Our original travel plans included several train journeys from Bologna to the nearby cities of Parma, Modena and Ferrara but after eight days we were tiring of railway stations and the pushing and the shoving and the shoving and the pushing and the graffiti scarred trains so we hastily changed our plans.
So far Northern Italy had been something of a disappointment and it occurred to us also at this time that Parma, Modena and Ferrara might all be rather similar, the same even as Bologna in fact (they are all very close by) so we agreed that we would visit only one and we chose Ferrara because at only thirty miles to the north it was the nearest.
As it turned out the railway station was surprisingly quiet today and train travel was quite straightforward and the journey to nearby Ferrara took just about fifty minutes. I didn’t however like the gipsy beggars who kept getting on and off and leaving slips of paper explaining how poor they were, how many children they had and how they had no money. I ignored them of course and held on tightly to my wallet.
Stepping out of the railway station into this UNESCO World Heritage city it immediately felt different, the air was fresher, the grass looked greener, there wasn’t a tourist bus in sight and most importantly there were no beggars and no graffiti. It was all rather a nice surprise. We walked to the centre and then found a pavement table in the sunshine and simply sat and enjoyed it. It was all delightfully tranquil, not like Bologna at all.
Historically Ferrara was the domain of the powerful Este family, in power and prestige rivals to the Medici of Florence who endowed the city with its signature building – a huge castle complete with moat positioned right in the city centre and we sat beneath its towering red brick walls, finished our drinks and set off to walk the streets.
The Este’s managed the city through the transition from medieval to renaissance and planned and built a city that seamlessly passes from one age to another and back again and we soon found ourselves in a perfectly preserved historical city that has probably remained effortlessly unchanged for hundreds of years.
It was most noticeable that the streets were quiet, almost deserted. Ferrara is less than a hundred miles away from Venice you see and everyone who visits this part of Italy goes to La Serenissima, a sort of sponge which drains the tourists away from places like this. Ferrara welcomes less than a quarter of a million visitors each year, Venice is a tourist sweatshop that endures thirty million, almost double the resident population.
I like Venice, who doesn’t like Venice? everyone likes Venice, but I don’t like staying there, it is just too busy and expensive. I blame the cruise ships most of all, I hate the cruise ships and the swarm of visitors that they deliver. The last time I visited Venice I stayed in nearby Padova which was a really good way of seeing Venice without staying there.
In Ferrara we walked first to the main square and the Cathedral, a formidable Romanesque building with a dazzling façade of shining pink and white marble which provides a stunning contrast to most of the city that is largely built of terracotta brick. We headed towards the entrance but it was closed today on account of interior construction work. It seems the Cathedral was damaged in an earthquake in 2012 and the repair work is ongoing. I sighed, looked at Kim and watched the blush of disappointment spread slowly across her face.
So we turned our backs on the Cathedral and wandered off into the network of streets and alleys that leaked away from the main square into a medieval labyrinth of shadows and secrets, shafts of sunlight spearing through the occasional gaps in the buildings, a criss-cross of tiny jumbled streets, packed with churches, cloisters, old palaces and houses. Eventually we came to the city walls which remain complete and encircle the old centre. We walked for a while next to the red bricks until we were in the Renaissance part of the city where all is space and dignity with parks, palazzi and grand houses.
It was a gentle walk but Ferrara is only quite small so soon we were back at the castle so with things still to do in Bologna we made our way back to the railway station.
If I had been disappointed with Milan and Bologna in Ferrara I was beginning to fall in love with Italy again. On the train back to Bologna I reflected on a good day and wondered now if we had been a bit hasty in our decision not to visit Parma and Modena. Kim fell asleep, she always falls asleep on a train journey.
Half way back it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a statue of Garibaldi.
We had seen Girolamo Savonarola who was born in Ferrara in 1452 and was the famous medieval Dominican priest and leader of Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498. He was known for his book burning, destruction of what he considered immoral art, and hostility to the Renaissance. Even Christians have fundamentalists!
Ferrara was certainly different!