The charms of Emilia-Romagna are many. From seaside cities like Marchella Hazan's Cesenatico or Federico Fellini's Rimini, to the regional and culinary capital of Bologna and the Motor city of Modena, to the great Renaissance cities of Parma and Ferrara, there's way too much to see and absorb on a short vacation.
Medium sized cities like Faenza can be far more interesting than you know. Its International Ceramics Museum is the largest of such museums in the world. It's unlikely you'll get through it all; it covers ceramics from its first appearance in history.
Don't forget the smaller places as you plan your vacation. Take in the haunting beauty of the Po Delta outside the compelling canal town of Comacchio, where the marshland has been reshaped by people since early settlements. It's not just the watery landscape you need to pay attention to, but you must taste wine grown in the sandy soil of the delta along with the eel famously trapped here. If Romanesque architecture intrigues you, a visit to the Abbey of Pomposa, whose church was founded in the 6th century, will ravage you with its tranquility and the beauty of its design. 2 restaurants on the site will restore you with the traditional food and wine of the delta.
But let's start with the map.
The region of Emilia-Romagna is wedged between the east-west trending Po river and the Reggiano Appenine mountains, separating it from Tuscany and Le Marche on the south, Liguria on the west, and Lombardia and the Veneto on the north. The autostrada A1 runs east-west through the region. The high speed Milan to Bologna rail line parallels the autostrada in Emilia Romagna. European long distance buses like those of GoEuro are also a possibility if your next destination is a big city out of the region: Discover Europe by Bus.
It is 98 miles or 158 km from Bologna to Venice and takes about an hour and 50 minutes to drive, two hours and 20 minutes on the train.
It is 134 miles / 216 kilometers driving distance from Milan to Bologna, about 2 hours and ten minutes of driving time. Bus or train takes a little over three hours.
The region's capital, with two tilting medieval towers at its core, is considered the culinary heart of Italy. Tourists miss it, prefering to spend time in the Big Three and Cinque Terre, but it's worth seeing. Bologna, a transportation hub of the region, is easy to get to. It's about halfway between Florence and Milan.
You'll want to try the Bolonese specialties. Tortellini is at its best here, and the Tagliatelle Bolognese is likely to be way different than the "spag bol" that institutional cafeterias throw on your plate. The meat sauce is the essence of the animal; it's not a tomato sauce speckled with a little hamburger. The dish should never, ever be served with spaghetti, only fresh egg tagliatelle is used in the Bolognese dish. Otherwise, you can enjoy a spaghetti con ragu, the pasta police will not come after you...
In the western wedge of the Emilia-Romagna there is a concentration of well-preserved castles, spa towns, and Romanesque churches along the Via Francigena as it passes from Lombardy and crosses the Appenines into Tuscany. It's a part of Italy many tourists haven't considered, but there's a lot going on in a small area here.
Just a short distance from Castell'Arquanto is one of the best preserved castles in Italy, Vigoleno. Then, further east is the spa town of Salsomaggiore, with castles all around.
Add the towns of Piacenza, Fidenza, Verdi's town Busseto (he moved there in 1824), and Bobbio (especially near the end of the year for the Christmas market) and you'd have plenty to do for a week or longer.
Below is the map of the provinces of Emilia Romagna so you can get your bearings.
Can a hotel provide all of your vacation needs for a week or so? Well, two of them, in our opinion, do just that. Take a cooking class, go on a truffle hunt, dance your heart away to traditional music of the region and eat very, very well in either of these two excellent places to stay, one on the Adriatic and one in the mountains of Romagna.
Despite the fact that these hotels are totally independent from one another, each features one day a week of traditional Romagna music, dance and cuisine at very reasonable prices.
Hop across the street and you're on the hotel's manicured beach on the Riviera di Rimini. You can take a cooking class and learn what makes up the finest of cucina Romangnolo or simply take up a seat in the restaurant and have it served to you, preferably on a night when they're featuring traditional music. Walkers can walk forever along the Lungomare and shop until they drop. The hotel is one of a select few, family run piccoli alberghi di qualita, small hotels of quality. So don't take one of those cookie cutter hotels owned by Russians who don't know Italian tradition, go to this one on the Rimini Riviera.
Head for little Portico di Romagna and you'll be immersed in old Romagna, especially if you take a room or apartment in the Albergo Diffuso Al Vecchio Convento. The town has some great artisans, and the hotel can arrange truffle tours in the fall. That's me in the picture rolling out my pasta, yes, they give cooking classes, even to old codgers like me.
On Wednesdays everyone heads to the basement for a buffet dinner, musicians and dancing (check with them first to make sure). You could make a perfect mountain village vacation by staying a week here.
All over Italy, traditional food specialties that oozed out of the kitchens of the poor during the 20 years of Fascism are making a comeback. One of these is the simple and amazing Passatelli in Brodo. It's made of stuff peasants had on hand: Bread crumbs, parmigiano, eggs, nutmeg, and lemon zest squeezed into little worms and dropped into broth; you can see Roberto's here. You can also learn to make some art with Irma Fiorentini, who will teach you things you thought you could never learn and put you up in a bedroom above her studio.
(Speaking of Mussolini and Fascism, you can also visit il Duce's birthplace and final resting place in Predappio, another Emilia Romagna attraction that no everyone realizes.)
The famous meats and cheeses you know, from Prosciutto crudo di Parma and Mortadella di Bologna to Parmigiano Reggiano. If you haven't had real Balsamic vinegar, aceto balsamico tradizionale DOP, you don't know what you're missing. It's not the same stuff as the sugary commercial dreck. The good stuff is often drizzled over pear-stuffed pasta. You can visit the Balsamic Vinegar Museum in Spilamberto to see how it's made and smell the woods that the barrels are made of to contain the precious liquid.
Piadina is a historic flat bread famous in Emilia Romangna, especially in the eastern part along the Adriatic, were it’s most revered and they call it Piadina Romagnola. You wrap it around anything. You may wish to participate vicariously in my march through Rimini for the ultimate Piadina.
The region's many museums mean that you'll likely find something that tickles your fancy. Starting with the "Curious" Museums around Bologna, including collections of toy soldiers, fabric and upolstery, heaven and earth (!), gelato and music, you can swing your rental car towards Parma and take an itinerary that includes the food museums including the tomato museum and the spectacular Museo Ettore Guatelli, a "forest of ideas" you never thought existed.
My prefered time to visit the Emilia Romagna is late fall. There will be fog. But there will also be truffles. Bologna's historic weather charts show that rain peaks in November, while April, May and September offer the most comfortable temperatures.
Enjoy planning your Emilia Romagna vacation!