Guide to Cultural Attractions of Emilia-Romagna

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Looking For The Best Day Trips From Bologna?

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As home to the world’s oldest university and a renowned foodie paradise, Bologna is a world-class destination in its own right, but it’s also a great base to explore Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. In this BCD Travel Insider’s Guide on best day trips from Bologna, we offer insights on eight cultural gems to explore that are within easy reach from Bologna: Ferrara; Comacchio; Pomposa Abbey in Codigoro; the Po Delta; Ravenna; Dozza; Modena; and Torrechiara Castle.

Not familiar with Emilia-Romagna? While one of Italy’s wealthiest regions and a cultural and historic hub, this swath across the very top of Italy’s boot can be enjoyed without mobs of fellow tourists. Indeed, in some charming villages, ancient castles and dreamy marshlands, you can often feel you have the place to yourself.

Emilia Romagna extends from the Adriatic in the east almost to the Ligurian Sea in the west; it’s about a three-hour drive across its width and Bologna is about an hour inland from the Adriatic. BCD’s recommendations of best day trips from Bologna are all within a 90-minute radius. We bring you north to Ferrara; northeast to Comacchio, Codigoro and the Po Delta; east to Ravenna; southeast to Dozza; west to Modena and the Castle of Torrechiara.

These day trips from Bologna reveal the deep layers of Emilia-Romagna’s history, from the times of the Etruscans in the 8th – 5th B.C., to the Roman and Byzantine Empires from 28 B.C. – 15th century, up to our contemporary era. Our BCD Insider Guide includes destinations ranging from UNESCO World Heritage Sites to locales known for cutting-edge design. Our recommended best day trips from Bologna feature traditional built heritage attractions like a moated Medieval castle, Romanesque churches, and diamond-studded palaces–as well as natural ecosystems like Italy’s only delta, with more than 360 species of birds. Some of the region’s contemporary claims to fame that BCD spotlights include a village adorned with magnificent murals and the city that gave the world Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

What makes BCD's itineraries unique is that we feature the perspectives of locals on their own culture, sharing the insights that come from truly knowing a place. You'll learn what the meaning is behind some of the iconic monuments, experience the personalities of key historical figures--and get a flavor for what it's like to live in the place you are visiting. In this piece, BCD offers you a view of Emilia Romagna from people whose family have made it home for generations. Among the "ambassadors" narrating this journey are several historians, a restaurateur, two teachers, an archaeologist, abbot, biologist, and mosaic artisan, to name a few!

Best Day Trips From Bologna Map

Best Day Trips from Bologna: Ferrara

Ferrara is only 48km away from Bologna and it can easily be reached by train. The journey is either 30 minutes or 45 minutes, depending on the type of train and it costs 4,75€. There is also a high-speed train, Italo, between the two cities but it costs 16€ for only 25 minutes. Ferrara only has one station and right outside its doors is the Castello Estense.

Like Bologna, Ferrara is a university town, with its 16,000 students a sizable percentage of the small city’s overall population of about 132,000. The city also embodies the integration of different ages in its architecture, which spans the Middle Ages and the subsequent four decades of the Renaissance.

Embodying this multi-epoch heritage and at the heart of Ferrara’s historic center is Estense Castle, originally built as a fortress that over time evolved into a Renaissance palace. From Estense Castle, it’s a three-minute walk south to Piazza Trento e Trieste with its arcaded Loggia of the Merchants, and Ferrara Cathedral, also known as St. George’s Cathedral, on the other end of the square.

After exploring here, stroll along Via Mazzini to via delle Volte, one of the city’s oldest streets which dates to the Middle Ages and brings you to Ferrara’s Jewish Quarter. From here, you can head east to visit one or more of the several palaces en route to Palazzo dei Diamanti: Casa dei Romei, Palazzo Schifanoia and Palazzina Marfisa d’Este are each fascinating windows into the region's history.

Then, treat yourself with a walk north along the city’s ancient fortified walls, enjoying the leafy greenery and vantage points of the city, making your way to Palazzo dei Diamante, a Renaissance palace that is now a museum. A few blocks beyond is a former monastery built in the 15th century that is home to Certosa di Ferrara, a movingly beautiful cemetery.

The City Built by the House of Este

Elisa Faccini, a guide at Guide Estensi, shared an overview of Ferrara’s unique place in history.

“Since 1995 the “Renaissance Area” of Ferrara is listed among the UNESCO World Heritage Site,” she said. “This happened because the cited area of the city is the result of the first urban rectangular plan in Europe, which makes Ferrara the first real modern city in the continent.”

Interactive map of Ferrara attractions, courtesy of Francesca Lamantea

“Ferrara was one of the most important European capitals during the Renaissance period,” Elisa explained. “It was the residence of the Estense family, a very sophisticated and influential dynasty that had a central role in the politics of Europe during that time.”

“In Spring 1385 a huge uprising from the people against the Estensi burst,” she continued. “The people of Ferrara, exhausted by the taxes, rose up against the lords that governed the city. Once the uprising had been suppressed, the Estensi built up a fortress, positioned on the north margin of the city.”

“The modern streets of Viale Cavour and Corso Giovecca were previously the moats of the medieval walls,” she pointed out. “Corso Giovecca was covered in 1492 and Viale Cavour underwent this process after the Union of Italy.”

Views of Este Castle. Photos: Meg Pier

“The Castle started its slow transformation from fortress to ducal residence in 1492,” Elisa said. “It took 100 years to get to the actual appearance. After the Unification of Italy in 1861, a part of the Castle was transformed into a museum.”

Photo: Meg Pier

“Historical chronicles tell that the brother of duke Alfonso I spent almost 50 years of his life in this prison,” Elisa said. “Saved by his great-uncle Alfonso II, he was freed from his captivity when he was 80 years old.”

Photo: Meg Pier

“The Garden of the Oranges was realised for princess Eleonore of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand I king of Naples,” Elisa explained. “She was an educated lady and became the wife of Ercole I d’Este. Once she moved to Ferrara, she wanted to recreate a small environment that reminded her of her motherland: a terrace, that remained a magical place through ages.”

Photo: Meg Pier

Duomo of Saint George & Piazza Trento e Trieste

Just a three-minute walk from the Castle is Piazza Trento e Trieste, which was the heartbeat of Medieval Ferrara, and it remains a major thoroughfare and gathering place today. In the Middle Ages, this long, rectangular-shaped plaza was where the local power elite kept an eye on their subjects, and where farmers and tradesmen sold their wares; its original name was 'Piazza delle Erbe', or "of the herbs".

The superb architecture lining the perimeter of the square reflects this multifaceted and inter-twined legacy. Ferrara Cathedral, also known as St. George's, is named after the city's patron saint. Consecrated in 1135, the facade of the church was designed by an Italian sculptor known as Niccolò who history regards as one of the Romanesque masters. Made of white marble, the exterior features elaborate imagery: seated lion sentinels; the Mother & Child; St. George slaying a dragon; prophets; and griffins. During the "magic hour" that precedes sunset, when the light is softer and golden, the building seems to glow.

Running the entire length of the south side of the cathedral is Loggia dei Merciai or "Merchant's Lodge", a portico supported by marble columns, where still today shopkeepers hustle. At the other end of the loggia is a Renaissance bell tower made of white and pink marble, built in the 15h century.

Piazza Trento e Trieste is a great spot to chill, absorb the ambiance and people watch.

Photos: Meg Pier

Via delle Volte & Ferrara’s Jewish Quarter

Via delle Volte is a 500-meter narrow, cobblestone lane features overhead passages that connect the closely-constructed buildings; these suspended corridors were created so tradesmen could transport merchandise from the Po River to sell in the market. This street was the boundary line of Ferrara’s Jewish Quarter, an atmospheric Medieval enclave of small alleys of vaulted arches, wrought iron balconies, and terra cotta cornices.

