Monday, 15 October 2012 12:52 PM
Emilia Romagna is a revelation. With miles of patchwork hills, super-glam beaches, fantastic food, plenty of outdoor activities and a quantity of historic sites that’s high even for Italy, the north-easterly region really does have something for everyone, as Ele Cooper discovers
Emilia Romagna for history lovers:
Emilia Romagna boasts more ancient mosaics than you can shake a tile cutter at. The pretty town of Ravenna is particularly blessed, with eight of its fifth-and sixth-century monuments featuring on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Real aficionados could spend days properly ‘doing’ the history thing but if you’d rather stick to the highlights, there are two absolute must-sees.
The Basilica di San Vitale can’t fail to take your breath away. Dating back to 527 AD, the octagonal church is covered with mind-bogglingly intricate mosaics. The glittering dome, which towers high above worshippers’ heads, is simply mesmerising.
At the other end of the size scale but no less magnificent for it is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Housing the remains of the woman described as ‘daughter, sister, wife and mother of emperors’, it looks unassuming from the outside but inside is painted a startling blue, its cupola covered with stars (according to the locals, no one has ever managed to count them twice and arrive at the same number).
The Basilica di San Vitale
Emilia Romagna for foodies
Emilia Romagna is paradise for those who believe in eating locally sourced food: the region’s farmers grow grapes, cherries, kiwis (including yellow kiwis – yes, really), apricots, olives, lemons, peaches and plums to name but a few.
There exists a growing number of agriturismos – working food and wine-producing estates that also offer accommodation – in Emilia Romagna. They are a great bet for those seeking a relaxed, authentic meal in picturesque surroundings.
Pick of the lunch bunch has got to be Trere, in Faenza. Set on a beautiful site sheltered by towering cypress trees, you could very easily wile away an entire afternoon sitting on the terrace, working your way through the menu of the day and washing it down with a glass or three of the estate’s own wine. We feasted on tagliatelle al ragu, delicate slivers of squid, peppery prosciutto and about a tonne of gnocco fritto – a crispy equivalent to ravioli. (Tip: don’t leave without stocking up on Trere’s marvellous olive oil, some of the best out there).
If you want to try making food as well as eating it, hot-foot it to Casa Artusi, in the enchanting town of Forlimpopoli. The cookery school has a fascinating history: its namesake, Pellegrino Artusi, was a rich banker who, while travelling the country for business, began collecting the recipes (and accompanying anecdotes) of real families. In 1891, he eventually published them all in ‘La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiare Bene’ (the science of cooking and the art of eating well) – Italy’s first cook book for middle-class cooks rather than professional chefs. It’s still being printed and sold in multiple languages today, so he must have got something right.
These days, Artusi’s hometown is host to a fantastic cookery school that focuses on teaching its pupils traditional home cooking, Romagnolo style. They will arrange lessons for anything between one and 20 people and, needless to say, pasta features heavily on the agenda.
Wherever you eat, and whether you cook or get cooked for, you will undoubtedly sample piadina, the region’s salty, unleavened bread which seemed like a cross between naan bread and a pizza base. It may sound odd but trust me, it’s delicious and served in abundance throughout Emilia Romagna.
Emilia Romagna for relaxation
Beach lovers won’t find a much more glamorous location in Emilia Romagna than Milano Marittima. It may be a purpose-built resort but it avoids tackiness due in no small part to its trees: the town was built on pine forest land and the developers chopped down as few trees as possible. The beach is large and busy, its calm water, plentiful clean changing cubicles and showers making it perfect for families. When it comes to nightlife, Milano Marittima’s bars and restaurants definitely err on the trendy side; in fact Friday nights offer a people-watching extravaganza like nothing you will ever have seen before, with women and men vying to out-peacock each other. It’s quite spectacular.
Twenty minutes down the coast but a million miles away in vibe, the port town of Cesenatico makes a lovely destination for a relaxed stroll. Divided by the sea, the busy, working side of the town is fascinating – you can see dozens of fishermen at work repairing their boats and selling the dawn catch along the side of the water. The more touristy side of Cesenatico, though, is just as interesting, mainly because of the beautiful, hand-painted boats lining the canal. They may no longer be in use but they’re still quite breathtaking, with gold and red sails featuring lions, stars and flags billowing in the breeze like something out of a storybook. It’s a truly beautiful place.
Emilia Romagna for active types
The spectacular scenery of Emilia Romagna coupled with its winding, quiet roads and quaint medieval villages makes it perfect for mountain biking – but if you’re looking for something a bit quirkier, try canoeing in the salt marshes of Cervia. The tranquil, unmoving waterways don’t get deeper than 1m at any point, so it’s ideal for beginners. You’ll pass fishermen’s huts on stilts with suspended fishing nets hanging above the water, duck under low-lying bridges and eventually stop for a guided walk around the salt flats – look out for the flamingos.
Mirabilandia offers a rather more fast-paced day out. The theme park has a host of white-knuckle rides including Columbia, the tallest tower ride in Europe, as well as more child-friendly options.
Emilia Romagna for city slickers
Bologna, the largest city in Emilia Romagna, is absolutely beautiful and well worth inclusion on the itinerary of any visitor to the region. It may be saturated with history but it’s also effervescent with modern life. Its Roman heritage makes it easy to navigate (gotta love a good grid system) and its distinctive red buildings are almost as much of a feast for the eyes as its food is for the stomach: Bologna is commonly referred to as Italy’s culinary capital.
While there, make sure you climb the 498 steps up the Torre degli Asinelli, one of the two towers imperiously looking down on the city, grab a coffee in the bustling Piazza Maggiore, or shop up a particularly tasty storm in the Quadrilatero, which boasts an impressive range of delis and food markets.
By Ele Cooper
Where to stay:
Milano Marittima: the four-star Grand Hotel Gallia is a traditional seaside hotel, with spacious, airy rooms and a pleasant pool for when the stress of beach sand gets too much. Rooms tend to be sold on a full-board basis – no great problem given the excellent food in the restaurant – though you can request B&B if that works better for you. From EUR92 per night full board.
Cesena: Agriturismo l’Infinito is a lovely countryside agriturismo with traditionally decorated rooms and a nice big swimming pool (although this is open to paying locals too so don’t expect tranquillity while you soak up the afternoon rays). Get chatting to the owners and they’ll take you out in their Jeep to sample the land’s produce which, depending on the time of year, could include cherries, olives, grapes, peaches, apricots, walnuts and myriad types of vibrant, tasty veg. From EUR45 per night B&B.
Bologna: if it’s style and individuality you’re after, the ten-bedroomed Convento dei Fiori di Seta will not disappoint. Housed in a 14th-century convent, the four-star boutique hotel has a mixture of modern and more traditional rooms (simply request which style you’d prefer) and even has a mini spa where you can unwind after a day exploring the city. From EUR130 per night B&B.
You can fly to three airports in Emilia Romagna from the UK:
Bologna: fly from London Heathrow with BA, London Gatwick with BA and Easyjet, London Stansted with Ryanair, and Edinburgh with Ryanair
Rimini: fly from London Stansted and Liverpool with Ryanair
Parma: fly from London Stansted with Ryanair
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