I stepped into a dream... by accident. It's a good dream, so I hope I can find my way back!
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INTRO I am on a 2.5 week business trip to Ferrara, Italy, followed by a few days of leave. Since we just live across the Adriatic (in Greece), my family travelled with me.
Before travelling, I looked into the Ferrara city website (www.commune.ferrara.it) and www.fodors.com, and discovered that Ferrara is considered the most bicycling-oriented town in Italy. I was excited, because I'm one of the most bicycling-oriented people you can imagine! I brought my road bike, and we've borrowed and rented city-bikes for the rest of the family. The sites weren't kidding - this is a bicyclist's haven.
The only regret I have is that we didn't bring our Santana Arriva Tandem Bicycle - I wanted to, but I've been unable to find a supplier for a Yakima Tandem carrier in Greece. We also didn't have room to bring our Burley D'Lite, but we found a remedy - see further down.
Ferrara is the capital city of the Ferrara province, in Northern Italy. It's about 45 minutes N/NE from Bologna, which is the closest airport, and is a 1:30 train ride (Just a tad longer by car) SW from Venice. The region advertises itself as Terra e Aqua: Land and Water, because the flat agricultural area is laced with rivers and an intricate canal system. Be aware that all this water brings mosquitos with it, so when going out at dawn and dusk, put on some repellant. We like the citronella creams sold at the local Pharmacies, and are bringing some tubes home with us.
Ferrara served as the seat of Byzantine power back in the 7th century AD. The walls of the city were built upon and expanded. The latest walls (built in the 14th - 16th centuries) still stand and give the historical city center a defined border. The center itself underwent its expansion and modernization during the reign of the Este family from the 14th century AD right up to the turn of the 17th. As such, the majority of the historical architecture that remains is from that time. Typifying this is the Castillo d'Este, which remains today as a museum in the Centro Storico (Historic Center). Today, this historic backdrop is the base of a thoroughly modern city, which due to the overshadowing by Florence, Milan, and Venice, is not a typical destination for tourists. It's the tourists' loss.
Ferrara has many sights to keep you busy during your time here. Do yourself a favor and make your first stop at the Information Office next to the Castillo. Information is available in Italian, English, German, and French (and perhaps other languages), and the attendants are quite helpful. The historic part of the city is relatively small and once you get there, walking or biking is the way to go. Unlike the busier cities, crime is relatively low, though you should always keep your eye out and lock your bike. Parking in the two main public parking areas is a maximum of 2 Euro per day. A free parking area is available in the SouthWest, but is a hike to the Center. However, a free bus runs between it and the center.
Here are our favorites:
Castillo Estense (6Euro): This is the most prominent landmark in the city center. My family (not I, unfortunately) took a long tour through here and were especialy impressed by the collection of frescoes, although the middle child thought the jail was the highlight.
La Cattedrale (Hours escape me - we couldn't figure them out and they weren't posted, but eventually we walked by and the doors were open, Free): A beautiful Cathedral with frescoes, paintings, and mosaics. Not on par with some of the famous Cathedrals of Italy, but a must-see while you're here. A popular photo spot is atop one of the two horse-sized stone Griffins in front, backs worn smooth from countless "riders"
Museo della Cattedrale (0900-1300/1500-1800, closed Mon, 4.20Euro): Nearby the Cathedral, this houses a huge amount of artwork, both Italian and foreign.
Palazzo Municipale (By appointment only, or walk up when the doors are open): Opening into the Municipal Square, the stairway here is my favorite part of the whole building! At sunset, the shadows and colors are spectacular. I'm not a professional photographer, but it just seems like a place where a pro would spend days photographing different angles and different lightings. Inside the building is a modest art collection.
And for those of you who are always looking to find the "biggest ball of string" places in the world... Ferrara hosts the "International Manhole Museum." We skipped it enroute to the park, but maybe next time.
Aside from a few main arteries, Ferrara's city center is off-limits to motor traffic. A few more roads are open to autobuses, taxis, residents, and delivery vehicles, but the majority of the center is for shoes and bicycles. There are thousands of the latter. The most amazing collection is at the train station on the weekends, where commuters leave literally thousands of bicycles locked up, awaiting their return. The Ferrarese terrain (or lack of it) makes it ideal for bicycle touring inside and outside the city limits. Hill-lovers like myself will find themselves out of luck, but the pleasantness of cycling in a location where motorists are aware of cyclists is a worthwhile trade for steep climbs.
