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Saturday, 01 May 2021

Slow Traveling in Emilia Romagna, Italy

Written by Russ & Emily Firlik
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On our last slow travel road trip before the devastating Covid 19, we rented a studio in the historic center of Reggio Emilia (pop. 171,000), in the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy, and spent six weeks visiting the neighboring cities of Parma, Modena and Bologna.

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Some years ago, we spent six weeks during the summer living in a studio in the historic center of Reggio nell’Emilia, while studying their internationally renowned Reggio Approach to early childhood education. We returned twice more to learn more. It has been thirty years since the publication in Newsweek that pronounced the Reggio Emilia preschools as one of the best in the world. Since then, thousands of educators from every corner of the world have visited their schools and learned about their unique approach to early childhood education. The "International Centre for Children Culture and Creativity Loris Malaguzzi”, was dedicated to its founder, Loris Malaguzzi, and the center is an internationally renowned meeting place for researchers and teachers, but also for children and families.


During the 17th and 18th centuries, the creativity of Reggio citizens expressed itself in the construction of sumptuous palaces and many religious buildings, prominent among which was the 17th century Basilica della Ghiara. Located on Corso Garibaldi, the Basilica della Ghiara’s facade was made from the local rusty-reddish rock, with white marble insets; later we learned the rock was called laterite. The lower story of the facade showed Doric columns, while the classical Ionic style served the top story. Inside were evidence of the late Renaissance style, with decorations in gold, marbles and frescoes covering the domes by the influential Baroque School of Carracci. The interior also contained precious masterworks including the Guercino's "Crucifixion", as well as a cycle of frescoes illustrating the female figures of the Old Testament.

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The Town Hall hovers over the Piazza Grande. Nearby was the Baroque Basilica of St. Proposero, and the magnificent painting “The Holy Night” by Correggio, who was born 20 kms from Reggio Emilia.

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A couple of visits to the Scala de Tricolore, located at Piazza Camillo Prampolini, one of the major squares of Reggio Emilia, to extend our limited knowledge about the flag's origin in Reggio Emilia, and its history of the tricolor Italian flag. The Sala del Tricolore and Museum explores the historical events with Napoleonic memorabilia and relics of the Risorgimento (“Rising Again”). Reggio Emilia, the first site of the Italian parliament, saw the birth of the "Tricolour,” and the future Italian flag adopted in 1797.

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As Reggio historic center is a walkers’ delight, we lingered around the Piazza Fontanesi, where families and children played, adults were talking with a few parts of their extremities, and enjoying the sunny and warm days. At the entrance to Parc Alcide Cervi with its giant oak and majestic plane trees, children were playing, and dogs were running freely. Inside the park was a beautiful sculpture dedicated to the Teachers of Italy. Strolling down Via Garibaldi we unexpectedly found an exhibit of Andy Warhol’s - “Last Supper.” We had a very knowledgeable guide, Amanda, that explained all about the painter and his two masterpieces: “Marilyn” and “Last Supper.” We spent a considerable amount of time with her and learned a great deal about the artist and his life.


We spent most days in total bliss admiring the architecture and organic colors of the buildings in this, a walking city. At the corner of Piazza Di Santa Giovanna was a tiled devotional mosaic embedded in a wall, I remembered that the mosaic was placed high, and we had to look up to appreciate its beauty. Dominating the square was the Duomo, built in the 10th century, and altered in the 15th century. Especially significant was the altarpiece painting by Guercino, the 17th century Baroque painter from the Emilia region.


One of our several purposes to revisit Reggio Emilia was to spend time to learn more about the great puppeteer and actor, Otello Sarzi who lived in Reggio, and left a rich collection of puppets to the Reggio Emilia community. The Sarzi Family Foundation, at Via Bruno Buozzi, holds the House of the Puppets of Otello and we learned quite a bit from the director, Paulo, during several visits and lectures. Puppeteers visit the preschools of Reggio, and the children visit the House of Otello to engage with the puppets and learn about puppetry. This important tradition was in keeping the art and crafts of puppeteering alive for generations. Our interest in puppetry began when we lived in Oxfordshire, England many years ago, and took a nine week marionette course.

