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The 7 Secrets of Bologna by a Local

Don’t you love legends and secrets? Oh, I totally do! Every Italian city has a few stories that are passed from generation to generation, and Bologna is no exception. The 7 secrets of Bologna are indeed seven legends that only the locals know about.

These are funny, strange, or even R-rated curiosities that will make your visit more interactive and you should definitely insert them in your Bologna itinerary. I already told you, you’ll fall in love with Bologna!

I don’t really know how I even know these stories! I guess it’s one of those things my parents or grandparents told me about when I was a kid and that always fascinated me. I mean, why are there some old arrows stuck in a portico? And how about that Bologna looked like Venice, many centuries ago?

I never really thought of taking pictures of these secrets of Bologna, as it’s usually something you show to first-time visitors. The wow factor is guaranteed! Next time I’m back home in Bologna, I promise I’ll go and try and take photos of all these spots.

Here it’s a little map though so you know where to find all the 7 secrets of Bologna + a few more legends about the city.

The Canals of Bologna, aka Little Venice

Not many people know this, but during the Middle Ages Bologna resembled Venice. The city was crossed by many canals that linked the city to the Po river. Thanks to these waterways, Bologna was one of the richest cities in Europe: the water flow created the right conditions for many flour mills, and waterways allowed people to move faster.

These canals were later buried during the centuries, and now Bologna has little to do with Venice. But there are a couple places where you can still see the canals, and imagine how Bologna must have looked with all the canals and 100+ towers… it must have been enchanting!

In Via Piella 5, right in the city center, you can find a little window from which you’ll see one of the old canals. This is an unusual and surprising sight that you wouldn’t expect by walking down Bologna’s streets; it’s like a window to the history of the city! You can expect most Bologna walking tours to bring you here.

There are just a few other places in the city where you can see the old canals, including Via Oberdan 32, and Via Malcontenti 4/c. Occasionally, the city organizes tours to explore the subterranean canals as well.

Canabis protectio

At the corner between via Indipendenza and via Rizzoli, if you look upwards you’ll see a Latin writing on the vault of the portico that says: “Panis vita, canabis protectio, vinum laetitia”.

We could translate it like: “Bread is life, cannabis is protection, wine is joy”. Was it protection from pain? From going hungry? They say the engraving makes reference to the richness that the trade of cannabis brought to Bologna in the past. And if you’re wondering, nope, it’s not legal today.

Neptune Fountain’s Secret

This particular Bologna secret is a bit bawdy, but it’s just an optical illusion, and it’s a pretty fun one. In Piazza Maggiore stand behind the statue of Neptune, near the steps of the Salaborsa library, and give your back to Via Indipendenza. If you look at it from the correct angle, it’s really probable you will confuse the thumb of the left hand of Neptune for… well…its erected penis. I’m not inserting a picture of this one though, as I don’t want to be flagged for porn 😀

The legend says that Giambologna, the sculptor who worked on the fountain in the 16th century, created this particular optical illusion as revenge against the Vatican. In fact, Giambologna was accused of making the statue of Neptune too sexy – Neptune’s muscles are ripped and at his feet there are a few mermaids touching their own breasts. Apparently Giambologna wanted to make Neptune’s genitals larger and the Vatican told him no so he ooops didn’t realize that the thumb of the Neptune lines up with its groins, making it look like an erect penis.

Who knows if it’s true, but if you see a few people pointing at the statue and giggling, now you know why!

The Game of the Broken Telephone 

If you walk down Piazza Maggiore during the day, more specifically under the big vault of the Palace of the Podestà you’ll always see people having fun trying to talk in front of the columns at the four corners.

No they’re not nuts. The sounds are transmitted from a corner to the opposite one, so it’s possible to have a conversation with a friend who stands some meters far from you. This surprising architectural phenomenon was thought to give the priests the possibility to confess the lepers without risking their own health.

I have some pretty fond memories of this Bologna secret. When my parents brought me as a kid to walk around the city center, playing at the whispering walls one was one of my favorite things to do in Bologna. Of course it’s fun as a kid, but even as an adult it’s pretty cool… try it out for yourself!

The Broken Vase

People say that at the top of the Asinelli Tower you can find a broken vase. Nobody knows why exactly it’s there. Legends say it should symbolize the ability of Bologna to solve conflicts. Some others say there is no vase up there, and I honestly forgot to check every time I climbed the tower. I promise I’ll try and remember next time and I’ll update this post.

Another little curiosity about the Asinelli Tower is the traditional belief that students cannot climb to the top of the tower until they’ve got their university degree. It’s believed that if they climb it before, they’ll never get it. If you ask me, it’s just an excuse not to study!

Do you want one more? Here you go. The legend says that there was a poor man whose only possession were a few donkeys, in italian “asini”. This man one day met a beautiful woman, daughter of a rich man, and fell in love with her. When he went to ask the woman’s father permission to marry his daughter, he replied “The day you’ll build her the highest tower in the city, I’ll agree to the wedding”. Remember than in the Middle Ages there were over 100 towers in Bologna, so the poor man didn’t have it easy. But one day he found one golden coins in a river, and built the woman the highest tower in Bologna – what today is known as “Asinelli Tower”.

The Three Arrows

To discover this secret you need a really good sense of sight. In Strada Maggiore, in front of the entrance of Corte Isolani (Strada Maggiore 19), by looking upwards you should be able to see three arrows stuck in the wooden portico.

The legend says that three bandits wanted to kill a nobleman. A girl saw what was happening and decided to distract them by taking off her clothes. Apparently it worked as the bandits overlooked and threw their arrows towards the portico instead.

Panum Resis

This is probably the less known secret of them all and you can discover it on via Zamboni, inside Poggi Palace, where you’ll find one building part of the Bologna University. One of the desks has a Latin phrase written on it: “Panum resis”, which means that knowledge is the foundation of every choice.

And there you go! Here are the 7 Bologna secrets that every good Bologna ambassador knows about. But pssssh, don’t tell too many people!


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  • Stefania Guglielmi

    Stefania Guglielmi is the founder of Every Steph. Originally from Bologna, Italy, she's been traveling full-time since 2016 and has visited over 50 countries across 6 continents. She believes sustainable travel and luxury travel can go hand in hand and has been advocating for responsible tourism since 2014. Stefania's advice and travel experiences have been featured in important publications such as Business Insider, Refinery29, and Yahoo Money.

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[…] Bologna has quite a few fun stories and legends, check out also my post about the 7 secrets of Bologna. […]