The Jewish neighborhood is bound by three streets that form a triangle; on bustling Via Mazzini, along with cafes and boutiques, are three synagogues, located in a building that was bought and donated to the community in the 15th century by a prominent Jewish lender. Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah is located at Via Piangipane 81, the site of a former jail, and was founded in 2003 to “bear witness to the events that have characterized the two thousand years of Jewish presence in Italy.

Via Mazzini. Photo: Meg Pier

Ferrara’s Jewish quarter was once home to about 2,000 Jews; today there is a small community of about 80 people. In Medieval times, the Este princes welcomed Jews as they faced expulsion from Spain, Germany and elsewhere during the Crusades. In Ferrara, Jews’ skills as merchants, traders and printers were valued contributions to economic prosperity. But when the last of the Este line died, Ferrara came under the control of the Catholic Church, which ushered in an era of anti-Sematisism that led to Jews being restricted to a ghetto for more than 200 years. With the end of papal dominion in 1870, Jews obtained full emancipation, only to face renewed persecution when Mussolini imposed racial laws in 1938; the ghetto remained in place until the modern nation of Italy was formed in 1859.

Photos: Meg Pier

Jewish Heritage Inspires Restaurant Balebuste

Giacomo Marabini is the owner of Restaurant Balebuste in Ferrara’s Jewish Quarter and credits its location as a culinary inspiration.

“We are lucky enough to be in the heart of the city, at the centre of the city centre and of the Jewish Ghetto,” he said. “It’s impossible for tradition not to be influential. Moreover, we also cannot avoid the expectations of people coming to “visit” us, very often they are discovering Ferrara and what it has to offer. That is why our menu tries to create a bond between traditional dishes and known tastes, closer to a contemporary palate. Let us not forget that Jewish dishes often go with flavours that echo smells “cleared from customs” coming from countries more or less far away.”

Photo: Meg Pier

Photo: Meg Pier

Giacomo strives to honor traditional dishes while being mindful of modern flavours.

“Bases don’t have to be “betrayed” but they can be enriched with notes that can help flavours that were probably expected, to emerge,” he said. “Those notes can come from all over the world, and they can integrate with local taste contributing, in this way, to write a new history. This is what the name of the restaurant want to evoke: Balebuste – a term taken from the Yiddish language – goes together with the subtitle “Culinary notes from all over the world”.

Photos: Meg Pier

When asked if there is a dish in the Ferrarese culinary tradition that has a particular history, Giacomo singled out cappellacci (squash ravioli).

“The name comes from the dialect term “caplaz” used to describe the straw hat worn by farmers during the Renaissance,” he explained. “The shape of this hat was probably similar to that of the actual pasta.”

Giacomo summed up his culinary philosophy with passion.

“The perfect dinner, for me, it’s the one that through each plate can infuse something, an emotion, for example, contributing to the experience as a whole,” he declared. “Creating a menu means to insert elements of storytelling that can take on various forms depending on the taste and the inspiration of the narrator; only in this way the client can then compose his/her proper experience. The person behind the menu leaves some traces and imagines many possible worlds. The perfect dinner, for me, it’s the one that through each plate can infuse something, an emotion, for example, contributing to the experience as a whole.”

Read: Make part of your Emilia Romagna experience learning the story behind the region's exquisite Proscuitto di Parma from Michela Conti, whose family produces this traditional delicacy near Parma!

Giacomo Marabini, owner of Restaurant Balebuste, and Elena, his business partner & waitress. Photo: Meg Pier

City of Bicycles & Green Walls

Ready to walk off your lunch in the Jewish Quarter? To stretch your legs and make your way to Palazzo dei Diamanti, head for Ferrara's nine kilometer greenway atop its ancient city walls--and be sure to stay out of the way of moving vehicles!

“At the entrance of the city, a sign saying “City of bicycles” welcomes the tourist," said Elisa. "Indeed, many Ferraresi use bicycles as their main means of transport around the city and the Medieval city centre has been a pedestrian area since the end of the 1970s.”

Photo: Meg Pier

Cesare Lamantea

Cesare Lamantea, a Ferrara transplant from Milan who teaches high school Italian and History, told me that the widespread use of bicycles makes a statement about the way of life in this Renaissance city.

“In Ferrara and the surrounding villages it is very common to use a bike to move around on rather than a car, and the rhythm of everyday life is slower than in the big city,” he observed. “I adapted really well to the calm life of the province, it wasn’t that difficult coming from the craze of the city. Also, people have always been open and friendly with me. I think it would be a lot more challenging to move from a small provincial town to a big city.”


Ferrara's nine kilometer ring of defensive walls erected in the late 15th century were designed by Biagio Rosetti. The architect cleverly constructed the fortifications so that the interior of the walls are heavily padded with a thick layer of earth so that from within the walls, the appearance is of a sloping grassy hill rather than evoking the sense of being in a constricting prison. Looking outward from the tree-lined bastion, you get a splendid view of the surrounding countryside and the River Po; in the other direction, you look down upon the red-tiled rooftops, the city gates. The park is wide, flat and very well used, traversed by runners, dog-walkers, and the legion of Ferrara’s bicyclists, as well as picnicers sprawled out on the grass and people pausing to sit in one of the many benches to relax and absorb the ambiance.

Photo: Meg Pier

Cesare reflected on the significance the walls hold for him personally.

"Surrounded by lawns and filled with trees, the Walls can be considered as a huge garden, a place to relax, a meeting point for people and the perfect environment to see the passing of seasons through a constant change in colours," he said. "They also represent a location of transit from the city to the countryside."

"Ramparts, fortified towers, doors and passages can be seen while walking on the walls, as a sequence remembering the history of the city: from the Porta degli Angeli (Angels’ Door) the Estensi family made its final exit from Ferrara when they had to leave the city in 1598," Cesare explained.

"To me the Walls represent the essence of Ferrara, something intrinsic to its being unique and different from the majority of small/medium cities," he continued. "The Walls are part of the personality and beauty of the city and with the changing of season they offer new images, impressions and inspirations. You’ll never be a real ferrarese (an inhabitant of Ferrara) if you don’t at least walk once on the Walls observing the where the city ends, or begins."

"On the occasion of a snowy day, I took a walk to photograph the city, since snow is an uncommon weather in Ferrara--it can snow once or twice a year but not every year, so it's quite rare," he said. "I wanted to 'freeze' the memory of what the city looked like under the snow."

The steps lead to the Prospettiva di Corso Giovecca, a scenic and decorative arch located at the end of Corso Giovecca, which allows access to the city walls. Photos: Cesare Lamantea

Photos: Cesare Lamantea

Ferrara’s Palazzo dei Diamanti

Yet another legacy of the d'Este dynasty to Ferrara's architectural splendor is Palazzo dei Diamanti. Elise shared the back story of this must-see former royal residence.

“The Palazzo dei Diamanti (“Diamond Palace”) was realized by the architect Biagio Rossetti and it is one of the main buildings in the Renaissance part of Ferrara,” she explained. “Its façade is covered with an ashlar decoration, a stone-cutting technique very popular during the Renaissance; this ashlar is unique because it has the peculiar form of a diamond. A legend says that the duke Ercole wanted to hide a diamond in one of the 8500 marble blocks and that the bricklayer that worked at the project got his tongue cut to avoid telling the secret. The palace is embellished with a frieze carved in the marble and an angular balcony. Art pieces from Ferrarese painters, such as Dosso Dossi, decorated the rooms of the palace, which had been a property of the Estensi until 1700. In 1836 the was used to host a National Gallery. The ground floor is used for temporary exhibitions.”

