Bologna: On foot in Italy's ancient high-rise city

The skyline was once punctuated by 180 towers. Adrian Mourby sets out to explore those that remain

Italy's city of towers is making a concerted effort to enhance its tourist appeal. Bologna has been a university community since 1088 and a big business city since the railways arrived, but visitors come here for the baroque and Renaissance architecture and for its 21 remaining medieval towers, not that they are always easy to find.

Start your tower-gazing in front of the five-star Grand Majestic hotel. La Coroncina, the small general store on the other side of the road (00 39 051 231885; www.lacoron cina.it) is lodged in the base of Torre degli Scappi, which functions as its store-room now. Local legend claims that the tower gets its name from an incident when the imprisoned King Enzo, son of the Holy Roman Emperor, tried to escape Bologna in a laundry basket. A woman looking down from the tower saw his blonde hair sticking up and shouted "scappi!" (he flees).

Bologna's 180 towers were initially built for defence, but by the 14th century were must-have status symbols. Cross Via Ugo Bassi to walk past the statue of Neptune by Giambologna. Look left while crossing and you'll get a view of Le Due Torri, the twin towers that are found on the most popular postcards of Bologna.

Now you're in Piazza Maggiore. The palace where Enzo was imprisoned, Palazzo Re Enzo, is that gothic-looking structure joined on to Palazzo del Podesta (00 39 051 239660; bolognawelcome.com), which these days contains the tourist information centre.

Turn into Via IV Novembre and left into Piazza Galileo and on your left rises Torre Spagnola, which is now part of a police station. This tower was built for Spanish students at Bologna University – in the Middle Ages, halls of residence were established along national lines.

Now turn left along Via Marescalchi and right up Via de' Fusari, past the sweet-smelling Antica Profumeria Al Sacro Cuore (00 39 051 235211; sacrocuoreprofumi.it) and into Piazza de' Celestini. The church of San Giovanni Battista Celestini (00 39 051 221443) contains the grave of 15th-century sculptor Niccolo dall'Arca who created the lifesize terracotta statues in Bologna's Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita (00 39 051 23 6245).

Cross Via d'Azeglio into Corte de' Galluzzi and you're confronted by Torre de' Galluzzi, which now contains the Mondadori Bookshop (00 39 051 275611). As you go inside, look how thick the walls are (three metres) and how small that left the interior of the tower itself (just nine square metres). Inside the bright modern bookshop, pause for an espresso at the Fashion Café (00 39 051 239485).

Leave Corte de' Galluzzi via the tunnel under Banco di Bologna, emerging in Piazza Galvani, which is dominated by a statue of the Bolognese academic Luigi Galvani, discoverer of bio electricity. The plaque behind commemorates the 16th-century Fabbriceria di San Petronio, where Michelangelo carved statues.

On the other side of piazza is a long 17th-century colonnade built for Bologna University by Pope Pius IV. The gift was not as generous as it sounds; Pius wanted to stop Bolognese plans to expand their stunning brick basilica until it was bigger than St Peter's in Rome.

Today you can see where the building work stopped dead. Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio, the most glorious part of this complex of buildings, is open to the public – take a peek inside the 17th-century dissecting room.

Continue left along the arcade past MaxMara and Fratelli Rosetti before turning right into Via de' Foscherari. As you walk down this narrow road, note that on the left is the Ospedale della Morte (Hospital of Death) where in 18th-century medical students used to experiment on condemned men.

At the junction turn left into Via Marchesana. Halfway down you'll find the 22m Torre dei Carrari – the original structure is 14th-century, but the ground floor is now a pet shop.

Now turn left down Via Drapperie with its fish, meat, bread and produce stalls and take the next right into Via Caprarie where ahead of you rises the Alberici Tower. Cross Piazza della Mercanzia to inspect it. The silk-manufacturing Bolognini family bought this tower in 1357 and incorporated it into their house next door as a status symbol. Since 1919 it's been the premises of Pappagallo (00 39 051 232807; alpappagallo.it) a splendid, old-fashioned Italian restaurant.

From here, walk left as far as the Asinelli and Garisenda towers. You really can't miss these giants. Go round the back of Asinelli looking in the windows of ArtigianArte (00 39 051 271154; artigianarte.bo.it), a little souvenir shop in the base of the tower. On the back of Torre Garisenda you'll see a plaque quoting Dante, who compared standing beneath the giant Atreus to this very tower, a fitting place to end the walk.

Fresh Cuts

Torre Prendiparte (00 39 051 58 90 23; www.prendiparte.it) has recently opened as the only medieval tower you can stay in. The room costs €300 (£240) per night B&B for maximum of three people.

Inaugurated this January, the Museum of the History of Bologna (00 39 051 199 36 317; www.genus bononiae.it) is in fact a linked trail through eight of Bologna's historic buildings.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with Railbookers (020-3327 0869; railbookers.com), which offers a three-night Bologna break via the Alps from £795 per person. The price includes outward train travel from London St Pancras, B&B at the Grand Hotel Baglioni and return British Airways flight to London.

Flight options are restricted to London. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Bologna; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) flies from Gatwick; while BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) now flies only from Heathrow

More information

Bologna Tourist Information: 00 39 051 239660; bolognawelcome.it

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