It’s always interesting to look back after a visit and try to recall your first impressions of a city. My first impression of London was of a hot summer’s day and a teenager’s love for the tremendous buzz of Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon. My first impression of Nice was of a maniacal taxi ride in the dusk along the Promenade des Anglais and recognising the Negresco hotel from a music video. My first impression of Rome was a mass of homicidal scooters all bearing down on me at every turn. (It’s a miracle I ever went back, really, but I did and I am still smitten.) My first impressions of Ferrara, a UNESCO World Heritage site city situated 50km from Bologna, consisted of glimpses from the minibus window as we arrived. Orchards of pear trees with the pears hanging heavy on the branches like graceful Christmas ornaments lined the road; and a queue of well-dressed people stood patiently outside a bakery, waiting for it to open. I remember thinking how nice it must be to live in a city where good fresh bread was treated with enough reverence that people would care enough to queue for it.
This turned out to be a more accurate snapshot than most first impressions as we were told that our first visit of the day would be to Panificio Perdonati Romano & Co., a local bakery, to learn about coppia Ferrarese (or ciupeta) the local speciality bread. The bread has an unusual shape and a long history: as early as 1287, statutes compelled the city’s bakers to produce bread in the shape of scrolls (orletti), which eventually evolved into the modern day coppia Ferrarese which was first recorded in the 1500s. It’s a sourdough bread made with a live yeast starter and consists of two rolled up ribbons of dough knotted together in the centre, but with the four twisted ends sticking out like spokes – or like two pairs of legs. The name means “the couple” – and it is not hard to see why! Today, coppia Ferrarese enjoys PGI (Protected Geographical Identification) recognition by the European Community and no other bread may be sold under this name. Around 330 bakeries in the province of Ferrara, most are family-run, produce a total of 50,000 kg of bread per year, of which about 60% are in the form of coppia Ferrarese – the bakery we visited sells about 1,000 of these breads per day, freshly baked on the premises. In the steamy bakery behind the shop, four men ranging from probably their 20s to their 70s worked amiably together to make the bread, the old evidently passing on the skills to the young. Each man had a defined role – as one brought out the scraps of dough, the two men at the table would use the heels of their hands to roll them out, a well-practised motion learnt over a lifetime. To finish off, two of these rolls would be deftly pinched and twisted together before being arranged on a wooden tray, ready to be carried to the ovens. Amid much laughter, teasing and astonishment at the crazy English journalists taking pictures of something as mundane as a bakery, we were told that the secret of the taste lies in the quality of water and raw materials, the degree of humidity, and the right temperature of the oven – a set of variables unique to each bakery. Before we could leave, we had to sample the bread, which has the flavour of grissini but a softer texture – very moreish! We also tried another local speciality known as pampapato (bread of the Pope) or panpepato (peppered bread). This darker and more chocolatey version of panforte originated in Ferrara in the 17th century and consists of almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, citrus peel, raisins. cocoa, honey, flour and grape must, baked and covered in chocolate. The alternative names are references to the fact that the cake is shaped like a Pope’s skullcap; or to the presence of pepper in the recipe. Either way, it is a dense, gingerbready treat, perfect for a Christmas table.
Once we’d eaten our fill of Ferrarese baked goods, our guide took us to get a feel for the oldest parts of the Mediaeval city. The 2km of cobbled Via della Volte is punctuated by regular arches across the road – rooms originally built to connect the riverside warehouses on the Po tributary on the one side to the wealthy merchants’ homes on the other side. A stone’s throw from there, we strolled into the old Jewish ghetto where the higgledy-piggledy houses are interlinked with a myriad of hidden passages and tunnels. The Jewish community of Ferrara is the only one in Emilia Romagna with a continuous presence in the city from the Middle Ages to the present day and its members contributed greatly to the city’s cultural and social life. The Italian Jewish writer, Giorgio Bassani, was from Ferrara and his celebrated book, The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, is set against in Ferrara against the backdrop of the rise of Fascism and the increasing restrictions placed on the city’s Jews leading up to World War II. It’s also in the old part of the city that you will find Al Brindisi, the oldest osteria (public house) in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records. Al Brindisi was originally known as Hostaria del Chiuchiolino (from the local dialect word chiu, meaning drunk) and was already established as a drinking den in 1435; Copernicus was known to enjoy a tipple there. Take some time to soak in the atmosphere in the cosy wood-panelled interior among the atmospherically dust-coated wine bottles and racks of whiskies and grappas lining the walls, or maybe stop for a plate of sliced Prosciutto and a glass of wine.
From there, we wandered through the winding streets, dodging the bicycles that seem to outnumber the people in Ferrara! Not only do more than 30% of the population commute by bike – but there is also a very active political scene in Ferrara, dedicated to promoting and improving bicycle use. In fact, the more energetic visitors can rent a bicycle to cycle around Ferrara’s 9km of totally preserved mediaeval city walls. But we strolled on through the bicycles and the pedestrians, keeping our eye on the impressive Romanesque marble tower which led us to the 12th century Basilica. The Basilica Cattedrale di San Giorgio was started in the 12th century and has both a beautiful marble façade and a majestic interior. Looking up at the facade you can see a depiction of St George slaying the dragon which was interpreted by the locals as the River Po, which was constantly flooding and needed to be kept from inundating the city. There is also a particularly gory and detailed relief of the Last Judgement on the facade, in case any locals doubted the need to attend Sunday service! The interior is soaring and gorgeous, renovated entirely in Baroque style after a fire in the 18th century.
