the traveller

“Bologna is an old lady with soft hips, her breast on the Po Plain and her ass on the hills”. There’s always just the right song with which to tell Bologna’s story. These are the words of Francesco Guccini, Bolognese writer and composer, and they say a lot about the city’s friendly and welcoming character. Not only that, they conjure up an image of the city’s geographical location: the Po Valley opens up in front of it and the hills act as a backdrop. It’s up into the hills that I want to take you, the perfect destination if you have one or more days to discover the beauty and fascination that lie outside the city confines. First of all, you don’t need a car to admire Bologna from above. All you need to do is go to Via Farini in the centre, take the number 52 bus and head into the hills. After 10 minutes you’re in Via San Mamolo (if you do have a car, you can go to Porta San Mamolo and on from there). The road begins to ascend and the first stop is Villa Ghigi Park. Huge botanical variety, gymnastic trails and tree-lined paths guide you to the top of one of Bologna’s green lungs. There you’ll be greeted by a villa belonging to one of the city’s richest families from the 17th century until the last owner, the zoologist Ghigi, one of the first Italian environmentalists. It’s time for a break and the perfect place is “Casa del Custode“, an original and comfortable space, which has become a venue for refreshments, shows and exhibitions with an environmental theme. To see the programme, visit fondazionevillaghigi.it.

If you’d rather stop for lunch, you’d better call the manager Bernardo Bolognesi (contact details can be found on the website) and tell him you’re coming. It’s worth meeting him: he’s an actor and director with a passion for food in unusual locations. “This time, I’ve chosen a secret place. You can only get here on foot by walking through the park”, he explains. “Not many lights, only a few tables, but all absolutely authentic: from the products from my neighbouring farmer’s land, to the wine from these hills, to the piano in the house for guests to use. It’s a popular place where the quality is high, but accessible to all. Hikers and foreign tourists particularly love it here.”

The Rocchetta Mattei
Monument to the Fallen, Monte Sabbiuno
Parco dei Gessi e dei calanchi dell'Abbadessa

The final destination of the number 52 bus is Cippo di Sabbiuno. The Apennines are rich in tombstones and monuments in memory of those who fell during the Partisan Resistance (it’s worth visiting the beautiful Sacrario di Monte Sole memorial in Marzabotto). The Monte Sabbiuno Monument is perhaps the most evocative. Credit goes to the Bolognese architects who created it in 1973 for making art and nature converge in memory of the 100 anti-fascists shot in December 1944. The stone bears the names of the victims and on the edge of the hill is a concrete wall with reproduction firearms looming out of it. Along the precipice, rolls of barbed wire represent the execution. The rugged landscape of clay rocks makes the impact even greater.

Returning back towards the centre of Bologna, I explore another side, that of Imola, towards the south-east. Just outside the city, in an area bordered by four streams, lies the Parco dei Gessi e dei Calanchi dell’Abbadessa (Regional Park of Bolognese Gypsum and the Abbadessa Gullies). Gypsum is commonly associated with statues or blackboards, but in nature it depicts unusual, almost lunar scenes. This is a karst area where the water has dug caves and sink-holes, opened up passages that surface again after miles underground, and created basins like natural amphitheatres. You can book a guided tour and the park is equipped for speleologists, hikers and disabled people alike. From Bologna you can get there on city buses number 27/A and 11/B, and by car following the signs along Via Bellaria to San Lazzaro, south of Bologna. You’ll find all the information you need at enteparchi.bo.it

The Rocchetta Mattei

The air among the gypsum feels good in your lungs. The Bolognese nobles who built their summer residences in this area in the Middle Ages must have thought the same thing. Many villages sprang up around the churches and abbeys of the Imola Hills. You can visit the remains of some, including the Borgo di San Pietro. It’s not far from the Park, just 15 km along Via Emilia. The road climbs uphill, gradually revealing a view of wheat fields, up to the climb that leads to a small square in a neat and clean village that looks like the scene from a watercolour painting. At the entrance is a tower dating back to the year 1000 and forming part of Castello di Ozzano. It’s said that it had a strategic role in signalling the arrival of enemy armies to Bologna. But the serenity that it conveys now is not the only reason to visit the village. If you’re hungry when you arrive, as I was, an unmissable opportunity awaits your stomach. One of the few houses in the village hosts the Osteria San Pietro, historical home of Bolognese homemade cuisine, which retains the same quality it had when the “sfoglina” Maria used to stretch out a new sheet of pasta for every new customer. Back then, before taking your table you’d hop into the kitchen to give the chefs a hand.

Rocca Sforzesca, Dozza
Enoteca Regionale wine shop, Dozza

I return to Via Emilia for the next destination, a few kilometres further south towards Imola. The destination is the medieval village of Dozza (to get here from Bologna, take bus number 101 or the train to Castel San Pietro). Fortified walls, the imposing Rocca Sforzesca fortress built by the Sforza family at the end of the 1400s, noble palaces and the view of the plain are all great reasons to visit. But there’s something else in Dozza too. The walls of the houses in the village are decorated with murals of all styles and shapes, some signed by major contemporary artists. A walk along the streets is like strolling through an open-air museum. They are the fruit of the Painted Wall (Muro Dipinto) Biennial, an art exhibition that has livened up the village since the 1960s and has always enjoyed a close relationship between artists, inhabitants and medieval architecture. In recent years, the murals have also invaded the hamlet of Toscanella, where the urban style of writers and street artists has taken hold. In Rocca, meanwhile, you can see drafts of works in progress as well as paintings which were removed from the walls to make places for new installations.

The Rocchetta Mattei
The Rocchetta Mattei

Dozza doesn’t just satisfy those with a taste for art, however; lovers of good wine are in the right place too. Before leaving the Imola hills, I go and get myself a glass at the Enoteca Regionale. Still in Rocca Sforzesca, the entire wine heritage of the region is presented through a thousand labels catalogued according to food and wine pairings. Don’t feel up to such a deployment of forces? Fear not, a sommelier will guide you into battle.

We’re at the final stage of the journey and I’m sure that these last images will stay with you for a long time. From the hills of Imola, return to the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines (about an hour and a half by car, taking the motorway towards Florence, exit at Sasso Marconi). In the municipality of Grizzana Morandi is the Rocchetta Mattei. You only have to look at the shape, the colours, the architectural style to understand that its history is not a common story, and nor was the mind that conceived it. Cesare Mattei was a well-known nineteenth-century Bolognese who worked in politics and founded one of the biggest banks in the city. That is, until the death of his mother in 1844 when, convinced that modern medicine was responsible for her death, he devoted his entire life to the study of electromyopathy, a medical therapy deriving from complicated alchemies, which between the 1800s and 1900s became the most famous alternative medicine in the world. Mattei’s conducted his research and experiments in the labyrinthine rooms of the Rocchetta, where the neo-scientist turned count built on the ruins of an ancient fortress. Like the character of its landlord, the small castle is a bizarre mixture of styles where Moorish architecture gives a strong Arab flavour to the building. Among the medieval villages of the Apennines stands a castle that could easily be in the Moroccan desert, built by an eccentric scientist. What more could you ask for? Rocchetta Mattei tickles the curiosity of anyone who hears about it, so it’s a good idea to book a visit in advance on the website¬†www.rocchetta-mattei.it. Pack a little of Count Mattei’s original wisdom into your suitcase and I’m sure you’ll go home happy.

di Leonardo Tancredi

Painted Wall (Muro Dipinto) Biennal, Dozza

other itineraries

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