Green lung of the entire Adriatic coast from Chioggia (close to Venice) to Cattolica, the romantic town of Comacchio and its water valleys represent the “heart” of the Po River Delta, one of the most important lagoon complexes existing in Italy and in Europe. These wetlands and coastal areas, from the Sacche degli Scardovari and Goro to the Saline di Cervia (salt flats dotted with flocks of pink flamingos which produce some of Italy’s finest salt) passing through the town of Ravenna and Ferrara, have nothing to envy to the acclaimed area of the Rhone Delta, in southern French Provence, known as Camargue. Woods and green pine forests, a rich flora and fauna population, fresh and brackish water valleys and rivers that flow into the Adriatic: these are some of the tiles that make up the extraordinary mosaic of this unsung side of Italy, a magnificent example of biodiversity, where water has been the absolute protagonist for centuries. Here, where earth and sky merge, there are seductive natural treasures like few others in the peninsula, so unique that they were designated a Unesco Heritage Site in 1999.
Two parks protect this wonderful naturalistic area which extends over 66,000 hectares, covering two regions. A labyrinth of landscapes that includes the Veneto Regional Park on one side, north of the great river Po and, on the other towards the south, the Regional Park of Emilia Romagna. The great variety of environments and cultural attractions that this corner of Italy offers is outstanding: the relics of the primitive Mediterranean scrub, the hygrophilous wood, the coastal lagoons, the brackish valleys and the wetlands of fresh water that mix with the ancient remains of settlements, without interruption, intertwined with Etruscans and Roman remains, Byzantine mosaics (Sant’Apollinare in Classe was sung by Dante and Boccaccio) and the vestiges of the Benedictine and the princely House of Este architecture.
Forests reminiscent of dark woods where deer roam majestically, flamingos and cormorants surrounded by reeds that walk in the fog between low lagoons, small fishing villages where rare species reside, centuries-old pine forests; the Valleys are a natural refuge for numerous species, animals and plants, from wild rabbits, to mallards, to herons, to cormorants, to pink flamingos, a visit to this open-air zoo offers an evocative nature trail inside a precious lagoon complex and is, at the time itself, a way to learn about the history of the valley, whose life and economy are closely dependent on the environment. Over the course of the centuries, man has managed to counteract the adversities of this ecosystem through massive hydraulic reclamation works that have profoundly changed the relationship between land and water, making these areas safer, more hospitable and productive, without however disfiguring their nature. Here water and land are in constant competition, sculpting the environments and creating natural landscapes of extraordinary beauty.
On foot, by boat, by bicycle or on horseback: according to the different seasons there are many ways to experience this particular natural ecosystem, nestled between the beauty of three artistically rich cities such as Ravenna, Ferrara and Venice. From Comacchio, the Valleys can be traveled through various itineraries along stretches of water and tongues of sand, up to the coast, connected to the sea through the channels of Magnavacca, Logonovo, Bellocchio and Gobbino. An area that is today organized in 6 “stations” between the regions of Emilia Romagna and Veneto. From La Foce Fishing Station, one can depart to discover water as far as the eye can see, strips of land and valley huts, in a subtle balance in which each element conveys stories of fishing around the traditional “lavoriero“, a fixed trap in the water that allows fishermen to catch eels separately from other fish – such as mullets, sea bass, breams, flounders, and aquadelle – while, driven by their reproductive instinct, they migrate to the sea.
The quaint Comacchio – which gives the name to the whole marsh area- is a delightful lagoon town of ancient origins that preserves the character of an urban settlement between its waters in the architecture of bridges and canals. It stands today on thirteen islands and until 1821 could only be reached by water. Located in the province of Ferrara and defined by many as little Venice, Comacchio boasts a gastronomic tradition that focuses on fish, both from the brackish valleys and the sea. Here authenticity and respect for ancient traditions is carried out with the utmost care by the chefs of the area. The Comacchio eel is undoubtedly the most emblematic dish: the fishing techniques have remained unchanged and the same culinary tradition is still deeply linked to the recipes of the past which have the merit of enhancing the flavor and texture of this ingredient. The marinated version with vinegar and aromas has been endorsed by the Slow-Food movement and inserted in their list of safeguarded presidia. But the valleys offer a fishing reserve also rich in mullets, sea bream, sea bass and crabs and at the Antica Manifattura dei Marinati the rooms of this small museum factory offer a glimpse into this area’s ancient culinary tradition.