Ferrara to Bologna: Circling the Delta of the Po

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[Ferrara] From the 13th to 16th century, Ferrara was the stronghold of the great house of Este. Today it is often ignored by foreign visitors, yet it is a great example of the northern Italian city state and well worth a detour. It has a fairy-tale castle, a lovely cathedral, the exquisite frescoes of Palazzo Schifanoia, a great picture gallery (in the Palazzo Diamante) and notable medieval and Renaissance neighborhoods. The locals overwhelmingly use bicycles, which give it the air of a friendly small town. From Ferrara, you strike eastward, across the lowlands of the Po Delta. Take a detour for some birdwatching or head straight to Ravenna to see the magnificent Byzantine mosaics in its early Christian churches.

Surely Ravenna is one of the great overlooked miracles of Europe. For centuries it was part of the Eastern Roman Empire, so that the influence of Constantinople is felt far more than that of Rome. The results can be seen in the church of San Vitale (pictured at right), the Baptistry of the Orthodox, and the tomb of Galla Placidia. Dante, Boccaccio and Lord Byron all adored the Basilica of St. Apollinaire; its mosaics are the last great Byzantine work completed before Charlemagne restored the West and Ravenna fell into obscurity. A visit to these churches is truly an unforgettable voyage back to the most luminous corner of the Dark Ages. Click here to read more about Ravenna and see many colorful photos of the mosaics. [San Vitale]


A few miles down the coast is the fishing village of Cervia, where you can sip drinks in the picturesque harbor or enjoy spa treatments at the municipal baths. From here the road to Rimini is lined with endless sandy beaches served by hundreds and hundreds of hotels. The hordes of summer visitors who use those hotels flock here for its recreational activities, yet Rimini also has a beautiful old town, where you will find the Malatesta Temple. Originally a gothic church, it was converted in the 15th century by Leon Battista Alberti, who modeled its façade on Rimini's Arch of Augustus (which marks the spot where the most important ancient Roman road, the Via Flaminia, was extended northward in 187 BC). The Temple was thus one of the earliest classically-inspired Renaissance buildings, and contains an exquisite crucifixion by Giotto (at left). Travelers who choose to skip other regions of Italy in order to see Ravenna can make up for it somewhat by stopping at Italia in Miniatura, in Viserba di Rimini. It features hundreds of tiny replicas of Italy's most famous monuments.



Now is the time in your life when you can literally cross the Rubicon, a forlorn little stream you encounter at Savignano, on your way to Cesena. Here you will also start climbing away from the vast flood plains, up into the hills. From a distance, Cesena appears as an imposing fortress; when you drive in you find it is a charming medieval town. Visit its renowned library, built in the 15th century. Many of its 50,000 antique volumes and 400 manuscripts are on display.


The road to Forlì is lined with beautiful vistas, especially from Bertinoro. Forlì's illustrious native son is Melozzo, creator of the world's most angelic cherubim and seraphim. Only one work of his remains here today, the heroic portrait of a druggist which hangs in the Pinacoteca. Forlì itself is the most medieval of Romagna's towns, far more moody and temperamental than its neighbor Faenza, whose sunny character is much like the bright and carefree designs of its well-known ceramics. The streets are lined with charming façades, many decorated with ceramic plaques and tiles. Piazza Vittorio Emanuele is a wonderful sight too. Visit the cathedral, designed by Giuliano da Maiano in the early Renaissance style of Brunelleschi. For a rewarding side trip, take a very short detour to Brisighella, the quintessential hill town, with a 14th-century castle (at left), an arcaded main street and great views of the valleys. Then head northwest again to Imola, which is perhaps most famous for its Formula Uno race course but also features a number of fine Renaissance palaces. As you drive north to Bologna you will pass the noble castle of Dozza, surrounded by picturesque vineyards, olive groves and cypress trees.




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