As this Sunday was Swiss National Day (happy 730th, Switzerland!), my work gave us the following Monday off. I used the long weekend to travel to Bologna, a well-known city in northern Italy. This was my itinerary:
Day 1: Take the train from Geneva to Milan (4.5 hours) and spend the night there
- Take the train from Milan to Bologna (3.5 hours due to delays)
- Walking tour of Bologna
- Climb the Asinelli Tower
- Take the trolley to Basilica di San Luca and walk back to town through the porticoes
- Take the train to Modena (30 min) for an Italian home cooking lesson
- Return to Bologna
- Take the train back to Geneva (6 hours)
International travel within Europe right now
In the last few months, Switzerland, along with the EU, has introduced a digital COVID certificate system (also known as green pass, pass sanitaire, etc) that’s delivered with a QR code, which can be uploaded to an app for easy scanning. For people who got vaccinated in Switzerland, their QR codes were generated automatically. However, I had been vaccinated in the US a few months ago, and thus had to apply for the certificate manually.
For those who had the Pfizer or Moderna shots, the process in Geneva is quite straightforward. Simply complete this online form, upload scans of one’s passport, residency permit and vaccination card, and the certificate is reviewed and granted in about one week. I received a text with a link to a PDF that contained the QR code, and I was all set for my trip to Italy.
A friend had gotten the Johnson & Johnson shot in the US and thus could not receive the COVID certificate through the form, as it was strangely not recognized by the Canton of Geneva. As an alternative, she may have to cross into France to find a pharmacy that will help her generate a pass sanitaire, as apparently some pharmacies have been able to do that for American tourists recently.
For my two trips to France in the past month, I did not have a COVID certificate and was never asked for one, since they were very short trips just across the border. However, this time around, when our train crossed from Switzerland into Italy, we stopped at the border station of Domodossola for 30 minutes while the Italian police boarded the train and conducted checks. There was a separate check for the green pass, and one for passport documents. As a result, the train arrived in Milan after 10pm, about half an hour behind schedule.
Where I stayed in Milan
Because my train arrived quite late at night, and because I already knew from experience that the immediate area around Milano Centrale is a bit sketchy, I booked the closest possible hotel to the train station, which was the Hotel Glam Milano.
When I arrived after 10pm, there was a short but slow line at the front desk, and only one very overworked employee to handle the check-ins. After 10 minutes, I received my key card and took the elevator up to the 9th floor.
The key card didn’t work. I pushed and heaved on the door. Pulled and yanked. Nothing. I trudged back downstairs. The line had grown longer, but it didn’t feel right to cut in at the front. I got back in line again. It was close to 11pm at this point, and I felt like a pile of garbage. The large tour group of Italian retirees behind me grumbled and asked to stow their luggage behind the front desk. Then a man emerged from the elevator and strode briskly to the front desk. “Hi,” he said, “we’ve just called an ambulance for our child. When they come, could you send them up to room XXX please?”
The receptionist was alarmed. “Do you want me to get my manager?”
“No,” the man said, remarkably nonchalant. “Just send them up.”
Moments later, an ambulance pulled up outside, and a pair of paramedics in bright orange uniforms shot into the elevator.
I ended up staying in a different room on the same floor. It was small, with the bed just three feet from the bathroom, but as a whole it was clean, modern and comfortable, and there was a decently stocked minibar. The bathroom had a lovely rainshower. There was a long balcony outside, although the view was unfortunately quite obstructed due to the room change.
There was a decent selection of breakfast items in the morning, although guests were not allowed to serve themselves; we were free to look at the buffet and then tell the staff what we wanted. The quality of breakfast was average.
I thought this hotel was fine and suited my needs in that particular setting, which was to get to my destination as quickly as possible at 10pm in an area that has a lot of loitering men and catcalling. That said, on the whole I still prefer Spice Hotel Milano, where I stayed last year. There are more staff to help with check-in, the rooms are larger, and the rates are cheaper. It’s only a few blocks further from the train station and not at all difficult to get to during the daytime.
A train ride from Milan to Bologna that I never want to relive again
In the morning I boarded a train in Milan that was scheduled to depart at 9:20am and arrived in Bologna by 12:09pm. When I was buying tickets a week ago, I had seen plenty of other train options that would reach Bologna in much less time, but they were also absurdly more expensive — 60 euros compared to 16 euros, for example. I thought I would be fine taking a slow regional train; I wasn’t in a hurry and it would allow me to enjoy the Italian countryside.
