Bread and Bikes
Undiscovered by American tourists, Ferrara is Italy on two wheels. It seems everyone here spends their days on a bicycle, including the daily passeggiata ritual.
A short history
There have been human settlements near Ferrara since at least the 6th century BC during the times of the Etruscans. Later, the Byzantines, Lombards, and the Franks took over. The Franks gave Ferrara to the Papacy who, in turn, ceded it to the House of Canossa. But, when the Este took control in 1288, they would control Ferrara for 300 years.
Biagio Rossetti, an Italian architect, instituted a city plan in the late 15th century, which not only influenced the layout of the city, but was one of the first instances of urban planning. Because of this, Ferrara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But, with an earthquake in 1570, the economy collapsed. Then, the House of Este collapsed after the death of Alfonso II. Ferrara ping-ponged between the Papacy, Napoleon, and back to the Pope before finally joining Italy during unification.
Ferrara industrialized during the Fascist period and factories and railways were bombed heavily during WWII. Today, tourism has supplanted petrochemical production as the top industry in Ferrara along with agriculture. It is interesting to note that industrial hemp was a top cultivated crop in Ferrara dating back to the Renaissance. While rare today, hemp production for rope, paper, and fiber is beginning to make a comeback in the area with low THC hemp seeds indigenous to Ferrara being especially popular.
What I love most about Italy is its diversity. Even though Italy is a unified country, there is no single Italian culture. Each region, each province, and each town has its own unique characteristics.
Almost everyone speaks Italian, of course. But, in private, when speaking amongst themselves, many Italians will converse in the local dialect. And there aren’t just a few dialects in Italy. The dialect in one town might be completely different from another town across the river or in the next valley.
The same goes for food culture. Most Americans are aware that there are distinct cuisines in the regions of Italy. But it goes much deeper than pesto in the north and limoncello in the south. Each province has its own specialty as does each town.
In one town you might get a unique shape of pasta, in another it might be a specialty pastry. In Ferrara, that unique item is bread. Specifically, Coppia Ferrarese PGI.
PGI is a designation given to Italian agricultural and food products to protect them in their geographic area of origin. So, Coppia Ferrarese may only be produced in Ferrara and often bears a stamp of authenticity. The bread has a unique shape; two pieces of dough are twirled together and resemble intertwined horns. Be aware vegetarians, the official ingredient list for Coppia Ferrarese includes pork lard (this is Emilia-Romagna, after all).
We first encountered the Coppia Ferrarese in a restaurant where they were small and crunchy and served as a kind of breadstick. But, we soon found out that while the ingredient list for this local specialty is strictly regulated, the size of the product is not. We saw Coppia Ferrarese smaller than the palm of your hand all the way up to loaves that weigh over half a pound. And the texture is quite different as well. Smaller ones are typically crunchy while the larger loaves can have a chewy center.
There is certainly more to the food culture of Ferrara than its famous bread. Truffles, when in season, are exquisite. The towns of Parma and Modena are both in Emilia-Romagna, so you can get excellent Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar in Ferrara. Bologna is only a half hour away by train, so the pasta, especially the ravioli and tortellini, is outstanding. And if you’re craving sweets, be sure to try the tenerina: a chocolate torte whose recipe is over 100 years old and is named after Queen Elena of Italy. While crispy on the outside, the gooey center melts like a dream.
Passeggiata on two wheels
I’m not sure what inspired us to visit Ferrrara. It’s not on many must-see lists. In fact, unlike the towns of nearby Tuscany, we didn’t see a single American the entire time we were there. Of course, that’s part of Ferrara’s charm; real Italians living their real lives.
Perhaps we were drawn by stories of the Ferrarese passeggiata. In almost every town and city in Italy, there is a daily ritual called the passeggiata, or walk. Each evening before dinner, town residents walk up and down a street or streets. But, this isn’t done for exercise, and it isn’t done alone. This is a group activity and everyone participates. Couples with babies in strollers, teenagers on the prowl, older folk moving slowly, everyone comes out for the passeggiata. Stopping to chat every few feet with a neighbor or acquaintance, it can take quite a while just to walk a single block.
The passeggiata is my absolute favorite custom in Italy, and we never miss a chance to take part when we travel there. In fact, Karen and I often have our own passeggiata when we are home in the States, but sadly, no one ever stops to chat.
