolling Italian hills and beautiful countryside can be enjoyed from the front steps of the basilica, but I was pushed to find any view of Bologna’s old city from here. It would seem that the back of the basilica looks down over Bologna but unfortunately, there appears to be no public access around to the back of the church to enjoy this view. Fences, gates and dense forest block any unauthorised access to any exterior part of the building beyond the front steps. Some masonry work was being carried out to the building during my visit (July 2015) so this lack of access might have been temporary. But, having looked into this matter further, I have to say I cannot find any evidence to suggest there has ever been any free public access to this part of the basilica or of any city view from the basilica for a number of years.

The entrance to the basilica. Some would argue it is facing the wrong way

The entrance to the basilica. Some would argue it is facing the wrong way

Having spent so much time and energy to get here, I felt very cheated that the basilica did not freely share the stunning views of Bologna city it obviously enjoys from the top of this hill. I walked a little way from the church in the hope of finding a more generous viewpoint, but the surrounding forest did little to reveal the view I so wanted to see.

A tantalising glimpse of Bologna's old city (bottom right) from the top of the hill. Alas, the basilica and the surrounding forest clearly wanted to keep the best views of Bologna from here to themselves (how very uncharitable)

A tantalising glimpse of Bologna’s old city (bottom right) from the top of the hill. Alas, the basilica and the surrounding forest clearly wanted to keep the best views of Bologna from here to themselves (how very uncharitable)

I eventually accepted defeat, and as there was nothing else to see and do in and around the basilica, I made my way back down the portico with a heavy heart.

Yet, I was still determined to find a suitable vantage point to enjoy a panoramic view of Bologna before my trip to the city ended. Although not enjoying quite as lofty a position as the basilica, the San Michele in Bosco came to my rescue. A religious complex made up of a beautiful church and convent, San Michele in Bosco also houses the Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute and sits at a slightly elevated height around one kilometre south of Bologna’s old city. It is fairly easy to find and walk to but more conveniently, a bus from the city centre regularly makes the fifteen minute journey up to it, terminating right outside the church.

San Michele in Bosco, seen from Bologna's city centre

San Michele in Bosco, seen from Bologna’s city centre

As I stepped off the bus, I was greeted with the following view:

Bologna's old city below, seen from the church steps (and bus stop) of San Michele in Bosco. The Basilica of San Petronio is centre left, and the Torre degli Asinelli is centre right

Bologna’s old city below, seen from the church steps (and bus stop) of San Michele in Bosco. The Basilica of San Petronio is centre left, and the Torre degli Asinelli is centre right

However, yet again I arrived at my destination during lunch time and the church of San Michele in Bosco had just closed for the rest of the day.

The bell tower of San Michele in Bosco's church

The bell tower of San Michele in Bosco’s church

The Institute thankfully, was still open. I found a stairway inside it and climbed up it as far as it would take me to try and get a better and more aesthetically pleasing view of the city below.

Being only an amateur photographer, I am not quite sure how I managed to magnify the Torre degli Asinelli through the window on the top floor of the Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute

Being only an amateur photographer, I am not quite sure how I managed to magnify the Torre degli Asinelli through the window on the top floor of the Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute

A more realistic view of Bologna seen through the top floor window of the Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute

A more realistic view of Bologna seen through the top floor window of the Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute

To reach Saragozza and the Bonaccorsi Arch where the Portico di San Luca officially begins, the number 33 bus from just outside Stazione Centrale goes there regularly. Otherwise it is fairly easy to reach by foot from central Bologna.

To reach the top of the hill and the Basilica Santuario della Beata Vergine di San Luca without any significant effort, a tourist train called the San Luca Express departs from Piazza Maggiore around six times a day during the Summer months. If travelling on an enlarged toy train is just too embarrassing a thought, then take the number 20 bus from Saragozza to Villa Spada (one stop before the Meloncello Arch), and from there catch the less regular number 58 bus which stops a short walk from the steps of the basilica.

Although there is little else but the basilica at the end of the portico, there are toilet facilities within the church grounds, a drinking-water fountain by the steps and some vending machines selling fizzing drinks and chocolate near the toilets and church lift to replenish liquid and sugar levels after the long journey here.

Guided access to the cupola of the basilica is available during the weekends of the Summer months (Saturdays between 15:30 – 18:30 and Sundays between 09:30 – 12:30), but only if the weather is good. There appears to be no dedicated website giving more details or to take bookings for this activity, but the church can be called directly on  00 39 388 788 46 69. Advanced booking is essential, climbing equipment is provided and the tour lasts one hour. Tickets (2015) cost €15 per person. Enjoy the view!