This is a photo of a monument which is part of cultural heritage of Italy. Photo: TIEGHI MAURIZIO, Creative Commons

Photo: Davide Alberani, Creative Commons

Ferrara’s Certosa Cemetery

Just a five minute walk away from Palazzo dei Diamanti is Certosa di Ferrara, a fabulous monument to Renaissance sacred art and architecture. I happen to have an affinity for the peacefulness of cemeteries; I read a description of this serene space as “a physical place for mystical lives” and that captures the evocative ambiance of Certosa di Ferrara. The late afternoon light at the time of our visit really amplified the site’s aura of grace.

In 1451, Borso d’Este invited the Carthusian Order to Ferrara and they settled 800 meters outside the inhabitant centre. In 1492 Duke Ercole I incorporated their monastery inside the city walls, though he assured them the isolation expected by their rule; indeed, he built a new church as the old one was no longer fit to be lived. Later, with the suppression of religious orders, the Carthusians were obliged to leave their monastery. To avoid degradation, the architect Marquis Canonici started the transformation of the building into a Christian cemetery. The project started in 1811, after the Edict of Saint Claude, that established that all cemeteries had to be moved outside the city walls because of hygiene reasons. In fact, the area around the cemetery had been considered as “countryside” until the 1950s, when after the postbellum economic and demographic growth was urbanised.

In the Certosa Cemetery, the most prestigious tombs are those inside the old cells used by the Carthusians, and they have gravestones and epitaphs that date back to the 19th Century or the first decades of the 20th Century.

Photos: Meg Pier

Giovanni Boldini’s monumental grave. Photo: Cesare Lamantea

Among the most important people buried in the cemetery is Giovanni Boldini, an artist from Ferrara who became famous for having been the painter of the Parisian high bourgeoisie during his time.

Ferrara Festivals

While Ferrara is home to an array of elegant historic palaces, churches, and museums, be assured it is not a stuffy place.

“Ferrara is, however, a culturally lively city, also thanks to the university,” Cesare observed. “Indeed, there are a few festivals that have now become yearly not-to-miss experiences: the Vulandra Festival devoted to kites, usually held at the end of April, the Buskers Festival, held at the end of August, and the Ferrara Balloons Festival dedicated to hot air balloons, which is at the beginning of September.”

Photo: Turismo nella provincia di Ferrara

Photo: Turismo nella provincia di Ferrara

Best Day Trips from Bologna: Comacchio, Pomposa Abbey
& Po Delta Biosphere Reserve

Ready for your next day trip from Bologna? This time, BCD Travel Insiders’ Guide takes you northeast, to three locales in the delta of the River Po: the town of Comacchio, the Pomposa Abbey in Codigoro and the Po Delta Biosphere Reserve.

You’ll need a car for the for a breezy one hour & ten minute drive from Bologna to Comacchio. Comacchio is in an area of wetlands formed by brackish lagoons that are part of the Po Delta, which projects into the Adriatic. Comacchio is often referred to as “Little Venice” and is built on more than thirteen different islets, joined by bridges. The most important resources of these wetlands are the fish farming and the salt ponds. Eel fishing has been a major staple of the town’s economy for centuries and continues to be a much-enjoyed delicacy.

Photos: Meg Pier

Laura Ruffoni is a Comacchio resident whose perspective on the area spans the ancient and contemporary: she is both an archaeologist and manager of the Remo Brindisi Museum, dedicated to the works of the neo-figurative artist who made his home here.

“Comacchio was born, in between the river Po and the Adriatic Sea, in the most mysterious period of the Medieval Ages, that of migrations, barbaric invasions and of the fall of the Western Roman Empire,” Laura explained. “The city was built during an imprecise moment, but around the period of the Gothic Reigns, the bloody Greek-Gothic wars and the arrival of the Lombards in Italy.”

“The area of the ancient Po Delta is an area with a long story,” she observed. “Since the dawn of times, it was considered by the Greeks as one of the borders of the known world, a mythical West where Hercules had found the Hesperides garden, where Phaeton fell after his crazy run on the sun chariot and where amber was hidden. Here, between the 6th and 3rd centuries B.C. an important port and commercial hub was born: Spina. It was used as a path between the Etrurian Po Valley and Greece, especially Pericle’s Athens; the big Roman infrastructures for water commerce and industrial production (clay bricks) worked until a late ancient epoque, as well as the military fleet that controlled the Adriatic from Ravenna, that at that time was the capital of the Empire.”

Comacchio's Roman past comes to life during the Carnival on the Water Festival, held in February. These re-enacters represent the Sixth Ironclad Legion, a legion of the Imperial Roman Army. Photos: Museo Delta Antico

“Comacchio was born a couple of centuries later, in the 6th century A.D., as a small but lively commercial emporium, perfect for the traffic of west Europe with the Mediterranean Area in the Early Medieval Ages,” she continued. “Even though they were reduced in quantity, these traffics were still recurring (quite the opposite of what some historians thought until not long ago). Comacchio was a town built on wood that had all around a vast lagoon, and it was connected to the Adriatic Sea and the River Po through various lagoon canals. The ancient Comacchio had, more or less, the same urbanistic structure of the modern historic center and its port was similar to those of all the active emporiums of northern Europe and its “peer” Venice.”

Photos: Meg Pier

“However, two centuries later, the commercial fate of the town started to show signs of an end,” Laura said. “The two reasons for this were that the flow of the old Po was starting to run out in favor of northern branches and Venice was becoming more and more important, so it no longer tolerated the rivalry with Comacchio; as a matter of fact, the lagoon town was destroyed more than once by the “Serenissima” (nickname for Venice). For centuries Comacchio had been an isolated city in the middle of a huge fishing lagoon. The town was not even able to benefit from the richness of this environment because, until the passage of Napoleon, it was always under the dominance of external authorities, mainly the dukedom of Ferrara and the Holy State that both took advantage of the town’s resources.”

“For centuries Comacchio has lived on some paradoxes: refined hydraulic constructions and ingenious fishing devices were opposed to poverty and degradation; nice and elegant monuments were next small, poor and grayish houses; a small part of the population was rich while the majority was living in misery,” Laura explained.

“Faraway of prosperous centuries, surrounded by mystery, stuck in an everyday life of poverty and isolation and in some way also forgotten and abandoned, this was the reality of Comacchio when the reclamation of the swamp began in 1922,” she continued. “However, this urban regeneration brought to life the ruins of the ancient city of Spina, a city that was described by the Romans and the Greeks as being rich and famous. Apparently, it was so important that, even though the foundation was Etruscan, it was allowed to have a small temple for gifts in the PanHellenic sanctuary of Delphi.”

“Since the Medieval Ages, a number of scholars developed some theories on where exactly this lost city was built,” Laura said. “They had to face the difficulty of recreating the ancient stream of the river Po and also the fact that Spina was built all on wood that were then submerged by sediments of the river, so nothing was longer visible. The only visible testimony from the city was its necropolis, composed by rich tombs of the inhabitants. These graves proved to be a real treasure of the art of ceramics and of bronze; these two elements made Spina’s artistic heritage world-wide famous.”

“Then, an unbelievable archaeological finding happened in 1981: that of a Roman shipwreck full of its shipment,” Laura exclaimed. “The ship and its cargo truly were an extraordinary finding because the unusual conditions of the shipwreck kept the shipment altogether. The occurrence is perfectly datable, and it probably happened between the 19th and the 12th centuries B.C.; this was because mud conserved all the materials that usually decompose very quickly, like wood, leather and fabrics. This Roman ship could be defined as a small underwater Pompei, a proof of everyday life on the sea during the years before the Empire, a proof of commerce, economy, Roman globalization, and various other aspects of a mariner’s life. It seemed like the crew and the passengers decided to leave the ship while doing their daily activities to deliver it to us.”

The cargo and a part of the exhibition is now inside the new Museo del Delta Antico on Via Agatopisto in Comacchio. Well worth checking out!

