Life in the slow lane... in Emilia-Romagna
Supercars aside, life, and especially food, is all about taking things slowly in Emilia-Romagna, the region known as Italy’s ‘belly’. Renate Ruge finds its churches and art mouthwatering too, on an indulgent tour of Parma, Bologna, Modena and Ravenna.
It may be the birthplace of fast super-powered cars such as Lamborghini, Maserati and Pagani, but when it comes to everything else in the province of Emilia-Romagna, life is switched to ‘go slow’. As Massimo Bottura, chef at Modena’s three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana, told me: “the whole area is about the ageing process – slow cooking. And, as with our Parma Reggiano cheese, there is no shortcut for the passing of time”.
People here have a passion for quality in everything they make, not least the regional products they are most famous for: the cheese, Prosciutto di Parma cured ham, Modena’s balsamic vinegar, and sparkling Lambrusco. The ‘art of the everyday’, of enjoying the finest of every aspect of life, is a major part of the Emilia-Romagnan identity. That makes this northern Italian region a wonderful place for travellers who enjoy fine food and wine, while its sights, galleries and museums are also world-class. Here’s my pick of the perfect ingredients for a divine holiday:
The capital of the region, in the Po Valley, is finally getting the recognition it deserves as one of Italy’s finest cities. At its centre is an easy to negotiate, colonnaded grid of beautiful streets in which to enjoy the best of everything Italian in one go, and without the crowds. Italians affectionately refer to the city by three nicknames: La Rossa: ‘the red one’, after its red tiled roofs, brickwork and penchant for left of centre politics; La Dotta: ‘the learned one’, as the city’s university (founded in 1088) is Europe’s oldest in continuous operation; or La Grassa, a moniker from the Middle Ages (and quite the compliment back then) that literally translates as ‘the plump one’, to reference its rich food culture, with its signature pale mortadella ham, fat parcels of meaty tortellini served in brodo (broth) and, of course, its ragù (or Bolognese sauce).
Tagliatelle al ragu, Bologna
Bologna is Italy’s undisputed food capital. While students come for the university’s ancient academic credentials, their passion for Bologna’s cuisine is such that many of them sport tattoos of tortellini, the most-loved triangular pasta shape. In Piazza Maggiore, lore states that undergraduates should not walk over the crescent in the square or else risk dooming their exam results. The spectacular seat of learning has over 1,000 years of history on its walls, where you can spot the badges of famous graduates’ names, such as the inventor Guglielmo Marconi and fashion designer Giorgio Armani.
On a glorious spring day last year, I strolled around the historic centro, loving how compact it is, with all the galleries, museums and restaurants you’d wish to visit assembled in one small area. Delicious smells of cooking emanated from the delis and cafes in the network of tiny streets around Via Clavature. I stopped for a negroni at Osteria del Sole, which claims to be Europe’s oldest bar, before sniffing out the Mercato delle Erbe, Bologna’s main covered market, for a paper plate of stuffed calamari with mash, capers and parsley topped with strands of saffron, from the fish stall cafe. There’s no sign of a ‘menu touristic’ and stalls are piled high with a rainbow of produce – sweet onions, bitter chicory in deep shades of pink, green and purple, cime di rappe leaves, and radicchio.
All’Osteria Bottega is a prime example of the Slow Food movement, which protects and celebrates gastronomic traditions. Fortification there helped me conquer the Torre degli Asinelli tower with its 498 steps and bird’s-eye views over the terracotta rooftops, arches and red brick houses. Built by the Asinelli family between 1109 and 1119, it leans 2.2m off-vertical and is one of only two such spindly towers that remain, and which serve as symbols of Bologna. The city was once a medieval Manhattan, with over 200 towers built by rich local families obsessed with erecting taller and taller towers as an expression of their wealth. Back then, if you got into trouble with the law, the council could cut your tower down to size as public humiliation.
Also not to be missed are the Basilica di Santo Stefano, with a labyrinth of interlocking ecclesiastical buildings, and the Pinacoteca national art gallery, with wonderful Renaissance art collections including works by Raphael, Perugino and Tintoretto.
