I put the date of my relationship with la bella Italia being established as 2013, when I took my first trip to the country, for a few days in June. Yet my love for Italy had been brewing for a few years before that - subtly but with increasing force: moving in with two Italian translators, almost always choosing Italian food to eat when I ventured to local restaurants and picking up my first audio book of Italian language lessons. The beauty, history and culture counterbalanced the less glamourous parts of Italian life (the infamous and complicated system of bureaucracy for example) and I knew Italy was somewhere I wanted to live.
The following is a short piece of writing from my first trip to Italy and specifically, my visit to Bologna, where I stayed for three days. It's merely my thoughts put down on paper, no agenda. Enjoy.
It's 3.30am, and the air is warm on my first morning in Bologna. I'm thirsty, and I pad out into the corridor in search of the fridge holding a jug of water.
Rehydrated and refreshed, I return to my room and realise I have not yet opened the window. So I do and I watch the early morning light dapple the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca which sits proudly over her city, high up on the hill.
The city hums slightly; its night is breathing.
I'm in Bologna because of a book: a novel, by John Grisham, writer of legal thrillers. I'm a fan, so when The Broker was published, I picked up a paperback copy and the enjoyment I received from this story, drawing on the richness Grisham himself found in this northern Italian city, propelled me to pursue my own dream and experience it for myself.
The day begins and I set out, passing the Bolognesi going about their daily business, I set out for Piazza Maggiore, the main square in the centre of Bologna, a natural place to start my sightseeing. The sunlight accentuates these monuments: the Palazzo Communale (town hall) and unusual-looking Basilica di San Petronio. I am one of the few tourists out already, taking in the warm air and pointing my camera in all directions.
My itinerary is not complicated, focused only on getting to know a beautiful, old city, without agenda. In all honesty, a lack of planning isn't one of the environments in which I flourish, and by the end of my trip I have drawn up several unintentional lists. Such is habit and such is my capacity to allow myself to not do all things but see that which I want.
I wander. I allow myself to get lost. I marvel at the endless covered walkways, the towers, the complicated maze of streets.
I'm struck by how there are four or five chiese (churches) in close proximity and that they all keep such a state of grandeur. Of course, because Italy is predominantly Catholic, they are vastly more ornate than the decoration of the churches I’m used to, with frescos on the ceiling of every transcept, side chapels, with their own pews and altars, some with large gates protecting its treasures inside (and perhaps to keep out the riff raff).
I feel comfortable in churches, even though I no longer subscribe to my the beliefs I previously held as a churchgoer. Moveover, I 'did' church in post-war buildings, not even the simple yet beautiful examples of Anglican churches that we have so many of in Britain, but even that does not make me feel that the vastly decorated cathedrals that seem to be two-a-piece here anything less than reassuringly homely for me.
The stillness and tranquility of these temples, surrounding me with cool, dark, air and dwarfing me with thick, solid columns rising up to curvaceous domes, metres above gives me soul energy. I sit in peace, resting from the sun, from my wanderings, from, well, 'doing'.
On a wooden pew, I think of the contrast between life outside, where sitting in a cafe, the bustle of the day is bursting out its song, with cigarette smoke lingering, coffee aromas enticing you along every street, and chatter and conversation spilling out onto the many outside seating areas that almost all the cafes have. In the midst of the people moving, there are buses, cars and scooters whizzing around, zooming fast across the cobbles, as if it were smooth tarmac.
Graffiti abounds. I can see that the city has its discontented as any other, perhaps even more so as the so-called centre of communism that Bologna has asscociations with, yet to me, the presence of its colourful vandalism is more stark or striking than when it appears on dull grey concrete. To see it on ancient pillars seems much, much worse than the presence of the scribble on a railway embankment wall.
Perhaps it is because here truly ancient walls abound; and here, they are - I hate to use the word - commonplace. For this city is continuously giving to the pedestrian tourist. On every corner of the old town, history stands, willing your wide eyes, expecting your camera lens.
I find myself back at the Cafe le Palais on the last night, hoping to make conversation with the waiter, or even meet some English people. There was none to be had and I grew uncomfortable breathing in the smoke from all sides. I paid up and was drawn to the Piazza Santo Stefano, on the south side of which is its namesake, a collection of churches forming the Sette Chiese, which I had been delighted to find. Its standing as the centrepiece of this square, gives it such pride as it oversees those out for the evening’s passiagiata.
I've been moved by this place. I've soaked up sunshine and lolled under its shaded paths. I've peered into shops and stopped for its museums. I've watched, listened and eaten. It's somewhere I'd like to return.