Bologna, Italy: The medieval city with the world's longest portico

If the most stylish of Bolognese gentlemen could remain nonchalant and sweatless in their suits despite yet another day in the high 30s, we could undertake a shortish walk up a nearby hill –especially since the entire four kilometres of the mostly gentle ascent, from the edge of Bologna's historical centre to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, is shaded by the world's longest portico.

Though renowned for its food, not least its tagliatelle al ragu (the stone upon which the church of spaghetti Bolognese was built), Bologna is a vibrant city whose medieval and Renaissance looks are enhanced by, and defined by, its love of porticoes – porches given grandeur by their street-side columns and high, vaulted ceilings. According to UNESCO – which has Bologna's porticoes on its "tentative list" for world heritage status – the city has 38 kilometres of the structures. City statutes set down in 1288 required all new buildings in Bologna to have a portico, in part to increase living space on upper floors. And they needed to be at least 2.7 metres in height, to allow the passage of a person on horseback.

The grand buildings of the city centre are lined with porticoes. As far as pedestrians are concerned, never mind equestrians, this has all but weatherproofed the city. Umbrella sellers do not come to Bologna to make their fortune. Nor do milliners. Despite having the kind of complexion that puts dermatologists' kids through university, I'm happy, such is the shade provided by its long ribbon of portico, to tackle the walk up Colle della Guardia to San Luca sanctuary without a hat. With such boldness were worlds discovered.

After coffee and croissants at the delightful Corner Bar on via Saragozza (the same one we repaired to the previous evening for an aperitivo which came with a selection of appetisers so generous as to constitute dinner) we make our way one kilometre from the city centre to the Bonaccorsi Arch at Porta Saragozza, one of the 12 medieval city gates which ring Bologna. This is the official starting point of the walking route to San Luca sanctuary. Since 1433 an annual procession led by a Byzantine image of the Madonna and child has taken this route. It wasn't until the turn of the 16th century, however, that the faithful have been able to undertake the procession without worrying about the weather. Funded by donations from local citizens, the portico was constructed between 1674 and 1739.

For a kilometre or so we stroll along the narrow portico fronting cafes, greengrocers, cheese shops and pharmacies. We also bypass countless residences, or at least their wide, handsome, wooden front doors, the kind that close with a satisfyingly heavy click. If there's not a coffee table book on Italy's glorious doors there should be.

With the cry of cicadas emanating from the gardens of the grand residences opposite, we continue along the portico, passing a 300-year-old statue of the Madonna (so, not the singer). The portico, meantime, runs so straight at this point it appears to be an optical illusion, a passage to infinity. There are said to be 666 arches in this portico. I stopped counting at six, happy to take their word for it.

At via del Meloncello the portico is set within a detailed baroque archway that takes us over traffic. Then a two-kilometre climb begins, with sequences of seven or so steps set between upward sloping stone pavers that would have taken some effort to heft into place.

To our left, at regular intervals, set within the wall of the portico, are small chapels representing the 15 promises of the rosary. To the right is the vehicular road to the sanctuary. There, overtaking us, is a dinky, multi-carriage "train" taking tourists to the top the easy way. They are oblivious to my dismissive look.

As we rise, Bologna falls away beneath us, and we know that soon we'll be looking down on the 900-year-old leaning twin towers in Bologna's city centre, on its cathedral domes and its acres of terracotta roof tiles, a smear of clay-red on a flat plain.

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Meantime joggers plod up, or race down, the portico. Two teenage girls pause on their walk for a spot of Instagram posing, hair thrown back. A spritely elderly man walks his dog. We lean into the steepest section nearing the summit, regularly stopping to look behind and marvel every time at the way the portico repeats on itself.

Some time later we reach the top – to find the sanctuary closed. Ah. The views over the city and the green hills to the south are worth the trip alone, however. So too was the portico that guided and shaded our way. As they say, the journey, not the destination, is the thing.

TRIP NOTES

Paul Connolly travelled to Bologna at his own expense.

FLY

Emirates and Qantas fly from Australia to Bologna, with one stop. See emirates.com; qantas.com

VISIT

The portico walk to Santuario di San Luca is accessible at all times. Check opening times for entry to the sanctuary. See bolognawelcome.com.

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