When you’re visiting Bologna, one of the first landmarks you will notice are the towers. They’re pretty hard to miss. The two most obvious stand close to each other, and are named Le Due Torri of Bologna. We decided, like many other tourists, that we would give the publicly accessible, taller of the two, a climb. However, we did wonder what they were, and why they were there. There were a few other towers in Bologna – what were they for?
In medical times, between the 12th and the 13th century, up to 180 towers stood in the city. You read that correctly. That’s a lot of towers for a relatively confined space. While the jury appears to be out on their exact purpose, defense seems to be the strongest justification. Others claimed that rich Bologna families wanted to exert their wealth. Whatever their purpose, it would have made for a very interesting skyline.
There are around 20 towers of various sizes still standing in the city. Most of the original towers have subsequently collapsed, or been taken down. This isn’t surprising when you see the precarious lean of the smaller of the two main towers, the Garisenda and Asinelli towers, best known combined as Le Due Torri. Built between 1109 – 19 by the Asinelli family, the Asinelli tower is the taller tower, standing at 97 meters. Garisenda was originally the same height as its twin, around 60-70 meters, but once it started to lean in the 14th century, it was lowered. The excess brick was then placed onto the Asinelli tower to make it taller.
In the 14th century, the Asinelli tower was turned into a prison and a small stronghold. It would have made a pretty miserable little prison – it is a tiny structure width wise, and wouldn’t be the sort of place you would want to climb on a regular basis. The cells would have had a great view, though! It contained to serve a lookout function over the years. During World War Two, volunteers would stand at the top to direct rescue operations to areas of the city hit by bombs.
First things first. You have to book online, or through the tour desk at Bologna Welcome Point, Piazza Maggiore 1/e. You can’t just show up and hope to climb it. I suspect this is partly due to wanting to control numbers, and partly due to good-old-Italian efficiency – or lack thereof. It costs 5 euros (20AED)per person to climb the tower, or 3 euros (12 AED) if you are eligible for a reduced ticket. If you have a Bologna Card, entry is free, although I imagine you still need to book. You must show up for the time slot specified on your ticket.
The walk up is 498 steps. This is actually not as bad as it sounds. I’ve climbed a fair few structures – including St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Arc de Triomphe – and this was one of the easier walks. I was also feeling pretty unwell on the day. There are plenty of places to stop and rest, although we went out in one fell swoop. It took around 10 minutes. The fact that only a small section of the ascent is a spiral staircase improves the trip. The steps are wooden, so weren’t slippery, even though we had all been walking in the rain outside.
Once you reach the top, the view out over the city is gorgeous. As it was raining, and we went first thing, there were few people up the tower. We stood listening to the church bells and looking over over the orange rooftops for quite some time. I imagine that a day with fine weather would provide an even better view. Make sure you peek over the side at the smaller Garisenda tower next door. This was a reminder of just how high we were!
There isn’t anything else to see inside the tower, so descending was another quick trip. At some stages, it is quite steep, and I found it easier to go down backwards. If you are scared of heights, going down will be worse than up. At some points you can see quite far down the staircase you are ascending, which reminds you of just how high you are.
If climbing Asinelli tower isn’t your thing, you can always book a night in the Prendiparte tower, a former prison and the second tallest tower in Bologna, turned into BnB accommodation.
If you are staying in Bologna, take the time to climb one of the towers. It’s a very simple and easy climb, and the reward at the top will make any huffing and puffing worthwhile. Don’t worry about that slight lean, either – the tower has been recently restored and strengthened to ensure its ongoing viability. Have fun, and happy climbing!