If you’ve ever taken a trip to Italy, you’ve probably experienced the labyrinthine magic of Venice, the historical mystique of Rome, the sheer beauty of the lakes or maybe just the amazing shopping in Milan. The country is stunning, filled with sights and experiences sure to bring out the romantic in all of us. But nestled in the heart of the Emilia-Romagna region, on the train line between Venice and Bologna, is the beautiful and vibrant city of Ferrara, a city I had the good fortune of living and working in for four years, and a city that is often overlooked by overseas tourists and travellers.
Ferrara was most famously ruled over by the Este family whose castle (Castello Estense) still stands proud, dominating the city centre and attracting many Italian visitors. Also still standing are the ancient city walls. Built in the 15th and 16th century, these now play host to dog walkers, joggers (I dabbled once or twice) and cyclists who like to make the most of the tranquillity and views from around the outskirts of the city.
The most important thing you need to know about Ferrara before visiting is that the bicycle is king. Forget cars or scooters; if you’re not on two wheels that you’re pedalling yourself, you’re way out of the loop amongst the Ferrarase locals. I found this out quite quickly when I moved to Ferrara and managed to secure myself an old, battered ‘Bianchi’ city bike hailing from the 1970s for about 40 euros. I loved her; she helped me feel like I belonged. As a tourist, you can hire bikes from a number of shops around the city or most hotels have their own for paying guests to use. As they say, when in Rome…
Once I was securely pedalled up, bum on bike seat, I was all ready to explore my new home. And what a home it was. In the four years I was there, one of the best things I found about this city is that there is always something going on.
In September, artists and performers from all around the world descend on the city for the annual Buskers’ Festival and spend the week singing, dancing, juggling and basically dazzling passers by on many of the random street corners around the centre. Next came the Balloon Festival held in ‘Parco Urbano’ just outside of the walls where I was able to witness hundreds of hot-air balloons take flight and soar over the city, creating the most spectacular skyline. With winter come the Christmas markets and thousands of sparkling lights all around the main streets. A huge tree appears outside the Duomo (Cathedral) and the whole city gathers in the piazza to watch the switching on ceremony and light show. It is truly magical.
The rest of the year is also packed with events: the ‘Mille Miglia’ – a race around Italy in vintage cars that passes through the city centre; the kite festival; the pumpkin festival (yes, really); the Palio – similar to the famous race in Sienna but on a smaller scale. No matter what time of year you visit, there is sure to be something cool and quirky going on. One of my favourites has to be the ‘Sotto le Stelle’ (beneath the stars) music festival that happens throughout June and July. Major music stars take to the stage in the beautiful Piazza Castello, overlooked by the castle itself, to entertain the masses. Ellie Goulding, Arctic Monkeys and Paul Weller are just a few of the big names I was lucky enough to see. My friends and I even had a few beers with The Vaccines after a concert once!
On the rare occasions when Ferrara is simply just Ferrara – no cars whizzing past, no one-man-bands, no flag-throwing horsemen – there is nothing better than just wandering (or cycling of course) through the cobbled streets, stopping for a coffee, an ice-cream, a pizza or a ‘Spritz’, a popular Italian wine-based cocktail typically enjoyed in the early evening at ‘aperitivo’ time, when all the bars put on free bar snacks as a pre-dinner appetiser. Whenever people ask me what was the best thing about living in Italy, my answer is always the same: the free food.
On the subject of food, you can’t visit Ferrara without trying the local speciality ‘Cappellacci di Zucca’, a pumpkin filled pasta served with either meat ragu or butter and sage. Trust me on this; it is, without a doubt, one of the best Italian dishes you will ever try. I swear my friends and family used to visit me as often as they did just for the cappellacci.
I really could go on about this city forever. I haven’t even mentioned the numerous piazzas, museums, parks and nearby towns. The reasons to visit are endless!
So, should you find yourself in Italy and want to experience true Italian life away from the usual tourist trail, jump on a train to Ferrara. I promise it will not disappoint.
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