Monday, 4 April 2011

Italy 7 – A Crawl through the Flat Lands – Emilia-Romagna to Lombardy

21st to 30th March 2011

We lied when we said we were picking up the pace in our last blog entry, since after leaving San Marino we slowed back down again to a snail-like 30 miles a day as we crept further up the Italian coast and along the flat Po valley - and that only on the days we were moving. We had previously thought that the Adriatic coast above Pescara was highly developed, but that was a mere foretaste of the coast around Rimini. One resort stretched into another for mile after mile, and although we drove, where possible, down the seafront roads, the sea remained invisible behind the unending string of low shacky beach-front businesses that blocked views to the sand.

About 4 p.m. we reached Cesenatico, and seeing what looked like a real town rather than seasonal sprawl we decided to stop for a coffee. It was in fact a lovely-looking place, with a working fishing port that continued down a broad sea-canal right into the town centre and along the main ‘street’ between the shops. We were strongly reminded of the Venetian island of Murano, maybe not surprising as Venice is less than 100 miles away, and the same marshy shore stretches round the coast to the famous lagoon. Along its main beach front, Cesenatico also has a large resorty side with a fairly upmarket feel, and is linked to the old town by roads crossing more picturesque canals. A camper area was shown on the town map, but on arrival it turned out to now be a building site, for renovation of a once-grand hotel, but we spent a quiet and comfortable night parked in the next-door carpark and a stone’s throw from the beach.


Another 30 miles on Tuesday 22nd March took us to Ravenna. This city had been on the coast in Roman times, but silting left it marooned inland on a flat plain, part of which is now a national park of dunes and forest that at last interrupts the holiday sprawl. Our route into the city took us past the church of St Apollinare in Classe, one of its big historical attractions on account of the 1600-year old mosaics that cover its apse.

Ravenna - Sant'Apollinare in Classe

Ravenna is a handsome Renaissance city, with elegant squares and pedestrianised streets full of high-end shops, that just exudes a comfortable affluence, but it is on the tourist map for one thing: mosaics. It is home to a number of remarkable 5th and 6th century churches, bridging the gap between the crumbling Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, that all use vivid wall mosaics to communicate their messages, and thus record the changes in style and beliefs over nearly two hundred years. Of these, some of the greatest were created under King Theodoric, an Ostrogoth (and therefore Barbarian) ruler, who conquered Ravenna from the flagging Roman Empire in 489 AD. However, Theodoric was a very Romanised Barbarian, and enthusiastically commissioned new works in the late Roman style, such as the two Sant’Apollinare churches or the so-called Arian Baptistry. The big historical ‘but’ here is that Theodoric adhered to a branch of Christianity called Arianism (after its founder St. Arius), which was very popular for a while but opposed by both Rome and Byzantium who declared it heretical.  Put simply, Arianism accepted all the Bible stories, but reasoned that if Christ was the son of God, then that meant he could not also be God, and that ruled out the Holy Trinity as the other brands of Christianity saw it. Now, to sensible people that may seem like a minor difference of emphasis and hardly worth fighting about, but to mediaeval Byzantium it meant war, and the Arians were crushed militarily in the 540s, so that the victorious Orthodox church came to rule the religious roost in Ravenna for the next 200 years. The new Orthodox rulers carried on with the mosaic traditions that they found in Ravenna, but new panels were added to replace some of the more ‘heretical’ scenes put up in Theodoric’s time.  

Ravenna – Mosaics in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Arian Baptistery  and Basilica di S Vitale

Two practical points for anyone intending to visit Ravenna – one, that there’s a great carpark at Largo Giustiniano, a brilliantly central place right next to the San Vitale basilica complex, which cost €2.80 a day and the nights were free, and two, that a combined ticket gives access to five of the best mosaics in Ravenna for €11.50. Set up with parking and tickets we mooched off for a day and a half of mosaic-viewing, and really, these are so beautiful that there wasn’t a moment when we felt all mosaiced out. Instead we sat for ages in each church or baptistery and marvelled at the skill and expertise involved in creating these works, discussed endlessly the religion and politics behind them, attempted to identify the stories pictured and were awestruck at the way they’ve survived the years and still remain so wonderfully colourful.

Ravenna - Piazza del Popolo

Mosaics apart, Ravenna was just a throughly nice town to wander around, or cycle, if you’re that way inclined, since it’s so flat that many people get about by bike within its walls. It has elegant squares, such as the Piazza del Popolo, which just tempt you to spend ages sitting outside a café, drinking coffee, eating gelato or partaking of an evening aperitif – and we did all three – while people watching or reading. The covered market in the centre of town was another place we had to eventually drag ourselves away from. It’s great to be able to buy such a wide range of salumi and cheeses, but being in a town over lunchtime also meant a chance to go to a restaurant for a change. We’ve more or less given up trying to do this in the evening as we just have not found much open. Either we’re not getting the timing right or it’s the wrong season for evening meals. Lunchtime, however, is a completely different kettle of fish, with everywhere busy and bustling and much, much more choice.