I been averaging 35 miles per day, to-from work and touring, on roads ranging from the inner-city cobbles to narrow and docile country ways to busy inter-city highways (obviously not the Autostrada) and was amazed at the level of courtesy extended by motorists. Trucks honk politely when they are a few hundred meters back to tell you they are passing. On narrow roads, cars wait patiently for an opportunity to pass rather than shoving you off the road. It's very nice.
In town, you can rent a bicycle at any of the many bicycle shops. The major bicycle rental locations are annotated on the free map available at the Information office in the Castillo. At the shop near the via JF Kennedy public parking area south of the Centro, we found special bicycles with large kid seats in front for our two youngest, and a small bike for the oldest. The family bikes are specially made for the "precious cargo" they hold, and have a long wheelbase and low step-over which makes them quite stable.
A multitude of suggested bicycling itineraries are available in many languages at the Information Office. These range from an easy and flat 9km tour of the city walls to 100+km tours going along the rivers, to the sea, or to other locations throughout the region. Tour maps with km between turns, simplified turn directions, and landmarks make touring through the countryside a pleasure. If you do manage to get lost, locals are friendly with directions. In one tiny rural village, I did get some hearty but good-natured needling about my bright-colored lycra getout from the older patrons at a bar I stopped at to refill my water bottles. But, as I said, it was good-natured, and with the universal language of a smile and laugh, and my [lousy] Italian, it ended up being a fun discussion about bicycling, Italy, and just why this crazy American was riding all over the countryside.
On the recommendation of a Ferrarese friend, we are staying at the Confortino Bed and Breakfast. This is a highly-recommended stop, and is cheaper and nicer than the average hotel.
Another place recommended by our friend is the Corte Arcangeli. A bit nicer, and a bit pricier, but still a good deal. I can't recommend it personally because we didn't stay there, but it is nearby the Confortino and looks nice. They also offer a dinner option.
Numerous hotels are available in the city center, up to the 5-star Principessa Leonora, but again, I'd recommend doing the B&B thing - you get to meet more people in a friendlier setting, and isn't that a lot of what going to different countries is all about?
WHERE TO EAT: As in most Italian towns, look for a place that's busy and you can't go wrong. But here's some of our favorites.
Leon d'Oro: In the main square, but go through the entrance to eat outside in the Piazzo Municipale. Go here for dinner, though they host a sweets shop, gelateria, and bar as well. From your seat in the square, you can watch the sun set and cast amazing shadows on the Palazzo Municipale and watch the people stroll by. Menu is limited but good, and priced moderately - not cheap, but reasonable.
Amici Mei: Outside the walls of the city, this busy place is where the local blue-collar workers hang out. Pasta is made on premises and is absolutely superb. When choosing your sauce, go for the ragu - it's amazing. Prices are nice - 7Euro for a healthy serving of pasta. Save some room for the customary shot of Limoncello after paying your bill. Can be a bit smokey, but not bad due to the high ceilings.
Woodpecker: Some of the best service around. Sit outside next to the fish tanks and watch the world. Moderately priced pasta, pizza, and traditional Ferrarese samplings. The waitstaff speak English and were very patient with me when I asked them to speak Italian with me so that I could practice. The owner was very generous with his time, helping me with my grammar as I stumbled through a conversation with him. If eating outside, you must pay inside - the location makes it easy for thieves to swipe money off the table (which also should tell you that you need to be carefull about where you put your camera, purse, etc).
Pub Sebastien (Not Recommended) We came here on a recommendation, but this is the only place in Ferrara I wouldn't recommend, though some might like it and it is one of the most popular spots in town, mostly for 20-30 somethings on dates. If you do come here, do so before 19:30 or make sure you get reservations well in advance. The setting is nice - on an old trawler anchored in the Marina. The Marina itself is stagnant and a breeding ground for mosquitos, but you don't notice that from inside at night. Warning for non-Italian speakers - a sign (only in Italian) warns you not to park inside the Marina gates because the Marina closes down at 20:00. Fortunately, I spent the time to read it, and moved our car.
Food here is OK but nothing special, and it will cost you. The microbrew and monk-brewed beers are the high-point of the menu. The main downsides are the mediocre service and constant MTV on screens everywhere. Maybe for trendy singles this is the place to be, but leave the kids at home.
Unlike the Information Offices, this site is Italian-only.
Has a short entry on Ferrara and the sights.
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