Sunday, June 15, 2014

Emilia Romagna Region-Post 1

Map of Emilia Romagna Region
Ben and I are blessed to be part of the Aviano Reunion Association (ARA), a group composed primarily of military members who were stationed at Aviano Air Base in northern Italy at some point in their careers.  However, it has grown to include not only their relatives but also friends who have become part of this lovely “family” of travelers.  Although we convene annually somewhere in the US for our reunion, every three years we return to Italy.  We actually rarely return to Aviano simply because it’s difficult to get on base these days, so instead we focus on one region or two of the country to explore and savor. 

Amarilli, Ben and Roberto
Several years ago, one of our members discovered Roberto Bechi of Tours by Roberto and hired him for the 2002 ARA reunion in Tuscany--the land of Siena, Florence, and Chianti.  We’ve now used his services five times in our gradual, ongoing tour of Italy.  Guides in this country must pass tough certification tests in any region they wish to work in, although they can certainly collaborate with local guides when leading groups outside their region as Roberto has done for us.  His region is Tuscany, of course, and he is an Etruscan specialist, as well.  His expertise is so well known that travel writer/personality Rick Steves publishes nothing about Tuscany without Roberto’s editing eyes.  The two have also collaborated on Rick’s travel shows about Tuscany that appear on PBS stations. 

Since 2005, however, we’ve toured under his collaborative guidance to Umbria (adjacent to Tuscany); the Lake District (Como, etc.) and Friuli (Aviano); Campania (Naples, Sorrento) and Apulia (Matera and Alberobello); and now Emilia Romagna (Modena, Bologna, Parma, Ravenna, Ferrara).  Region by region is truly the best way to experience a country  rather than a Grand Tour. 

Balsamic on Parmigiano and gelato!
Roberto and his lovely new assistant Amarilli Arenosto picked up our group at the airport Sheraton in Milan and off we went to our first stop right outside Modena, Villa San Donnino, which is home to traditional balsamic vinegar that is produced from cooked grapes, ripened by slow acidification due to natural fermentation.  The aging process takes place over a specific number of months and years and in a series of various types of wooden casks.  Visitors can purchase anything from balsamic jelly to Nerone dressing vinegars to traditional products aged from 12 to 25 years.  If you want a vinegar aged longer than that you can get it...for a price...but at a separate, more secure location.  You could almost hear the steady swipe of credit cards in the villa office. 

We learned about the process through an explanatory lecture by one of our hosts, then indulged in a huge table filled with chunks of aged Parmesan splashed with aged balsamic and served with Parma prosciutto, bread and a local wine.  Then came a surprise way to feature balsamic, poured over vanilla gelato.  Downright tasty.  The villa itself serves as a beautiful showcase for these products, and the current owner still resides in the upstairs private areas.  It was used by Italian director Bernado Bertolucci in the film “Novecento” (1900) starring Robert DeNiro. 

Canalgrande Courtyard
A short drive further brought us to our hotel headquarters for the week, the Canalgrande Hotel in the heart of old town Modena.  Its origins hearken back to 1530, and during one period of history a canal in the city truly did extend all the way to the Grand Canal in Venice, hence its name.  I must say that the individually decorated rooms were lovely, and many overlooked the tranquil courtyard that became a favorite gathering place for our group (and subsequently became less tranquil!).  The location proved perfect, in close proximity to cafes, bars, shops, and pedestrian walkways, and the hotel owner could not have been more friendly and accommodating.  The adjacent Ristorante La Secchia Rapita served as the venue for several of our wonderful dinners featuring regional specialties.

Our tour of historic Modena the next day took us to the Palazzo Ducale, which today is the headquarters of a renowned military academy.  We couldn’t decide what we liked the best, the displays of military paraphernalia from all over the world including US military academies, or the sharp looking young men and women in their dashing uniforms! 

Apse mosaic in San Vitale Basilica,
Our tour of Ravenna proved the highlight of this trip for me.  When you think of Ravenna, think mosaics—exquisite Byzantine mosaics that have survived over the centuries and surpass any we’ve ever seen in our travels.  The city actually boasts an impressive assemblage of both Byzantine and Christian monuments.  The Basilica of San Vitale is a 1400 year-old church whose mosaics bring the Bible to life, from scenes of the apostles, Christ, the Emperor Justinian, Abel, Melchizedec, and a host of others.  Just as impressive (some claim more so) are the mosaics found in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia across the courtyard from the basilica, which include mosaics of Jesus the Good Shepherd, Mark’s lion, Luke’s ox, John’s eagle, and a beautiful golden cross over them all.    

It was also in Ravenna that we enjoyed one our collective favorite meals:  vegetable lasagna with white sauce.  Okay, there was a tasty antipasta and dessert, too, but all we could talk about was the lasagna.  Molto buono! 

Anatomy class, anyone?
Bologna, where Bolognese sauce originated, was our destination the next day.  It’s also home to the  world’s oldest university. The Palazzo dell’Archiginnaisio was built to house the lecture halls for the study of law and arts.  Up until 1803 it was the seat of the university, but since 1838 it has housed the Civic Library.  Although it sustained heavy damage by bombs during World War II, it was subsequently rebuilt.  One room of particular interest is the Anatomical Theatre.  Built of carved wood, it was the lecture hall for anatomy lessons, apparent by the marble table slab in the center.  How does that visual hit you? 

The Basilica of St. Petronio is probably the most imposing and we were told that it is the most important church in the city.  A hole in the roof of the basilica measures times and seasons and is supposedly the most precise sundial in Europe.  The frescoes inside have never been restored in its 600 years. Our walking tour also took us through the Jewish ghetto.  Sadly, no Jews returned here after the German evacuation, but the city now has a respectable Jewish population.  After exiting the ghetto, we walked past the two towers (Le due Torri) that stand as the traditional symbol of Bologna. 
Free time gave us the opportunity to return to the open markets that featured vegetable, meat, cheese  and seafood stands we’d passed and to wander into some of the shops.  It was here that the pasta tagliatelle was invented in 1481, and it is also here that you can attend a university for gelato making! The Dominican order of priests was established in Bologna by the Spanish priest later known as St. Dominic. 
Next up:  Parma, home of traditional Parma ham and cheese!

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