You might have heard the epithet “Bologna the red”, and yet Bologna is also.... blue. No bells ringing? Don't worry, we're just referring to a lesser-known aspect of this marvelous city, deeply intertwined with the waterways that have been boosting the city's economic development for centuries. Sure enough, during the 12th century, a dense network of artificial canals was conceived in order to power the several water-mills, tanneries and spinning mills of the city. The immediate and punctual availability of water contributed to the prosperity of the local manufacturing industry, making Bologna the main textile center in Italy.
Unfortunately, to date the majority of the canals have been buried under the roads, although it is still possible to visit several places that remind visitors of an ancient, now-lost “Water Bologna”.
Under the auspices of the King of the Seas, leave Piazza Nettuno behind and walk along the oldtown alleys up to Via Oberdan, flanked by the Moline Canal (Mill Canal), named after the 15 large corn mills built here in the 15th century. Admire the ancient millers' dwellings on the right side of the street, a rare example of sixteenth-century public housing.
The nearby via Piella offers one of the city's most stunning glimpses, quite rightly compared to the romantic views of a “little Venice”: we're talking about the famous Finestrella (Little Window) overlooking the underlying canals that flow among the colourful buildings of the area.
Heading westwards, you'll soon reach via Riva di Reno, named after the old canal now buried beneath the road. Stop off at number 72 to look at the ex Manifattura Tabacchi, which now houses the Cineteca di Bologna, an imposing modern-style building converted into a cigarette factory in 1801. The nearby canal enabled a continuous water supply to power the millstones that ground the tobacco leaves. A little further on, at the centre of the road, you can still see some “mechanical combs” once used to capture the debris carried by the current.
Nearby, it is recommended to stop at Cavaticcio Park. Perhaps already functioning during the Roman era with defensive and sanitary purposes, this canal fed into the nearby city river harbor, founded in the second half of the 15th century, and then, as a result, into Navile Canal.
Next to the park, the building of the "Salara", built at the end of the 18th century and restored between 1991 and 1995, was used as a warehouse for the salt from the costal city of Cervia. It is the only building left from of the ancient city harbor.
Your path now leads to via della Grada, headquarters of the Reno and Savena Unions, located inside an ancient building and replacing an older seventeenth-century tannery. The street is named after the imposing metal grill (“Grata”) that marked the entrance of the Reno canal into the city, built in the 14th century to prevent access of any debris that could damage the water wheels inside the walls. Unlike the gates of the other city canals, the “Grada” could be opened and closed as the waters were exploited for the transportation of tree trunks coming from the Apennines to the city sawmills.