One of the treasures of Bologna is the famous Portico di San Luca, which beginning at Porta Saragozza and connects with an uninterrupted covered walkway the city to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca on top of the Colle della Guardia hill. With a total of 3.8 km – and an elevation gain of 215 meters – this is the longest portico in the world, and walking it is the quintessential Bolognese experience. Indeed, it is not only walked by tourists, but many locals also use the portico to keep fit, walking briskly or running, while others still use it the same way as pilgrims have done for hundreds of years, stopping at each of the 15 chapels along its path.
The first part of the portico runs along the houses, shops, bars, and restaurants in Via Saragozza, from Porta Saragozza until the Arco del Meloncello, a Baroque overpass that allows people to continue walking along the portico without having to cross the street. The Baroque arch also marks the beginning of the uphill part of the portico, a 2-kilometer ascent, with a 10% incline and a final steepest stretch that features a long series of steps.
The history of the portico begins in 1192, when a young woman, Angelica de Caicle, founded an hermitage on Colle della Guardia hill, which in time became a female monastic community dedicated to guard an image of the Virgin with Child – which was said to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist (hence the name Madonna di San Luca) – and welcome the many pilgrims that went to see it. During the centuries, the cult of the Madonna di San Luca grew, and, in 1655, the locals asked for a portico to be built to reach the sanctuary where the icon was kept. This was also thought to shelter the Madonna during the solemn and heartfelt annual procession that took it into the city. The city did not have enough money for such an imposing structure, so, in 1674, the Bolognesi themselves helped pay for its construction, which took 40 years to be completed.