Our Introduction to Italy: Ravenna, Comacchio, Bologna

Italy loomed distant and slightly out of reach for much of this year. We'd originally conceptualized the trip in March, after a notecard fueled discussion, complete with numerical rankings for things like coffee, food, and affordability. The clear winner in our impromptu ranking system was New Zealand, but we ultimately shelved that country because of affordability and time constraints. The silver medalist – Italy – was promoted to first place and we excitedly went to Powell's, purchased a two pound Italy guidebook, and began narrowing down what sections of the country we could visit in a two week period. A daunting task, as nearly every region in the country, from Umbria to Piedmont to Puglia, sounded appealing for slightly different reasons.

I made a list entitled 'Italy Ideas' and began more in depth research on five specific areas: Piedmont, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Rome, and Umbria. Gradually, I whittled down this list to Piedmont and Emilia Romagna, adding on a coastal excursion to Santa Margherita because I couldn't resist the seriously stunning photos, and a finale in Rome, a city that had captivated me 11 years ago. Planning a trip with only a few constraints (time and money – not inconsequential) was challenging. After deciding on regions (drawn in by the food, wine, natural beauty, and with respect to Piedmont and Emilia Romagna, lower tourist ratios), I had the difficult task of researching and then picking bed and breakfasts or hotels in locations of each region that would be fitting jumping off points for day trips and also provide an oasis when we returned from sight seeing.

The difficulty in this search was not in finding places to stay – my original map of potential locations for the first week contained more inns than days – but rather, in sifting through reviews, looking at the map, and ensuring that our choices were available. I've compared planning this trip to the early stages of planning a wedding: just as wedding planning starts with securing an open date for a reception space, we started our Italy trip by finding good dates for flights, and then filled in the rest of the details.

We spent the first four days of our trip in the Emilia Romagna region, a section of Italy between the Po River and Apennine Mountains. Known for its fertility and food traditions, this region has birthed a few of my favorite foods and liquids, notably Parmesan cheese (along with Grana Padano), Balsamic Vinegar, tortellini, and Lambrusco. It's a food lovers' paradise, surrounded by fertile farmland (we were there right after the tomato harvest), glimpses of mountains, and a pace of life that focuses on gastronomic pleasures.

After flying into Bologna (birthplace of bolognese), we drove an hour east to Ravenna, a city tucked near the Adriatic in the Po River Valley. Ravenna is flush with Byzantine art (eight Unesco World Heritage Sights in total), as the city became part of the Byzantine empire in 540, and was ruled by them until 751. The mosaics in the basilicas and monasteries are in meticulous, glowing, shimmering condition. It was impossible to wrap my mind around the age of the art, its astonishing detail, and the number of people who have stood underneath the mosaics and inside the churches contemplating life and religion. While all of the heritage sites were worth seeing, the crowning jewel is the Basilica of San Vitale, completed in 547.

Ravenna was also our introduction to seriously good food, everywhere we turned (hotel breakfast, street-side piadinas, roadside restaurants with some of the best brown butter and sage ravioli of my life (not hyperbole – fact). We explored Ravenna, Comacchio ("Little Venice", a town a bit down on its luck, but breathtaking for its desolate feel), and had our best dinner (a challenging title to award on this trip) in Bologna at Ristorante Scaccomotto. I had a stuffed pepper appetizer (that I was nervous to order as the waitress kept reassuring me that it was vegetarian by saying "pepperoni, meat, vegetarian") and a sinfully good pasta with sardines. This dinner followed a trend with all of our dinners in Italy: even though we dined at 8pm most nights, we were usually the only patrons. It was only when we finished around 10pm that the dining room was full of Italians ordering the full four courses (we usually just had an antipasti and primi).

After Ravenna, we drove back through Bologna to Parma for our next two days in Emilia Romagna [those pictures will be in the next post].