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Ferrara, Italy might not be on your radar, but it should be. It’s a city in Emilia-Romagna about 50km north of Bologna, easily accessible by train from both Venice and Florence. Initially when we were planning our three-week vacation in Italy, we didn’t even think about traveling to Ferrara. But, when our friend, Agata asked us, “Why don’t you come to Ferrara?”, we accepted the invitation wholeheartedly. She lives in Ferrara when she’s not traveling around the world. Agata is very experienced when it comes to showing guests around town; she hosts small group tours so visitors can have an intimate experience in Ferrara being guided by a local. As we discovered, Ferrara offered an authentic northern-Italian cultural experience without the crowds. It hasn’t quite been discovered yet by many tourists, so be sure to get here before it is!
Here’s why you should visit Ferrara with a local.
Learn About the History
Agata explained the historical significance of many places as we strolled around Ferrara. She took us on a tour around town hitting all of the important landmarks. The city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Upon first glance, we noticed winding cobblestone roads, and many medieval buildings. And perhaps if we had visited on our own, our understanding of these notable spots wouldn’t have gone any further than that.
Ferrara is still encircled by nine kilometers of Renaissance fortification walls. Along with the Tuscan town of Lucca, they are the best preserved in all of Italy. The walls were primarily built in the 15th and 16th centuries. Near the boundaries of these walls, we saw a city park with lush, green spaces and paths for walking and cycling.
Perhaps the most iconic building in all of Ferrara is Castello Estense. It is a medieval castle with an actual moat surrounding it. How cool is that? During the day, people are able to cross a drawbridge across the moat and into the property of the castle. I really felt as though I was a part of a fairytale here.
Agata touched on some history regarding the Jewish community in Ferrara. In 1938, the Mussolini government introduced racial segregation laws which required Jewish people to live within certain sections of the city. Two of the five gates that were closed at night in the Jewish ghetto were still visible, attached to the walls. Countless landmarks have been preserved and restored throughout town. Though there is only a small population of Jewish people that live in Ferrara today, the community is thriving.
A Local Knows the Best Spots
Even though we only had a day in Ferrara (the earlier portion of which was taken up by our vegan cooking class), Agata knew all of the best spots to take us. This gave us a great impression of Ferrara and definitely left us wanting more. We could have easily spent more time here, but we were fortunate to visit the greatest places. Knowing how much I love coffee, Agata took us to a small café where we ordered espresso at the bar. She speaks fluent Italian and ordered our drinks for us with ease. We visited Sant’ Antonio in Polesine, an isolated monastery in Ferrara, founded in the Middle Ages. The nuns who live at the monastery are entirely devoted to their worship and do not leave the property, ever. Most of the complex is not open to the public at all, except for the convent church. There is very little communication between those living at the monastery and the outside world. The property stands in the oldest part of the city. It was a very special, quiet, and peaceful place that we felt fortunate to visit. One of the best parts of traveling to Ferrara was strolling casually around the city streets. As we walked, Agata would point out the various structures and mention some notable facts. I really enjoyed walking through a lengthy tunnel of archways where people even had apartments inside and beside the arches.
Ferrara is not the type of place where you’ll find yourself rushing around from one tourist site to the next. It’s best explored slowly. While I’m sure we only skimmed the surface of what Ferrara has to offer, we got a great feel for the tranquil atmosphere of the city.
A More Personal Experience
Without a doubt, touring around a new place with someone who lives there is a more personal and memorable experience. Agata told us so many wonderful stories about why she loves Ferrara so much and her own memories from around town. She told us about an amazing event called Street Dinner, where everyone dresses in white and the dinner location is kept completely a secret until before it happens. We learned about the Palio event in Ferrara and even saw some children practicing some musical instruments in preparation for Palio while we were there. We learned about her neighbor, Luisa, who taught her all about the traditional Italian cooking methods. Learning about personal stories leaves a more lasting effect when you visit a new place than merely looking at attractions.
When it was time to catch our train, Agata and her husband, Andrew drove us to the train station. We decided that we should try our best to capture a picture of the four of us together. This was easier said than done. We did not bring a tripod and there really wasn’t anywhere to balance a camera! The only option was balancing the camera on a low-lying planter. Agata thought it would be a great idea to try to get the Ferrara sign in the background to display where we were. So…here’s our first ill-fated attempt at a photo: That one didn’t turn out that well. So, we attempted another one, except a train decided to pull into the station! There goes the idea of getting that Ferrara sign in there. I pushed the button for the picture to take, which gave us 10 seconds to get into place. Except, well, there must have been some confusion…