The number 30 bus which passes Stazione Centrale before weaving its way around the city centre, terminates at San Michele in Bosco. There are usually four buses an hour (three on Sundays) until around 21:00.

TLT x


Bologna Hidden Canals, Canale di Reno, view through little window along Via PiellaDiscovering the medieval waterways that even the locals do not seem to know exist: the hidden canals of Bologna

 

 

 

 

 


The medieval equivalent of Manhattan island: the leaning towers of Bologna Bologna Le Due Torri, Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, illustrating lean

 

 

 

 

 

 


This figure (and what a figure!) is one of four buxom sirens representing the four continents known to sixteenth century Europeans. Water does spout out from her nipples, but thankfully not from anywhere else

Bologna’s Basilica di San Petronio not only doubles as a huge sundial, but also appears to celebrate polytheism

 

 

 

 

 


 

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7 Responses to Bologna … the delights and disappointments along the longest portico in the world, and where exactly is arch 666?

  1. Samantha Lee says:

    Wow, thank you so much for this detailed write up of your walk! I’ll be in Bologna for 2 nights, 1 day this September (at the end of a long trip) and was looking for something to do besides eat, haha. This sounds so cool and would be right up my husband’s alley (he’s a structural engineer).

  2. W Reilly says:

    Hello TLT!

    I believe I thanked you for the info while I was still planning our trip.

    So, here’s a June 2017 update:

    Things can change fast in Bologna, opening hours for starters. The Santuario della Madonna di San Luca is currently open most days. It does close 12:30-13:30 (meaning we got in 12:20 and they let us till 12:45 ;d). You need to pay to get up to the renovated observation deck (entry to the church is free), but there are great views, of Bologna to the left, all the way up to Modena to the right, and especially beautiful views of the green hillside in front (much better than the views in front of the church). No booking whatsoever required, they put up a table in front of the church to sell tickets.
    There are indeed few panoramic views on the way up, but we enjoyed looking back on the soccer stadium (Stadio Renato Dall’Ara, you posted a pic here) and especially of the immense Certosa di Bologna..

    Tip: take the (pretty frequent running) (mini)bus 58 (direction Villa Spada) back down (some 300 metres back down the road along the portico). Ask to be dropped off at Meloncello (which you passed on foot). Take a left and stroll past the stadium of FC Bologna to the impressive cemetery (Certosa – you won’t believe your eyes at the scale of it). The walk takes 2 ice creams (we count in gelati).

    However, we’re pretty happy you were forced to go to San Michele in Bosco, because without your blog, we probably wouldn’t have gone there. Thanks a million for the tip! Indeed there’s a very nice viewpoint (not 1 tourist while we were there), and the church is nice, but your Golden Tip was to get into the Istituto Ortopedico Rizzoli. Just take the main entrance and walk up the stairs to the first floor. We got to the gorgeous window shown in this blogpost. Next, a pensioner, former school teacher, walked up to us. If she could give us the tour? Oh please do.. In the beautiful hallway with the window, there’s a meridian on the floor measuring the days, just like in San Petronio. Also on the floor, markers indicate the length of the Bologna churches. The medieval library (no photos) of the 15th century (with a gigantic 15th century wooden globe) was stunning (ask someone for la biblioteca). Apart from medieval books, you’ll find scary medical instruments from past centuries. And the place being a former monastery… still houses some nuns! The lady got us in there too, but a film crew chased us out pretty quickly, bad timing.
    A Golden Tip indeed, thanks again!

  3. William Dyson-Laurie says:

    Thanks for your entertaining report on the walk to San Luca. Sadly, I hadn’t read it before I went, on a particularly hot day in May 2017. No one bothered to tell me in advance that the basilica was closed between 12.30 and 14.30 hrs, nor that there would be no proper view of the city. However I’m glad I completed the walk (from Meloncello). Many of the other visitors were jogging or running; some doing energetic exercises at the top.

  4. Walter Reilly says:

    It’s blog posts like this that make researching travels such fun. Thx.

  5. Fabio Bergami says:

    ops, sorry…i forget this… the arch are 658. 666 is an ancient legend invented by an ancient priest. They are numbered and I personally counted them. :-)

  6. Fabio Bergami says:

    Thank you for the beautiful representation of my beloved town. I just want to clarify that the orrific “TAG” along the portico of San Luca were deleted last winter, in partnership with the Municipality of Bologna, by me and other volunteers (active citizens) to return the portico to its ancient splendor. Congratulations again for your photos and for the excellent work.

  7. Anne Guy says:

    Glad you finally got inside in the end to rest your fallen arches after all that walking! Great photos as always!!

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