Set between Lombardy and Tuscany, and stretching from the Adriatic coast almost to the shores of the Mediterranean, Emilia-Romagna is the heartland of northern Italy. It is two provinces really: Emilia to the east and the Romagna to the west - the former Papal States, joined together after Unification. Before the papacy took charge in the area, it was a patchwork of ducal territories, ruled over by a handful of families - the Este in Ferrara and Modena, the Farnese in Piacenza and Parma, and lesser dynasties in Ravenna and Rimini - who created sparkling Renaissance courts, combining autocracy with patronage of the arts alongside a continual jockeying for power with the Church.
Their castles and fortresses remain, preserved in towns with restored medieval centres which, apart from a few notable exceptions, are relatively off the tourist track, since many visitors are put off by the extreme weather (searingly hot in summer, close to freezing in winter), or are sidetracked by the more immediate pleasures of Tuscany and Umbria.
The region's landscape is a varied one, ranging from the foothills of the Apennine mountains in the south to the flat fields of the northern plain, the Pianura Padana, interrupted only by windbreaks of poplars, shimmering in the breeze. The area has grown wheat since Roman times, and nowadays its industry and agribusinesses are among Italy's most advanced - there are currently more pigs than people in the Po Valley. Emilia-Romagna remains one of the richest regions in Italy, holding some of the country's most successful small-scale, specialist industrial enterprises.
Carving a dead-straight route through the heart of Emilia-Romagna, from Piacenza to Rimini on the coast, the Via Emilia is a central and obvious reference point, a Roman military road constructed in 187 BC that was part of the medieval pilgrim's route to Rome, and the way east to Ravenna and Venice. The towns that grew up along here are among Emilia's most compelling. Bologna, the region's capital, is one of Italy's largest cities. Despite having one of the most beautifully preserved city centres in the country, some of its finest food, and inhabitants whose openness and seemingly unflappable temperaments contrast markedly with the stressed-out Milanese, it has been relatively neglected by tourists, and most people pass straight through - definitely a mistake.
Bologna also gives easy access to places like Modena and Parma (each just an hour or so away by train): wealthy provincial towns that form the smug core of Emilia and hold some of its finest and most atmospheric architecture, as well as giving access to routes south into the Apennines . With a car you can dip into the foothills at will from any of these points, sampling local cuisine and joining in the festivals; and even by bus it's possible to get a taste of the area, which at its best can be very beautiful, not at all like the functional plain to the north. If you're a keen hiker, there's the Grand Escursione Apenninica, a 25-day-long trek following the backbone of the range from refuge to refuge, and which can be accessed from the foothills south of Reggio Emilia .
The north of Emilia-Romagna is less interesting than the Via Emilia stretch, the Po disgorging into the Adriatic from its bleak delta (which it shares with the Veneto), a desolate region of marshland and lagoons that is mainly of appeal to birdwatchers. However, Ferrara , just half an hour north of Bologna, is one of the most important Renaissance centres in Italy, formerly under the tutelage of the Este family; and Ravenna, a short way east from here, preserves probably the finest set of Byzantine mosaics in the world in its churches and mausoleums. The coast south is an overdeveloped ribbon of settlement, although Rimini , at its southern end, provides a spark of interest, with its wild seaside strip concealing a surprisingly historic town centre.
None of this comes cheap, though: Emilia is a wealthy area that makes few concessions to tourists; the tone is, rather like Lombardy to the north, well mannered, well dressed and comfortable. If you need to economize, it would be a shame to stint when it comes to food, which is where the region excelsFOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT www.italiamia.com Back to Regions