Photos: Museo Delta Antico

Best Day Trips From Bologna: Pomposa Abbey in Codigoro

Pomposa Abbey in Codigoro is 20 minutes north of Comacchio.

The laid-back vibe of this deeply historic and beautiful area is appreciated by its residents, one of whom is Chiara Ferretti, an English teacher at the Codigoro high school. Her family has roots in the town that goes back generations, and she shared her perspective on what it means to call the greater Po Delta home.

“The little town where I live is the place I was born but not brought up in,” she explained. “It is the place where, as a child, I spent an exciting month of my summer holidays. A very pleasant destination, where everything seemed to be easier and nicer than in Milan where I actually lived. A very sweet memory I have is the sense of happiness I felt when, on approaching Codigoro by car, I saw in the distance the red-brick chimneys of the huge and elegant 19th– century building of the “Zuccherificio” (the sugar factory). And how sad I felt when leaving that charming ‘wonderland’!”

Chiara Ferretti.

"As a result of this experience, I still perceive my town as a holiday place and not just as my living place," she continued. "I live in an inherited home dating back to the 17th century. This big ancient house belonged to my grandparents, on my father’s side, who bought it in the 1920s from a Venetian family of noble origins. As a child, I was fascinated by my grandparents’ home but, at the same time, also a bit scared by the atmosphere of its large rooms with dark, massive furniture."

"Now, it is a very comfortable house with a long entrance hall where, in summer, we organize unforgettable dinners with friends on special occasions," Chiara said. "On top a fascinating attic full of old things and valuable memorabilia, like travel trunks, toys, postcards, wrought-iron bed frames, and much more. A house full of history but still full of life."

Francesca & Chiara’s family home in Codigoro. Photo: Francesca Lamantea

Navigating to Pomposa Abbey is not difficult, as rising high from above a patchwork quilt of fertile fields is its imposing belltower. At just over 157 feet tall, the "campanile" as its known in Italian has stood as a beacon for the faithful and the curious since the year 1063.

Just below the bell tower is Abbazia Pomposa restaurant, where we had a really delicious lunch before touring the Abbey. We shared a seafood salad with cherry tomatoes potatoes and taggiasca olives as an appetizer. For our main course, we savored "tagliolini straw and hay with Parma ham" and cappelletti with beef ragout, all for 26 euro. Bellissimo!


Photos: Meg Pier

Pomposa's abbot Don Stefano Gigli explained that every year, Pomposa hosts a historical festival called “Pomposia Imperialis Abbatia” that celebrates the Medieval foundation of the abbey. Don Gigli was kind enough to share a snapshot of the Abbey’s early history, which reflects the intrigue and power dynamics at play 1.5 millennia ago in the Po Delta.

Read: Of course you'll want some local parmesan cheese with your delicious meals in Emilia Romagna! Meet Serena Peveri, a third generation member of family artisanal cheese-making enterprise, Ciao Latte to learn about this tradition!

"In the year 1001 the ancient Abbey of Saint Mary in Pomposa, built on an isle in the Po Delta, belonged to the Benedectine Order of the Rule Ora et Labora (Pray and Work)," Don Gigli explained. "Thanks to the commitment of the monks in farming, lagoon fishing and salt collection in salt pans, the small community had little by little got the strategic function of control of the river trade inlands. Pomposa was under the control of the Abbey of Saint Salvatore of Pavia, yet the claims for the possession of the monastery from the Archbishop of Ravenna became more frequent and intimidating. The conflict was then ended with the arrival of Emperor Otto III, who, as the heir of the Saxon dynasty, represented the major political authority in Italy. The young Emperor, like his predecessors, meant to recreate the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne in order to reinforce the idea that the emperor was the protector of Christianity and of the Church of Rome."

"In February 1001 the rebellious Roman aristocracy, who did not want to accept this political project, obliged Otto III to leave Rome," he continued. "On his way to the north, on April 4, he arrived in Pomposa where he stayed for meditation and became the disciple of the hermit Romualdo. The meeting of Otto III and Romualdo was decisive for the fate of Pomposa, as the hermit convinced the emperor to distance the abbey from San Salvatore in Pavia to put it immediately under the control of the Archbishop of Ravenna. As a result, on November 22, Pomposa became autonomous and was allowed the title of Imperial Abbey."

"Nowadays the Pomposa Abbey is inhabited by a religious community named “Ricostruttori nella preghiera”; Faith builders might be the closest translation," he said. "Since 1995 this group manages the spiritual side of the abbatial complex. The divine grace of this community is to teach people how to pray, by practising the so called “Preghiera del cuore” (Prayer of the heart) or “Preghiera di Gesù” (Jesus’ prayer). This is a very old way of praying, and it features a peculiar lifestyle that favours the contemplating side of religion. Usually, the community of the Ricostruttori organises every year conferences and spiritual catechesis. Moreover, the monks hold a course to learn the rudiment of the “Preghiera del cuore” for all the people that want to learn."

Photo: Meg Pier

Simonetta Sovrani is an historian and guide whose expertise is Pomposa Abbey. Her insights reveal the stories of the artisans who brought its structures and symbolism to life.

"The workers who built the buildings and the bell tower were certainly the inhabitants of the area, just like the monks themselves," she explained. "They work was led by craftsmen called ‘magisters’ who were also entrusted with the most complex operations. Among these craftsmen we must remember a certain Mazulo, the builder of the atrium which is probably of Oriental origin. He was ‘magister Deusdedit’, the builder of the bell tower, and probably of Lombard origin. The Church dedicated to Santa Maria has the appearance of a late-Ravenna basilica with Byzantine influences. It was enlarged with two other bays in the 11th century."

"The oldest frescoes of the 14th century cycle are in the Chapter room," she continued. "They were initially attributed to Giotto as they present many similarities with those of the Scrovegni chapel in Padua. Of great interest is also the fresco of the Refectory (last supper, ‘deesis’ and miracle of San Guido). It is attributed to Pietro da Rimini, a prominent figure of the lively pictorial school of Rimini who was strongly influenced by Giotto. But there are clearly signs of the Byzantine iconographic tradition in the work."

"The main message of the paintings in the church play educational role towards the faithful," Simonetta said. "They had to teach all those those who saw the frescoes the history of human salvation and warn them. Paradise, depicted in the apse basin, is counter-opposed by the Last Judgment which is painted with whose infernal scenes such as Lucifer devouring sinners, the devils with bat wings and donkey ears. The images remind everyone who leaves the church of the consequences of their own sins. The three pairs of animals and the crosses, which are depicted on the facade of the atrium, symbolize the eternal struggle between good and evil and Man’s aspiration to God."

Photos: Meg Pier

"The fresco of the ruined face was damaged during the preparation of the wall surface for a new fresco, unfortunately lost," she explained. "A statue, whose face is ruined, represents Asia and was part of the group of 4 terracotta statues of the nineteenth century. They are currently housed in the museum and depict the allegories of the 4 continents. They stood in the garden of the villa of Count Guiccioli who had purchased and transformed the ancient monastery into a farm in 1802. The statue was probably damaged during the restoration works of the abbey complex which began in the early 1900s and with the demolition of the manor house. It had been built illegally beside the church."

Photos: Meg Pier

"Arranged on three registers along the side walls of the main nave, the church depicts scenes from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Apocalypse," Simonetta pointed out. "The centerpiece of the entire cycle is the apsidal basin with Christ in surrounded by Angels and Saints. Below are depicted the four evangelists, the four doctors of the church, San Giovanni Battista and San Martino. Under these last representations, there is the original representation of the conversion and martyrdom of Saint Eustace."

