From learning the ancient arts of pasta making, gelato wielding and balsamic vinegar maturing to diving into the history of Modena and Bologna, the Italian region of Emilia Romagna offered a wide range of wonderful things to do as a family. Here are a few of our favourites…
1. Stay in the heart of Bologna
Positioned at the Art Hotel of Bologna, we couldn’t get closer to the centre of Bologna if we tried. Right in the Piazza Maggiore, we opened our windows at night to hear saxophonists playing sweet melodies for restaurant visitors and looked over rows of red-tiled roofs past blue shutters by day. Located in one of Italy’s most beautiful squares, The Art Hotel Orologio is the perfect, elegant base from which to explore the city, it’s rich history, the wealth of ancient buildings and monuments. Enjoy your expresso and croissants while looking out over the Palazzo Comunale City Hall and the old clock tower.
2. Get beneath the skin of the city with a local guide
I loved getting to know the city through local Laura Sibani’s eyes. Starting out in the old town centre of the Piazza Maggiore we began our exploration. Once the economic hub of the city in the 19th century, today it’s alive with culture, architectural wonders like the Palazzo D’Accursio, the city’s town hall and the Basilica of San Petronio and home to one of the world’s largest sun dials. Laura’s rich knowledge and enthusiasm for the city and its treasures was very infectious and soon I was gazing into the many mini-chapels housed with the cathedral once ( and still) owned by some of Italy’s wealthiest families.
I looked upon masterpieces of stain-glass window designs allowing dapples of light to fall over the old burial places of rich families and the church where visitors pay a small fee to photograph. Silk merchants once owned the smaller chapels with the big church and held a service once a year. Since a newspaper published an article and photography of a 14 century fresco with the devil and holy man of one of the world’s biggest religions, the cathedral has had to be under constant security guard. The history of Basilica is a fascinating one, so definitely join Laura as she explains how the state, the Pope and the church each had their time of ruling and being responsible for this building and others.
To book a tour with Laura, contact her via +39 348 7958904
3. Learn how to pasta, Bologna-style
To truly delve into the glorious past ( and present) of Bolognese cuisine, we visited the Il Salotto di Penelope Cooking class and tried our hand at making various pastas, sauces and dishes from scratch. With only four adults ( and very busy and bored Caleb) we began late afternoon and continued into the evening. Funnily enough, at home I make pasta dishes because it’s so quick and easy. Here we tried our hand at making pasta and sauces the old-school way and with the classic bolognese sauce and bolognese tagliatella, we learnt that this used to take up to three hours as the sauce and meat were left on the stoves for the longest of time without burning. By the end of the evening, with mouths watering, we had made a potato gnocchi with tomato sauce, classic belly-button shaped tortelloni and bolognese tagliatella with ragu sauce. It was all delicious to say the least.
For families traveling with kids, this is better suited to kids over the age of 6. Our toddler (even once given his dough to roll) found this three hour class way too long so best skip this long class with toddlers. Recipes of our dishes to follow…
4. Take a day trip to Modena
Despite limited time and whirlwind day tour of Modena, I truly got to love this town. I got to wonder around with the lovely local guide Stefania Ferrari (+39 339 6413227) who does this in her spare time but truly loves her town best of all. We admired the wondrous works of art and biblical murals sculpted into the walls of the Duomo di Modena (The Modena Cathedral) which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Ghirlandia Tower which leans ever so slightly due to the sinking land running over the canals of the city and the Paz communal (town hall) historic rooms.
The Guiseppe Guisti museum and factory provided me with great insight into the making of traditional balsamic vinegar as well as the family who still produce it 17 generations later. Taking between 12 to 25 years to mature in various woods, this balsamic was some of the first produced in the world and suppliers of the royal Italy family. Maturing in barrels with only natural ingredients and rotated over years to achieve a certain acidity and sweetness, this art has been passed down through generations and we were delighted to be able to sample various maturities to be paired with either seafood, salads, light meat or red meats. Don’t forget to bring a bottle or two home. Motor lovers shouldn’t miss the Enzo ferrari museum.
