June 20, 2008 / 11:09 AM / 9 years ago

Travel Postcard: 48 hours in Ferrara, Italy

FERRARA, Italy, (Reuters Life!) - Got 48 hours to explore Ferrara, the picturesque Italian town famed for its Renaissance art and bicycle-peddling natives?

Reuters correspondents with local knowledge tell you how to get the most out of a weekend getaway to this hidden gem off Italy's well-worn tourist track.

Yet to be invaded by the armies of tourists that flock to better-known neighbors like Venice or Florence, Ferrara retains much of its medieval charm that makes wandering through its cobble-stoned piazzas and streets feel like a trip back in time.

But an increasingly vibrant nightlife, rich local cuisine and an annual buskers festival that attracts street performers from around the globe mean the once sleepy town is quickly carving a place for itself on the tourist map.

FRIDAY

6 p.m. Ease into the weekend in style with an aperitivo at the Leon D'Oro pasticceria facing the regal cathedral in the centre of town. You'll feel like you've stepped into a different age as you gaze up at the cathedral's imposing facade and watch everyone from grannies to policemen lazily bike across the cobble-stoned piazza.

8 p.m. The Ferrarese, like their compatriots across Italy, know a thing or two about dining well. Head to Ristorante Max in the shadow of the town's red brick castle for fresh seafood that can be washed down with a long list of Italian wines on offer.

Try the 'grancevola' or crab -- a local delicacy -- prepared with lime and oil and the Il Fritto del Max platter that is surprisingly light despite packing an assortment of fried fish and zucchini. End with the restaurant's rich chocolate treats.

Ask to take home the pretty red crab shell the grancevola is served in as a token souvenir.

11 p.m. If the sound of silence blankets the city during the day, Ferrara comes surprisingly alive at night. Take a stroll around the piazza next to the cathedral or any of the alleyways leading off the main square to pick a late-night drinking spot.

The teeming crowds of young, trendy Ferrarese spilling out on the streets make for a raucous atmosphere, and you can join in the fun by sipping your drink out on the streets with everyone else.

SATURDAY

8 a.m. Wake up to the sounds of birds chirping -- the lack of cars and motorbikes on Ferrara's streets mean you'll be spared the typical Italian joy of being jolted awake by screeching Vespas and honking cars outside your window.

Amble over to any nearby 'bar' -- as cafes are called in Italy -- that dot the streets for a typical Italian breakfast of 'cornetto' (croissant) and cappuccino or caffe.

10 a.m. Ferrara is best explored by bicycle -- it's not called the "City of Bicycles" for nothing -- so grab a bike before you set out for the day. Most hotels rent out bikes for free, and your bike is far less likely to get stolen than in larger Italian cities like Rome.

Make Palazzo Schifanoia, a recreational palace of the Este dynasty that ruled Ferrara in its Renaissance heyday, your first pit stop. Its name literally means "avoiding boredom" and the palace frescoes feature work by noted Ferrarese painters like Cosme Tura and Francesco del Cossa.

The highlight of the palace is undoubtedly the Salone dei Mesi (Hall of Months) whose extravagantly painted walls depict the months of the year with images of ordinary life and Greek mythology and even incorporates bits of Arab astrology.

1 p.m. Try any of the several local trattoria or osteria tucked away in the town's alleyways for the region's traditional dish of 'capellacci di zucca' - plump pasta pockets stuffed with pumpkin, usually served with toppings like butter and sage or ragu (meat sauce). Or try the 'pasticcio alla ferrarese' which resembles an overstuffed meat pie packed with pasta shells.

Finish off your meal with a slice of 'torta tenerina', a rich chocolate dessert that resembles a brownie.

Be warned, service at local joints is rarely quick, so be prepare to wait, perhaps over a jug of Lambrusco wine -- a fizzy local red wine.

3 p.m. Bike to the northern side of town to the Piazza Ariostea that hosts the Palio horse race each year. Laze in its lawns before heading to the 'Palazzo dei Diamanti' (Palace of Diamonds) named after the diamond-shaped protrusions on its outer walls. The palace houses important art museums with new exhibits frequently on display.

5 p.m. Take a stroll along Ferrara's narrow streets for a surprisingly good selection of knick-knacks and clothes in high-end boutiques. Chic showrooms featuring brightly-colored ceramic pottery made using Renaissance techniques can be found throughout the town.

7 p.m. Grab a table at the Giori cafe beside the imposing castle for a sunset aperitivo. With the castle's greenish moat right behind you and a stern statue of the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola before you, you couldn't ask for a better spot to sip a Campari soda after a long day.

9 p.m. Head to the restaurant 'Quel Fantastico Giovedi' (That fantastic Thursday - named after John Steinbeck's novel "Sweet Thursday") hidden in a narrow back lane for its seafood dishes packed with local ingredients but prepared with a twist. It too has an exhaustive wine list and pretty desserts.

Stop by any of the bars along Via Carlo Mayr on your way back for a last round of drinks before stumbling back to your hotel.

SUNDAY

8 a.m. Ferrara has produced some of Italy's best marathon runners and jogging enthusiasts can join the locals for a run on the town's grass covered, tree-lined medieval walls which form an unbroken loop of about 10 km (6 miles).

10 a.m. - Visit the town's majestic cathedral and gape in awe at its bronze statues and paintings by artists like Ferrara's Garofalo. Outside, browse through the vendor stalls lined up in the piazza selling lavender sachets, pasta sauce and tiny bottles of honey.

1 p.m. Head to the Antica Trattoria Volano outside the town's walls for a hearty meal if you can find a spot, or try an enoteca (wine bar) for a lighter lunch -- two good picks are Mezza Luna and Il Brindisi, which claims Copernicus lived in the same building when he was a student at Ferrara.

One your way back, take a walk through Via delle Volte -- a narrow medieval street with a series of charming arches.

3 p.m. Spend the afternoon wandering through the Castello Estense (Este Castle) which has all that you could ask for in a castle -- dungeons, quaint drawbridges, towers and a moat. It also has its share of frescoed rooms and a terrace garden. Climb one of the four towers to wrap up your weekend in Ferrara.

Reporting and writing by Deepa Babington, editing by Paul Casciato

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