On his ITV show Italian Escape, Gino D’Acampo described the northern province of Emilia-Romagna as producing “some of the world’s finest food”. It’s a bold claim, but then we are talking about the official home of Parma ham (prosciutto di Parma), Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano) and balsamic vinegar.
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon toured the swankier Amalfi Coast on their Trip to Italy. And while Rome, Florence and Venice also suck in millions of visitors annually, this part of the country is a path less trampled by the sweaty sandal of tourism. And it’s all the better for it.
Emilia-Romagna is named after an ancient Roman road, and the motorway bisecting the region links the towns of Rimini, Bologna, Modena, Reggio Emilia, Parma and Piacenza like tomatoes on a vine. This means that, although train services are available, a car is advisable if you want to get the full value from your trip.
En route between the towns, you’ll encounter a flat landscape resembling northern France, flecked with lobster- and sunset-coloured farmhouses. The Appenine mountains cut a pale silhouette into the horizon, like a chain of paper dolls.
If you venture into the loftier areas to the south, a stunning patchwork more reminiscent of Tuscany awaits. Scattered across the peaks are dozens of medieval castles, some of which are barely ruins, while others have been painstakingly restored. A castle crawl won’t break the bank either, with admission prices around a third of what you’d expect to pay in the UK.
Particularly impressive is Castello di Vigoleno, where the 80s fantasy flick Ladyhawke was filmed. Within its walls is a chocolate-box village containing shops, a rustic tavern and (bizarrely) a museum themed around dancing bears. Climb its towers for views rivalling anything in Tuscany or Le Marche.
The region’s capital, Bologna, is nicknamed La Grassa (the fat) by Italians, and the locals are fiercely proud of their grub. Cured meats (culatello, prosciutto di Parma, strolghino) are a speciality you’ll find hanging from the ceiling of any delicatessen worth its salt.
As well as the cascading antipasti, steel yourself for seasonal specialities like pumpkin tortelli, porcini mushroom soup and ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach. You may be invited to wash the lot down with a shot of the walnut digestif nocino. At 40 per cent volume, this syrupy brown liqueur is as strong as grappa, but more palatable (unless they palm you off with the cheap stuff).
Parma, Piacenza and Reggio Emilia are the must-see urban areas in the region. Parma is the biggest of the three, but, despite taking a battering during the war, its centre retains some classy medieval architecture, notably the Palazzo della Pilotta and the fresco-covered Parma Cathedral.
If history’s not your thing, there’s as much fun to be had meandering through the cobbled streets, among pastel-shaded buildings, peering into gated indoor gardens and skipping into shops dripping with dangling hams.
Farther west, Piacenza is a labyrinth of piazzas, markets and gothic churches. Its proximity to Milan means many residents commute to the fashion capital from here. And helps to explain the number of chic citizens to be spotted, floating around like something from a Fellini film. The twisting, high-walled alleys surrounding the main square (the Piazza Cavali) are easy to get lost in, so pack a map.
But if you visit any town in Emilia-Romagna, it must be the relatively little-known Reggio Emilia. While it has plenty of bars, shops, history and culture, it’s also small enough to walk (or cycle) everywhere. Unspoilt by wartime bombing, its centre glows with warm colours, overlooked by ornate balconies.
It has a younger feel than the other towns, and on a Saturday afternoon it tends to get overrun with day-tripping teenage posers. Don’t let this deter you though; you can always seek sanctuary in the contemporary art museum, the baroque opera house or the leafy streets just outside the main shopping area, which bring to mind New York’s Greenwich Village.
If you’re planning to stay near the central Piazza Camillo Prampolini, bear in mind that it can get noisy at night. Reggio Emilia, and Emilia-Romagna as a whole, might not yet be a major European travel destination, but the Italians know a good thing when they see (and taste) it.
Gary travelled to Italy with support from Emilia Romagna Region Tourist Board. easyJet flies direct to Bologna from London Gatwick, from £36.49 one way. www.easyjet.com. There are regular flights to Bologna with easyJet and British Airways from London Gatwick, and Ryanair from Stansted, Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh and Dublin. When Radio Times contributors receive assistance from travel providers such as tourist boards, airlines and hotel to conduct first-hand research, we retain our editorial independence at all times, and never accept anything in return for positive coverage.