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The 7 Secrets of Bologna

Discover Bologna's hidden gems, from secret canals to mystical legends, in our guide to the city's most intriguing mysteries.

Are you a fan of legends and secrets as much as I am? Well, let me tell you, any city worth its salt is brimming with them, and Bologna is no exception to this rule.

I had the pleasure of spending three days in Bologna, and let me tell you, uncovering its secrets was like embarking on an urban treasure hunt—one of the most thrilling adventures I’ve ever had in a city.

The secrets of Bologna? They range from the humorous to the bizarre, and some might even leave you feeling a tad uncomfortable. But, trust me, they add a whole new layer of interaction to your journey. If you’re asking for my two cents, I’d say that the seven secrets of Bologna are an absolute must-discover for anyone visiting for the first time.

As you embark on your adventure to uncover the seven hidden secrets of Bologna, finding the perfect place to stay becomes part of the journey.

1. The Window to "Little Venice"

Finestrella (photo: Pantelis Kakaris)
Finestrella (photo: Pantelis Kakaris)

Start your adventure with a dash of romance at Bologna’s “Little Venice.” At Via Piella 5, there’s a charming little window, the Finestrella, offering an incredible view of the city’s history and the serene Moline canal.

Surprisingly, Bologna once mirrored Venice. The city was interlaced with numerous canals, connecting it to the Po River. These waterways were the arteries of wealth, making Bologna one of the richest cities in medieval Europe.

As time passed, these canals were buried, erasing the Venetian resemblance. It’s intriguing to think of Bologna with its canals and towers in their prime.

After capturing the necessary photos at the Finestrella, directly opposite, you can observe the canal continue in a less poetic, yet still fascinating manner.

For those curious to see more of Bologna’s hidden canals, places like Via Oberdan 32 and Via Malcontenti 4/c reveal glimpses of the city’s watery past.

2. Panis vita, canabis protectio, vinum laetitia

Diving into our second secret, we stumble upon a phrase that might raise eyebrows, especially in a travel guide. But, let’s not jump to conclusions too quickly.

Just a short walk, about 500 meters from the Finestrella, at the crossroads of Via Indipendenza and Via Rizzoli, look up at the arches to find three intriguing inscriptions:

"Panis vita, canabis protectio, vinum laetitia."

Translated, it means “Bread is life, cannabis is protection, wine is joy.” It’s believed these words nod to the wealth that the cannabis trade once brought to the city. And if you’re wondering whether cannabis use is legal in Bologna, the answer is no.

These inscriptions serve as a historical reminder of the city’s past, not an invitation to partake.

3. Poseidon's Illusion

Our third secret takes us to the heart of Piazza Maggiore, where the Fountain of Neptune plays host to a rather cheeky optical illusion.

Position yourself behind Neptune’s statue, near the steps of the Salaborsa Library, facing away from Via Indipendenza. From the right angle, Neptune’s left thumb might just appear to be something a bit more… risqué. Remember, it’s not the statues that are naughty; it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Legend has it that Giambologna, the sculptor behind this 16th-century masterpiece, crafted this illusion as a snub to the Vatican. The story goes that Giambologna was criticized for making Neptune a tad too alluring, what with his chiseled muscles and the mermaids at his feet playfully splashing water.

Giambologna supposedly wanted to enhance Neptune’s masculinity even further, but the Vatican wasn’t having any of it. And so, as fate would have it, Neptune’s thumb ended up perfectly aligned with his nether regions, creating this amusing visual pun.

Whether or not this tale is true, the illusion itself is undeniably real. So, if you see folks giggling and pointing at Neptune, now you’re in on the joke.

4. Chinese whispers

Palazzo del Podestà (photo: Pantelis Kakaris)
Palazzo del Podestà (photo: Pantelis Kakaris)

Just a stone’s throw away from the fountain, you’ll find the Palazzo del Podestà. Venture through its vast, shadowy arcade until you reach the grand dome at its heart. It’s unlikely you’ll miss it, especially if there’s a crowd gathered around its four pillars, looking rather intrigued.

This next secret is a no-go for solo adventurers; you’ll need a buddy to fully experience it. Position yourselves at opposite diagonal pillars. Then, start chatting as though you’re right next to each other. Miraculously, the walls will carry your voices across.

This architectural marvel was supposedly designed to allow priests to hear confessions from lepers without coming into close contact.

5. The Broken Vase

Next up, let’s head to the iconic Two Towers of Bologna, where things get a bit tricky. On my visit, the towers were under maintenance, and to add to the intrigue, the broken vase I’m about to mention might not even exist.

Rumor has it, from the top of the Asinelli Tower, you can spot a broken vase. The mystery of its origin and purpose remains unsolved, and unsurprisingly, no photos of this vase seem to exist. Legend suggests it symbolizes Bologna’s knack for resolving conflicts.

Even if the elusive vase remains just that, elusive, the view from the tower is absolutely breathtaking.

Did you know? There’s a belief that students should avoid climbing to the top of the tower until they’ve graduated. Defy this, and legend has it, you’ll never get your degree.

6. The Three Arrows

Next on our list is the tale of the three arrows. As you wander through the entrance of Corte Isolani, a charming passageway filled with trendy bars and shops that stretches from Piazza Maggiore to Piazza Santo Stefano, you’ll find yourself under a ceiling supported by wooden beams dating back to the mid-1400s. Cast your gaze upwards and scrutinize these beams, where you’ll spot three arrows that seem to have missed their mark.

Legend has it, three villains once aimed to assassinate a local merchant. However, their attention was diverted by the sight of a naked maid in one of the windows. Their arrows flew haphazardly, sparing the merchant’s life.

7. Panum Resis

Bologna’s claim to fame includes hosting the oldest university in Europe, a fact that’s far from secret but remains one of the city’s proudest aspects.

Heading towards the university along Via Zamboni, we find ourselves at number 33, home to the Museo di Palazzo Poggi. It’s rumored that within this museum sits a bench inscribed with the Latin phrase:

"Panum Resis"

This translates to “Knowledge is the foundation of all choice.” A profound statement, indeed. However, after a thorough search and numerous inquiries, this elusive bench remained just that—elusive. Museum staff firmly stated that no such bench with the inscription exists. Online, you’ll find various claims about this being the oldest chair or bench in Europe, yet photos or solid proof are conspicuously absent. The mystery deepens.

Despite the wild goose chase, the museum itself is a marvel, well worth exploring its captivating halls.

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