Piazza Maggiore, Bologna
For the love of ham and cheese, I’d make a side trip to Parma to taste Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma alfresco at an agriturismo farmhouse. At Hombre dairy, the air’s so thick with the cheesy scent, you can practically grate it. Row upon row of huge truckles age for at least two years and, when a cheese is finally ripened and opened, there’s a celebration.
Free from tourist hordes, the little town’s markets, museums and cafes are perfect for pottering about. Composer Giuseppe Verdi was born nearby and the opera house often hosts recitals of his work. In Piazza Duomo, the immense Romanesque cathedral is decorated with the heavenly frescoes of the Renaissance painter Correggio. A beautiful domed church houses the Madonna della Steccata, with more frescoes by the Mannerist painter Parmigianino. I like to wander the lawns of the Palazzo della Pilotta, which has a wonderful art gallery.
Curing Parma ham, Parma
In the ochre-hued streets of Modena, the peace is often interrupted by the roar of a sports car. This is La Capital dei Motori, a mecca for motor enthusiasts and the spiritual home of Ferrari and Maserati. Enzo Ferrari was born here, and founded Scuderia Ferrari, the Ferrari team stable here. Enthusiasts can visit the Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari.
Modern Italian gastronomy’s holy grail lies here too, at three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana, Massimo Bottura’s avant garde paean to the food of Emilia-Romagna. It was the 2016 winner of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Defying convention with every dish, Bottura’s ‘crunchy part of the lasagne’ treats every diner to the tastiest, fought-over part of the classic, with crisp pasta served on top of the sauces and a strip of tomato terrine. His famous dessert ‘Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart!’ is deconstructed and served as though it’s had a mishap on the way from the kitchen. The ‘tutto’ 12-course tasting menu costs €270 a head; wine pairing is an extra €180, and the waiting list for a table is several months long, but you may have more luck with lunch at Bottura’s Franceschetta58. Here, his more casual fare – pork belly with morello cherry sauce or orecchiette with cabbage, anchovy cream and crispy chilli breadcrumbs, say – is still wonderful, but more affordable.
Modena, of course, and specifically the Acetaia Giusti, is the birthplace of aceto tradizionale di Modena, aka balsamic vinegar. You can visit for a tour and tasting of vintages up to 100 years old.
The main square of Modena
Near the shores of the Adriatic, Ravenna is the jewel in Emilia-Romagna’s cultural crown, and most famous for its incredible mosaic artwork, which tracks its origins to 402AD, when the city became the capital of the Western Roman Empire.
Ravenna and its surrounds are an overflowing treasure-chest of artistic and architectural heritage, which flourished under its sixth-century rulers, who commissioned splendid monuments. In 540AD, the city became the main outpost of the Byzantine Empire in Western Europe, prolonging the lavish period of patronage until the Lombards assumed control in 751AD.
This golden age of art and craft saw skilled craftsmen cover terracotta brick churches in breathtaking mosaics. Jaw-droppingly beautiful mosaics adorn the ceilings and altar of the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, where shafts of sunshine illuminate tiny tiles in glittering greens, electric blues, golds and ochre reds, so vivid they could have been laid yesterday. This ancient church, consecrated in 547AD by Archbishop Massimiano, is one of eight remarkable monuments in Ravenna listed as Unesco world heritage sites. There are chapels and oratories with starry roofs and, among the saints and biblical scenes, depictions of real local life. Elsewhere, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe has a spectacular dome where the saints float among bright flowers, birds and sheep. Mosaics can be seen at six other Unesco monuments and churches here of Dante Alighieri, who came here to finish The Divine Comedy, and poignantly wrote. One of the best-preserved Romanesque churches is the Chiesa di San Pietro in Silvis, the oldest in the Ravenna area and a classic example of Exarchal architecture.
One of my favourite spots is the ‘silent area’ in the old city centre, beside the Quadrarco di Braccioforte and the Basilica of San Francesco. I like to sit at the tomb: “There is no greater sorrow than to recall in misery the time when we were happy”. Then I cheer myself up in the public gardens, a leafy backdrop to the 16th-century Loggetta Lombardesca, Ravenna’s museum of art.
Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna
Cox & Kings' expert-led group tour Ravenna: Mosaics & Marble explores the glittering history of this fascinating city.