A Taste of Northern Italy
A whirlwind tour of Northern Italy that will whet your appetite for some amazing Italian-inspired food!
Bologna is a city of many names: “the fat one” (la grassa) in reference to its meat and cheese-heavy cuisine; “the learned one” (la dotta) in reference to its famous university; or “the red one” (la rossa), referring to the colour of the roofs in the historic centre. Today, Bologna is a handsome city of russet porticoes and colonnades; home to one of the oldest universities in Europe; a culinary mecca; and a proclaimed UNSECO City of Music. Spend a weekend exploring the city on foot, starting with its 40km of covered walkways, built as a simple solution to a 12th century housing crisis: extra rooms overhanging the pavements built onto existing houses.
Marvel at the larger-than-life statue of Neptune in the Piazza Maggiore which scandalised the city with its brazen nudity when it was erected in 1567; or see the Roman ruins that the city was built on under the Sala Borsa. Bologna University is the oldest in Italy, and the Archiginnasio where it was housed from the mid-16th century, is a feast for the eyes. A feast for the tastebuds can be found in the Quadrilatero area, a foodies’ Aladdin’s cave packed with food shops and market stalls. Make sure you sample tortellini in brodo (pasta parcels stuffed with meat and cheese) and ragu (Bolognese sauce), both local specialities. Finish the day in Osteria del Sole, a bring-your-own bar with a twist where you can buy some local dry red Lambrusco and eat at the Osteria’s tables with your own picnic of the Prosciutto, Parmigiano Reggiano and salami that you bought at the market.
Fifty kilometres northeast of Bologna lies Ferrara, a city that grew up along the banks of the Po di Volano river. This UNESCO World Heritage Site city 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. Get a feel for the old city my walking along the 2km of cobbled and arcaded Via della Volte where arches overhead originally linked warehouses on the river to wealthy merchants’ homes; and explore the Romanesque 12th century Basillica with its beautiful marble façade and majestic interior.
In the Castello Estense, with its four turreted defence towers and one of the last surviving water-filled moats in Europe, you can visit the claustrophobic dungeons where Ugo d’Este and his young lover Parisina (and stepmother!) were imprisoned before being beheaded. Then leave the old town behind to explore the 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 – widely regarded as the genesis of modern urban planning. Do as the locals do and hire a bicycle to cycle around the 9km of totally preserved medieval city walls, before stopping at Panificio Perdonati for hand-made coppia ferrarese, a unique local bread consisting of two rolled arms of dough twisted together in a central knot. The name means “couple”, and it’s not hard to see why!
Mantua, on the border of the Veneto and Emilia Romagna regions, was once described by Charles Dickens as being grey, boring, dull and smelly – but visit today and you will find a compact, romantic city packed with beautiful architecture, cobbled piazzas – and great food. Surrounded on three sides by defensive artificial lakes created in the 12th century, Mantua acquired power and influence under the ruling Gonzaga family who in the 15th century made it one of the main artistic, cultural and musical hubs of Northern Italy. Begin your walking tour in the Piazza Ducale, named for the Palazzo Ducale, the Gonzagas’ personal mini-city comprising 500 interlinked rooms and courtyards, which can still be visited today. Although much of the art was lost when the Austrian army sacked the city in 1630, glorious frescoes by Andrea Mantegna can still be seen, including the famous Camera degli Sposi. If churches are your thing, you are in for a treat – from the Rotonda di San Lorenzo (Mantua’s most ancient church dating from the 11th century) to the Basilica of Sant’Andrea completed in 1790 with its barrel-vaulted nave and arched façade that towers over the intimate Piazza Mantegna. But to me, the best way to while away a few hours in Mantua is to grab a table at Grifone Bianco, one of the many restaurants on the Piazza dell Erbe, to watch the world go by and to eat some of the local specialities: tortellini di zucca (pasta parcels filled with pumpkin and amaretti crumbs), risotto made from locally grown rice, or sbrisolona (a cake made with almonds and fruit).
To be inspired to cook Italian click HERE.