Ravenna - the crypt at San Francesco with mosaics under water, plus goldfish!

By late afternoon on Thursday 24th March, we’d done most of the highlights of Ravenna. A brief interlude on the internet in a café showed that the weather was set for a spell of ‘scorchio’, which made up our minds for our next destination. The nearby coast beckoned, this being our last chance for a seaside break before the English Channel. Initially, the drive out of Ravenna took us through a very industrial area of oil refineries and cement works, but things looked a lot better by Porto Corsini. This was lido land again, but low key and in an area of attractive pine woods, lagoons and drainage channels that marked the start of the Po Delta nature reserve. There were two decent camper stops nearby, one at Porto Corsini, which was free until Easter, but with no electricity, and one at Casal Borsetti, which was highly organised and cost €11 with electricity. Oh how we debated which one to go to. We even drove between them in the hope that wasting our time in such a fashion would help us decide. In the end we plumped to pay, as we needed to get some washing done and did not want to use up our dwindling gas supply heating water.

Casal Borsetti - collecting mussels

The area di sosta at Casal Borsetti was so nice that we spent the whole of Friday there, chilling out, walking on the long, sandy beach, collecting mussels, sunbathing – yes, sunbathing – and scrubbing our smalls! We had plans to spend Saturday in much the same way until the place began to fill up. From about 3 p.m. on Friday a steady stream of white motorhomes began to arrive and park up in their neat rows, and by bedtime we were totally hemmed in and surrounded, looking very titchy against some of the giant beasts around us. As always, we were the only foreigners.  So on Saturday we woke up early and moved on before the 9 a.m. deadline for paying for another day. We realised that we’d both forgotten our own wedding anniversary the day before, that’s how chilled out we now are, but at least it was both of us - though it is only ever me (Lesley) who never remembers how long we’ve been married (22 years, apparently).


A little further on, past the coastal lagoons, we reached Comacchio. What a delight the town turned out to be. It was a sort of mini-Venice, without the crowds, the palaces or the churches – which meant it had canals and neat little brick bridges with no proper sides and… the big draw… it has its famous triple bridge, which spans the intersection of two canals. It also has eels. Between spawning in the Sargasson Sea and returning all the way there to breed, the eels spend many years growing up in the laguna of Comacchio, with a good few ending up in traps. In the autumn the town apparently has a festival where the streets are literally alive with eels, but for our visit they were either slithering across the counter at the fish stalls or preserved and picked in jars. We had seen several small trabucco-style fishing huts equipped with large nets along the edges of the drainage channels in this fen-like countryside, and we wondered if the wide flat nets dipped in the water were for catching eels as well as fish.


The hot weather however drew us back to the sea, or the beach to be more precise, and by early afternoon we got to Lido di Volano, another small resort hidden amongst the lagoons, dunes and pine trees of the Po Delta. We joined the dozens of white motorhomes in one of the carparks, and took our lunch down to the sands. The nearby pier was lined with fishermen, despite the ‘danger – no entry’ sign and three gaping holes in the boardwalk, and they were all using some sort of square, flat net attached by the four corners to a pole. This was clamped to the edge of the pier and lowered into the water, then brought up regularly to recover a few small fish, generally of a silver anchovy kind. Well, there’s a market for them. Rob bought a whole load the other day, after being shown by the stallholder how to fillet them – a time consuming chore!

Fishing from Lido di Volano pier

The clocks changed on Sunday 27th March, and Rob marked the event by getting up to see the sun rise over the Adriatic at 7 a.m., since this was to be our last time by the sea until Calais in just a few short weeks’ time. I was certainly not prepared to forego sleep for that, and I’m pretty sure Charlie dog would rather have stayed curled up on his cushion. In the event, Rob didn’t get to see the sun either, as it was cloudy. The sun soon burnt off all that though and we had a lovely morning relaxing in the heat, before moving on to Ferrara in the afternoon.

Volano - Po Delta fishing platforms

We stopped at Pomposa Abbey and Tresigallo on the way, both interesting in their own way. Pomposa Abbey was once one of the most important Benedictine monasteries in Italy, and although less than half of the complex remains, you can see it was once pretty extensive. Inside the basilica the frescoes are very good. We particularly like the ones from Revelations, with their weird lion-headed men riding horses and multiple snake-headed deer things. On the rear wall was a very good Last Judgement, and its lolling tongued demon wouldn’t have looked out of place adorning the outside of many an Orthodox monastery we’ve visited on this big trip.

