Biking in Northern Italy
The province of Bologna . Bologna is the biggest of the lower Po basin cities. It is definitely worth some time. The world's first university was founded here in the 11th century and attracted the likes of Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Erasmus, and Copernicus. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Bologna was fabled for its more than 180 medieval towers, only a few of which still remain. But the central square the Piazza Maggiore is still a charming and significant place surrounded by historically important palazzi.
On the southern edge of the Po basin, Bologna is also near to the Apennine spine arcing across the country. Thus, the province around the city includes arid mountain gullies, chalk cliffs, and rolling verdant hills covered with chestnut trees to the south, as well as the expected agricultural plains to the north. There are vineyards, castles and villas, thermal spas, and ancient ruins.
Pedaling in extended daylong loops will take you through this mixed geography. Stick to the good-quality secondary and tertiary roads and target nearby towns and villages long linked to Bologna and the history of the province. Think about Imola and its castle, well-preserved Dozza, Pontecchio (where radio-inventor Marconi first experimented with radio waves and is now buried), Marzabotto and its World War Two memorial, Pian di Misano's Etruscan city excavations, Porretta Terme (a major spa town), and Lizzano (the region's most important mountain resort). To the south, the Monte Sole History and Nature Park, chalk-cliffed Geology Park (Parco dei Gessi Bolognesi e dei Calanchi della Badessa), and Parco delle Formiche (where, after their mating season, winged ants throw themselves in droves against the wall of the Santa Maria di Zena church and die they are gathered, blessed, distributed to parishioners) are all worth a tranquil spin.
The province of Ferrara . Ferrara first began to gain in importance in A.D. 1260 when the Este family made the city a center of art and scholarship. The likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, and Petrarch all spent quite a bit of time under the patronage of the Estes. After 1598, the city declined for 300 years until Napoleon established it as a regional political center. In the 20th century, a great deal of work has been done to rehabilitate the famous unaltered ancient city center that includes the imposing Renaissance Castello Estense and Palazzo Municipale.
Of particular interest to cyclists is Ferrara's inclusion on the list of Europe's"Cities for Cyclists." Cities for Cyclists is "a network of European cities with the aim to promote the bicycle as a means of urban transport." As of last count, there were 30 member cities: six in the UK, four in Germany and Denmark, three in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Norway, and one each in Spain, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Sweden, Finland, and Italy (Ferrara). The truth be told: It actually feels like there are more bikes than cars in Ferrara!
The land around Ferrara, which includes the Po River delta, is entirely flat and cultivated over every possible acre. It is also rich in sites of historical, artistic, archaeological, and environmental interest. When planning day trips, think about visits to the following: the 1,000-year-old Abbey of Pomposa, the Castle of Mesola, the historical "water city" of Comacchio and its eel-filled marshes, the Roman-founded town of Argenta, Cento's fortress, and Goro with some of the best views of the delta.
Of course, if you have the time, don't skip a ride through the protected Park of the River Po. There is a fine 100-mile trip along the banks of the Po and Reno Rivers and across the full width of the Po delta (often on unpaved roads). Ferrara by Bicycle, an excellent guide for this ride, is available at the tourist office in Ferrara.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication