Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Comacchio: 'Little Venice' on the Po River Delta

The Po River Delta, declared a Unesco Heritage site thanks to its natural ecosystem, is located between the provinces of Ferrara and Ravenna, and is the largest nature reserve in Emilia-Romagna. A spectacular unspoilt and protected natural environment of wetlands, agricultural fields, woods and forests, the Delta offers the ideal habitat for an incredible variety of fish, including eels, sea bass, wetland prawns, water birds and even flamingos. Just inland from the many beach resorts on the Adriatic coast, and nestled within the Po Delta Nature Preserve, is the small town of Comacchio, which used to be completely surrounded by water, earning it the sobriquet - "Little Venice."

The bridge to Palazzo Bellini, the Old Hospital of St. Camillo

One of those wonderful gems that you don’t read much about in guidebooks, Comocchia is a tiny fishing town built on 13 islands, with a culture deeply tied to the land and the sea. Comacchio is surrounded by canals, ponds and the Po River Delta, all connected by a series of beautiful bike paths, hiking trails and handful of picturesque waterside restaurants. Comacchio is a very sleepy and untouristy town. There's virtually no traffic, as the canals make road travel just about impossible, crossed only by a series of charming narrow stepped bridges.

A narrow stepped bridge over one of Comacchio's network of canals, 
earned the town the nickname, "Little Venice"

A picturesque canal with a local fishing boat

It's not hard to see why Comacchio is called 'little Venice'

Bicycle rental shops provide a popular way to explore Comacchio and the small roads that traverse the Po River Delta system

After the Estense era in Romagna, Comacchio became part of the Papal States, and in the 17th century they contributed to its urban rebirth with buildings, churches, and bridges including the town's famous Trepponti Bridge. To this day, Commachio's character is defined by water, a network of canals which supplant the roads, bridges connecting quarters, and terraces of houses that conceal their 'androni', the long corridors that lead to their interior courtyards.

One of the small hidden residential canals in Comacchio

Small bridges connects the quaint streets of tiny Comochio

Comacchio's more popular restaurants all serve their regional specialty - eel

Waterside cobblestone paths thread throughout Comocchio

An inviting doorway along one of Comocchio's back streets

The famous Treponti Bridge that spans the intersection of five canals

One of the small red brick towers on top of the Treponti Bridge

Built in 1634, Treponti Bridge is the symbol of Comacchio, a beautiful bridge that spans the intersection of five canals. It has five flights of steps and a couple of small towers and is a great place to relax before heading off for a meal at one one of Comacchio's picturesque waterside restaurants, and enjoying a dish of grilled eel, the towns famous specialty, one of the most important eel-producing regions of Italy. 

Flamingos are one of the common wetland birds of the Po region

Tasty but uniquely unattractive, eel is the celebrated catch of Commachio

The eel has found its natural habitat in the wetland marshes of Comacchio, here it can live and reproduce. There are 48 different eel dishes that range from a delicate risotto to the grill where the eel releases all that intense flavor that make it a gastronomical rite that is difficult to resist. For the first two weekends of October every year, Comacchio celebrates their annual Eel Festival, Sagra dell’Anguilla. The main feature of this event is the chance to sample the delicious recipes prepared, with eel and other fish caught locally, by the fishermen themselves, as well as taking guided visits around historical centre of Comacchio aboard the traditional boats called “batane.”  

On a chilly March afternoon, a brave and determined Italian family 
rented a 'batane' for a tour of Comacchio's canal system

The town of Camocchio even reached 'silver screen' status when Sophia Loren played a worker in an eel factory in the film La Donna del Fiume – or the Woman of the River. The film shows Sophia at the height of her beauty proudly displaying a can of pickled Camocchio eels!

Sophia Loren played a worker in a Comacchio eel factory 
in the film La Donna del Fiume

An original poster for La Donna del Fiume 

Just a few miles east of Comacchio, along the shore of the Adriatic, is the thriving fishing community of Porto Garibaldi. A popular destination for tourists in the summertime because of the area's lidos, or beaches, the town is equally well known for it's avenue of fish shops, or pescheria, selling the freshest and most spectacular selection of local fish and seafood. We came home with two dozen enormous mantis shrimp for just over 6 euros, unheard of in North America. Sautéed with a little olive oil and garlic over a bed of fresh tagliatelle, the notion of 'La Dolce Vita' has never seemed closer to home.

Port Garibaldi, which lies just east of Camocchio on the Adriatic, has an avenue 
of fabulous fish shops selling the most spectacularly fresh seafood

Gorgeous fresh scallops with the roe still attached

Local Comacchio prawns look a little odd, but are sweet and delicious

Local fisherman still farm the inland tributaries of the Po River

Traditional fishing nets, used since Roman times, are still used along the canals 
of the Po River delta, to catch local fish and seafood

Larger fishing trawlers are also used to harvest the regions rich waters

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