As for Ferrara, it is known as the city of bikes. The city center is car-free so lots of people bike there. And the surrounding area has many bike paths and trails as well. The spectacular intact medieval wall (the only other one is in Lucca), is wonderful for bike riding. Our hotel lent us bikes and we spent an afternoon exploring the countryside.
Best of all, the passeggiata in Ferrara is conducted on bike! Sure, some people walk, but many, many people bring out their bikes for the evening. You might think it would be difficult to ride and chat at the same time, but the Ferrarese do it with ease. Most of the time, they glide along very slowly, stopping frequently, straddling their bike with one foot propped on the curb, and carry on with a nice conversation.
Sure, there are plenty of other things to do in Ferrara. Visit the castle, see the palace, go to the museums, but don’t miss a chance to get out and enjoy an evening with the people of Ferrara on two wheels instead of two feet.
In 1555, Pope Paul IV issued an order creating a Jewish Ghetto in Rome. Many other Italian cities followed suit, including Ferrara whose Jewish Ghetto was enclosed in 1627. This meant that all Jewish people were required to be within the walls of the ghetto each night when the gates were locked.
Via Mazzini is the main street of the Jewish Quarter. Unfortunately, not much is left to see. The Synagogue and museum at 95 Mazzini is closed (supposedly temporarily, but who knows, it has been closed since an earthquake damaged the building in 2012). There are plaques and signposts commemorating the atrocities of the Holocaust, but mostly you will be left alone, gazing at the beautiful terracotta architecture and pondering the fate of those who lived here. Somehow fitting.
Osteria del Ghetto is not a Jewish restaurant per se, but they do offer some Jewish dishes on their menu, including a Jewish dessert called Paradise Pudding. Several dishes offer truffles during the fall.
Just outside of the city walls is the Jewish Cemetery (Cimitero Ebraico di Ferrara). Unfortunately, the cemetery is not well kept, but fans of novelist Giorgio Bassani will want to pay their respects.
A ten minute walk from the Jewish Quarter is the brand new National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah aka MEIS (Museo Nazionale dell'Ebraismo Italiano e della Shoah). Housed in what was a prison for Jews waiting to be deported to concentration camps, the museum just opened in 2017. Artifacts and multimedia exhibits tell the story of the Jewish people and their history in Italy. Many of the exhibits are from the closed museum on Mazzini Street in the Jewish Ghetto.
One highlight is the garden of questions, an herb garden planted with sweet bay, myrtle, thyme, lavender, and marjoram, the herbs of the Havdalah. While the museum is currently rather small, plans are underway to build an auditorium, archives, and educational spaces as well as a restaurant.
Just 30 minutes by train, the foodie mecca of Bologna is an easy trip from Ferrara. Although deserving of a few days on its own, Bologna can be done in a day. Bologna’s nickname is “La Grassa” or Bologna the fat for its culinary skill. Experience this with a food tour from Taste Bologna.
And foodies definitely can’t miss Antica Aguzzeria del Cavallo at Via Drapperie. Started as a tool grinding shop in a backyard in 1783, this store has everything you could want for your kitchen. The pasta stamps are especially intriguing.
Another foodie capital is Modena, 1 hour 10 minutes by car or 2 ½ hours by train and bus (switch in Bologna). Modena is the home of balsamic vinegar. If you’ve only ever had the stuff sold in US grocery stores, you’re in for an eye opener. Aged and fussed over like fine wine, top balsamic vinegars can cost hundreds of dollars for a tiny bottle. But, take a tour at Acetaia Villa San Donnino, Strada Medicina 25, and you’re sure to gain a new appreciation for this stuff.
Taste Bologna also offers a 3 ½ hour food tour of Modena that includes breakfast, lunch, and, of course, a tutorial on balsamic vinegar.
Opera fans should be sure to visit Casa Museo Luciano Pavarotti, just a few miles south of the city at Stradello Nava 6.
A little over an hour by train or car from Ferrara is Ravenna. In the 5th century Ravenna became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy and later the Byzantine Empire. As such, it was an extremely important city, despite its relatively small size. Several Byzantine structures survive today (even though they may have been restored or expanded) with their incredible mosaics. They include Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Via di Roma, Battistero Neoniano, Via Gioacchino Rasponi, Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, 17 Via San Vitale, and Basilica San Vitale, Via San Vitale.
If you go:
Bologna is the closest international airport. Ferrara is only a 30 minute train ride away.
Ferrara is a compact town, easy to get around on foot, or better yet, on bike with the locals. There is also a local bus service and taxis are readily available. Uber does not operate in Ferrara.
