Planning a vacation in Italy can be difficult. With a long list of fascinating, culturally rich destinations to choose from, deciding where to visit can quickly descend into a research-intensive process of pro-versus-con-weighing. The romantic Venice? Capital city Rome? What about Milan, Naples, Verona, Florence?
Each of these destinations holds its own allure, which makes deciding between them all the more difficult, especially with the needs of a family to consider! But allow me to present a solution to this problem in the form of the Italian UNESCO District. An alternative to the well-trodden trails of tourist magnets like Rome and Venice, this is an area of incredible richness and variety, where antiquity meets contemporary, and where culinary excellence and originality can be found in virtually every city and town.
So named thanks to the multitude of UNESCO World Heritage sites it contains, the district frames the meeting point between the three Italian regions of Veneto, Lombardy and Emilia Romagna, and benefits greatly from this multifaceted heritage. Each city has a distinct atmosphere, from the godly calm of the renaissance Città Ideale, Sabbioneta, to the bustling streets of Bologna which ooze with picture-book charm and a rich jazz heritage.
Sabbioneta offers visitors a fascinating and immersive experience, wandering the cobbled streets of a fairy-tale town virtually untouched since it’s inception. But step off the street and into the famed Ducal Palace (once the imposing powerhouse of Sabbioneta’s ruling Gonzaga family) and the scene you’ll have stumbled upon may well surprise you. The palace regularly hosts contemporary art exhibitions showcasing the work of some of Italy’s best-loved contemporary artists. This truly is a meeting of two worlds; with the pastel-tones of faded renaissance murals, themselves once the pinnacle of the artistic movement of their time, sitting as backdrops to the contemporary artwork of today.
Back in Bologna, the pace quickens but never overwhelms. One of Italy’s most populous cities, Bologna is home to no small assortment of wonders, both modern and ancient. At the Università di Bologna, considered the world’s oldest university, the artefacts and detritus of 11 centuries of education proudly line the halls and corridors. With the wall-mounted coats-of-arms of thousands of former students literally towering over the visitor and the kind of magical atmosphere which only history can imbue, this place feels like a real-life Hogwarts, something which is sure to enchant and delight young ones (and maybe older ones too!).
Bologna is of course the home of the Bolognese sauce, amongst other specialities, many of which can be sought out at Twinside bistro and at Bravo Caffe, which is also an excellent late-night live-music venue. The sumptuous Pumpkin-flowers and Courgette Tagliatelle went down a treat whilst enjoying the live jazz accompaniment at Bravo Caffe, heralding the arrival of the excellent Strada del Jazz festival.
The city hosts a number of festivals throughout the year from Danza Urbana (a contemporary dance festival utilizing the city’s urban spaces as it’s stage) to the afore-mentioned La Strada Del Jazz and the Bologna Jazz Festival – two big events in the Jazz calender which bring together acclaimed Jazz acts from around the world to Bologna, a city with a remarkably rich jazz history. Of special note for Fluxlings is the annual festival La citta dello Zecchino: a three-day programme of events each September which is fully dedicated to children, combining games, parties, workshops, exhibitions and concerts, all with the goal of making children ‘the only protagonists of their city’.
Ferrara, which lies at the geographic centre of the District, once again offers a different pace. This laid back, picturesque university town is nicknamed ‘the city of bikes’, a moniker owing to its largely pedestrianized and bicycle-friendly centre. Strolling around Ferrara, poking in and out of its sprawling squares and beautiful medieval lanes, it feels as though life itself has gently braked and changed down a gear or two.
Outside of the cities, the cycling routes which weave through every nook and cranny of the UNESCO District provide an excellent way to take it all in, whilst enjoying the gentle pace which seems to abound in even the biggest towns you’ll encounter here. The route following the River Po through the region is particularly beautiful, and the well-maintained cycling paths and inviting towns which dot the river’s banks make this a particularly good way to explore the UNESCO District with Fluxlings in tow.
Also highly recommended for families is Corte Carezzabella, an ‘agriturismo’ farm which, set in the beautiful countryside of the province of Rovigo, is a truly tranquil and welcoming place: an excellent location for a base. Family-run and friendly, the farm offers warm, spacious accommodation, beautiful surroundings, and delicious home-cooked food which showcases the excellent produce of the farm itself. You’ll never think of jam in the same way again once you’ve tried the farm’s Pumpkin and Amaretti jam!
Although the many towns and cities of the Italian UNESCO District have different things to offer, what unites the district is the quality of the food. Not only this, but the food of each region is geographically specific and rarely exported to the same standards. For instance, the La Coppia bread and the Pampepato dessert of Ferrara both originate from centuries-old recipes and are specialities of the town, and you’ll find no better place to sample either of these than Panificio & Pasticceria Otelli Perdonati, an exquisite family-owned bakery, tucked away amongst the back streets of Ferrara. Also of note, at a stone’s throw from the magnificent Castello Estense (the moated centerpiece of Ferrara) is Cuisina e Butega: a restaurant which serves tantalizing local dishes in a crisp and clean modern setting, showcasing the wealth of local specialities on offer. I recommend their parsley, pine nut and anchovy spaghetti which was simply delicious!
Mantova’s Riso alla Pilota, again a local speciality, is a delicious sausage risotto whose recipe dates back to the 16th century. Again, best sampled in Mantova itself, this dish is cooked to perfection at Ristorante Grifone Bianco, a candlelit restaurant housed within the very porticoes that line Mantova cathedral.
I really could fill this whole article and then another talking solely about my Italian UNESCO District dinners, but I think all you really need to know is this: here, good food and wine are simply inescapable!
The combination of excellent local food, enchanting surroundings, and the thrill of discovering a little corner of Italy that feels untouched, make the Italian UNESCO District a destination I cannot recommend enough, and I’m confident that adults and Fluxlings alike will find just as much to love about this region as I did, if not more!
For more information visit http://www.quadrilaterounesco.com/en/
words & images Tom Smalley