Emilia-Romagna doesn’t attract nearly the same volume of tourists as its neighbouring provinces of Lombardy, the Veneto and Tuscany, which is strange because it offers just as fine a distillation of the region’s charms: glorious countryside, plenty of historic architecture and local cuisine renowned across the rest of Italy. It’s also pretty easy to get around, with most of its main sites located along the Via Emilia, the dead-straight road laid down by the Romans in 187 BC that splits the province in two along its east-west axis, dividing the Apennine mountains in the south from the flat fields of the northern plain, the Pianura Padana.
Dotted along the Via Emilia are some proud, historic towns, filled with restored medieval and Renaissance palazzi, the legacy of a handful of feuding families – the Este in Ferrara and Modena, the Farnese in Parma, and lesser dynasties in Ravenna and Rimini – who used to control the area before the papacy took charge. The largest urban centre, and the main tourist draw, is Bologna, the site of Europe’s first university – and today best known as the gastronomic capital of Italy. It’s one of the country’s most beautiful cities with a mazy network of porticoed, medieval streets housing a collection of restaurants that easily live up to the town’s reputation.
To the west are the wealthy, provincial towns of Modena, Parma and Reggio Emilia, easily reached by train, and each with their own charming historic centres and gastronomic delights, while to the east lies Ravenna, once the capital of the Western Roman Empire and today home to the finest set of Byzantine mosaics in the world. The Adriatic coast south is an overdeveloped ribbon of settlements, although Rimini, at its southern end, provides a spark of interest, with its wild seaside nightlife and surprisingly historic town centre.
Away from the central artery, Emilia-Romagna’s countryside comes in two topographical varieties: flat or hilly. To the north lies one of the largest areas of flat land in Italy, a primarily agricultural region where much of the produce for the region’s famed kitchens is grown. It also boasts a good deal of wildlife, particularly around the Po Delta on the Adriatic (a soggy expanse of marshland and lagoons that has become a prime destination for birdwatchers) and in Ferrara, just thirty minutes north of Bologna, one of the most important Renaissance centres in Italy. To the south are the Apennines, an area best explored using your own transport, sampling local cuisine and joining in the festivals; although it’s still possible to get a taste of this beautiful region, far removed from the functional plain to the north, by bus. If you’re a keen hiker, you might be tempted by the Grande Escursione Appenninica, a 25-day-long trek following the backbone of the range from refuge to refuge, which can be accessed from the foothills south of Reggio Emilia.
Emilia-Romagna has a just reputation for producing the richest, most lavish food in Italy, with its famous specialities of Parmesan cheese (parmigiano-reggiano), egg pasta, Parma ham (generically known as prosciutto di Parma) and balsamic vinegar. Despite its current foodie connotations, balsamic vinegar started off as a cottage industry, with many Emilian families distilling and then redistilling local wine to form a dark liquor that is then matured in wooden barrels for at least twelve years. Bologna is regarded as the gastronomic capital of Italy, and Emilia is the only true home of pasta in the North: often lovingly handmade, the dough is formed into lasagne, tortellini stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach, pumpkin or pork, and other fresh pastas served with ragù (meat sauce), cream sauces or simply with butter and Parmesan – alla parmigiana usually denotes something cooked with Parmesan. Modena and Parma specialize in bollito misto – boiled meats, such as flank of beef, trotters, tongue and spicy sausage – while another Modenese dish is zampone – stuffed pig’s trotter. The region is second only to Sicily for the amount of fish caught in its waters.
Regional wines are, like the landscapes and people, quite distinct. Emilia is synonymous with Lambrusco, but don’t despair: buy only DOC Lambrusco and be amazed by the dark, often blackberry-coloured wine that foams into the glass and cuts through the fattiness of the typically meaty Emilian meal. There are four DOC zones for Lambrusco, three of them around Modena, while the fourth zone extends across the plains and foothills of the Apennines, in the province of Reggio Emilia. Other wines to try, both whites, are Trebbianino Val Trebbia and Monterosso Val D’Arda, while the lively Malvasia (also white) from the Colli di Parma goes well with the celebrated local ham.