If your hotel doesn’t offer bike rentals, the official website of Ferrara has a list of places to get on two wheels.
If you’re planning to visit several museums in Ferrara, this card can be a good deal.
National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah
Museum dedicated to the history of the Jewish people in Italy. Discount with your MyFE Card.
This is your vision of a castle. A moat, drawbridge and giant block towers define this Medieval structure that is now a museum and a venue for concerts and festivals.
Largo Castello 1, 44121, Ferrara, Italy
Ferrara City Walls
Intact city wall with a footpath leading almost all the way around the city.
Former Jewish quarter from the 16th century. Museum and Synagogue are currently closed.
Cimitero Ebraico di Ferrara
Jewish Cemetery just outside city walls. Italian novelist Giorgio Bassani is buried here.
Via delle Vigne, Ferrara, Italy
Monastero di S. Antonio in Polesine
Monestary with incredible 14th century frescoes. Ring the bell during posted hours for a tour from one of the nuns.
Via del Gambone, 44121, Ferrara, Italy
Casa Museo Luciano Pavarotti
The late opera singer’s house is now a museum in Modena.
Stradello Nava, 6, 41126 Modena MO, Italy
Acetaia Villa San Donnino
Traditional balsamic vinegar producer offering tours in Modena.
Strada Medicina 25, Modena, Italy
Food tours including Bologna and Modena.
Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
Byzantine church with mosaics in Ravenna.
Via di Roma, Ravenna, Italy
Most ancient monument in Ravenna with a mosaic on ceiling of John the Baptist.
Via Gioacchino Rasponi, 48121, Ravenna, Italy
Mausoleo di Galla Placidia
One of the best preserved mosaic monuments in Ravenna.
17 Via San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
Basilica San Vitale
Several excellent mosaics including one of Jesus and the Disciples.
Via San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
Ferrara Farmers Market
Market day is Friday for fresh produce and local specialties
Ferrara Flea Market
First weekend of each month (except August)
Piazza Castello and the Piazza Savonarola, Ferrara, Italy
Antica Aguzzeria del Cavallo
Wander this store to find fascinating kitchen utensils.
Via Drapperie 12, Bologna, Italy
Osteria del Ghetto
Restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto with some Jewish dishes on the menu.
Via Vittoria 26, 44100, Ferrara, Italy
La Borsa Bistrot
Next door to the much fancier and much more expensive Dongiovanni, this wine bar offers outstanding food and an excellent wine menu. Michelin recommended.
Corso Ercole I d'Este 1, 44121, Ferrara, Italy
Ristorante Ca' d'Frara
The place for authentic Ferrara cuisine, including butternut squash.
Via del Gambero 4 | Corner Via Bersaglieri del Po, 44121, Ferrara, Italy
Quel Fantastico Giovedi
On the south edge of the walled city, this Michelin recommended restaurants is an outstanding value, especially during lunch.
Via Castelnuovo 9, 44121, Ferrara, Italy
Outside the city center, but worth it if you’re looking for a cheap vegan meal or take-out for a picnic.
Via Carlo Cattaneo 90/a, 44122, Ferrara, Italy
Trattoria di Via Sera
Bologna is a foodie city, but even there Trattoria di Via Sera stands out.
Via Luigi Serra, 9/B, 40129 Bologna, Italy
One of the top rated restaurants in the world.
Via Stella 22, 41121, Modena, Italy
Antica Trattoria Al Gallo 1909
Family run restaurant in Ravenna. Truffles on the menu when in season.
Via Maggiore 87, 48121, Ravenna, Italy
Right on Piazza Repubblica with bikes available for guests.
Piazza della Repubblica, 5, 44121 Ferrara FE, Italy
Hotel De Prati
Furnished with beautiful antiques, this quant hotel is right in the middle of the city
Via Padiglioni 5, 44121, Ferrara, Italy
Le Stanze di Torcicoda B&B
Renovated 15th century house in the Jewish Quarter
Vicolo Mozzo Torcicoda, 9, 44100 Ferrara
Villa Horti della Fasanara
Set on a 2.5 acre garden within the city walls of Ferrara
Via delle Vigne 34, 44121, Ferrara, Italy
Piazza Nova Guest House
Lovely B&B for independent travelers
Corso Porta Mare 133, 44121, Ferrara, Italy
Two Bedroom Apartment
Located in a Renaissance Palace with a courtyard garden in the center of Ferrara.