Welp, that was a poor decision.
By the time I boarded at 9:10am, there were almost no seats left. I snagged one of the last ones, an aisle seat. People kept boarding. There were no seats left. But people kept coming. The train was now standing room only. And then it was 9:30am, and the train still hadn’t departed.
The minutes ticked by. Passengers began filling the aisles, using their giant suitcases as makeshift seats. A couple dominated the aisle next to my arm, their masks barely covering their noses, and I felt completely boxed in and claustrophobic. I checked the Trenitalia website to see if any other train routes were available, regardless of the price, but all tickets to Bologna that morning were sold out.
I tried to focus on reading my e-book (Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley Ford), but something about being confined to this tiny space for four hours really bothered me. I felt like a caged animal, frustrated by the lack of control over my surroundings. The only consolation was that there was A/C in the car.
The Italians grumbled and waved their hands, but surprisingly no one lost their cool or started yelling at the staff. Perhaps they were used to it. I reflected smugly on how something like this could never happen in Switzerland.
We didn’t leave until 10:30am — more than an hour behind schedule. When the train finally began moving, people clapped and cheered. I felt stressed, because this delay meant I would now miss the beginning of the walking tour I had booked in Bologna. I texted the tour guide with apologies and asked to catch up with the group; optimistically, I thought I would only be 15 minutes late to the 1:15 tour.
In reality, we didn’t arrive at the station until 1:33pm. I grabbed a taxi and sped to my hotel, quickly checked in, then power walked to our meeting point in Piazza Maggiore. Incredibly, the group was still there.
My hotel in Bologna
I won’t name the hotel I stayed at because I have some negative feedback to share below, and given how difficult the past year has been for the Italian tourism sector, I’m not interested in publicly criticizing them on my blog. All I will say is that it’s a three-star hotel near Piazza Maggiore, and it has good ratings on all the various booking websites.
Because I was on the ground floor, I had a small, personal courtyard.
While the room was fine overall, I had a couple of issues with the hotel that mean I wouldn’t stay here again. They include:
- When I checked in, my passport was taken from me and held by the hotel for the duration of my stay. I’ve been travelling for a decade, and this hadn’t happened to me since Japan in 2016, and never in Europe. I was uncomfortable with this, and ultimately my gut feeling was right, because…
- … when I checked out, the receptionist forgot to give the passport back to me. I forgot to ask for it. It was 5am and neither of us was in a proper state. I only remembered after my taxi had left the hotel and I yelped at the driver to take me back. I’m lucky I was going to a train station 15 minutes away, and not headed to the airport for an international flight.
- The toilet leaked randomly for an entire night and then was randomly fine again in the morning. Also, you could hear the sounds of other people flushing and taking showers in the pipes.
Breakfast at the hotel was decent, with a good amount of variety. Again, guests were not allowed to serve themselves.
Exploring Bologna on foot
I had booked a two-hour walking tour on a website. As I mentioned earlier, the tour guide was very nice and came back to Piazza Maggiore to pick me up, even though I was over 30 minutes late due to the delayed train.
The guide was a white American expat who had lived in Italy for a long time. As we walked across the piazza to rejoin the group, he asked, “So you live in Switzerland?”
“And you’re American?”
“Yeah, I’m an American expat like you.”
Then the guy asked, “But where were you born? Were you born in the United States?”
Immediately, I felt a deep jolt of annoyance. As an Asian American, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked this question, both inside and outside the United States. Someone — another white man — had asked me the same probing question just last month, refusing to accept I’m American or I’m from Atlanta, Georgia as the answer. Yet despite the number of times I’ve been asked this question, the sting never goes away.
Because I’m neither white nor Black, other Americans feel oddly entitled to my personal history within the first few seconds of meeting me. They want to know how to categorize me: Chinese? Korean? Japanese? They can’t rest until they find out where I’m from from. “You look like you’ve got some Asian in you,” a white man once said to me when I worked at the information desk of a museum in Washington, DC, while his Asian wife looked on. He’d been frustrated that we didn’t have a fine china exhibit at the museum, and that I wasn’t sure where to find such an exhibit in DC. “How can you not know where to find china?”