In the flatter, drier Romagna province, the wines have less exuberance but more body and are dominated by Albana and Sangiovese. The sweeter versions of Albana bring out the peachy, toasted almond flavours of this white. The robust red of Sangiovese, from the hills around Imola and Rimini, comes in various “weights” – all pretty heavy. Much lighter is Cagnina di Romagna, which is best drunk young (within six months of harvest).
About 25km northwest of Modena, up the Via Emilia, is Reggio Emilia, a pleasant, well-heeled place with a handsome historic core. Though nicknamed “the red town” – in 1960 five protestors were killed by police during demonstrations designed to prevent Fascists joining the government – you wouldn’t credit such a revolutionary past as you wander its quiet streets; these days, it’s more associated with high-end fashion house MaxMara.
East of Bologna, the Via Emilia passes through a clutch of small towns – some of them industrialized and mostly postwar, like Forli, the unappealing administrative capital of the region, others, like Faenza, with medieval piazzas surrounded by towers and battlements. Both started life as Roman way stations and were under the rule of the Papal States for much of their subsequent history. The lowlands to the north are farmed intensively, while on the southern side lie hilly vineyards and pastures, narrow gorges that lead up into the mountains and a couple of ski resorts around Monte Fumaiolo (1407m).
South of Faenza, the medieval village of Brisighella, halfway up a hillside, is a food-lover’s delight, famed both for its restaurants (visited by people from as far afield as Milan) and its numerous festivals of gastronomy throughout the year, including the Sagra della Polenta (Oct), del Tartufo (truffle) and dell’Ulivo (both in Nov).
East of Ferrara lies the Po Delta, an expanse of marshland and lagoons where the River Po splits into several channels, trickling to the sea, and small fingers of land poke out into the Adriatic. Etruscan traders set up the port of Spina here between the fourth and third centuries BC, when the sea covered much of the land from Comacchio to Ravenna. Partly owing to drainage schemes, the briny waters have since retreated by 12km, and the area becomes a bit less marshy each year – an advantage for local farmers but a threat to the many varieties of sea and shore birds that inhabit the area. The two main lagoons of Valli di Comacchio and Valle Bertuzzi together form a major part of the Parco del Delta del Po, which with the surrounding wetlands now constitute one of Europe’s most highly regarded birdwatching areas, providing a habitat for nesting and migrating birds, including heron, egret, curlew, avocet and tern.
The most evocative way of seeing the delta is by boat. Every spring free birdwatching trips are organized by the tourist office in Comacchio as part of the annual International Po Delta Birdwatching Fair. And between April and October voluntary groups run free boat tours on a typical marshland boat called a batane from its mooring at the fish market of Trepponti in Comacchio.
Clamped to the summit of a dizzying precipice, the beautiful fortress of SAN LEO has only been part of Emilia-Romagna since 2006, when the town and five others voted in a referendum to leave Le Marche and join its northern neighbour. Generations have admired the fortress – Machiavelli praised it, Dante modelled the terrain of his Purgatory on it, and Pietro Bembo considered it Italy’s “most beautiful implement of war”.
There’s been a fortress at San Leo since the Romans founded a city on the rock. Later colonizers added to it until the fifteenth century, when Federico da Montefeltro set his military architect, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, the task of creating a new one. The walls were built on a slight inward slope and backed with earth, thus reducing the impact of cannonballs. Three large squares were incorporated for the manoeuvring of heavy cannons, and every point was defended with firing posts.
From the eighteenth century San Leo was used as a prison for enemies of the Vatican, of whom the most notorious was the womanizing Count of Cagliostro, a self-proclaimed alchemist, miracle doctor and necromancer. At first the charismatic heretic was incarcerated in a regular prison, but on the insistence of his guards, who were terrified of his diabolic powers, he was moved to the so-called Pozzetto di Cagliostro (Cagliostro’s Well), now the fortress’s most memorable sight. The only entrance was through a trapdoor in the ceiling, so that food could be lowered to him without the warden running the risk of engaging Cagliostro’s evil eye. There was one window, triple-barred and placed so that the prisoner couldn’t avoid seeing San Leo’s twin churches. Cagliostro eventually died of an apoplectic attack, unrepentant after four years of being virtually buried alive.