I’ll admit that when I decided to learn Italian, I imagined time spent living in Florence, Rome or Venice. I did not envisage six months in a sleepy and very un-touristic town in northern Italy, where no one really spoke English, and the nearest reasonably sized city was about an hour’s drive away.
Although my time in Modena was not quite how I’d expected my new life in Italy to be, I soon realised that what I was experiencing was a far more “Italian” style of life than I’d have in one of the county’s larger cities. Aside from Bologna, the towns of Emilia Romagna often seem to end up being overlooked, yet have a lot to be said for them. From Modena to Parma, Reggio Emilia to Ravenna, the smaller towns of the Po Valley are well worth a visit. They’re full of ornate architecture, churches with painted ceilings, authentic (and cheaper than elsewhere) regional food such as Prosciutto di Parma, Piadine, Aceto Balsamico, Tigelle and most importantly, they feel like the real Italy.
Just 10 minutes on the fast train from Bologna, Modena rises from the plains of the Po valley, a cluster of terracotta roofs surrounded by flat, agricultural land. The first time I set eyes on the pristine white spire of the Duomo it stood in striking contrast to the bright blue sky. It seemed as though the cathedral had been made of sugar, like a decoration for a cake.
Fifteen minutes strolling down fairly deserted streets from the station and I reached the centre of the tiny city. When I arrived, having made a racket lugging my two overstuffed suitcases along the cobblestones with me, I was surprised to find the main Via Emilia bustling with locals on their bicycles out shopping for groceries. A few days after moving there, I discovered what was soon to become one of my favourite places, the market. Mercato Albinelli is located in the old town, off Piazza XX Settembre, and is full of stalls bursting with fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables. The culinary centre of an already food-centric city, it is stocked with an array of fresh, brightly coloured produce and comes complete with extremely friendly stall holders (who were always keen to help improve my Italian). The market is also home to a selection of bakeries and pastifici (pasta shops), full of the unusually shaped Coppia ferrarese bread and handmade, golden tortellini.
Several months later when a friend came to visit, I stumbled upon Salumeria Hosteria Giusti nestled beneath the arches on the side of Via Luigi Carlo Farini. This emporium holds all the local specialties from aceto balsamico, tortellini and prosciutto, to Lambrusco and huge wheels of crumbly Parmigiano Reggiano. Having marvelled at both the delicious looking food and very attractive packaging, we left the shop ladened with bottles of balsamic vinegar and Lambrusco: a sample of the region destined for various family members and friends back in the UK.
Another site worth seeing in Modena is the city’s imposing military academy. The austere building rises up above a neat piazza, studded with fountains which we discovered, to our amusement, change colour at night. The academy is one of the oldest of its kind and central to some of the town’s traditions, including the graduation where students parade around the city in full uniform. Meanwhile, the Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavarotti is also well worth a visit – the famous opera singer was born and died in the city; photographs of him are affixed to the walls of several of the city’s restaurants in his memory.
During the warmer spring days, we would venture a little south of the city centre, either on bicycles (this was usually somewhat overambitious) or in a car to the start of the Colli Bolognese. Known as ‘the breadbasket of Italy’, the central north is full of produce thanks to its relatively warm and humid climate and these undulating hills are packed full of cherry orchards, vineyards and wheat fields. Vignola cherries blossom here in the spring before ripening into glossy red fruit, sold on the roadside. Meanwhile swollen, purple grapes are harvested and mature into sweet-tasting Lambrusco, a local fizzy red wine, and the delicious, yet little-known and relatively cheap Sangiovese. A few miles from Vignola we came upon the tranquil and basically empty Parco regionale dell’Abbazia di Monteveglio; here we scrambled up steep slopes in the spring sunshine to be greeted by spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
Another of our favorite excursions, or place to take visitors, was the popular student city of Parma. Famous for the ham which bears its name, the city is perched on the banks of a stream which eventually leads into the River Po. On one side, Parco Ducale offers a green oasis and much-needed shade from the scorching midday sun. Pretty shutter-adorned houses in pastel colours line the streets, leading towards the Parma-ham coloured pink marble Battistero di Parma and the city’s main cathedral, Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta.
Cathedrals with delicately carved facades and attractively painted interiors seem to be everywhere you look in Emilia Romagna and these carefully decorated Romanesque structures are no exception. They are home to ceilings which have been exquisitely painted, filled with frescoes in a vibrant array of yellows, greens and reds and even after months of touring the region’s religious buildings, the Battistero never failed to impress.
You need to try the famous Prosciutto di Parma while you’re in the city. Take the narrow Borgo XX Marzo connecting the Piazza del Duomo to the main high street to see shops crammed full of Prosciutto which melts away in your mouth, it’s that fresh. Head to Pepèn Parma as we did for sandwiches crammed full of all the regional delicacies.
