If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. It may be the only region of Italy named for a road, one constructed by the Ancient Romans almost 2200 years ago. This article describes the Emilia subregion, a bit of its history, its many tourist attractions, local food, and local wine. A companion article presents Romagna, the eastern “half” of the region that borders the tiny country of San Marino and the Adriatic Sea.
Our tour of Emilia is quite straightforward; it follows the highway basically from east to west, going slightly southward along the way. We’ll start at Piacenza, a city founded on the Po River by the Etruscans. It later became the first Roman military colony. The Piazza dei Cavalli (Square of the Horses) in the city center contains baroque statues of two historic leaders. Nearby is a Thirteenth Century Palace, Palazzo del Comune, which was once the site of the city government. The Duomo’s (Cathedral) bell tower contains a cage in which troublemakers were imprisoned stark naked and taunted by the crowd below. You may prefer looking at the beautiful art and sculptures inside the building. The Museo Civico (City Museum) contains Etruscan artifacts and a famous Boticelli painting. Art lovers will want to visit the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi for its collection of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Italian art.
Opera lovers shouldn’t miss the town Busseto, famous for Guiseppe Verdi, who was actually born in the nearby village of Roncole now renamed Roncole Verdi. Busseto contains the Fifteenth Century Villa Pallavicino where he lived and worked and the Nineteenth Century Teatro Verdi that performs many of his magnificent works.
Parma is a historic city that has changed hands frequently over the centuries. It still maintains a French influence. Whenever I hear the word Parma two culinary delights immediately come to mind; Parmesan cheese (more strictly Parmigiano Reggiano cheese) and Parma ham (prosciutto crudo). The term crudo means uncooked. It doesn’t stand for crude; this delicious ham is anything but crude. Piazza Garibaldi (Garibaldi Square) is the center of Parma. Among the sights to see are the Sixteenth Century church Santa Maria della Steccata and its frescos, the Twelfth Century Duomo (Cathedral) and nearby Battistero (Baptisry), and several churches and museums. Parma is also known for its opera at the Teatro Regio.
Modena and its surroundings is the home to three (actually four) stars that couldn’t be more different from one another: the opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, Maserati and Ferrari sports cars, and balsamic vinegar. Which do you prefer?
Be sure to see Modena’s old city, the Twelfth Century Duomo (Cathedral) with its fascinating medieval sculptures, marble bell tower, and crypt containing the tomb of its patron saint, San Geminiano. The Palazzo dei Musei (Palace of the Museum) contains many illuminated books and a very historic Bible and map showing Columbus’s landing in America, not many years after the fact. The Consorzio Produttori Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (Traditional Modena Balsamic Vinegar Producers Association) will give you a taste of the city’s most famous food product. You may want to visit Salumeria Gusti, founded over four hundred years ago and said to be the world’s oldest delicatessen. Perhaps because there are only four tables don’t expect to pay regular delicatessen prices.
Bologna. Don’t judge this city by the bottom of the line prepared meat that somehow shares its name. Among Bologna’s notable achievements, it is home to the oldest university in Europe. Just think, by the Thirteenth Century its student body numbered over ten thousand served by 150 taverns. Laura Bassi was its first female professor, in fact the first woman to teach officially at a European University, appointed professor of anatomy in 1732 at the ripe old age of 21. Bassi spent most of her academic career teaching physics, but managed to have eight children along the way. A super woman in a super town.
The Basilica di San Petronio Cathedral was started in the Fourteenth Century and is still unfinished, perhaps because of the university expansion next door over four hundred years ago. Don’t wait until its finished to take a look. The Piazza di Porta Ravegnana is the site of two towers worthy of a reference in Dante’s Inferno. The Torre degli Asinelli is available for climbing. It also leans, perhaps less than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but one look and you’ll know it’s not straight.
Other sights include the Palazzo Comunale (Communal Palace) the seat of Bologna’s government for the last seven hundred years or so. The Palazzo contains two museums and a library, a few palaces, the Pinacoteca Nazionale art gallery and the Museo del Patrimonio Industriale (Museum of Industry). You can guess that given the huge number of university students Bologna has quite an active night life.
We will finish our tour of Emilia with a look at the UNESCO world heritage site of Ferrara, this article’s only city off the main road. You may remember Ferrara from the famous movie The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Talking about movies, Ferrara was the birthplace of the famous filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni.
You might want to start your tour with the Castello Estense (Estense Castle) the seat of power of the Este dynasty that ruled the area with an iron fist for hundreds of years. Among its numerous features are a hanging garden, and moat, and a drawbridge. The artwork is magnificent, but the castle was also devoted to cruelty. Its dungeons were filled with prisoners for centuries, up until the middle of World War II. Make sure to see the nearby Gothic Duomo (Cathedral). Ferrara had an important Jewish population from 1492 until the Second World War. You can visit the ghetto and the Museo Ebraico (Jewish Museum), which was once a synagogue.
The Palazzo dei Diamanti (Palace of the Diamonds) owes its name to the thousands of pink and white little decorations that cover the building. Go inside to see the Pinacoteca Nazionale art gallery. The mile long Via delle Volte running parallel to the Po River is one of the most ancient streets in Europe. There are many other palaces to see. You may want to finish your tour with a nightcap in Osteria Al Brindisi, Europe’s oldest wine bar that dates from 1435. The famous scientist Copernicus once lived and drank here.
What about food? Emilia-Romagna, in particular Emilia is a world famous gourmet destination. As good as Parma ham is, many prefer the rare, expensive Culatello di Zibello ham aged for at least eleven months. Certified foods include balsamic vinegars, cured meats, cheese, fruits, vegetables, and even bread, Copia Ferrarese from Ferrara.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Prosciutto con melone (Parma Ham with Melon). Then try Vitello Bolognese (Veal with Ham and Parmesan Cheese). For dessert indulge yourself with Zuppa Inglese (Italian Trifle). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We conclude with a quick look at Emilian wine. Emilia-Romagna ranks 5th among the 20 Italian regions for acreage devoted to wine grapes and 4th for total annual wine production. The region produces about 57% red and 43% white wine. The Emilia-Romagna region produces about twenty DOC wines about half of which come from Emilia. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. You may want to try some of the Lambrusco DOC red wines, which are often fizzy or frothy. Frankly in Emilia-Romagna the wine isn’t as good as the food.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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