Walking the Portico di San Luca in Bologna

For centuries, in the city of Bologna, Italy, a byzantine image of the Madonna and Child was carried ceremoniously from the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca every year during Ascension week down to the Cathedral of San Pietro in the city center. It stayed there overnight, then was carried back up.

San Luca Portico in Bologna
San Luca Portico

The problem was that the Sanctuary was far outside the medieval city walls. I’ve found several different estimates of the distance to San Pietro cathedral, but Google maps estimates the walking distance as 9.2 kilometers.

While many of the city sidewalks are covered by arcades, outside the city gate of Porto Saragossa, it hardly seemed respectful to carry that icon the remaining 3.8 kilometers outside the walls in the pouring rain or searing sun.

The solution, created in the 18th century, was to extend the arcades already built into many buildings within the walls all the way up to San Luca on the hill.

The result—an arcade (portico) 3.8 kilometers long—still stands, and still leads out of the city, winding up a hill in the countryside outside of Bologna to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. It’s the longest arcade in the world, and I walked it on my recent trip to Bologna.

I had just arrived that day, and, while it was quite cold out, it was a bright January day, so I decided to get a bit of exercise and, I hoped, get to the top of the hill before sunset.

a farmhouse on the edge of Bologna, seen from the walk up to San Luca
a farmhouse on the edge of Bologna, seen from the walk up to San Luca

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I took Bus 20, as directed by the staff at Hotel Touring, where I stayed, past the traditional starting point at Saragozza gate. Instead, I got off at Meloncello, thanks to the helpful advice of a fellow bus passenger. From there the walk is about two kilometers, estimated to take about 40 minutes.

I didn’t know that at the time, though, and the walk is entirely uphill! I stopped frequently to take pictures and catch my breath, of course, so I’d guess it took me more like an hour. Long sections of the arcade are paved with flat stones, while other sections are stairways. The arcade winds along the slope of the hill once it leaves the city, so it kept deceiving me: I thought, “Oh, there’s the end of the walk. The church must be right around that corner.” But I was wrong. Repeatedly.

Another shot of the walk up to San Luca in Bologna
Another shot of the walk up to San Luca. I have a lot of similar photos, but you get the idea.

On a January weekday afternoon, I didn’t meet many people along the way. Besides a few homeless people who seemed to be living under the arches, mostly I saw locals dressed in sweats, using the arcade for exercise. I presume that in the summer you’d come upon a lot of sweaty tourists instead.

The arcade rewards you for your effort with expansive views over the countryside and the city, as well as the impressive Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca at the top. When I arrived, a service was in progress, so I couldn’t take any pictures of the interior, but it’s certainly more ornate than the rather simple, yet grand, exterior.

The Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca outside of Bologna
The Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca

For me, the walk down was harder, since my knees began to complain—loudly. It was, nevertheless, much quicker. If the walk up doesn’t appeal to you, ask at the visitor’s center at Piazza Maggiore where you can catch the “train”—one of those tacky tourist buses meant to look like a train, but it does the job!—up to the top. Then you could either take the train back down again, or walk down.

A view of the city from near the top. That roof in the foreground is the San Luca arcade itself.
A view of Bologna from near the top. That roof in the foreground is the arcade itself.

I’d highly recommend doing what I did and arriving when the sun is low in the sky; always better for photography. In a warmer season it would also be more bearable to do that walk either early in the morning or late in the afternoon.


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