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Reggio is a pedestrian and bicycle town - only taxis and residents' buses are permitted in the large pedestrian zone. The shops were a visual treat, exquisite, expensive and the windows displays were very well presented. Passing along Via Emilia San Pietro was the high end fashion house of Max Mara enterprises, which was founded in Reggio. Emilia Romagna is a wealthy area of Italy, and famous for its production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and balsamic vinegar. In the last decade or so there has been a steady increase in immigrants which makes the town-city more inclusive, lively and organic. The people, history, cultural values, food and architecture are some of the reasons that Reggio is such a special city in Italy.

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Our slow travel stay in Reggio was not fully appreciated until we enjoyed a few Erbazzone Reggiano, the regional dish combining spinach, onions, garlic and parmigiano. We especially enjoyed Terme del Colesterolo Paninoteca, as Cocco and his wife, were delightful and the food, presentation and service was outstanding in every way. The food is the best in Italy - fresh- seasonal- carefully prepared and professionally served. You cannot eat a mediocre meal in any of Reggio’s restaurants or bars.



Its a 30 minute drive from Reggio to Modena (pop. 185,00). Em wanted to visit the futuristic design gallery of the Museo Ferrari, which was dedicated to Enzo Ferrari and the sports car marque. The museum featured cars, trophies, photos of the successes of Ferrari racing history. Our three hour visit explored the art and design of about 50 classic Ferraris. Although Modena has provided the world some of the greatest exports, for example, Pavarotti, Ferrari, Lambrusco and balsamic vinegar, there is much to discover and admire on the way into the city. During our slow traveling, we stopped a few times at the Gavioli Antica Cantina to taste the crimson, bubbly and frothy Lambrusco wine that originated in the area. In the older part of the Cantina was the Gavioli Wine Museum, which provided a comprehensive overview of the local winemakers, and the long history of wine making in this part of the region.

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We were fortunate to be able to spend time learning about the secrets of balsamic vinegar at the Acetaia del Cristo, which has produced the brown syrup for over four generations. The city of Modena is another very special city in the region. We spent many enjoyable days and nights there as there was so much to explore. The enormous and proportioned Piazza Grande, the main square of Modena, welcomes everyone as it is overlooked by important historic Municipality buildings. Just behind the Piazza Grande was the Bell Tower Ghirlandina, which belongs to the Cathedral of Modena.


The year 1099 was an important date not only for Modena as it was the day construction began on the Duomo of Modena, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo and San Gimignano and the main place of worship in the city.


This masterpiece, we learned, is considered to be a magnificent example of Romanesque architecture, which was astonishing to observe for its extraordinary beauty and originality. In the early 11th century, this type of architecture was a daring project by the admired artist and builder, Giovanni Lanfranco, which had a profound influence on subsequent Romanesque art. There were many other monuments and museums we visited: Galleria Estense, Museo Civico d’Arte, Orto Botanico dell’Università di Modena, Museo Lapidario Estense, with works by Tintoretto and Correggio, and the Museo di Zoologia, Museo Della Figurina. We spent considerable time enjoying the University of Modena, at Via Universita, 4, which dates back to 1175, making it one of the oldest universities in Italy and the world.


From Reggio, we continued to the historic and architecturally stunning tourist city of Parma (pop 194,500), northwest of Reggio Emilia. The drive in the countryside of Emilia-Romagna was astonishingly varied: The Apennines, river Po, castles, Romanesque churches, small tidy villages, World Cultural Heritage sites, vineyards, olive trees and the Adriatic coast; what could we ask for that was not in this region?


