After three decades of visits to Italy, I stumbled upon the perfect small Italian city. It's a wonderfully livable haven which offers the best case for the Italian way of life, as lived in exquisite surroundings--not uncommon in Italy--but with a rare civility and sense of the common good.
It has a long history of violence and despotism--in 1264 it was the first free Italian city to cede its liberty to what would today be called a warlord--but also of enlightened city planning, art, and intellectual endeavor. Tasso wrote his Jerusalem Delivered here, and Ariosto his Orlando Furioso. Antonioni was born here and, until recently, had a museum devoted to him. Because it was planned, Jakob Burckhardt called it the "first modern city" of Europe: Ferrara, a gem of the 14th and 15th centuries.
The gently curving streets of small earth-toned town houses are interrupted every few blocks by a 14th-century palace or austere Romanesque church that would merit guidebook notice in many towns but doesn't even make the tourist map here. There are a few major buildings and museums to visit--the Castelle Estense (Este Castle), the Cathedrale, Palazzo Schifanoia, and the Pinacoteca Nazionale--but, mainly, Ferrara is to be enjoyed, and explored over a leisurely couple of days. A college town--the university was founded in 1391--it is full of bookstores and offers an alarming number of cultural activities.
Overshadowed by its larger neighbor, Bologna, a half-hour away, Ferrara is virtually untouristed. I had been to Bologna two or three times before I first visited Ferrara this past summer. It's a UNESCO World Heritage city, but you can stand in front of the cathedral at 10 in the morning and see not a busload of tourists but small clusters of older Ferrarese men, well-dressed, standing by their bicycles and chatting with each other.
This brings me to another of Ferrara's virtues: It's a cyclist's dream. Compact and flat, Ferrara has one of the highest rates of bike use in Europe: Thirty-one percent of its citizens use them to get around. Many Italian towns are plagued by incessant traffic noise--and the ambient anxiety of being smeared against an exquisite medieval stone wall by one of the cars careening down a ten-foot wide road never meant for motor traffic. In Ferrara, you can walk and think, rather than dodging scooters and cars.
Your hotel will give you a free one-speed, but if you want something fancier, you can rent high-quality hybrid bikes for eight euros a day. And if you can only spend a day in Ferrara, you should first bicycle around to get a feel for the place. The city grew north from the bank of the Po River, and the bottom third, clearly demarcated by Corso della Giovacca, is the medieval quarter. The streets here are winding and narrow, while north of Corso della Giovacca they are straighter and wider. A series of planned 15th-century expansions brought the city to its current pentagonal shape.
If you've overdosed elsewhere on Baroque, you may find Ferrara's pre-Renaissance monuments refreshing. The 14th-century palaces and churches have a serene, unself-conscious confidence that evokes a less complicated, if not less bloody, world. Several of the churches were founded much earlier, and a few have been reconstructed, either because they were tampered with or, in one or two cases, damaged by bombing raids in World War II.
Bike around the Castello Estense, begun in 1385, one of the few moated castles left in Europe, or inspect the richly ornamented façade of the cathedral, begun in 1135. Leon Battista Alberti is said to have designed the unfinished bell tower, or campanile, which is around the corner on the right. The façade of the Palazzo del Comune, or Town Hall, opposite the cathedral, was designed in 1300s style in the 1920s, but the building behind it does date to the 13th century.
The palazzo of Renata di Francia, a French princess who wed an Este, is now a university building, while Casa Romei, a rich merchant's richly frescoed house, is now a small museum. And it's located on a street named for no less than Savonarola, who was born near Casa Romei in 1452 and attended the local university before becoming a friar and then the Mullah Omar of 15th-century Florence.
Make your way gradually to the stern brick façade of Palazzo Schiafanoia, dating from the late 1300s. (The name of this former Este family residence is a contraction of schivar la noia, or "banish boredom.") It was closed for restoration when I visited, but the frescoed salone dei mesi of the late 15th century are the main attraction. Then double back to the Castello and follow Corso Ercole I d'Este past the municipal buildings--all old palaces worth a look--to museum row. There's a museum devoted to the Risorgimento and Resistance, and the Pinacoteca Nazionale, housed in the striking Palazzo dei Diamanti (circa 1500). The R&R is weak on the Resistance (surprise!), with one scanty vitrine devoted to the destruction of the Jewish community, but the Pinacoteca is worth visiting if you can spend more than one day, or are a particular fan of the Ferrarese school.
