Among the Arcades, Bologna | Mark Lindsay


It was brisk and cold. It was the morning of the Feast of the Epiphany—he twelfth day of Christmas—the day that commemorates the Wise Men's visit to see Baby Jesus in the manger. The holidays in Italy extend to this day which is, perhaps the most festive of all that comprise the season. Part of the Epiphany's story includes an old woman who the Wise Men met on the way to the manger. They asked her for directions and then asked her to join them on their quest—but the old woman refused to go. After they left, she saw a great light in the sky and decided that finding the manger might be a good idea after all. But she got lost along the way. Sadly, she truly got lost—in an eternal sort of way. Now she's known as La Befana and, on the night of January 5th, she flies across the skies of Italy on a broom as she searches for the Baby Jesus. Luckily, for the children of Italy, she brings gifts to the young as in hopes of finally finding the manger. Her loss is Italy's gain as we quickly learned on this chilly day.

Bologna and the Befana—it was our second time in the city for this festive holiday. The first time, five years ago, we left for the airport on the morning of the Feast. The streets were deserted and the city was dead silent, something one hardly ever experiences in this noisy country. Anything important enough to hush an Italian city was important enough to experience in its fullest. At that moment we promised ourselves to return for the Feast of the Epiphany and to stay beyond it.

And now this most recent trip was nearing an end, a thing that always gives us agitation. We awoke restless, wanting something different to do. After fifteen visits to Bologna, the usual sources of entertainment had grown stale. We'd been eating too much and had been, perhaps, a bit too festive. We needed a walk. A church, Il Santuario della Madonna di San Lucca, atop Monte Della Guardia, would be the goal of our trek. Along the way and into the pearly sky, we'd experience the long arcade, the Portico di San Luca. This would guide us up the hill. Consisting of 666 arches and built to protect the church's icon as it was marched up the hill, the arcade is 3.5 km long.

The sky was opalescent in a murky way. The smell of wood smoke was in the air. The arcade started of level for the first 300 or so arcades and then we reached an arch; the Arco del Meloncello. After that, the climb began. Up we went, into the pearly sky. Along the way, to our right, a stadium was filling. The murmur of a restless crowd grew louder from within. The sound of happy people mixed with the hazy air on this twelfth day of Christmas.

A long procession was working its way up the steps of the arcade. 360…361…362. Each arch had a number. Most had an inscription that dedicated it to this family or that. Some had shrines, others had flowers. Others still were marred by trash and graffiti. 421...422...423. The arcade was a lot longer than we'd realized. 501…502…503. The Bolognese that accompanied us set the pace and bounded up the hill. They'd done this before and were in good condition. The air grew chillier as we rose. 664…665…666! We were there. The church, of simple curves and impressive dome, was worth the hike. Yet, curiously, most of the procession passed the church and led straight towards a pizzeria. It was, after all, lunchtime.

The hike had taken us up and out of Bologna. Up here it was nothing like Bologna at all. More reminiscent of the Italian countryside it was forested in a cultivated sort of way. We followed the Bolognese to the pizzeria and had lunch.

Restored, we descended back down into the red city. By now the air was white with haze and then sank into dusk. The stadium had reached capacity and was roaring with eager fans. The city glowed in twilight, the holiday light ablaze. We soon reached the great piazza of the city which was now teaming with life. Workers, with timber and straw around them, were constructing a manger scene. A live cow gave forth a plaintive moo as children reached forth to pet her, along with her friends, the sheep and the goat. All would soon would be manger companions. The construction workers argued and seemed tardy in completing the manger scene. No one, save the cow, seemed to mind.

The city was in full celebration. The Feast of the Epiphany had begun. Signs of the coming of the La Befana were everywhere. Children carried with them their new toys. Many were clearly on a sugar buzz caused by the good witch's candy. As the evening mellowed into night the celebrants showed no sign of tiring. But, the arcade had worn us out as did the excitement of the feast. We retired to our room and went off quickly to sleep. It was a happy sleep for we'd finally seen Italy's Feast of the Epiphany. And we still had two days left in a place that, by now, felt like a second home.