I spent 72 hours exploring the lesser-known towns of Emilia Romagna and found heaps of history, buckets of Italian charm and so much good food!
In the North of Italy, sitting just above Tuscany, is Emilia Romagna – one of the most fruitful areas of the country. It is responsible for world-famous supercars such as Lamborghini and Maserati, opera singers like Pavarotti and more IGP and DOP products (foods that have to created in a specific geographical region adhering to local traditions) than any other region worldwide making it famous for tasty Italian food.
The region consists of some big cities, such as Bologna and Parma, but it’s also home to some hidden gems that make great destinations for an off-the-beaten-track road trip. The close proximity to Tuscany (around a 2 hour 30 minute drive to Pisa or Florence) means you could tag on some of the more obvious choices to your itinerary too! I’d suggest flying into Bologna to visit the towns mentioned in this guide, which could be visited in one day each, meaning they’re a great trio for a long weekend break!
A one-hour drive from Bologna Airport
As the historical hub of Emilia Romagna, Ravenna is famous for its Byzantine mosaics. The town is dotted with ancient buildings housing expansive, but amazingly intricate, works of mosaic depicting Christian imagery. One of my personal favourites was the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, which from the outside looks unassuming, but inside you’ll find a breathtakingly detailed depiction of the night sky. Next door is the Basilica of San Vitale, an octagonal church with more impressive artistry inside. These two buildings are UNESCO monuments along with another six sites in Ravenna (a combination ticket to all eight sites can be purchased for €9.50
After marvelling at the years-old mosaics you can visit MAR, Ravenna’s Museo d’Arte, where you’ll find a large collection of contemporary mosaics. Professor Giuseppe Bovini, lecturer in Christian Archaeology at the University of Bologna, commissioned a number of artists to sketch a design and then recreate it in the art of miniature tiles. The result is an exhibition containing a combination of pictorial work and mosaics portraying everything from religious images to mystical unicorns to Italian food.
One of my absolute favourite things to do in Italy is to visit the town’s square; they’re something the Italians do so well and they always feel like the heart of the community. And this is no different in Ravenna! Piazza del Popolo is a beautiful square with typical Italian buildings and atmosphere. The Piazza buzzes with life and is the perfect place to pause and spend a slow morning drinking coffee and watching locals go about their daily business. Restaurants and cafes line the edges of the square so there’s plenty of choice.
As well as offering so much rich history Ravenna caters for those interested in the new and up-and-coming. The Docks on the Northern side of town are a bubbling area of development. The Darsena Popup and is a building, created from bright shipping containers, housing local eateries. The food-market style of this place feels on-trend but still Italian, with traditional dishes on offer. Try the strawberry and Parmesan starter – an unexpected pairing that works so well.
A 30-minute drive from Ravenna
Cervia is a small coastal town on the Adriatic Coast of Emilia Romagna. Here I focused on embracing the local style of life by spending some time on the beach, admiring nature, eating and making the most of the Italian tradition of aperetivo.
Cervia’s compact size makes it the ideal location to hire bikes and take in the town on two wheels. You can cycle past Canale di Cervia, the man made water way, visiting points of interest such as Piazza Garibaldi – the town square complete with cathedral and fountain – or simply appreciating the maze of pretty streets. To make the most of your bikes ride into Parco Natural to explore a beautiful park, which is home to lots of wildlife such as birds, cows and deer. The park is expansive and you could easily spend a few hours exploring either on foot or by bike. It’s also a great picnic spot! For even more adventure then cycle beneath a canopy of native pine trees in the forest of La Pineta.
As evening approaches Italians engage in the social ritual of aperitivo, which quickly became my favourite few hours of the day during my road trip! From around 6pm locals and tourists alike gather at bars to sip alcoholic beverages and sample salty snacks, all in the name of whetting the appetite for dinner. Drinking a Spritz while looking over the canal and out at the boats parked in the habour; I found Cervia a particularly special place to experience aperitivo. The view was lovely, but the atmosphere was even better. Young, trendy Italians flocked to the bars (presumably preparing for an evening in the neighbouring district of Milano Marittima known for its luxury shopping and busy nightlife) and there was just a general buzz along the canalside.
The beach, known as II Mare, is a long stretch of sand split into many bagni – different sections of beach that contain bars, restaurants, spas and small holiday resorts. I had the most delicious evening meal at Saretina 152, sitting outside with my feet in the sand and the waves gently crashing in the distance was a fantastic experience. The food was incredibly good with generous portions made from fresh ingredients.
Cervia is nicknamed the City of White Gold due to its ancient production of salt. This salt has a unique sweet taste due to the absence of bitter components that are eliminated in the natural drying process. In 1959 salt production turned industrial, leaving just one of the 144 original saltpans in operation. Every summer you can visit the original Camillone Saltpan to see the traditional method of salt production in action or simply visit the Salt Museum all year round to learn more and sample the famous seasoning.
A 40-minute drive from Ravenna or an hour drive from Cervia
Having never heard of Comacchio I had no expectations upon arriving, but I was more then pleasantly surprised. It’s known as Little Venice and it’s easy to see why with its labyrinth of canals and bridges. It’s so easy to walk around, watching cute families of ducks float around the canals, and kill a few hours. The beautiful architecture and attractive symmetry of the bridges and steps is a great view to enjoy from one of the waterside restaurant and makes for some cool photo opportunities too.
Comacchio is famous for marinated eel and La Manifattura Dei Marinati is the old pickling factory keeping tradition alive in the town; in fact it’s still in use between October to December roasting eels to prepare them for pickling. As well as seeing the pickling production in autumn you can learn about the process all year round, taste the eels and buy the pickled products at La Manifattura Dei Marinati. You’ll also find Comacchio’s pickled eels in yellow vintage-style tins for sale in almost every shop in town.