Bologna is known in Italy as La Rossa for its left-wing politics, terracotta rooftops and scarlet-painted shutters. The city’s red colouring is best seen from the summit of one of the 12th-century towers that dot the skyline like industrial chimneys. Nine centuries ago there were more than a hundred, and they made Bologna a city of proto-skyscrapers – a ‘medieval Manhattan’ in the words of one historian. Now, just 20 or so of these giants remain, and only a couple can be climbed by visitors. One is the Torre Asinelli, which stands next to its woozily listing shorter sister, the Torre Grisenda. Together, they are another symbol of the city. A third accessible tower, the Torre Prendiparte, is a 13-storey, single-bedroom bed-and-breakfast, and one of Italy’s truly inimitable places to stay.
All Bologna is far below you: the craggy, corrugated roofline; the minuscule people, discernible mostly by their crawling pencil-line shadows; the chessboard piazzas and the window-box parks and gardens; the lonely basilica of the Madonna di San Luca, protectress of Bologna, on its sacred hilltop beyond the city walls… You think you will not want to do the scary climb more than once. But you will find yourself Rapunzelling up to the rooftop every day, sometimes twice, because you can’t get enough of that unencompassable panorama.
Bologna is no less remarkable at street level. In the town centre, long stretches of pavement are contained within covered walkways, an incidental consequence of a piece of medieval town planning whereby buildings were extended from the first floor up, and the overhang supported on columns. It all makes for a stately and very sheltered city. Sitting outside a café or a bar, you can always contrive to be protected from the hot summer sun or some sudden autumnal shower.