Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe & beyond...join me!

Sunday, May 31, 2020

bologna, italy...a pilgrim's journey towards faith and food

"Bologna is a city of porticos. They are our bridges, which unite and facilitate encounter and journeying." - Archbishop Zuppi

As I lean against the stone wall which encircles the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, located on a hilltop just outside of Bologna's city cenre, I notice a small, elderly woman on a bench close to me, hunched over a worn leather book. I couldn't tell what book it was, but her dedicated, focused manner makes me guess it was the Bible. She was no tourist. She was a regular here...this place meant something to her.

This is, afterall, a site devoted to the Madonna, who not just tens of thousands of travellers a year pilgrimage to, but also locals...some weekly, some monthly, some yearly.

The way here is beautiful. One of the most serene and special I have ever had the pleasure of taking. The sanctuary is linked to the historic old town by the Portico di San Luca, one of the world's longest covered walkways, at almost four kilometres long.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Portico di San Luca has 666 vaulted arcades, symbolizing the devil, and Mary's ultimate protection from him, encompasing 15 chapels along the way, dedicated to the Mysteries of the Rosary.

Now, I'm not Catholic, so I can't really go into much detail about these mysteries, sufficed to say that stopping to take note of the weathered artwork on the walls, behind the metal protective grates, the notes and flowers, the burnt-out candles on the ground and the drawings afixed onto the bars, made me acutely aware of the significance this path has for some.

Since 1433 dedicated folk have walked here, carrying the icon of the Madonna with Child to and from Bologna's Cathedral of San Pietro, and I wanted to walk here too.

This got me thinking about my journeys, pilgrimages, if you will: the journey towards a sacred or special place. I did very intentionally plan for this particular walk, from one of Bologna's twelve gates of its ancient wall, the Porta Saragozza, to the hilltop church, wanting to take the time to reflect on the path in life I was taking, and what changes or decisions I needed to be making.

It was an incredible afternoon guided by the faithful expanse of rolling forests and fields which surround northern Italy's gorgeous Bologna. I can't say that I solved all (or any) of my problems that day, but the decision to make this journey, and following through with it, gave me the confidence to embark on further journeys that were to come. And, allowed me to reminisce on where I had been...

Just over 20 years ago, I spent a summer in the Austrian Alps taking incredible days-long journeys up mountains, down into caves, and towards a better understanding of who I was and wanted to be. The process of reaching the destination each evening, as much as we revelled in reaching the warmth and promise of a great meal the mountain huts gave us, was the part that stands out as most special in my mind. I did a lot of growing on those tough craggy trails and klettersteig climbs...figuring myself out in the aftermath of a young marriage and super-young divorce, how to forgive and heal and look towards the path ahead, while looking down from cross-adorned peaks. The work that is done on your heart and mind when you're enduring the tough journey, that is what builds character and definition. But, the choice to take the journey is surely just as important, because without that decision there is just netflix and chill...nowadays anyways.

But, what about the regular, dedicated journeys that we make, or should be taking, in our 'normal' lives - not just the big, exciting Camino di Santiago-type pilgrimages? For example, I have a dear friend who almost daily walks up his suburban, tree-lined street towards a large, mostly empty church, just to sit in silence and think. He's a great teller of stories, and I'm sure it is because he deliberately  and intentionally, with care, takes the time to ponder the state of the world he lives in and his place in it, so that he can put down in words in such illuminating ways what he sees and feels.

I have come to two conclusions:

That it is this making-of-space for thought and reflection and silence, whether on an empty church pew, or in a field of grass, or on a mountaintop, that is definitely important in creating a sense of calm within our incredibly distracted lives, and in figuring out who we are and who we should be in this ever-strange world we live in together...a destination we should all be so lucky in reaching.

But also, that the decision to take the journey (any journey), and actually faithfully putting one foot in front of the other, as we embark on the path, trusting in ourselves that we have packed everything we need in order to go forward; whether it's towards a new relationship, towards healing an old one, towards a new career path, or towards getting to know our neighbour or community, or towards healing ourselves and finding calm, the decision to take the first step and continuing each day is surely the vital part of any journey.

As far as destinations go, Bologna is a great place to trek to. It is a city which, firstly, esthetically, looks different from other Italian cities (not that the others all look similar, of course, but this one stands out).  Bologna is painted in a patina of rust-coloured red, including the Due Torri (two towers) which are visible from almost every vantage point.

People are friendly here. They have been used to travellers and visitors since basically the beginning of time. The city is the centre of pretty much all major crossroads in Italy; between Venice and Genoa, between Florence and Milan, and lies directly on the path northwards from Rome to the rest of continental Europe. Bologna has always been a very important trade city, and one of the wealthiest in Italy due to its vital role in agriculture, finance and industry.

It is one of the oldest cities. Period. Bologna's historic old town is Europe's second largest - for that alone it's worth the trip! But, it is also home to, some say, the oldest university in the world, although a local I had dinner with here implied that Ferrara's university, an hour away, should actually hold that title.

Nevertheless, Bologna's oldest university building, the Archiginnasio of Bologna is incredibly beautiful, and houses the anatomical theatre and municipal library, which was originally created to hold the books collected after Napoleon ordered the closure of all religious orders.

Bologna is the capital of my favourite Italian region, Emilia-Romagna, also known as Italy's 'bread basket' because it's the origin of some of the world's best food (IMO). Bolognese sauce, Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, balsamic vinegar (Modena!), to name a few, and a whole host of delicious pastas, including lasagne, cappelletti and stuffed tortellini.

Driving or training (that's how I did it) on a food pilgrimage, beginning in Parma, through Modena, and ending in Bologna, will give you a tasty journey like no other. Wander through narrow streets lined with small shop fronts filled with hanging salami and mortadella and counters of freshly-made pasta, or sit in a cozy trattoria and eat what the locals eat. Try ordering a plate of parmigiano reggiano when you first arrive, which will be served with a small pot of honey and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, to get into the gastronomical groove for your tour...that's what I did, and oh my...

For a truly authentic faith and food pilgrimage, try treking part of the Via Francigena from the Swiss Alps down to the Romans did. Along the way, you will have much time to reflect on your life's journey while also passing directly through Emilia Romagna. You can taste test your way through Italian's on my list!

I hope that by the end of my life (though hopefully it won't be take me that long) I will have found the dedication and thoughtfulness to not only go forth on the big journeys, but like the old woman on the bench, or my friend in the empty church, to embark on the smaller ones. To take the time in my day to read and reflect and make the decision and to follow through with it like a ritual or pilgrimage. And if, like the old woman, my path leads me under a long, beautiful covered walkway, protecting me from the elements, I hope that I will never lose faith and will trust, as the Bolognese do, that something, possibly Mary, is always there watching over me.

Italy, especially the northern regions, has been heavy on my mind the past few months, as they have been one of the worst hit areas of the Covid-19 pandemic. I'm thinking of you, bella Italia, as you begin to heal and recover, and I look forward to visiting again soon. You are a special place.

(borrowed from an ad seen somewhere in Emilia-Romagna)

If you go:

Watch the incomparable Anthony Bourdain's great Emilia-Romagna episode...and drool.


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