The "right" side of town as you look at the map is the best side all the way up. Towards the Corso Isonzo things get less interesting, with 20th-century buildings and what seems to be the wrong side of the tracks. On the left is the old Jewish quarter--well, let's be honest, the ghetto, since Jews were locked in nightly from the time Ferrara came under papal rule in 1598 until 1859, the birth of Italy as a modern state. This was centered around what's now Via Vignatagliata and Via Vittorio, and a plaque on the synagogue commemorates the death of 92 Ferrarese Jews during the Fascist period. (Giorgio Bassani, a Ferrarese, set The Garden of the Finzi-Continis here. The hero gets around by bicycle.)
To fill in the details of city history and the Estes, visit Castello Estense. A thorough look will take about two hours, but the visitor with less passion for history may want to skim some of the texts (English and Italian in most cases). The main appeal is the handful of rooms with magnificently frescoed 15th-century ceilings, and provided with mirrors to prevent neck strain! In two days, you can add the pinacoteca. I am not a big fan of the Ferrarese school, and found the vaunted small Mantegna, with blood-red putti, awful, but I did enjoy discovering the gravely naturalistic Saint Petronius (1473) of the Ferrarese Ercole Roberti and the Annunciation by Domenico Paretti, another favorite son.
If you get tired of biking in a cityscape, head for the Jewish cemetery, then take a left onto a gravel road that leads first to a working (private) farm and then to the 15th-16th century city walls. You can bike around the perimeter of the old city on a wide gravel path, guided by small signs to noteworthy fortifications or special wildflowers.
The feel of Ferrara is different from the more refined towns of Tuscany. It's much less given to an Italian trait my French friend calls herdisme, as in herd behavior. Herdisme is reflected in the way Italians all do everything in groups, at the same time, wearing the same clothing styles. (They also tend to do it loudly, which is another story.) This can be quite annoying, if you happen to be caught in one of the seasonal movements of the herd, and it can also remind you that, in some ways, Italy is a Third World country, with the usual Third World preference for group over individual activities, custom over novelty, and rote repetition over independent thought.
But herdisme's flip side is civility, accommodation to others, and a sense of the common good. This does not seem much in evidence in large southern Italian cities like Rome and Naples, but northern cities like Turin, Parma, and Ferrara have it in spades. Maybe it's an artifact of living in close quarters: The relative population density of Italy--a country the size of Georgia and Florida combined--is 490 people per square mile, while 38 of our states have under 200 per square mile. In Ferrara, the acculturation to close quarters has been honed over the centuries to the point where individual freedom and the good of the community seem perfectly reconciled. I am pretty sure this illusion would dissolve if I actually lived in Ferrara, but it's worth glimpsing and thinking about.
Ferrara seems more reflective and cerebral than most Italian cities. Of course, being Italian, it is stylish, but the operant aesthetic would be a man in a beautiful custom-made shirt bicycling with a basket full of books. It's not a racy city, but neither is it as smugly bourgeois as Parma. When I arrived, the annual weeklong Buskers Festival had just ended. I wasn't sorry to have missed the street performers I try to avoid all in one place for a week, but I would happily return on the last Sunday in May for the annual Palio, the oldest in the world, held since 1259, which is run around the oval-shaped Piazza Ariostea. The official website notes that this Palio "is peculiar for its kind of ride that is joyful and so different from other warlike palii. In these last there are always enemy that you have to fight with the lance."
The local cuisine, uncorrupted by tourism, is very good, though not as voluptuously good as in Naples or the less visited towns of Umbria or Tuscany. The distinctive contribution of the Estes was a tradition of combining sweet and savory in the same dish. Of the two pastas of this sort, I found the maccheroni ferrarese--like Greek pastitio, with béchamel and meat sauce over macaroni--something of a bore, but capelliti, tender little ravioli stuffed with sweet pumpkin puree in a tart tomato and meat sauce, were more satisfying. Pampapato, a chocolate-covered chocolate and fruit-flavored cake is the city's trademark dish. It's better than most fruitcakes, but I preferred the cioccolato con peperoncino gelato from the proudly artisanal Venchi, founded in 1878, opposite the cathedrale.
Today's inhabitants are polite and open, without the sneering passive-aggressiveness of some Italian towns that have been in the tourist business too long, or the country suspiciousness of more out-of-the-way places. For the first time in my life, the manager of one of the hotels I stayed at (the Ripagrande) told me to forget about the bottled water I took from the minibar; it was on the house!
But why stay in a hotel when you can move in? I went to one real estate agency just for laughs and asked about the rent on a historic house in the centro storico--say, four bedrooms, outdoor space, a nice place.
"Seven hundred, 800 euros," was the answer. My jaw dropped. You may look for me here soon.
Ann Marlowe is the author, most recently, of The Book of Trouble: A Romance.