The world’s longest portico

When it comes to sunburn, Bologna is a low-risk city. Elsewhere in Italy it’s easy to get burnt queuing outdoors or walking around cities, as I have learned (and then forgotten, and then re-learned) on several occasions. In Bologna, though, the burn never comes. The city’s streets are lined with intersecting, vaulted porticos, meaning that inadvertent sun exposure is low and sunscreen unnecessary.

Bologna’s most famous stretch of portico — and the longest in the world — is the San Luca walk, which reaches out beyond the city and up, up, up to an enormous red church called the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. Once each year, a shrine to the Madonna is carried from the Sanctuary down into Bologna and paraded around, before being returned to its seat. The San Luca portico was built to protect the Madonna from the elements during this procession, but serves a secondary purpose of (hopefully) reducing instances of melanomas suffered by visiting tourists.

I take to the San Luca walk on my last day in Bologna, keen to sweat out the mist of a hangover. Upon arrival at the base of the incline, I encounter a man who has completed his descent and is using a railing to do push-ups. He’s drenched in sweat; my goal seems thoroughly achievable.

This man, it turns out, is one of many locals who use the portico as an outdoor gym. Most jog past me and out of sight in ones and twos. Some stop periodically to jump, squat and curl using stairs, railings and benches. Only the metal bars that hang below each vault go unused; they’re a little high for chin-ups.

I ascend the portico slowly. It’s about midday, and my perception of the heat is heightened by the physical activity going on around me, the dusty red colour of the portico itself, and the chirping of a thousand cicadas. I’ve come equipped with an oversized water bottle, which I drink from at regular intervals.

Although the portico is effectively the same arch repeated hundreds of times, the structure offers plenty of visual stimulation. Geometric shadows cast by each arch and column run into the distance with beautiful uniformity. Each metre or so of wall hosts a marble plaque in memorial of a local; these span more than two centuries. In addition to formal dedications, there are typical, adoring scrawls: Robby + Robby = Amore, Marti ti Amo!. There’s stencilled red graffiti, too; BO12, which I assume is the name of some harmless gang of local youths, is stamped up and down the portico. In some sections the brick beneath the portico’s russet surface is exposed, and in others there are faded coats of arms.

Alcoves housing shrines are dotted throughout the walk, decorated with frescoes depicting various saints’ greatest hits. Grilles separate these shrines from passers-by, but flowers that look far too perky given the heat and humidity stand erect to indicate some form of ongoing dedication (or, at least, a church budget for polyester petals).

As I reach the final climb to the Sanctuary, the incline becomes stepped. It curves in places; I keep thinking I’m nearly at the summit, only to round a corner and be met with hundreds more metres of portico. By now sweat is dripping from my temples and my backpack is clinging to me. The arches are numbered in ascending order, and I measure my progress accordingly. By the time I finish the walk my attention has waned, and I forget to check how many arches there are in total. When I investigate online afterwards, I learn that there are 666.

It’s just gone 12.30 when I pass the final arch. I haven’t timed my arrival well — as with many tourist attractions, shops and other amenities of use and interest in northern Italy, the Sanctuary closes for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. This is something of an anticlimax; now, rather than being able to take in a view from the church back towards Bologna’s porticoed old town, I can only enjoy the suburban sprawl to my right.

Still, at least I’m in good company here. The local joggers pause only briefly at the summit before descending, leaving a more sedentary crowd to hang about. A trio of nuns dressed entirely in white sit in the shade cast by the portico, fielding enquiries from tourists about their inability to access the Sanctuary. Some of said tourists carry full-sized, intrepid traveller backpacks — a feat I can barely comprehend in this heat.

Even with the Sanctuary closed, I feel gratified to have reached the top. My hangover mist has well and truly dissipated, there’s a free-flowing bubbler that I happily make use of, and, of course, I’m not sunburnt. I’ll take my blessings where I can.

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