Ferrara owes much of its prestige to the Este family dynasty that governed it for 300 years from the 14th Century, leaving behind them lavish palaces and a city transformed by forward-thinking urban planning. A short stroll across the piazza from the basilica brought us to the Castello Estense, the family’s fortified official residence, with its four turreted defence towers, one of the last surviving water-filled moats in Europe, and a dramatic statue outside of Dominican friar Girolano Savonarola. The Castello is one of the Delizie Estensi, a collection of more than 30 houses, hunting lodges and summer retreats in the provinces of Ferrara and Rovigo built by the Este family between the 14th and 16th century to serve a variety of purposes, and which can all be visited today. The castle contains many historic frescoes, some of which were damaged by the serious earthquake that hit the region in May 2012 – restoration is underway on both the interior and exterior of the castle, and “after the earthquake” is a phrase you hear rather a lot. Among the turrets of the castle is a secluded and tranquil orangerie surrounded by the red brick ramparts where citrus trees flourish in teracotta pots – supposedly the inspiration for the orangerie at the Palace of Versailles. Our guide also took us down into the claustrophobic dungeons below the castle where luckless Ugo d’Este and Parisina were kept. Parisina was married off at age 14 to Niccolo d’Este III, more than 20 years her senior. Unsurprisingly, she fell in love with one of his bastard sons Ugo, who was about her age, and when Niccolo discovered the affair he imprisoned them in separate subterranean dungeons in the castle before having them both beheaded. (The tragedy is immortalised in a famous poem by Lord Byron). To stand in the dungeons is to feel the claustrophobia and fear that the young lovers must have felt in the days before their death. Luckily for us, a far happier scene greeted us as we left the castle – a bride radiant on her wedding day in the castle forecourt!
From here, we left the old town behind to explore the so-called Ercolean addition, created when Duke Ercole I in the late 15th century ordered the old city walls demolished. He then had new medieval city walls built that doubled the city in size by enclosing a new modern “ideal” city, built on an axis of two main north-south and east-west roads (Corso Ercole I d’Este ad Corso Biagio Rossetti). These streets divided the new addition roughly into quarters and Duke Ercole built a large church in each quarter as well as a huge green space surrounding the two cemeteries. These were fairly radical ideas in the 15 century and Duke Ercole’s grand plan is widely regarded as the genesis of modern urban planning. Among the grand palaces that cluster around the crossroads of the new city’s axis of roads is the Palazzo dei Diamanti, one of the most famous palaces in Italy, as well one of the most influential examples of European Renaissance architecture. Built between 1493 and 1503, the palace’s most striking feature is the cladding of the exterior walls which consists of some 8,500 white marble blocks carved to represent diamonds, hence the palace’s name. The positioning of the diamonds varies in order to maximize the light reflected off the building, creating a changing visual effect as the sun moves position during the day. The Palazzo today houses the city’s modern art museum. Across the road is the Palazzo Prosperi Sacrati with its famous monumental Venetian-style gate, surmounted by a balcony of white marble supported by whimsical cherubs dangling their legs over the edge.
Sightseeing is hungry work, and soon we found ourselves heading for Cusina e Butega, one of the many restaurants near the basilica, for lunch. With difficulty, we persuaded ourselves to walk past the deli counter with its tempting array of mortadellas, salamis, sliced Prosciutto & chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano and soon we were being served a set lunch to show off some regional dishes and ingredients. We started with crumbed fried fillets of local fish served with a rich tomato concasse. This was follower by two of the best yet simplest pasta dishes i have ever had: pasta alla chitarra with clams, garlic and chilli; and spaghetti with anchovies, pine nuts, parsley and olive oil. The clams were fat and sweet, and the anchovy fillets had practically melted into the pasta, leaving behind only their intense savoury flavour – and the chilli lifted both of these dishes to the realm of the sublime. This was followed by the seriously addictive local speciality of cappellacci di zucca (pasta parcels filled with pumpkin or squash puree and Parmesan cheese, served with a sage butter sauce). The final savoury dish was fritto misto: a mound of seafood and vegetable batons deep fried in a feather-light tempura batter – who knew deep-fried carrots could be so wonderful? Dessert consisted of an impressive array of cakes arranged on a plate: torta tenerina (a chocolate cake very much like brownies); torta primavera; tiramisu; and zuppa inglese, a bright red desert which originated in Ferrara as a result of the Este family chefs being asked to recreate an English trifle: savoiardi are dipped in Alchermes (a bright red, extremely aromatic Italian herb liqueur with a taste reminiscent of Angostura bitters) and alternated with layers of crema pasticciera.
Sadly, our time in Ferrara was over all too soon and we had to hop on the bus to head for our next stop: the Corte Carezzebella agriturismo near Rovigo. Stay tuned for the next post where we try Nordic walking and take a sunset stroll along the Mincio River. For another perspective on Ferrara, you can read what my lovely fellow-travellers Claire, Marion and Tom wrote here and here and here and here.
Other posts in my Italian Unesco series:
We flew on British Airways which operate a number of direct flights per week from London Gatwick airport to Bologna, with fares ranging from about £90 to £200 for a return flight. EasyJet and Ryanair also operate regular flights from Gatwick From Bologna, Ferrara is easily accessible by train as it is on the line that runs from Florence to Bologna to Venice – trains depart from Bologna central station every hour. Alternatively, there is the BUS&FLY Shuttle from Bologna airport to the centre of Ferrara which departs every 2.5 hours and takes 60 minutes.
GETTING FED & WATERED
Panificio Perdonati Romano
Via San Romano 108
Tel. 0039 (0)532 761319
GOOD TO KNOW
DISCLOSURE: This was a press trip organised and paid for by the Italian government and the Regional Governments of Emilia Romagna, Lombardy & Veneto, as part of a project to promote tourism in the earthquake-hit areas of Bologna, Ferrara, Rovigo and Mantova, all named Unesco World Heritage sites. Other than the trip itself, I received no payment to write this post and all opinions are my own.