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).
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.
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.
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.
Apart from the occasional grotto or memorial plaque to add a touch of welcomed variety …
… 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.
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.
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.
It turned out that the cross did physically exist, marking the end of the portico.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As I stepped off the bus, I was greeted with the following view:
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 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.
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.
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