We arrived in Bologna 3h later than originally planned due to a mix up when changing trains in Milano, so we couldn’t see it in daylight for as long as we’d liked — we had to leave early the next morning to go to Rimini to visit a friend. It still managed to leave several impressions in us, even with very little time available to sightsee.
First, how we got there so late: it turns out that there are two different trains headed to Bologna that leave Milano at 13:20; a fast (1h) and expensive one, and a slow (2h50m) and cheap one. We had tickets for the fast one, yet somehow managed to get on the slow one. Takeaway: always check the train code on Trenitalia displays instead of jumping on what seems to be the right train to your destination. I guess this explains why every Italian train station always seems to have 100+ people staring at the boards expectantly and carefully. There’s also the fact that they only really show you the right platform for your train a few minutes in advance. All in all, several factors came into play to cause confusion and we ended up stuck in a very slow and very packed train for a few hours. It turned out alright in the end — at least we were going in the right direction, and there was no ticket check. I was unsure if our ticket was going to be considered valid by the inspector; it was for a different train, but for a more expensive one to the same destination, so it was relatively open for interpretation.
An aside here — in retrospect, I was pretty vocal in the train about how I felt like a dork taking the slow train instead of the fast train we had tickets to. I usually communicate quite freely in Spanish with L., as it’s not that transparent to German speakers usually, and try not to be too loud or anything. But later on I felt a bit bad about my public complaints, as Italian speakers around us may have gotten the gist of what I was saying; and after the 2h50m of pretty uncomfortable travel it became apparent that a significant fraction of the passengers had taken the train all the way to Bologna, probably because it was cheaper than the faster ride we had bought. So I got to feel socially clueless on top of awkward and privileged.
We walked a bit around Bologna in the evening; it was two degrees and foggy, which to me after a while feels colder than five below because of the humidity. Our noses were runny and I was very hungry, but we got to see a few of the towers that Bologna is renowned for (full disclosure: I knew very little about Bologna before visiting, aside from the fact that it has a very old university) and also one of the weirdest churches I’ve seen: San Petronio.
San Petronio is like two churches in one. You can tell right away something is amiss as you get to its square (Piazza Maggiore) and see its facade: the bottom half is posh marble, like most of the big Italian basilicas (think the Duomo in Milan) and the top half is a rather shabby looking brick, more the look that you’d expect in a country church from the Middle Ages. And, as it turns out, this is because they basically just ran out of money when building it. This happened to many churches, but this one never really recovered — it’s unclear at this point to me if they are still trying to finish it or they’ve just given up. In any case, I think it adds to its charm — its interior has the same kind of dissonance built in, as it’s just huge and it looks even bigger by virtue of being pretty much empty. It doesn’t really even have a pew (second disclosure: I had no idea how “church benches” were actually called until I googled it a minute ago), just a bunch of wooden chairs with woven straw seats.
I’m not a huge fan of the concept of churches overall, at least not in modernity, so in a weird way a part of me likes it more just because it wasn’t finished; I’d like to think someone, sometime, used their money for something better than building yet another church. It would be nice if, for once, that someone didn’t just buy another huge brick of gold with the head of the pope stamped on it or something. Although, on further reading on the subject, it turns out the popes may have plotted against it being completed (as it was designed to dwarf St Peter’s), so perhaps the Bolognese nobles were more likely to go with something else for stamping on their gold bricks even if they were not into using their money for the greater good.
Anyway, we thought it was special.