On the opposite side of the very large region lies Ravenna, with its collection of UNESCO world heritage sites and very striking Basilica di San Vitale. The exterior of the church is not particularly exciting. We approached a squat redbrick building with low expectations. A combination of dark windows and unassuming grassy surrounds did little to give away the extraordinary set of mosaics that we found inside. Sparkling golds, emerald greens and deepest blues, creep up the walls to cover the ceiling, depicting all manners of Chrisitan imagery. The Basilica dates from the 6th century, combining both Roman and Byzantine elements in its architecture and interior, and is in fact one of eight UNESCO world heritage sites in the town. We later came across the tomb of poet and author of The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri. He was exiled from his home town of Florence and later died and was buried Ravenna. His ornate tomb can be found hidden just a few streets away from the Basilica.
As midsummer arrived and the heat became unbearable inland, we would find any excuse to head down to the Adriatic coast, to row-upon-row of cheerfully coloured umbrellas and busy sun loungers in the popular resort town of Rimini. Known best for its nightlife, as the birthplace of Italian director Federico Fellini, and for its beach clubs (hordes of young, bronzed Italians flock here come June for refreshing aperol and some relief from the sweltering heat), we discovered the city actually possesses an older Roman centre bursting with attractive Ancient Roman monuments. Best viewed in the cooler evenings (and if possible with a gelato in hand) there are an array of ancient ruins to see. These include the 2000-year-old Ponte di Tiberio, the remains of a Roman amphitheatre and an ancient gateway to the city, the Arco di Augusto, which make for a complete contrast from the much more modern architecture of the seafront.
The charms of Emilia Romagna for me are made up of its rich history, the abundant food and the fact that it is so unashamedly Italian. This is the region of Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini cars, of Barilla and Giorgio Armani. Whilst living there I formed the impression that whether or not tourists come to visit is not of huge importance to the locals. However, should you choose to as I did, you will be welcomed in for an authentic experience of Italy, which to me now feels like another home.
Places to visit:
Ravenna – Basilica di San Vitale has an exquisite collection of mosaics and forms part of the city’s UNESCO world heritage site. Dante’s tomb on Via Dante Alighieri is also a must see.
Parma – Stroll through the historic centre and take in the atmosphere as the scent of Prosciutto wafts from restaurant doorways. The Battistero and the city’s main cathedral as the sun sets make for a very attractive image. Eat at Trattoria Ai Due Platani.
Castelvetro di Modena – This little town has what resembles a giant chess board, paved into the main square. Views take in a host of vineyards and cherry trees.
Rimini – Head into the old town to see Roman relics including the ancient Ponte di Tiberio before setting up in a deckchair and cooling off in the Adriatic.
Ferrara – Castello Estense di Ferrara is a red-brick, 14th century castle, surrounded by a moat in the centre of the city. The city is also home to a very attractive, marble-fronted cathedral.
Modena – Grab a coffee in La Bicicletta before wandering to Piazza Grande to see the cathedral. Climb the Ghirlandina tower for views of the terracotta-coloured landscape. The Museo Ferrari shows another, more modern aspect of the city’s history.
National parks – Try Parco regionale Sassi di Roccamalatina, Parco regionale dell’Abbazia di Monteveglio and Monte Cimone for magnificent views of rolling hills and Emilia Romagna countryside.
Regional food and drink:
Piadine – Thin flatbreads made from flour, lard and salt and usually stuffed with Prosciutto, Mozzarella and/or Tomatoes. Best bought freshly made from a kiosk on an Adriatic beach.
Tigelle – The equivalent of a tiny pita bread and a speciality of Modena. They usually come stuffed with an array of fillings or as an accompaniment to a plate of Prosciutto.
Gnocco fritto – Deep fried dough. This sounds unusual but is delicious with Prosciutto and Parmigiano.
Prosciutto di Parma – The world-famous Parma ham which can be seen hanging from the ceilings of shops across the region.
Culatello di Zibello – Similar to Prosciutto but less well known, this cured meat comes from one of the inner leg muscles thus its lean.
Parmigiano Reggiano – Sweet and crumbly, depending on how long it has been maturing for, Parmigiano cheese is exported worldwide but is best eaten in its home-region in large chunks.
Aceto Balsamico di Modena – Balsamic vinegar is a speciality of Modena and comes in a variety of consistencies and ages. Giuseppe Giusti sells it in beautifully decorated bottles.
Tortellini in Brodo – Tortellini in a warming broth. Tends to only really be served in the colder months of the year but is really very comforting.
Lambrusco – A sweet, red, fizzy regional wine. Modena even has a Lambrusco tasting festival to celebrate it.
Sangiovese wine – Cheap, cheerful and sold across the region.