"The frescoes in the apse and the apsidal basin are the work of Vitale da Bologna while the side walls and the counter-façade were frescoed by painters from his workshop," she explained. "The mosaic and inlaid floors are made with precious marbles dated from the 11th and 12th centuries. Four sections can be recognized starting from the presbytery. The first three sections, enclosed by marble barriers, corresponded to the choir of the monks. One section consists of a 6th century mosaic taken from Ravenna, the second is a marble inlay with a round central area boasting an engraved eight-pointed star, the symbol of Pomposa, and with the inscription of the name in the rays of the star. The third section is a mosaic worked in ‘opus tessellatum’ and presents representations of symbolic animals. The fourth section, carried out in the mid 12th century, is made by Venetian workers using the ‘opus sectile’ technique with triangles of precious marble. The church is built almost entirely with materials from Ravenna and from buildings destroyed by the invasion of the Lombards in 751 A.D."

Photos: Meg Pier

"The reason for the abandonment of Pomposa was the route of the River Po," Simonetta said. "Called Ficarolo in 1151, the river changed its course and led to the area becoming swamp land. Environmental conditions worsened and the territory became inhospitable over the centuries. Around the year 1000 the monastery was very powerful and rich. It had the title of “Imperial” and was called “monasterium in Italia princeps” but a long phase of decline followed which was only changed around 1300. This stimulated a period of vigorous and activity within the monastery which included the renovation of the buildings and the cycle of frescoes."

"Nevertheless, in 1671 the monastery was completely abandoned and the church transformed into a simple parish under the bishop of Comacchio," she said. "The other buildings were abandoned and began being used for agricultural purposes. Many collapsed. With the unity of Italy, the awareness of the cultural heritage of Pomposa led to its protection and the site was acquired by the Italian state. The government expropriated the entire complex from the owners and, around 1920, began impressive restoration works which we can admire today."

"Among the many things to Pomposa has given us is musical notation," Simonetta revealed. "We must thank the monk Guido di Pomposa during the period in which the monastery was led by the Abbot San Guido. Thanks to him it was possible to codify modern musical notation which revolutionized the way of teaching, composing and passing on music. However, this invention aroused the envy of fellow monks and forced Guido to abandon Pomposa and move to Arezzo.

"Dante Alighieri, the great Italian poet, stayed on various occasions in Pomposa," she said. "Legend has it that manuscripts of some songs of the Divine Comedy are hidden within the walls of the Abbey. Dante quotes Pomposa in XXI canto of Paradise."

"There is also a love story enacted in in Pomposa between Lord Byron, English hero and romantic poet,and the Ravenna noblewoman Teresa Gamba Guiccioli, wife of Count Guiccioli," she shared. "That’s the same Guiccioli I mentioned earlier, who purchased the monastery after the Napoleonic suppression of the Monastic orders."

"Pomposa has always inspired poets and artists; it was an obligatory stop on the Grand Tour" Simonetta observed. "Among these we can mention the American architect Stanford White. He was assistant in Richardson’s studio in New York. He probably visited Pomposa in in 1879. From the church and tower of Pomposa he took inspiration for the project for the Methodist church ‘Lovely Lane’ in Baltimore, completed in 1877."

 Best Day Trips from Bologna: Po Delta

As Laura revealed, civilizations have been forming around deltas since man’s earliest days, as this type of environment is usually fertile and the shallow waters make for ideal circumstances to conduct trade and commerce. These wetlands form as rivers empty into another body of water, depositing their sediment and creating a special ecosystem and the Po Delta is the only such biosphere in Italy.  Not surprisingly, the area plays a significant role in Italy’s history and exploring the reasons for that make a visit here well worthwhile--not to mention that the dunes, lagoons marshes are serene and stunning.

Jodi Crivellaro, biologist and ecoguide in the park.

Jodi  Crivellaro offered a different perspective on the Po Delta: its ecology. He studied biology at the University of Ferrara and has a master’s degree in Ecology and Nature Conservation.

“During the spring and autumn time, I work as a tourist guide in the Comacchio lagoon, or better in the “Valli di Comacchio”, in the north-eastern part of Italy,” Jodi said.“This territory, the youngest in Italy, was born around 1000 years ago in the heart of the Po Delta, the real creator of the whole Padan Valley. For many reasons, natural and anthropic, the Delta moved 20 km North leaving this unique environment isolated. It is a shallow and brackish water environment, in part connected to the Adriatic Sea.”

“This lagoon has been hardly hardened from 60.000 hectares to nowadays 12.000 ha to obtain farmlands,” he explained.  “Only in the ’70s, it has been recognized as a real biodiversity hotspot, hosting more than 370 different bird species during the year, numerous fish species and a very particular type of vegetation that was able to adapt to the salty environments. For these reasons, in 1998 the Po Delta Regional Park was born: an administrational organization aimed at protecting this great natural heritage and its relationships with the local people.”

“In fact, the traditions and the cultural habits of the city of Comacchio have always been deeply connected to the lagoon: the ancient village was built on 13 little islands in the middle of the it connected by bridges; its roads were water channels and all the people living here were occupied in the fishing activities, mainly those involving eels,” Jodi said.

Photo: Turismo nella provincia di Ferrara

“The tour that I lead brings the visitors into the heart of the lagoon, browsing along one of the ancient dead branches of the Po river to reach an ancient eel fishing station from the 17th century,” he explained. “The first part of the path touches the western side of the ancient saltworks, unused since 1984, but managed by the Regional Park to facilitate the nesting of a multitude of bird species, including the Mediterranean Flamingos, present here with a colony of around 15000 individuals.”

“Proceeding along the old channel we pass by two different fishing stations within a few meters, suggesting how rich this environment was when these structures were inactivity, which was up to 1950,” Jodi said. “Herons, cormorants, flamingos, hawks and hundreds of little sparrows fly over our heads while browsing deeper inside the lagoon. The landscape is a mix of natural hand and human hand, recognisable by observing the artificial walls made of mud and the wooden poles maintaining the old channels active, some little artificial islands built for the birds to nest and the traditional fishing buildings.”

Photo: Turismo nella provincia di Ferrara

Photos: Meg Pier

“Once arrive at the end of the channel we visit the inside of a big fishing station and my ‘guests’ learn about the amazing journey the eels make to come here from the Sargasso Sea and about the unique fishing technique used for more than six centuries in this lagoon: the “Lavoriero<” trap,” Jodi said. “This fishing method is very similar to agriculture and needs a lot of work during the “no-fishing” season when channels are scraped, tools and boats are adjusted and most importantly the “Lavoriero” trap is placed, to be ready for the fishing season, which is in autumn.”

“During autumn, all the fishermen come to live in the fishing stations--there are around 70 in the whole lagoon--to be ready for the harvest,” he explained. “Eels are expertly caught by managing the water streams after black and stormy nights when these fishes try to reach the sea to start the mating journey back to the Mexico Gulf.”

Photos: Meg Pier

Photos: Meg Pier

Photos: Meg Pier

“All these deep connections between the local traditions and the lagoon are some of the reasons that UNESCO recognized this territory as a Biosphere Reserve in 2015, underlying the equilibrium between nature and human activities as one of the goals of sustainable development,” he said.

“After being included in the UNESCO MAB (Man and Biosphere) program, the institutions of the Po Delta Park organized the first International Youth Forum of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, where around 300 young people coming from all over the world met to find solutions for future sustainable development,” Jodi said.

Best Day Trips from Bologna: Ravenna

Ravenna is 80km from Bologna. The train journey is only 1 hour 30 minutes and the cost is 7,35€. There is at least one train per hour from Bologna to Ravenna, and at some times of day there are more.

Travelling through the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, it becomes clear that its history, like most of the world’s, is a mosaic of different cultural influences. That perception is vividly brought to life in Ravenna, which was the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, falling to a Gothic-Roman kingdom, then conquered by the Byzantines, then invaded by the Lombards, a Germanic people, then becoming a papal state, until becoming part of the Republic of Venice, until ultimately becoming part of a unified Italy. Phew!

