Trade Tourist-Clogged Tuscany for Emilia-Romagna

dpa, Berlin, June 28, 2011
By Bernhard Krieger

Image // (c) 2011 Massimo Baraldi/Wikipedia

BRISIGHELLA, Italy -- Marco Montanari has flown over Italy many a time in his light plane yet although gazing down over endless vineyards and medieval towns is a familiar experience, one recent flight caused him to pack his bags again and head for pastures new.

In 2002, Monanari was out for a spin in his plane over Brisighella, south of Bologna in northern Italy, when suddenly something stirred in the heart of this Tuscany-based Swiss expat.

"I fell in love immediately," reveals Montanari. The object of his affection is a spa town in the eastern foothills of the Apennines which has got a lot in common with Tuscany but fortunately is much less popular.

The countryside around the town is authentic, sometimes a little rough and ready and generally sleepy by nature. Oddly enough though, Florence is only 88 kilometres down the road, or 90 minutes by train, and Bologna can be reached in an hour by car. An unspoilt Adriatic coastline and the lively port of Ravenna are also equally close at hand.

The big cities and the coast are bustling but even in high season Brisighella seems to attract only handfuls of visitors who wander through the historical "Centro storico" with its unique raised, covered passageways. These connect the colourfully-painted Palazzi. The "Antica Via degli Asini", with its porticos and lanterns, was built in the 12th century as part of the town fortifications but it was later used by donkeys bringing chalk from local quarries.

The route leads latter-day walkers to three chalky hills perched above this settlement of 8,000 souls. One of them known as "Monticino" is the site of a small 18th century church, the Sanctuary of the Madonna, another is topped by the "Rocca Manfrediana" fortress completed by the Venetians in the 16th century and the third is occupied by the eccentric 19th century Torre delli Orologio clock tower with its six-hour clock.

Italians also come to Brisighella for its celebrated olive oil. The first olive oil mills were built here by the Romans in the 2nd Century and stood where on the site of the Romanesque Pieve del Thoë church.

Not far away on the old trading route from Florence to Faenza, which is famous for its ceramics, is a notable olive oil cooperative. The best olives are picked by the farmers who use them here to make a peppery, sharp-tasting local variant called Di Brisighello. The production process is particularly gentle in order to maintain the fullness of the oil's aroma.

The presence in the region of some wonderful wines is down to pioneers like Montanari. Together with a few other vintners the 60-year-old enthusiast has been for some years now been producing red wines from Sangiovese grapes. The variety thrives at higher altitudes and the wines are fortunately reasonably priced, just like the food in Brisghellais leading trattorias such as the "La Casetta" and "La Cavallina". A meal here can be had for less than half of what it would cost in Tuscany.

Unlike many who just ponder the possibility, Montanari actually bought a tumbledown property near Radda and spent years of painstaking work turning it into a viable winery. He started producing his own red wine which soon enjoyed expert acclaim. His Chianti Classico Livernano 1999 picked up the coveted "Tre Bichieri" (three glasses) citation awarded by Italy's Gamero Rosso wine bible.

Connoisseurs rate the Emilia-Romagna region highly for Parma ham, tortellini pasta and balsamic vinegar from Modena. Anyone who has ventured into the narrow streets and alleys around Bologna's Piazza Maggiore to buy tasty fish, cheese, meat and vegetables at Tamburini and other shops will also understand why the Italians call this town "La Grassa" -- literally "the fat one" in Italian.

The Apennines provide plenty of opportunities for active vacationers. In Vena del Gesso, hikers trek through the Romagnolo Park to Monte Mauro to admire the magnificent views of the ocean and the peaks of the Dolomites. Golf enthusiasts will find some picturesque golf courses. The region's 24 championship golf links are allied under the "Romagna Golf" umbrella.

There are plenty of places to take a trip on a racing bike or on its offroad companion, the mountain bike. Apart from the numerous quiet byways, there are ambitious trails through woodland and rugged terrain.

For those holidaymakers who find so much physical effort a little over the top, there is always the option of driving into Brisighella for an invigorating espresso at one of the cafes around the square. This is a genuinely "moto italiano" way to while away a few hours and easily as much fun as dodging tourists in Tuscany.