5. Visit Carprigiani Gelato Museum
Joining a gelato masterclass was truly tons of a fun as a family. After a tour of the gelato museum and delving into it’s history from the first makers and equipment of gelato production through the ages, we got to join a workshop and learnt how to make our own gelato, develop a recipe and make it in the lab. All of us ( including Caleb got their own student kit, apron and cap) and got to sample incredible sorbets and gelato. Let it be known that there is a very distinct difference between ice-cream and gelato. Store owners and gelato artisans come to train here from around the globe and their high-quality gelato machines are used by various mega-chains and stores worldwide.
Here’s what makes Gelato different from ice-cream:
Italian gelato contains less fat than ice cream, has less incorporated air, and is served at a
higher temperature. Gelato provides a greater flavor experience because
there is less fat that coats the taste buds, more flavor per spoonful (due to a lower quantity
of air), and the taste buds are more alive since the temperature is not so cold as to dull
Ice cream is made in large industrial batches, uses ingredients designed for lengthy
storage, has limited flavors, and is stocked for sale in supermarkets. Authentic Italian
gelato, on the other hand, is produced fresh practically every day in relatively small
quantities, is sold directly to the public, and is available in a large number of flavours –
usually based on fresh ingredients that make the gelato creamy and colorful.
It is therefore correct to maintain a clear distinction between the two products, even
linguistically. So now you know!
To book a master family class at the Gelato Museum, visit gelatomuseum.com
6. Dig into Bologna’s history
One of my absolute favourite visits and discoveries while here was visiting the University of Bologna. Little did I know that it was in fact the oldest university of the Western World and founded by students in 1008. Not only limited to the province of Bologna, programs were initiated throughout Romagna making it one of the most extensive of all italian universities. A university fostering scientific and technological development, natural magic and experimental science (in the 16th century), had a woman teaching between the 12 and 13th centuries and was legally declared a place where research could take place independently from any other power from 1158. Today, the walls are adorned with crests of scholars and professors and the library and original building is open to visitors.
Amazingly enough, this student-founded university always paid teachers a “collectio”, as a gift rather than a salary, as at that “time science, a gift of God, could not be sold”. Gradually such donations were transformed into actual salaries and the municipality had to assist for studies to continue.
7. Savour the markets
For the hungry, the weary and the foodies, you can’t go wrong without a visit through the narrow streets of the old city market, The Quadrilatero. Find fresh Adriatic sea fish, abundance of fruits and vegetables and every pasta from tortellini and mortadella by day making way for street cafes and bars alive by night.
8. Eat gelato on every corner
I just don’t think it’s possible that you can eat enough gelato in a day. Because we walked a lot and the weather was still quite warm in September, we took every opportunity to enjoy a gelato with a good combination of sweet flavours with some of the sorbets such as limone (lemon) and lampone (strawberry) .
9. Enjoy evening buskers and sidewalk cafes.
This is a city that truly comes alive by night. Summer evenings are truly the best where buskers come out to serenade the city with violins, voice and guitars. Cafes abound with every Italian dish you may desire; pizza, pastas, and many aperitifs.
10. See the city with a hop-on, hop-off bus.
This was a lovely way to see Bologna, without even leaving the bus. Caleb insisted on pulling out my earphones so I didn’t really get to hear much of the history but you can. Choose a seat with a great view on top, plug in your earphones and enjoy the sights and sounds of the city.
To discover what you can do in Emilia Romagna with or without kids visit www.emiliaromagnaturismo.com.
Thank you to Emilia Romagna Tourism for hosting us, we loved the cities of Bologna and Modena. No doubt you will enjoy this region as much as we did. Happy Travels!
What did you love doing in Emilia Romagna with YOUR kids?