As an epicenter of the evolving Christian leadership, a series of monuments were constructed and adorned in Ravenna in the 5th & 6th century, eight of which are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The vivid murals within these buildings represent the largest collection of Byzantine mosaics in Western Europe.

Not only do Ravenna’s churches glitter with spectacular tapestries of colored glass created by ancient masters of the technique, but contemporary artisans here are carrying on the tradition of this ancient art form, giving it a 21st-century flair.

Basilica of San Vitale & Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

The Basilica of San Vitale & Mausoleum of Galla Placidia are adjacent to each other in an historic zone of Ravenna that is pedestrian-only. I found it fascinating to learn that the Basilica was actually built at the direction of the Germanic Goth queen Amalasuntha, a great patron of the arts. Alas, her alignment with the Romans ultimately got her banished to a Tuscan island where she was strangled in her bath. Construction of the Church ultimately spanned the tenure of three Ravenna bishops over a 34-year period, and became a pet project of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, who are memorialized in mosaics within--although apparently never actually visited. The Basilica is dedicated to St. Vitalis, who is said to have been martyred in Ravenna for his faith by torture on the rack followed by being buried alive in a pit with stones. I suppose it's only fitting that a monument of such spectacular color have an equally colorful history!

Don’t led the austere red-brick facade of the Basilica of San Vitale fool you--while the church’s exterior is plain, the interior explodes in vibrant colors. Technicolor murals adorn every square inch, conveying Christian stories--yet even if their message doesn't resonate with you, you can’t help but feel a sense of the divine channeled through the sheer magnificence of their beauty.

Photos: Meg Pier

The history of the Basilica actually pales in comparison to that of Galla Placidia, namesake of the Mausoleum, who is a character of high intrigue. Daughter of Theodosius, the last Emperor to reign over both the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire, she had her own household as a child, received a classical education, and was a major force in Roman politics her whole life. Captured by the first king of the Goths at about age 20, she subsequently became a queen to his successor, Ataulf as part of political wheeling & dealing between the Romans and the Goths. It was a brief marriage; Ataulf was another to meet his demise in the bath at the hands of an avenger.

Galla's half-brother Honorius then forced her into marriage with one of his favorite generals, Constantius III, who Honorius later named as his co-Western Emperor. Constantius, who happened to be Atualf's mortal enemy, had a short reign, dying seven months after being named. Not long after his death, accusations soon arose of incest between Galla and Honorius, resulting in Galla being exiled to Constantinople.Two years later, Honoruis died and Galla's five year old son with Constantius, Valentinian, was named Emperor of the West. Galla served as his regent, or advisor for fourteen years, until he came of age. She died at approximately 58, a year before Attila the Hun ravaged Italy. The Mausoleum named for her is not her tomb, but she was inspired to build it in thanks for her life being spared while crossing the Adriatic in a storm. Indeed, it may be that her thanks were for surviving a stormy life.

Fifth century "Garden of Eden" mosaic in mausoleum of Galla Placidia.

Photos: Meg Pier

Koko Mosaico

The Koko Mosaico workshop and gallery is owned by Arianna Gallo and her husband Luca Barberini, and located at Via di Roma 186. Arianna is a graduate of the Mosaic Institute of Art ‘Gino Severini’ and from the School of Mosaic Restoration (Soprintendenza of Cultural Heritage of Ravenna); Luca graduated from the Mosaic Institute of Art Gino Severini and subsequently worked at a number of the mosaic studios in Ravenna. In 2005, they opened Koko Mosaico. The works created by Koko Mosaico range from copies of ancient mosaics to modern/contemporary pieces, and Arianna and Luca incorporate original or commissioned designs according to the desires of the client.

Arianna in front of a copy of a painting by Domingo Zapata

Arianna and her husband, Luca Barberini, in front of one of their works, inspired by the Last Supper of Domingo Zapata)

“No doubts that Ravenna had a central role in the history of mosaic, and it is now a point of reference for the contemporary mosaic tradition,” Arianna observed.

“Ravenna has been bonded to the art of mosaic for more than two millenniums,” she said. “In the 5th century, Ravenna became the capital of the Western Roman Empire and it reached its maximum splendor from an artistic and cultural point of view. It was specifically during this period that Ravenna was enriched with private palaces, churches, baptisteries finely adorned with mosaic decorations. These heritage sites are today part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and attracts tourists from all over the world. The bond between Ravenna and mosaics has never been cut because art conservators and mosaic masters have always been present in the city. It is thanks to these figures and thanks to the art schools that the tradition is still alive.”

“Speaking of this, I invite you to visit Ravenna during the festival “Ravenna Mosaico” that happens every two years and the city is full of events: exhibitions from international mosaicists, conferences about old and new mosaic,” Arianna said. “Hundreds of artists from all over the world meet in Ravenna to admire each other’s art pieces, take inspiration and to get the best from the mosaic tradition. The next festival will start in October  2021 and like the other editions, it will last until November.”

“To perform this art, it is necessary to “fall in love” with the marbles, the varnishes and gold, all the materials that make the mosaic up,” she explained. ”The ability to think about how these materials could turn into an art piece help the mosaicist to affirm himself as an artist. Also, good manual skills and a standout sensibility for color are fundamental.”

“Both my husband Luca Barberini and I were born and raised in Ravenna, and thanks to our laboratory we have the possibility to host everyday clients, artists and students, mainly from abroad that help us to keep an open mind and to be informed about the world, and all of them makes us realize how special our city is” she said.  “Ravenna is a small treasure chest. Some of these treasures are well-known to everyone, and I’m referring to all the monuments in the UNESCO World Heritage List, that keep us inspired.”

“We also get inspiration from the huge number of mosaicists and artists that work in here, or from the literary legacy Dante Alighieri has left in Ravenna--he died in Ravenna and is buried near the San Francesco church,” she continued. “Also, a lot of inspiration comes from everyday life. The biggest treasure is the quality of life this small city can provide, as it allows you to meet your friends while you are going to work, or reach the sea by bike, or to stop and stare at a kid’s astonished expression… maybe also yours!”

“There are various techniques to make a mosaic,” Arianna explained. “I like to think that in our laboratory we hand down the oldest techniques, as in fact, the one we use is the closest one to that used in the past. Each piece of mosaic starts from an idea that first becomes a drawing. The paper project tells the materials that have to be used and that, once they’ve been chosen, are cut into pieces using ancient tools: a mosaic hammer and mosaic hardy (martellina e tagliolo). Afterwards, support has to be prepared with a frame around and inside concrete is put in sections. Portion after portion, day after day, the magic happens. This is how the mosaic artwork comes to life and gets ready to be admired. This method is called “direct technique on a support” (tecnica diretta su supporto definitivo) and it’s the method most used by Koko Mosaico.”

Photo: Arianna Gallo

Photos: Francesca Lamantea

Best Day Trips from Bologna: Dozza

A 35-minute drive southeast from Bologna, Dozza is a study in contrasts, and a lesson in the art of daily living.

My interest in Dozza was inspired by learning it was one of the “100 most beautiful villages in Italy” according to I Borghi più belli d'Italia, an Italian association of historic small towns. That organization's criteria is preserving cultural heritage but in Dozza, that criteria is not limited to traditional olde world charm. The village certainly oozes an abundance of historic ambiance--it’s  Medieval architecture includes a 12th century church and a small castle. Set in the foothills of the Apennine mountains, the town is set amidst extensive vineyards; the area is known for its fine wines. Yet it is the village’s open air gallery of modern art that makes it a must-see destination.

The village of Dozza offers a unique experience: the walls of its ancient houses serve as canvases on which well-known Italian and international artists have painted a sprawling series of murals that range from otherworldly angels to bucolic harvest scenes and tribal masks. Agnese Tonelli of Fondazione Dozza Città d’Arte shared the back story to this festival held for four days every other September.