I would love to respond to these invasive questions with a blunt and uncomfortable answer. Where was I born? At a hospital. Why do you want to know my personal information? Do you work for ICE or something? Why don’t you believe me when I say that I’m American? Is it because I’m not white?
In the moment, as we walked through the sun-drenched piazza, I paused before saying, curtly, “I’m from the United States.”
The conversation died.
Anyway: Bologna is a beautiful city, one that can be thoroughly enjoyed on foot. It’s adorned with miles and miles of porticoes, long covered walkways that provide shelter both from frequent rain and scorching sun. It has a rich pagan history that predates Catholicism, and was a stronghold for anti-fascist resistance during WWII.
Here, for example, is Piazza Maggiore, the main square.
We also visited a lovely landmark called Basilica of Santo Stefano, an assortment of seven churches loosely bundled into one. Visitation is free and they don’t require clothing to cover the shoulders, unlike the Basilica di Santo Petronio in the main square. The churches felt very simple and understated, yet were also brimming with a sense of history and tradition.
The church was built on top of what was originally a temple dedicated to Isis. Some of the original flooring has been preserved under a glass window.
The area outside the church is also a square that’s very popular with diners at night.
We stopped outside the Asinelli Tower (more on this in my next post), and the guide also gave us helpful tips about finding the best food and drink in Bologna.
At the end of the tour, the guide very kindly invited me to stay an extra 15 minutes so that I could join the beginning of his next tour and make up the information I’d missed. I handed him a folded 20-euro bill, and two other people who’d joined the tour, a couple, also gave a tip before departing. But the other woman on the tour approached the guide. “I’m sorry that I didn’t bring any cash,” she said. “I thought it was a free tour.”
There was an awkward silence. “Do you have a bank card?” the guide asked. “To withdraw some cash or…?”
“No,” she said. I watched, also awkwardly, from the side. “I’m sorry, my hotel told me that it was a free tour.”
“Yes, that’s how it’s advertised to attract people, but the understanding is that people give tips. I don’t work for free.”
“I’m really sorry. Really, the hotel told me it was free and it was confusing.”
This strained back and forth went on for a while, until the guide finally said, “Well, I hope this will be good karma for me, then.”
I felt bad for both of them; I definitely hadn’t know about the tipping culture, either, when I was a greener traveller. Once, after a walking tour of Seattle, I was mortified when I realized that everyone had a folded bill ready to give to the guide — and even more embarrassed because I was supposed to return that afternoon for a different tour, but with the same guy. During the time in between, I ran to an ATM and came back to give him thirty bucks before the afternoon tour had even started.
A scrumptious evening
For dinner, I made a reservation at a place near the hotel called Ristorante Enoteca da Lucia. Usually I tell people that in Europe you can just walk onto a restaurant’s terrace and grab any open table, but here I guess the rules were different. A couple tried to grab the table behind me and were immediately booted; the terrace was for customers with reservations only, and they’d have to eat inside without one. It turned out the table wouldn’t even be occupied until an hour later, but that didn’t matter: a reservation was essentially for the whole night, and there was no pressure to turn over the tables quickly and rotate through more customers.
I ordered both a first and second course. This was a good idea because the portions were tiny! Fortunately, there was also a basket of olive oil-drenched bread. I also had a glass of white wine.
While I was eating, a small but boisterous crowd marched by in the background, shouting, “No green pass! No green pass!” Similar to France, Italy was about to implement a system for requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test at many public places.
After dinner, I strolled around town and got a cup of strawberry gelato from a small shop near the seven churches. It was delicious!
As I neared my hotel, ready for a good night’s sleep, a group of giggling teen boys passed me. “Ni hao!” One of them called out to me, emboldened. I kept walking calmly, betraying no evidence that I had heard him at all. They tittered, seeming to mocking him for not getting a response out of me.
I walked. I thought about the way the tour guide had probed for my place of birth earlier that day, trying to assess whether I was authentically American. I remembered last year in Milan, when men outside the train station yelled at me, “Ciao Korean!”
Sometimes I’m annoyed by people who sanctimoniously say that they do not see color.
Other times I just want people to look at me and see a human first.
To be continued.