My friend Christina’s love of Ferrara, her home city, inspired me to put together a gentle cycle tour of the Po River delta. Christina usually sat next to me in our intensive Spanish class last fall, so we ended up being partners during many of the in-class exercises. As our friendship developed, I learned more and more about the region surrounding her home and I began to imagine that my first-ever visit to Italy ought to include time on two wheels, exploring the unique World Heritage designated Parco Regionale Vento Del Delta Del Po that lies between Ferrara and the Adriatic Sea.
Along our way Susan and I visited a beautifully preserved Renaissance city, and a medieval abbey. We rode along dikes crossing a huge saltwater lagoon, replete with wading flamingos and more egrets than I’ve ever seen in one place. We stayed in a couple of delightful agrotourism establishments that had been converted from old farms. And when we reached the Adriatic our journey took us along sand dunes, through a few seaside resort towns and under the canopies of delightfully shady forests. By the time we reached Ravenna, we were ready for a break from the intense summer solstice sun. And on the train ride back to Bologna, we were already planning a return visit.
In the 14th century Ferrara was the first European city to control its development on the basis of planning regulations, regulations that remained effective through the 16th century. And I’m glad they did, because today Ferrara remains a remarkable example of a city designed during the Renaissance that has preserved its historical center intact.
The city walls of Ferrara
On a late June Saturday morning, as we slowly rode the incredibly wide city walls, we were overwhelmed by the fragrances of flowering trees and newly mown meadows. We shared our circuit ride with scores of local cyclists and pedestrians who were out enjoying the tree-capped walls and making the most of the delightfully enormous linear garden that reminded us of Valencia’s Túria Park.
Even during their construction, the city walls of Ferrara were intended to have a social significance beyond their defensive purpose. Historically, they were an important element in the city’s communication system. Today, the nine km of curtain walls can only be followed by bicycle or on foot, either on the embankment or down below in the old moat.
Out to the Po
After a series of floods in the 12th Century, the Po River gradually left Ferrara behind as its main channel migrated several kilometers to the north. While cycling around Ferrara we rode out to have a look at the river. The 7,500 km long EuroVelo 8 route starts in Cadiz, passes by Valencia, and runs along the banks of the Po on its way to Athens. We always talk about doing a long tour – someday – and here was our first peek.
The route from Ferrara to the Po is flat and runs predominately along cycle paths. We passed through a couple of villages on our way to the river and we stopped to buy cherries at one of the farms selling freshly harvested fruit.
From Ferrara to Ostellato
Our bicycle ride from Ferrara to Ostellato was an easy one along a marked (FE407) cycle route, which mostly follows country roads with hardly any traffic, or it keeps to protected cycle paths. We had maybe a kilometer or two of riding on gravel roads but only one vehicle passed us quite courteously, so dust wasn’t a problem. Toward the end of the ride we had about 3 km on a busier state route. Passing vehicles gave us plenty of room and we never felt intimidated.
We were a bit disappointed with the landscape we crossed. It was dominated by agricultural fields of corn (maize) and a variety of wheat we hadn’t encountered before. Only occasionally did we find relief from the intense sun of the summer solstice when we passed alongside cherry and pear orchards.
We stayed overnight at Villa Belfiore farm hotel, an old estate converted for agrotourism and set in an extensive garden crowded with a variety of fruit trees and flowering shrubs. They offered us a seemingly endless parade of vegetarian plates at dinner. I mean there were so many we finally had to ask them to quit tempting us. I was a little worried that the tab would reflect the abundance, but no. It came in at a reasonable 18 euros/person. Best of all, the dishes were prepared with seasonal produce which came directly from their vegetable garden.
From Ostellato to Pomposa
Today's ride ended up being the most difficult and the only day of riding we did not particularly enjoy. Even though most of the journey was pleasant riding along quiet country roads, a nine kilometer stretch of road that had been so deeply rutted by farm equipment back in mud season made riding that bit a slow rolling torture. The ruts were so bad, I think we were making only about three or four km/hr.
I kept thinking, this could be worse, we might have been here when it was actually muddy. Before we were completely knackered though, we spied the bell tower of the Benedictine abbey that marked the end of our journey just as the route opened onto a bike lane super highway. Spirits refortified, we sped on to Oasi Bianca where a quick meal, several liters of water, and welcome dip in the pool refreshed us enough to remount our bikes and ride the short distance to the abbey.
The abbey at Pomposa was established sometime in the 7th century. And despite the fact that I’m more than a little saturated with ecclesiastic architecture, it was kind of nice to be two of the maybe five visitors to the abbey and its grounds. I particularly enjoyed the Giotto frescoes and the quiet.
From Pomposa to Comacchio
We left Pomposa after an early breakfast and rode back through the monastery grounds and out along nearly traffic-free country roads. Navigation was easy as there were way signs at every intersection.
As the sun and temperature both rose higher, we were grateful when our route took us along a levee between farm fields and a canal. Intermittent shade breaks and a bit of a breeze kept us cool. But what kept us pedaling was anticipating our fist glimpse of the Adriatic.
After a couple days of riding through farm country, as nice as it was, we were ready for a break. We weren't disappointed. Approaching the coastline, the soil became more and more sandy and finally, agriculture crops gave way to pine forest. What a relief it was when we rode kilometer after kilometer under the forest canopy.
And then I saw it. The sea! I love a coastline. Coming to the edge of the land, looking out to where the sea meets the sky, and dreaming. It always thrills me. No matter how often it happens.
We proceeded along a sandy lane that gradually diminished to an overgrown single track then opened back out into a shaded forest path leading to the first of many coastal resort urbanizations we would pass through.