Photos: Meg Pier

“The art event of Muro Dipinto di Dozza, organized by the Dozza Città d’Arte Foundation, began from an idea by Tommaso Seragnoli in 1960,” she explained. “The event that has been repeated ever since, since the 1960s becoming a biennial in 1965.”

“From 1960 until now, about 200 artists have attended at the Biennale experimenting their art on the external walls of the houses of the village,” she said. “ To cite a few artists as examples, participants have included Sebastian Matta, Bruno Saetti, Giuseppe Ziganina, Emilio Contini, Pozzati Concept, Remo Brindisi, Renzo Grazzini, Giacomo Soffiantino, Riccardo Schweizer, Riccardo Licata, Aldo Bergonzoni, Ennio Calabria, Cesare Sughi, Norma Mascellari, and, among the most recent artists Tano Pisano, Bruno Ceccobelli, Luca Alinari, Gino Pellegrini, Marcello Jori, Bruno Benuzzi , Karin Andresen.”

“An Invitation Commission chooses the artists,” Agnese explained. “The Commission is composed of professionals from the sector and changes every edition. After several meetings and comparisons, they select the participants.”

“Once the artists have been chosen, they must submit a sketch of the artwork they have in mind,” she continued. “The sketch then is shown to the owner of the house where they want to create the painting. If the owner doesn’t accept the sketch proposed, the artist will choose another wall.”

“Each edition of the Biennale has its structure,” Agnese said. “Usually, the artists are free to propose the project they want without any issues. The artists paint in front of the public and are fully immersed in the urban context.”

“When visiting Dozza and its painted walls, you must not miss a visit to the Rocca di Dozza, a fortress built at the end of the 1200s for military purposes. which was transformed into a noble residence in the 1500s,” Agnese recommended.

I learned that the castle had to be rebuilt twice, in 1310 and 1494, after being destroyed in successive conflicts with neighboring Bologna and Ferrara. In each locality I visited, I was reminded that until its unification in 1918, the Italy we know today had been a collection of warring states since Time Immemorial. It can be hard to imagine such times of incivility and strife in communities that today are so enchanting and peaceful. Yet the architecture we appreciate as so grand and resplendent was actually constructed specifically to convey intimidation, security and power.

“In the castle, which is open every day, there is the ancient kitchen, the courtyard, the prisons, the noble floor furnished with furniture and paintings, the second floor holds temporary exhibitions,” Agnese said. “On the ground floor, there is the Regional Enoteca and wine shop. From the tower, you can see a splendid panorama. ”

Indeed, while conscious that in days gone by, others had stood atop the tower vigilantantly scanning the horizon for potential trouble, I was grateful for the tranquil vista the fortress afforded of Dozza's golden skyline, and the verdant and bucolic countryside.

Photos: Meg Pier

Best Day Trips from Bologna: Modena

Modena is 30 miles due west of Bologna. The trip takes 30 minutes on regional trains and it costs 3,85€.

With approximately 180,000 residents, Modena is about half the size of Bologna and bigger than Ferrara. Like Ferrara, Modena is another city in Emilia Romagna that boasts an ancient university, a history as a place of religious power and Este dynasty stronghold, and multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites. Yet, it has a different vibe from Ferrara. One local put it this way: "Ferrara has always been considered as a historic place with a tight relationship with its past. Modena is more connected to its more modern image related to the Ferrari and the Fiorano Circuit, a private racetrack owned by Ferrari."

My husband Tom is a race car aficionado and when I learned of Modena's Ferrari connection, I discovered I could enable him to celebrate turning another year older in style. We had made this trip at the time of our birthdays (four days apart!) and my gift to him was a few laps around the race track at Autodromo di Modena, which is in Marzaglia, about a 20-minute drive from Modena's historic district. The race track has a relationship with Ferrari, luxury sports car manufacturer founded by Enzo Ferrari in 1939.

While I was delighted to make Tom's day special, cheering him on would've been too anxiety-provoking for me, so he dropped me at Modena's centro storico, and went on his way.

"The Ferrari "Prancing Pony" is probably the most famous marque in automotive history," Tom observed. "The Scuderia Ferrari racing division is legendary from Le Mans to Monte Carlo. When I had an opportunity to drive an F430 in full racing trim in the birthplace and home of "ilDrake" Enzo Ferrari I couldn't pass it up!"

"I arrived for my three laps at the Autodromo di Modena on a warm, sunny afternoon and after a short introductory video I headed to the track where my car and co-pilot awaited," Tom recalled. "I was given some instructions and we set off. Despite exhortations to "Go for it" it took a lap before I had the courage to push the pedal to the floor. It is a short track so speed was restricted but it was the thrill of a lifetime. It seemed as if it was all over just as I was feeling like I might know what I was doing. Next time I'll opt for the 5 or 7 lap package but it is still a drive I'll never forget!"


Photos: Tom Laws

Modena's Ducal Palace

I started my exploration of Modena at its Ducal Palace, and was delighted with a "carpet" of very shallow water that extended out from it baroque exterior and into the big piazza in front. Two young boys waded barefoot in the unique fountain, cooling off from the heat.

"The veils of water in the square recall the path of the canals that are now under the ground," Francesca Soffici explained. "The square was a parking lot until a few years ago!"

I received an education on many of Modena's cultural attractions from Francesca, a native of the city who is responsible for strategic planning for Modenatur, an incoming tour operator for the area. Francesa describes herself as also a born traveler and in my exchange with her, I not only learned something about Modena, I also found out something about the greater world at large.

"I started traveling through when I was 12 years old, thanks to CISV, a global organization which is dedicated to educating and inspiring peace through building inter-cultural friendship, cooperation, and understanding," she said. "It was founded in 1950, today it's a federation of over 60 national associations with over 200 chapters."

"CISV is for kids, youth and people of any age and it's based on volunteers," she explained. "It  was really inspirational and helped me to find my path to become a tourism professional. Working in tourism allows me to have and to keep daily contacts with people from all over the world and I love it!

"My husband and I have 11 year old twin girls," Francesca said. "I think that travelling is an important part of education, opening minds and enhancing the habit of curiosity which is so important! We have visited until now several places in Italy and we also travelled for summer holidays to Austria, Germany and Croatia. The last trip we did was a short break in Lisbon at the end of January this year for their 11th birthday. It was their very first flight, a great emotion!"

"The Ducal Palace of Modena was designed by Roman architect Bartolomeo Avanzini, and construction began in 1634," she continued. "The Palazzo housed the Este Court for more than two centuries and is today the headquarters of the Italian Military Academy. The elegant façade has three windows placed side-by-side and crowned by balustrades with statues."

Modena ducal palace piazza Roma. Photo: Meg Pier

Cathedral of Modena

A must-see in Modena is Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano, thankfully known simply as the Cathedral of Modena. This UNESCO World Heritage site, built in 1099, is considered one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Europe.

"The Regia di Piazza is often referred to improperly as 'Porta Regia'", Francesca said. "'Regia' is a term derived from medieval Latin which in the common vernacular meant “main door of the church'".

"The two lions that support the columns here are depicted in the act of devouring their prey," she noted. "Unlike the stately poses of the lions at the main Portal and the Porta dei Principi, the architectural function of these lions is to convey power."

Lion - Porta regia duomo di Modena. Photos: Meg Pier

Portico del Collegio

"Portico del Collegio, which has 31 columns, is a characteristic element of Modena’s urban planning, and for centuries it's been a place for meeting, walking and shopping," Francesca said. "An integral part of the building's original architectural is a mix of private space for businesses with areas created specifically for public use."

Portico del collegio. Photo: Meg Pier

Synagogue of Modena

"The synagogue is located inside the area that comprised the city’s ancient Jewish ghetto," Francesca said. "The building was designed by Ludovico Maglietta in 1873 and has a double façade in Via Coltellini and Piazza Mazzini."

