BOLOGNA — Monte della Guardia, upon which sits the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of San Luca, is just far enough outside of the city to offer pilgrims a modest goal, but not so far that beautiful views of Bologna can’t be enjoyed from the summit.
The red-tinged town, among the finest (and largest) network of medieval streets and historic buildings in Italy, includes miles of arcades, or porticos, making it possible to traverse Bologna from one end to the other almost completely under cover.
Standing guard over the city is the shrine, where one finds an ancient painting of the "Madonna and Child," said to be the work of Luke the Evangelist. Aside from the views, it’s the painting that draws ambitious foot soldiers to the site. It used to be housed in a smaller church built in the 11th century.
To get there you walk nearly four kilometers, through the Portico di San Luca, 666 vaults of an arcade built between 1674 and 1793 that offers shelter to those embarking on the annual Ascension week procession from the summit to San Pietro Cathedral in the center of the city, or to those merely interested in a little exercise. No umbrellas are required to get to the relatively new (1723) basilica church at the top end of the portico.
During a visit to Bologna, my wife and I decided one mid-morning to make the climb. We cheated a little. Rather than start at the city center, we took the bus along via Saragozza to via San Luca, the paved roadway parallel to the pedestrian portico upon which I gazed longingly, and which prompted at the onset of our hike, and repeatedly during the course of the trek, immense gratitude for the modern conveniences like cars we tend to take for granted.
It was futile to count the steps. There were thousands of them. Up and up we climbed, then leveled off for a brief spell only to lift the knees once again for great stretches of time. We would reach a bend in the path and discover another portion of the Italian fresh-air tunnel receding into the far distance.
In early Renaissance painting, artists perfected the use of perspective, identifying a vanishing point then drawing on the canvas a series of lines like the spokes of a wheel within a grid, setting the stage for the sketch followed by the application of oil. The realistic effect was revolutionary for the time, an artistic and mathematical breakthrough.
Along the Portico di San Luca, perspective took on new meaning. It nearly broke me. It nearly prompted a revolution. But I persisted.
Up and up we went, then leveled off, then climbed, then turned, only to be greeted by more steps and more arcades as far as the eye could see. When I wasn’t complaining or perspiring or feeling my stomach churn for the effort, I was thinking about the wonders of the red city of Bologna, which, despite incessant bombing in 1944 during World War II, and the loss of most of its more than 100 medieval towers, remains one of the loveliest, livable places in Italy.
For some reason, tourists favor Florence, Venice and Rome. Those are certainly nice places, too, but when it comes to extended stays, quality of life, municipal services and cuisine, I like Bologna best. It sits at a crossroads, nestled against the Apennines in the sprawling Po Valley. From the hub of Bologna, trains take you anywhere. An airport is located just 15 minutes from the historical center. One can easily rent a car or hop on a regional rail line and visit other towns in the Emilia-Romagna region, such as Ferrara, Parma or Ravenna.
This is the land of Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, mortadella and tortellini. Vegetarians beware. City markets are filled with local produce and hand-crafted egg pastas that make the mouth water with anticipation. Eating in Bologna is a perverse pleasure. It is best accomplished by those with hedonistic tendencies.
But have no fear. Opportunities for repentance abound: Brisk walks through the gracious greenspace of Giardini Margherita, a run through Giardino Scoto to the church of San Michele in Bosco, a bike ride along the winding roads of the nearby hills, or — and here, dear reader, I beg your understanding — a long schlep under the portico to the San Luca shrine.
We chose the schlep.
Up and up we went, marveling at the joggers trotting past us effortlessly, at the cheerful college students out for their daily stroll, at the little old ladies overtaking us in their zeal to pay tribute to St. Luke.
I began to gasp for air. I beseeched my wife to permit us to turn back. Did I really need to see an icon only alleged to have been made by a saint?
But we had come this far, we were almost there. Maybe. It was hard to know for sure. There was always another turn, another stretch of steps.
Time began to slow down, then speed up, then slow down again. I wasn’t sure where I was. The arcades flitted by, one by one, as if in a dream or a de Chirico painting. The experience was akin to a hallucination, it was becoming — dare I say it? — spiritual. In any case, I started to pray. And just as I was wrapping up my plea to the Almighty, I glimpsed a bright light in the distance. Was it ... could it be ... the end?
Then, emerging like a vision from the mist of time, a giant cross appeared, set in relief against the diffuse light of the sky, and we emerged from the long covered passage as if thrust by an unknown force into a new dimension.
We had arrived, disheveled and perspiring but with all our limbs and senses intact. This had been a true pilgrimage, one that alters perception and leads to a kind of enlightenment. Standing atop Monte della Guardia in the white brightness of midday, only steps away from the door to the basilica, I felt liberated, lightheaded, illuminated. Around us was the rolling green of the Apennine foothills. Cell phone towers loomed large on nearby peaks. The city shimmered red below.
Relieved and ready to behold the famous "Madonna and Child" that possibly was the work of Luke himself, we made our way to the church entrance and discovered it was closed for the afternoon.