After the days we'd spent riding through nearly deserted farmlands, it was nice to have a beer break in a resort town. This allowed us to ride the final few kilometers to Comacchio refreshed. That gave us energy to look around a town that's billed as little Venice while we waited to hear from our B&B host.
Now, no one is going to confuse Comacchio with Venice. The canals are not so broad. Neither are the villas so grand. In fact they aren't villas at all, just little houses. On the other hand, the throngs of tourists are a bit less dense too. I think we saw maybe four or five other couples who might have been visitors.
Truth be told, Comacchio is a sleepy little town without much to recommend it. Except, that is, for the new Ancient Delta Museum that illustrates the centuries-long geological and biological evolution of the area, the human settlements typical of the ancient Po Delta, and the entire cargo of a Roman ship discovered nearby.
Oh, and then there's the Valle di Comacchio which I wished we'd taken the time to explore by bicycle that evening. Instead, we didn't discover it's wonders until we set out for Ravenna the next morning.
From Comacchio to Ravenna
Our final day of riding entailed a bit of improvisation. Our original intent was to ride the 25 miles to Argenta and grab a train back to Bologna in plenty of time to return our bikes to the rental shop before they closed. Well, that was the plan until we consulted the train schedule from Argenta and discovered there wasn't a train that would work. And what great luck that was because the ride between Comacchio and Ravenna, our alternate destination was the best one of the trip.
We thought we'd gotten an early start. And after only a few minutes of riding we found ourselves riding along a levee between a canal and Valle di Comacchio, an enormous brackish water lagoon replete with flamingos and more egrets than I have ever seen in one place. It didn't take long before we were wishing that we'd skipped breakfast and gotten out at sunrise.
We spent the first hours of the day skirting the lagoon along three of its sides until we crossed the river Reno by ferry at the town of Sant'Alberto. The three minute ferry crossing set us back 1€ each. If you plan on making this ride out of season, you should inquire about the ferry's operating hours and seasons. I don't know where the closest bridge is.
From Sant'Alberto our route took us back to the sea and we spent the rest of the day riding along some very pleasant cycle paths or through sheltered forested stretches.
There was one more ferry crossing at Porto Corsini that confused us a little because:
- I thought we were looking for a bridge.
- The ferry landing was a block or so away from where our Wikiloc route map indicated it would be. And,
- The ferry boat was on the other side, so we didn't notice it at first.
For a moment I was stymied. But then a huge orange boat loaded with cars, trucks and cyclists tooted its horn and pulled away from the opposite shore. That's when I started laughing at myself for imagining, just for a moment, that a bridge would disappear into thin air.
One thing that Susan absolutely hates is riding in city traffic. By the end of our longish, quick paced day we were both dreading riding into Ravenna. But all our worries were for naught. There's a superhighway-scaled bike path from Punta Marina that took us to within a couple blocks of the train station. We rolled up to the station, popped in to purchase our tickets (there's a 3.50€ tariff to carry bicycles on Italian trains), and 45 minutes later we were on the way back to our Bologna starting place.
And that's how we spent Five Days on Two Wheels in Emilia Romagna, Italy.
Route Planning Resources
Planning our ride was simple. Sometime last February Susan and I spent a couple of our morning coffee hours pouring over Panoramic Wheels, a cycle touring guide put together by the province of Ferrara. Together with the refreshingly useful website, Ferrara terra e acqua, we had our choice of 20 cycle routes in and around the district, complete with route maps and descriptions. There were so many options we had a hard time choosing.
Our original plans included gentle rides from Ferrara to Ostellato, then on to Pomposa. From Pomposa we planned to head to Comacchio and then back to Ferrara via Argenta. We changed our minds after we reached the shores of the Adriatic and rode down to Ravenna where we hopped a train back to Bologna.
I've gathered the route planning and navigations resources we used on our trip in the following sections.
Ferrara to Ostellato
- Ferrara to Ostellato GPX track
- Ferrara to Ostellato Wikiloc Route File
- Ferrara to Ostellato Road book
Ostellato to Pomposa
- Ostellato to Pomposa GPX track
- Ostelato to Pomposa Wikiloc Route File
- Ostellato to Pomposa Road Book
Pomposa to Comacchio
- Pomposa to Comacchio GPX track
- Pomposa to Comacchio Wikiloc Route File
- Pomposa to Comacchio Road Book
Comacchio to Ravenna
We made a spur of the moment decision to extend our ride along the Adriatic coast rather than head back into countryside. And it was a great decision, but that means I didn't gather any route planning information. Instead, I found a Wikiloc Route between Ravenna and San Alberto, closer to Venice. We followed the section from Comacchio south to Ravenna.
Serendipity with our accommodations
We had no idea that the Agriturismo.it accommodations we booked near Ostellato and outside Pomposa would be so nice. I think the afternoon and night we spent at Villa Belfiori (near Ostellato) was the best "recovery day" I've ever had. We were well fed and well rested when we left. Too bad it was only the first night out and we didn't need a recovery day.
We rode past several other farm stay options that also looked inviting. And we are already planning a return trip, so when we got back to Valencia, Susan spent a morning exploring the organization's website. They offer a wide range of options, most outside areas served by public transportation. With a bicycle, it was, and will be perfect. What a way to see Italy. Find the English language Agriturismo.it website here.
Jamie wants “life on gentle cycle” to be a story of enough rather than a search for more. His focus is on simplicity, quiet presence, low impact travel, and mostly on living gently. He also manages the technical aspects of GentleCycle.net