Emilia comes from Via Aemilia, the Roman road named for Marcus Aemilius Lepidus that connects Rimini to Piacenza and on to northern Italy. Romagna means “the land inhabited by the Romans” as much of the rest of the peninsula was under Lombard rule at the time. Ravenna, now a UNESCO site full of dazzling mosaics, was briefly the capital of the Western Roman Empire until the empire’s collapse in 476 AD. It then became a lordship of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire for about two centuries until it too was absorbed by the dominant Lombards.
One of the most fascinating characters of Emilia-Romagna’s rich history would not make her appearance until the Middle Ages. Matilde di Canossa (1046-1115) was one of the most influential women in all of European history. She cunningly ruled the feudal territory surrounding Bologna, brokering deals between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy. Later into the Middle Ages, three powerful families brought remarkable prosperity to their realms: the Farnese of Parma and Piacenza; the Estensi of Modena and Ferrara (both UNESCO sites as are Delizie Estensi, the monumental residences of the Este dukes outside of Ferrara); and the Malatesta of Rimini and Cesena. Later, after centuries of shifting powers, Emilia-Romagna joined much of the peninsula in uniting with the Kingdom of Italy in 1860.
The cultural heart of Emilia-Romagna is its capital city. Bologna is home to the oldest university in the world and is known for music, art, and architecture. The portici (porticos) of Bologna are equally famous. In the rainy season, locals boast of how they do not need to carry umbrellas. The city contains the longest continuous porticos of any city in the world, nearly 25 miles of them!
The region has been well populated since ancient times and, as today, the vast majority lived along the Via Emilia. Development and urbanization track the literal fruits of the Emilia-Romagna plain, stretching northwest up from the Adriatic Sea, providing an agricultural basket to the region and the north of Italy. Topographically, Emilia-Romagna is 50% flatland and 25% hills and mountains. A borderland between the continental European climate and Mediterranean climate, the region supports an incredible diversity of landscapes and species. To this day, it has remained open and pristine—above all on the hills and mountains. Since the end of World War II, when locals migrated down from the poorer slopes to the richer flatlands in search of work, the hills and mountains of Emilia-Romagna have been less densely populated.
Lesser-known than the Alps, the Apennines are a better kept secret among hikers and cyclists. They may be most famous for the sad role they played in World War II when, during the final months of the war, the area became a central battlefield: the Linea Gotica (Gothic Line). The slopes are thick with chestnut trees, which locals called “bread trees” for their life-saving value during the war. As farms and villages were destroyed, people fled into the woods and had to forage for food.
To trek them today, you would hardly glimpse the Apennines’ sad history. Only the occasional well-preserved foxhole or blind endures as a relic of war. Instead, eight regional reserves and parks act as emblems of this pure mountain paradise. For hikers and cyclists, the Apennines offer energizing climbs and descents, all surrounded by pure and lush forests. The mountains are also famous for porcini mushrooms, best hunted where they are most plentiful, such as in the Val di Taro (the Taro River is a tributary of the Po) and other places in the region.
Many Italians agree that eating in Emilia-Romagna is eating at the apogee of national cuisine. As fiercely devoted as they may be to their own regional offerings, they concur that you dine at another level when you dine in Emilia-Romagna. At least part of the reason must be its people's reputation for pleasure. Conviviality and hospitality around the table are treasured activities, signaling what really matters to the local culture: enjoying oneself. In fact, sensuality is woven right into the food of Emilia-Romagna—for instance, legend has it that the shape of the tortellino was inspired by a woman’s naval.
High on the list of swoon-worthy delicacies are the fresh pastas of the region such as tortellini, tagliatelle, and lasagne. In Emilia, the cappelletti (“little hats”) are slightly bigger and a meat-based filling is typical, whereas in Romagna, ricotta and cow’s milk cheese filling is typical. Either way, Romagnoli and Emiliani agree that cappelletti should be served in broth!
Other edible delights of Emilia include Parmigiano-Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto crudo (air cured meats, served uncooked), sausages (salame and coppa), and the “coppia Ferrarese” a type of cross-shaped bread. In Romagna, you must not miss the piadina (recipe here), a flatbread that locals love to savor with Squacquerone cheese and arugula, and the Passatelli pasta, made with breadcrumbs, Parmigiano Reggiano, and eggs, and cooked in broth. All to be exquisitely washed down with an effervescent white such as Pignoletto, the red bubbles of a Lambrusco, or perhaps an Albana di Romagna either in its dry or sweet form (the latter to be preferably paired with dessert).
Come with us to breathe in the beauty of the lush lagoons, hills, Apennines, and salty sea air of the sparkling Adriatic coast, amble the ancient and dazzling cities, and feast at the decadent tables that represent the height of Italian cuisine.
Ti aspettiamo! (We are waiting for you!)