Abbazia di Pomposa

Tresigallo billed itself as the ‘20th century town’, and we noticed in passing some groups of buildings of a strikingly 1930s design. Wondering if this was some sort of planned town, we headed into the centre to investigate. Our hunch was correct. The whole centre was remodelled in the 1930s following modernist architectural principals to create an agro-industrial centre. Its development halted with the outbreak of the war and large parts of the town remain pretty much as conceived by the architect.

Tresigallo - 1930s modernist town

On Sunday evening we joined the handful of other motorhomes parked in the huge free carpark in Ferrara, where we had an undisturbed night. The next morning we spotted the dedicated motorhome area next door, but with a basic charge of €6 a day with no facilities whatsoever, and where even water and dumping cost extra, it was no surprise that it was empty. It was a reasonably short walk into the old centre of Ferrara, but on the way it began to rain and by the time we’d settled in our first café of the day, it was pouring. This dampened our enthusiasm and, coupled with the fact that all the palaces and museums, bar the castle, are closed on a Monday, rather coloured the appeal of this city. Ferrara is without doubt an attractive place with some fine Renaissance buildings in its centre – the sturdy-looking Castello Estense that dominates the very centre of the town with its brick towers and battlements, and the similarly-styled Palazzo Municipale, to name but two – but we’ll need another year and better weather to see it at its best.

Ferrara - Piazza Cattedrale, Castello Estense and Via Mazzini

We headed next towards Mantova, taking the pretty route alongside the River Po (which, incidentally, the Germans find enormously funny, as it means ‘bum’ in their language). The land here is dead flat except for the high man-made dykes that run alongside the river, and a narrow but driveable road snakes along the top of these. To our left was the broad, slow river and muddy plantations of trees, and to the right we looked down on a succession of small villages, large flat fields and not a few belching industrial plants. Several newish aree di sosta have been set up along this route, and we stopped for the night on the one at Castelmassa. It was up on the dyke, and facing the water you couldn’t see the white fumes billowing out of the chimneys behind the village. The polizia locale came and checked us out, but were impeccably polite. A camper van at a camper stop shouldn’t be that surprising but I suppose that’s their job. Funnily, we were stopped again next day by the carabinieri (no, we don’t really know the difference), who we think suspected us of illegal fishing but again were satisfied when it dawned on them that we were a motorhome and not just some dodgy old van with foreign plates.

River Po near Ostiglia

We got to Mantova (or Mantua if you like – we’ve used the Italian name) on Tuesday 29th March. You might imagine we were getting blasé by now about beautiful Renaissance towns, but Mantova was a real gem, and if we had to choose one only, this would be it. Smaller and more compact than Ferrara, and with a tighter concentration of attractive squares and sights than Ravenna, it was also more geared to tourism but this hardly mattered, as it just looked so good. Its appeal is enhanced too by the lakes that almost surround the old town, and people were out enjoying the warm weather in the waterside parks. As in Ravenna and Ferrara, it is a city where huge numbers of people cycle, which for me (Rob) is the very epitome of civilisation.


It is another town with a vast Ducal Palace, more a self-contained complex than a building, that looms over the lakeside in a jumble of towers and loggias. Inside, the tour led through a warren of halls and galleries of sumptuous decoration, but after two hours started to feel like something of an endurance test. In one of the best rooms, colourful friezes depicted the ruling Gonzaga family in the 15th century, a raw representation of power and wealth where dukes mixed with cardinals and kings, and three generations of grim-looking men and boys in Renaissance dress stared haughtily out.

Mantova – Ducal Palace

Mostly though Mantova was a good place for wandering, and we kept the pavement cafés in business. The Po Valley is Italian rice country, and for lunch we tried the local risotto made with bits of sausage. Another speciality of the area is red lambrusco, which has the same sort of fizz as the white and went down very well at aperitif time with the little snacks they serve up here, and for those who might scoff at the thought of any lambrusco, try it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

The Chamber of Commerce building which the tourist info board describes as 
being built in an ‘exuberantly eclectic style’ and we labelled ‘mish-mash’.

We stopped for two nights, in a large carpark by a leisure harbour. It was lovely and quiet overnight but in the morning rapidly filled with commuters’ vehicles. In the daytime we parked in a paying spot nearer the centre, so that we could let Charlie out regularly in the warm weather.

Mantova - Parcheggio Anconetta - overnight spot. Can you spot us?

We dragged ourselves away from Mantova on Thursday 31st March, heading towards Lake Garda and thence to the Alps.

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