"The temple has an elliptical plan with twelve columns topped by a cupola," she continued. "This is circled all the way around by the Women’s gallery and a wrought iron gate surrounds the area housing the sacred texts and the cabinet containing the Torah scrolls. The interior was decorated by Ferdinando Manzini."

Sinagoga monumentale. Photo: Meg Pier

  The Ghirlandina

"Alongside the apse of the cathedral, standing 291 feet tall, is the Ghirlandina belltower, the symbol of the city of Modena," Francesca said. "The Ghirlandina was given this nickname by the city’s inhabitants due to the double ring of parapets that crown its steeple, “as light as garlands”, ghirlanda in Italian."

"This tower has played an important civic function since its origins," she continued. "In Medieval times, the ringing of its bells announced the opening of the gates in the city walls and also acting as a warning for people in situations of alarm and danger. Its mighty walls guarded the so-called “Sacristy” of the Municipality, which was home to the strongboxes, public documents and objects of great symbolic value like the famous fourteenth-century secchia rapita or "stolen bucket".

Francesca went on to say that according to legend, during a war between Bologna and Modena over who ruled certain towns, Modena forcibly took possession of a wooden pail from Bologna.

"This humble object became a supreme symbol of contention between the people of Modena and Bologna in the enflamed historic battle of Zappolino of 1325," she said. "The dispute was raised to fame in the mock-heroic poem of the same name by Alessandro Tassoni."

Piazza torre Ghirlandina Tower. Photo: Meg Pier

"Just below the Ghirlandina in Piazza Torre is a monument created in 1860 by the artist Alessandro Cavazza," Francesca said. "It is dedicated to Alessandro Tassoni, the 16th century poet from Modena who penned the famous poem “La secchia rapita” that tells of the historic conflict between Modena and Bologna."

Statua di Alessandro Tassoni - Piazza torre. Photo: Meg Pier

San Dominico Church

Just to the left of the Ducal Palace is the Dominican Church, which opened its doors in 1731, replacing its Medieval predecessor, which was demolished in 1707 to make way for the Ducal Palace. The new church was built according to a design by Giuseppe Torri and is elliptic in shape. Its interior is covered by a dome, supported by coupled columns which surround the statues of the Evangelists by the Bolognese Giuseppe Maria Mazza. Paintings include the Saint Peter Martyr by Francesco Meuti and the Saint Thomas Aquinas by Cignaroli. The baptistery is home to the 1823 “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” by Antonio Begarelli.

Chiesa di san domenico. Photo: Meg Pier

Monumento alla Liberta

In Piazza San Domenico, there is a striking statue of a beautiful woman in Roman-style robes, her arms outstretched to show her freedom from the shackles that dangle, broken, from her wrists.

Francesca explained that the bronze figure was created by Modenese artist Marino Quartieri in 1972 to replicate one that had stood in the same spot until 1942. The original monument had been conceived to represent a "redeemed" Italy that was free after the uprisings in 1821 and 1831 that led to a unified Italy. During the period of unrest, conspiracies within the duchy of Modena led to heads rolling, literally, with various executions by guillotine in front of the ducal palace. The original statue had been made by Silvestro Barberini and was destroyed in the Fascist period to be melted down to create weapons for the war.

Read: Everyone in Italy is united on Modena being the source of the world's best balsamic vinegar! Learn the story behind Acetaia Villa San Donnino, from Davide Lonardi, producer of this traditional Italian condiment!

Photo: Meg Pier

Best Day Trips from Bologna: Torrechiara Castle

Castle town of Torreciara in the vicinity of Parma, Italy. Photo: Mdntb, Creative Commons

Torrechiara Castle is about 70 miles from Bologna, and located south of the city of Parma and in a hilly area full of vineyards. By car, the journey is one-and-a-half hours from Bologna via the A1 highway. Public transport takes 2.5 hours (train from Bologna to Parma and then several busses). Dominating the valley below, the castle is one of the most outstanding examples of fortified architecture in all of Italy.

Dr. Chiara Burgio shared a history lesson on the Castle. She is the retired head of preservation for the Superintendency for Architectural and Landscape Heritage for the provinces of Parma and Piacenza.

"Torrechiara Castle was built between 1448 and 1460 by Pier Maria Rossi, count of San Secondo and an important mercenary captain that served the Visconti family, which ruled Milan," she said. "His goal was to reinforce the power his family had with existing fortifications that controlled access from Liguria and Tuscany. The castle was also intended to be home for he and his loved one Bianca Pellegrini from Arluno."

Torrechiara Castle was the scene of a famous love story between the noble and valiant Pier Maria, and the sweet and brave Bianca who left the beautiful Milanese court to follow her beloved in Parmenian lands. Photo: Meg Pier

"The castle is surrounded by a double ditch with a drawbridge," she explained. "Even though it underwent various renovation works, it conserved its late-Medieval structure with four square towers. The north fortified tower is called “Tower of the Lion”; the lion was part of the coat of arms of the Rossi family. The north-eastern tower is dedicated to Saint Nicomedes; the western tower is called “Tower of the Lily” and the eastern one contains the Golden Chamber. All the towers are connected to each other with a double fortified wall that surrounds the main courtyard. At the end of the 16th century, a new belvedere was created on the top level of the walls connecting the angular towers."

"In the 15th century courtyard, there is access to the oratory of Saint Nicomedes," Dr. Burgio pointed out. "The main door is original, and it is scattered with studs carrying the monograms for Bianca and Pier Maria. As a matter of fact, the two lovers are buried here".

Indeed, while the castle is certainly imposing and quite stern and dramatic-looking from the outside, its history as a love nest is apparent in the romantic imagery of its walls. Even barren of any furniture, the rooms have a warmth thanks to the whimsical and ethereal decorative wall paintings.

Photos: Meg Pier

"On the lower floor, the decorations of the rooms dedicated to Jupiter, and of the arbor and the room of Victory were painted by Cesare Baglione," Dr. Burgio said. "The room of Angels were probably decorated by an anonymous man from Parma during the first years of the 1600s. Some frescos in this room are similar to those represented in the dome inside the Cathedral of Parma painted by Correggio. The Coat of Arms room is for sure of later decoration."

Photo: Meg Pier

"On the upper floor, there is the big hall of the Acrobats and these frescos are also ascribed to Cesare Baglione" she explained. "Giovan Antonio Paganino frescoed the most famous room, the Golden Chamber, the nuptial “suite” that obtained its name because of the leaves of pure gold that were once present on the tiles. The original frescos dated back to the 1460-1462 and the artist was Benedetto Bembo, although some more recent reports say it was his younger brother Gerolamo that did the work. On the rib vaults, Bianca’s pilgrimage through each castle to find her lover are depicted. These scenes represent the power of love and the vastness of Pier Rossi's domains."

Photos: Meg Pier

Best Day Trips From Bologna: What's Your Favorite?

With the guidance of knowledgeable locals who have shared their insights, we've taken you from the seat of the Este dynasty to "Little Venice", and from a UNESCO biosphere to racing a Ferrari, among other amazing locales in Emilia Romagna. Share with us and fellow readers what you consider to be the best day trip from Bologna! If you scroll down a tad, there is a comment box. Tell us about your favorite destination in Emilia Romagna!

Watch! Now that you've soaked up the history of the region, kick back and take a relaxing virtual tour of Emilia Romagane!

Francesca Lamantea

Reporting for this piece was conducted by Francesca Lamantea, a Foreign Languages graduate currently enrolled in an MA course called Planning and Management of Tourism Systems at the University of Bergamo (Italy). She is Italian on her passport but a citizen of the world in real life! A travel enthusiast who loves taking pictures and buying souvenirs, Francesca is also super curious about everything different countries and cultures has to offer. Her mantra is “Never stop!”.

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