I hope you are not tired of the arcades yet because there is one more you simply cannot ignore when in Bologna. It is the most impressive of them all, even greater than that of the Santa Maria dei Servi shown on my previous post (here). The Portico of San Luca taking you to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca holds the world record with its 666 arches – numbered for the convenience of the climber – and a length of 3.8 kilometres!
There has been a shrine on top of a forested Guardia hill southwest of the historical centre of Bologna for almost a thousand years now, although the present church only dates back to the 18th century. But parts of the portico are older than that.
The majestic portico was being built during a period of 119 years starting from 1674 to protect an icon of the Virgin Mary and Child which, according to legend, was painted by Saint Luke and was carried down to the town centre annually. Legend has it that taking the icon down in 1433 finally stopped the rain that had tormented Bologna for three months. Ever since that time a procession with the icon, the Madonna di San Luca, has taken place annually from the hilltop sanctuary down to the Cathedral of San Pietro in the historical centre and up again one week later. These must be spectacular events for the locals every May.
We didn’t have the time, much less the energy, to climb the pilgrimage up to the sanctuary but we very much wanted to see it. As we had rented a car we thought we might as well pay the first visit the easy way when leaving Bologna for our next destination. However, when driving up the hill we happened to make one wrong turn. The detour took us up not along the street by the portico but winding on the surrounding hillsides and we reached the top stealthily from the opposite direction.
Moreover, there was such a thick fog up on the hilltop we didn’t see much of the sanctuary and literally none of the views that were supposed to open up from there. Nevertheless, the site was lovely even in the mist. As it was Sunday there was a constant stream of people arriving on foot up the steps under the arcade but also by car. Some of the climbers were pilgrims, others were just joggers or other athletes doing their weekend exercise.
What we hadn’t taken into account was the service that had only just begun when we arrived at around 12:30 pm. The church was packed so we didn’t stay but for a few minutes standing by the door together with dozens of other visitors who were left without a seat.
When driving down we finally beheld the longest portico in the world. It was amazing even seen through the misty windscreen in the haze.
This is another place to return to one day. But next time on a clear day and on foot. I am determined to turn us into small-scale hikers one of these day, you know. If you should ever venture on this climb do remember to check the opening hours and to bring some refreshments with you. There isn’t much of that sort to be had up there I’ve understood. If only we could remember those simple rules on our excursions.