Parma had its renowned Duomo, the Theater/Opera House where Pavoriti first performed, and where almost all internationally known performing artists perform at some point in their careers. A delightfully easy walking city, no cars, just people and bikes. Their bike paths wind all through the city, similar to Amsterdam. Any reliable guidebook would entice tourists to read about and visit the beautiful city of Parma. The 12th century Cathedral of Parma - Duomo - for 900 years a place of art, history and devotion and an absolute masterpiece in architectural features. A special highlight, of many, was the ceiling frescoes painted by Antonio da Correggio, the foremost painter of the Parma School, and a masterpiece of Renaissance fresco work.

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These three regions of Romagna - Parma, with its exporting gold mine of Parma ham/cheeses, Reggio Emilia, its cheese, and Modena, its balsamic vinegar, are very wealthy cities in the north of Italy. Their tax base allows for clean streets and sidewalks, and trash pick-ups daily. It seems that the further north in Italy the more affluent. We traveled back to Parma several times as slow travelers, we did not rush through the marvelous city, as we wanted to discover and explore the trove of treasures Parma had to offer.



A 40 minute drive to Bologna, the culinary capital of the region. Architecturally, Bologna offers Medieval, Romanesque, Renaissance palazzi, an energy filled university district, two leaning towers, cafes, shopping (if you're into expensive shopping), cultural, museums, arts and history. There is no other city in the world that has more porticoes (loggia) than Bologna, and within the city center it's some 38 km long; you don’t have to let the rain or overbearing sun hinder your walking. We had been to Bologna several times, but long ago. We took the Hop-On-Off bus to get an orientation in this fantastic city. There are churches, parks, medieval buildings, history and beauty. We also did several diversionary walking tours in case we missed anything.


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There is easy parking at the many car parks just outside the city center. The Piazza Maggiore places us in the historical center. The three main sights there: Palazzo d’ Enzo - Medieval; Palazzo del Podesta Duomo - Romanesque; Palazzo Communal - seat of the local government. The bronze statue of Neptune located in the center, greets every visitor. One outstanding feature in the Basilica di San Domenico, one of the major churches in Bologna, was an exquisite shrine and three statues by a very young Michelangelo. Within the many churches we visited there were paintings by such noted masters as Guido Reni, Filipino Lippi, Nicolo Pisano, and Antonio da Correggio.

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Just outside of the center was the Piazza di' Porta where the two leaning towers - Torre Garisenda and Torre degli Asinelli stand, and the beginning of the university district. One of our many favorite parts of Bologna was the university. Bologna’s university is Europe’s oldest - founded in 1053. By the 12th century more than 10,000 students from all over Europe attended the University of Bologna. Their scholarly alumni included Thomas Becket, Copernicus, Dante, Petrarch, and Federico Fellini. This forward thinking university employed female professors, unheard off during the Middle Ages. The university began as the first student curricula, as opposed to professor driven curricula (e.g. the Sorbonne - 1257). Moreover, the political leanings of today’s student body are displayed in leftist slogans that emblazon the 14-18th century buildings.


Only a few of the more than 200 towers that once rose above Bologna, built by noble families are still standing. The remaining two are barely standing as they are about 10 ft off the perpendicular.

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Every lunch we partook in this region was special. For example, our lunch at Ristorante Alice @ Via Massimo D'Azeglio, 65. While displaying white tablecloths and simple surroundings, Alice served up the ultra Bolognese fare within a very local crowd. We let the waiter make suggestions, and we settled on an antipasti including Pecorino with balsamic, cured meats, chickpeas and sliced marinated eggplant. A wonderful lunch not far from the student quarter. Food and cafes in this quarter were very inexpensive, lively and excellent.  


A reflective note:

We did take the train to Modena and Bologna several times, and an easy trip from Reggio Emilia. We had the opportunity to see the beautiful countryside and pass through small villages and towns along the way. But for actually feeling and the essence of this region, for every detour and diversion we took by car, we found opportunities for surprises and new discoveries.

We were very fortunate to be able to take this slow travel trip. When it becomes safe, practical and appropriate, we shall return to Italy to continue our slow travel as seniors.

As the late founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach, Loris Malaquzzi always ended his talks with “Nothing Without Joy!”



©Russ & Emily Firlik


Last modified on Saturday, 01 May 2021