“Viva la sketch!” said the jubilant group who had sat down at the next table, clinking their wine glasses in cheers. It was 5:30 on a crisp Spring afternoon in May. My daughter and I were enjoying aperitvi at the iconic Leon D’Oro pastry shop and cafe. It fronted a lavish 12th-century cathedral in the town piazza. We’d missed the opening ceremonies for the annual Travel Diaries Festival, plus the first days’ art marathon. I’d wanted to join the sketching, but traveling with a four-year-old meant slow travel.
Then, by chance, some of the artists who’d been scouring the city sketching, sat down right beside us in the coffee shop. It was the first of my many serendipitous moments in Ferrara.
The Travel Diaries Festival
The Autori Diari di Viaggio Festival, or Travel Diaries Festival, is an annual event in Italy. It showcases and celebrates travel art and artists around the world. This May, the organizers held a three-day event with workshops, exhibitions and art #sketchcrawls around the city. On a whim, I decided to attend, with no fixed plan or much preparation. I took my four-year-old daughter, Ellie, along. I hardly knew where Ferrara was; in truth, I’d never heard about the city. I only knew I wanted to go there, sketch, and be among other artists. Ellie knew she wanted to go to eat.
We sketched along the way, enjoying the train ride from Milan to Bologna, then another 45-minute train to Ferrara. There was no itinerary to follow, no must-see sights we were heading for. We took our time. And so, when we arrived, everything was a pleasant discovery. We found that Ferrara was, in fact, a magnificent city in the Emilia-Romagna region. Here, life is an entire celebration of art, architecture, culture, delicious food and friendship.
Four days, three nights in Ferrara
Visiting this UNESCO World heritage site seems like time-traveling straight into a storybook. A fortified castle looms over the city center. It’s complete with a moat, drawbridges, towers and a dungeon. One expects knights on horseback to whiz by anytime. Instead, dozens of bicycles fill the streets and alleys. And there’s another curious thing: hardly any tourists! Although there are plenty of families, young and old alike, the travelers are the locals themselves.
Nearer the town center, mazes of medieval cobblestone paths and arches hide other hidden passages. Brick housing and terracotta roofs line the tiny streets. Stores sell everything from luxury clothing, artisanal wares and Italian patented shoes, to vape and modern electronics. Churches and palaces seem to appear out of nowhere. And outside the city, the river Po flows.
But I must tell you more about the castle! On the second day of wandering and drawing, Ellie and I explored the grand Castello Estense. It is Ferrara’s defining landmark, sitting—or looming, rather—in the center of town. Thanks to the House of Este, the dynasty who made Ferrara the masterpiece that it is today. They founded the city’s university in 1391, and used their powers to not only rule but bring prestige to the city. Indeed, their influence was so great that people still remember “the golden age of the house of Este.” In 1385, Niccolò II d’Este commissioned the structure to be built as a fortress. It protected the city’s residents, and later became the living space for the royal families. They furnished it with lavish balconies, embellished it with art, and built it up as a cultural space in the city. There is now an art gallery and museum inside, so that you can visit and see the original bedchambers and towers.
“It’s too bad all the princess are dead already,” my daughter quipped, somewhat disappointed. If only she knew. The legendary dungeon held a pair of lovers, immortalized in Lord Byron’s poem, “Parisina”. It tells of the duke’s wife, who has a scandalous affair with his son. The two awaited their fate in the dungeon before execution. One can see the handwritten scrawls along the dungeon walls, a collection of graffiti from the prisoners it held.
Food trip in Ferrara
Of course, it’s possible to visit Italy and do nothing but eat and drink. And when traveling with a young child, it’s almost better to visit as little museums as possible.
The first peculiar food you may notice are the coppia Ferarese, which are fragrant, twisted bread loaves. The local bakeries have been a part of the city’s history for centuries. Even back in the 1200s, there were certain specifications, like how much the bread should weigh. Nowadays, it’s no less than 80 grams and no more than 250 grams.
