Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ferrara: A Majestic Medieval & Renaissance Gem

Ruled for many centuries by the d'Este family, the dynasty left a permanent mark on Ferrara, one of regions greatest walled towns. The Este family ruled Ferrara from 1208 to 1598, constructing many of the monuments we see today. Under the Estes, Ferrara became a center of the arts, a city where Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, and Petrarch, among others, spent time under their patronage. The noble family took control of the town under Nicolo II in the late 13th-century, holding power until 1598, when the family was forced by the papacy to move to Modena.

Leonello d'Este, Lord of Ferrara by Pisanello 

Ferrara's 12th-century Duomo is a spectacular Romanesque-Gothic hybrid with a gorgeous soaring interior and featuring elaborate reliefs on the exterior depicting scenes from the Last Judgement. Located in the heart of the city, on Piazza Cathedrale, and overlooking Ferrara’s main marketplace, the historical centre of Ferrara is UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. An historical jewel, Ferrara is an extraordinary example of an intact Renaissance urban plan, with beautifully preserved medieval and Renaissance quarters. Under Ercole I, Ferrara was rebuilt, creating one of Europe's finest Renaissance cities.

Ferrara's Romanesque Cathedral

Exterior detail

Interior of the Ferrara Duomo during Mass

A small family vignette in the Duomo

Exterior detail of a lion outside Ferrara's Duomo

Palazzo Municipale with its gorgeous archway to Piazza Municipale

Statue of Ercole I in the main square

A family outside the Duomo on Piazza Cathedrale, 
with the market in the background

A pampered puppy and two Farranese chatting outside the Duomo 
and the Weekend Farmer's Market

Ferrara's outdoor Market beside the Duomo

My friendly Grissini guy at the Ferrara Market

We bought three kinds of Grissini but the Finocchio, or fennel flavoured one, was the tastiest

Cured meats, dried sausage and prosciutto were on display at one stall

Traditional Italian culinary confections were also displayed in their glory at the market

One of the most spectacular buildings in Ferrara is the monumental Castello Estense. With its moats, towers and battlements, the castle was the Este family's dynastic seat, and looms menacingly over Ferrara's town centre. During their time, the d'Este family presided over one of Europe's leading courts, but combined their roles as enlightened Renaissance patrons with blood-crazed despots. Nicolo III, for example, had his wife and lover brutally murdered, and Alfonso I married Lucrezia Borgia, descendant of one of Italy's most notorious families, while Ercole I attempted to poison a nephew who plotted to overthrow him, and eventually had him executed. 

The medieval Castello Estense in Ferrara, surrounded by a moat and 3 draw-bridges

One of the Castello Estense drawbridge entrances

A medieval well in the castle's interior courtyard

A castle that was meant to frighten the Ferranese into submission, 
it was also a sumptuous home for the Este dynasty

A dank dungeon in the basement of Castello Estense

If a prisoner was lucky, he might get a small window

Jewish families were well established in Ferrara as early at the 1380s, giving form to one of the liveliest Jewish communities in Western Europe. Distressingly, Ferrara's maze of twisting cobblestone streets in the ghetto witnessed the persecution of its Jews once fascist Italy was officially at war with Nazi Germany in October 1943, a tragedy that was documented in Giorgio Bassani's semiautobiographical book and Vittorio De Sica's film, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

Vittorio De Sica's film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

The paramount feature of the completely flat landscape of the province of Ferrara is water. To the north is the river Po, to the south the river Reno, to the east the Adriatic Sea and in between a large fertile plain, once nearly completely submerged. Traditional cooking from Ferrara draws inspiration from this outstanding combination of rivers, land and the sea. Its cuisine is a great combination of noble and popular culinary customs. In this city, even bread is special, unmistakable in its shape and known as the "coppia ferrarese". It is protected by the IGP status. Highlights of Ferrara cuisine are eels and salama da sugo, a special dressed-pork product of Renaissance origin. We made a bee-line for one of Ferrara's finer restaurants, L'Ocan Giuliva, known for its refined local cuisine.

L'Oca Giuliva, tucked away in Ferrara's medieval quarter

The sophisticated and modern interior with beautiful market vegetables 
featured on each table

Coppia ferrarese, the braided bread of Ferrara

The coppia ferrarese, Ferrara's famous local bread, is described as "that divine piece of bread made of two rolls, tied like a ribbon in the middle, each with its ends twisted, forming a fan with four points. It's the best bread in the world." 

A bottle of aqua frizzante to start our meal

A delicious Sangiovese from Emilia-Romagna

The menu at L'oca Giuliva

An amuse-bouce of Zuppa di Ceci, a local chickpea soup

Cappelacci di Zucca ai Ragu

Zuppa di Fagiole e Maltaglioti

Faraona al Forno, Roasted Guinea Hen with a mustard and honey sauce

Salome da Sugo with mashed potato

For over five centuries, Salama da sugo, a pork sausage, has been the hallmark of the salumerie in the city of Ferrara. It has a strong, yet elegant flavour, which sets it apart from all other Italian salumi. The cuisine of Ferrara, once ruled by the House of Este, is quite different than the rest of the regional cuisines of Emilia Romagna and the Salama da sugo is a dish that recalls the feasts of the Renaissance courts. It's made with pork neck, pork belly, neck fat, liver, and tongue. The meat is ground and seasoned with salt, pepper and red wine, as well as cloves and cinnamon. It's usually served on a bed of mashed potatoes, puréed pumpkin or with Coppia ferrarese, the braided bread of Ferrara.

Macchiato e biscotti

Ferranese biscotti

Among Ferrara's fresh pastas are cappellacci, tortelli di zucca and pasticcio di maccheroni; other stars in the kitchen are mussels, clams, oysters and frogs. The province also produces an abundance of vegetable and fruit including the asparagus of Mesola, the garlic of Voghiera, pears, rice and pumpkins, the strawberries and water melons of Ferrara, which are the best in the world. To end the meal, pampepato, mandorlini del ponte, topino of Comacchio and the ricciolina or tagliatelle cake are all regional favourites, but after a rich a delicious meal, a macchiato and biscotti were the perfect finish to a fine Ferranese meal.

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