Barbara Noe Kennedy savours the flavours of Emilia-Romagna, home to some of Italy’s best food.
If Emilia-Romagna weren’t just one of many remarkable regions in Italy, each more stunning than the next for its art, Roman ruins, culinary traditions, surprising wines and cypress-dotted landscapes, this enchanting realm just north of Tuscany would be better known. But it’s not, making it that much more endearing for its under-the-radar villages, ancient castles, Apennine-shadowed landscape and, most of all, its contributions to the Italian gastronomic repertoire. Emilia-Romagna is the birthplace, after all, of tortellini, lasagna, prosciutto di Palma, balsamic vinegar and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Oh, and a popular little dish called spaghetti bolognese (known as tagliatelle ragù here). Throw in a vineyard or three, and you’ll have forgotten all about the Italian darlings that top everyone’s list
(yes, we’re talking about you, Tuscany).
Terracotta-hued Bologna, the region’s capital, is a panoply of medieval towers and Renaissance palaces. Europe’s oldest university, the University of Bologna, began here in 1088, counting Dante, Petrarch and Copernicus among its illustrious alumni. Its students today give the city a young, energetic vibe. Among the capital’s coveted stash of sights are Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, with works by Raphael and Tintoretto; the Basilica di Santo Stefano, comprising seven interlocking churches built over a thousand years; and Museo della Storia di Bologna, spanning the city’s 2,500-year history.
But, above all, Bologna is a gourmand’s paradise, with a fantastic array of the “best restaurants you’ve never heard of”, not to mention Mercato delle Erbe, a buzzing city-centre marketplace dating back to 1919. There’s also Fico Eataly World, a food park extravaganza that opened in November 2017 on the outskirts of the city. Be sure to come hungry.
From here, a string of alluring towns – each former Roman strongholds and each offering its own take on cuisine, history and culture – dot a portion of the ancient Roman road Via Emilia (SS9 on modern maps), heading northwest along the Po Valley. There’s Modena, the incomparable birthplace of balsamic vinegar and home to the brilliant Osteria Francescana (perhaps Emilia-Romagna’s only restaurant that everyone’s heard of).
You also need to taste the regional Lambrusco wines, which admittedly haven’t received the best accolades outside of Italy. Judge for yourself at Medici Ermete and Albinea Canali wineries, both near the stylish town of Reggio Emilia.
Elegant Parma, further northwest, is beloved for its chi-chi designer shops and its venerated theatre (Verdi was a native son of Parma province, if that gives any hint to the calibre). Don’t miss Correggio’s Assumption of the Virgin at the Duomo, considered one of the High Renaissance’s greatest paintings. Near Piacenza, Luretta winery offers tantalising vintages of organic wines that have been aged in a 1,000-year-old castle.
As you reach the region’s westernmost edge, you will have enjoyed an all-encompassing Emilia-Romagna experience, guaranteed. That said, the region offers so much more: revitalising spas, Byzantine mosaics, the world’s most deified sports cars, and white-sand beaches overlooking the dazzling Adriatic, to name a few. Here’s a bit of advice: hire a car – or bike – and ramble down Emilia-Romagna’s cypress-shaded lanes, taking in the rosemary-sage-scented countryside. As the Emilia-Romagnian sun shines, the larks sing, and another Lambrusco-graced meal awaits in the next terracotta hamlet, you know you have discovered an intimate, uncrowded (and less expensive) side of Italy. Where are all the visitors, you ask? They’re exploring Italy’s so-called darlings, leaving Emilia-Romagna all to you. For now, anyway, until the word gets out.
Where to stay
The luxe Art Hotel Commercianti, in the heart of Bologna’s medieval centre, was originally born as a tower house in the early 11th century. Emilia-Romagna has many medieval castles that have since been converted to hotels with first-class spas and gourmet restaurants. Two of the best are Castello di Tabiano near Parma and Hotel Torre di San Martino near Piacenza.
How to get there
The flight from London to Bologna’s Guglielmo Marconi di Bologna Airport takes less than two hours; British Airways and Ryanair both offer direct flights.