What else should you try, when in Ferrara? The cappellacci alla zucca are pillows of egg-based ravioli. They’re filled with sweet and savory pumpkin puree. Restaurants will offer this pasta in various versions. I had it topped with a sauce of cream and whisky. The taste was light and sweet, infused with hints of nutmeg.
But what delighted us the most was Ferrara’s pastries, or mignons—because they were so pretty to draw! Visit any pastry shop in the city, and you will see an assortment of tiny, bite-sized bursts of pleasure. Mini cakes and creamy pastries, paired perfectly with a shot of espresso.
“Or a glass of prosecco,” I thought, sketching my pretty plate.
Stumbling on the oldest wine bar in the world
In 1982, Olivier Bernier wrote about this ducal city. “And still there are squares and hidden churches. Just forget your map, allow yourself to get lost and you will find them.”
Well, even with two maps, I still have a habit of getting lost. And that was how Ellie and I wandered down Via Della Volta street. Not that I’d had too much prosecco or anything—but when the rain began trickling, we didn’t hurry our pace. We slowed instead, huddling under our rainbow-colored umbrella. For today, there was no time limit or deadline. We were simply enjoying the walk. These ancient streets enthralled us. Looking up under their arches, we marveled at how the series of tiny passageways unfolded.
Little did we know, we were treading one of the oldest streets in Italy—possibly in Europe! We let our feet—and imagination—wander. Turning the next corners, checking out the menus outside different restaurants. Enjoying the quiet, and how the rain had chased most pedestrians off the streets.
“Let’s find a wine bar to sit and sketch,” I said finally, and Ellie agreed.
“Let’s stop here,” she said, pointing to a busy joint. “We’ll sit outside!”
Passersby walked, rode along on bicycle, or hung out along the sidewalk. An hour and three wine servings later, we were still there, sketching.
Only later did I find out that we were in fact in Al Brindisi. It’s listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest wine bar in the world. The painter Tiziano and Pope John Paul II were just some of the famous patrons who had come here.
Who would have known that my daughter would have been the one to show me the way? In a city where we were both strangers, travelers without a destination. What a delight! Yet perhaps there is no better teacher than a child to show you how one must enjoy the simple pleasures in life, and find them everywhere. In Ferrara, there was a certain authenticity, a refreshing absence of tourist throngs. And, a vibrancy of life that left me feeling I’d come to the right place, after all.
For dinner, we found the perfect restaurant: Osteria I Quattro Angeli, just outside the castle. It had a characteristic and cozy ambience. Ellie ordered the most delicious Tagliatelle al Ragu ever. I tried the duck breast with caramelized red onion jam. And there, too, we continued drawing. Later that night, before falling asleep in our cozy hotel, I WhatsApped my husband. “We’ll stay here one more day, we’re having way too much fun.”
Find your way through Ferrara: Most hotels will offer you bikes to get around. Head for the outer walls of the city; its 9 kilometers of pathways are for bikers and pedestrians. For more art and culture, Palazzo Dei Diamanti has constant ongoing exhibitions. During summer, head for the seven Comacchio beaches and sunbathe in the seaside resorts. Or go to the nature park for birdwatching and hiking. To see even more of the lush area, join a motorboat cruise along the Po River.
Stay: Hotel Nazionale (Corso Porta Reno, 32/Tel: 0532 243596)
This boutique hotel in the historical center is just a stone’s throw from the Este castle. It offers contemporary stylish rooms, allergy-free furnishings, chromo-therapy showers and a breakfast buffet. Doubles from €103.
Drink and dine: Osteria I Quattro Angeli (Piazza Castello, 10) or Al Brindisi Enoteca
Via Guglielmo degli Adelardi, 11
Guide: Ferrara Tourism Office
Tel: +39 0532 209370
Fax: +39 0532 212266