It took me four visits to Emilia Romagna, but finally, on a warm day in September, I lay my own eyes on the canals of Comacchio. Set amongst the nature of the Po Delta National Park and billed as a quieter, smaller Venice, I was naturally intrigued to visit the second I heard of Comacchio.
With no train station it’s not the easiest place to day trip from the main spots such as Bologna in the region without a car, but this also allows Comacchio to retain much of its charm. It’s certainly not got the grandeur of Venice, but it oozes that delicious local vibe that the smaller Italian towns boast. Comacchio, therefore, is worthy of more than a quick day trip from Bologna and can be a whole visit unto itself.
Eels, canals and cute streets in Comacchio
Arriving in Comacchio, the usually quiet canal streets were awash with activity. This weekend was to be the local Eel Festival, celebrating one of the towns most prized foodie offerings, and stalls and restaurants were gearing up for the event.
The lagoons surrounding Comacchio provide the perfect home for the eels, and over the years this part of Emilia Romagna has become famed for them.
While Eel isn’t my favourite dish, I did sample a slither or two during my weekend in Comacchio, but if you find your self here out of the big-weekend, an Eel and history museum, Manifattura dei Marinati, will fill you in on the details.
For those who aren’t a fan either, fear not, stalls packed with Emilia Romagna specialities line the streets, providing ample delicious treats to enjoy.
But in all honesty, I wasn’t here for the Eel festival. I was here to finally explore the canals of Comacchio. I took a quick tour around the town with a local guide Pietro, who highlighted the most popular points of the city. Young boys practised their gondolier skills underneath the Ponte dei Trepponti, an obscure shaped bridge dating back to 1638, while nonnas picked up their groceries from small stores nearby.
Comacchio itself is a destination to be savoured, rather than rocking your way through a must-visit list of attractions. Taking a coffee alongside a quiet stretch of canal, or enjoying a glass of wine under the imposing shadow of a church or the Museo Delta Antico, Comacchio is a slow-travel destination, complemented by the impressive nature that surrounds it.
The joy of Comacchio is its relatively devoid of tourists, which given the proximity to Venice is a joy for those looking to escape the crowds and take in the hidden gems of Italy at a slower pace.
Into nature and tradition: The Po Delta Nature Park
The Po Delta Nature Park actually sits across both Emilia Romagna and Veneto, and the parks fate could have been very different.
Checking in to the Spiaggia Romea Club Village, in Lido Delle Nazioni, I learnt that this spacious resort, with pools, water sports, horse riding and a range of accommodation, was built to protect the area. Earmarked initially to be property development, you can even see the ditches in the ground where the foundations for more buildings should have been.
Luckily, the land was all brought by a family and the resort takes up just a fraction, leaving the rest of the land for nature and wildlife to blossom. An electric golf cart can take you on a ‘mini-safari’ through this part of the park where white Camargue horses roam and bird-spotters keep an eye out for local species. Behind a canopy of trees, just moments beyond the resort, waves lap on the beach.
The resort is certainly not going to be for everyone’s taste, and wasn’t the ideal choice for me, with buffet meals and a family-vibe. Still, for an easygoing escape removed from the town, it ticks all the boxes with the extensive range of activities and water sports. Accommodation options range from the family-village to the superior hotel – but be warned, if you visit during the Eel festival as I did and want to stay in Comacchio itself, you best book far ahead!
The real magic, however, lies in the Lagoons and Saltworks of the park just outside Comacchio town. Whether you opt to cycle, take a boat, or both, the views are made that more special by the Flamingos that can be found on the lake. Although a migration spot, there are now permanent flocks of Flamingos who have set up their home here.
We hired bikes from a local operator at the Eel Museum and cycled to the lagoon where we boarded a slow boat to the other side. We sailed past traditional fishing huts with their nets hanging low before arriving at a restaurant on the far side. Quickly fuelled up with another cafe doppio, we cycled along the narrow land strips in the lagoon, admiring the flamingos on one side and the medley of fishing huts on the other.
Other options in the Po Delta National Park include heading to the Sacca di Goro by the region’s border to see traditional clam fishing with the ‘rasca’ – although this is quite a detour so, not ideal if you are short on time. Here, a small boat and local operator will take you to the waters for a couple of hours, an experience that can be arranged with the local tourism board.
Outside activities on the other side of Emilia Romagna
While the Po Delta might border Veneto in the north of the Emilia Romagna region, to the south-west, you’ll find the mountains of Romagna peeping into Tuscany. If you are looking for your nature fix with the culinary charm of Emilia Romagna without heading north, then Campigna and The Casentinesi Forest National Park will provide.
Amongst the dense forest of the park, you’ll find some cute village points to stop at, such as the spa-resort town of Bagno di Romagna. A few narrow streets are all you’ll discover interrupting nature here, and you can quickly settle into the slower pace of life dipping between thermal pools and local restaurants. Relatively unknown still by international tourists, a fully immersive Italian experience awaits.
Checking in to the vast Roseo Euroterme Wellness Resort I was amazed by what was on offer; alongside the expected spa circuit and indoor-outdoor thermal pools, there was everything else you would need for a full wellness visit, from blood checks to on-site doctors.
The town itself is compact but delightful, and a handful of family-run restaurants are ready to welcome you. A great spot to sample the differences in cheese and ingredients of the Romagna to the Emilia cuisine is at the lovely Hostaria Volante, a small restaurant with a very creative owner who as well as designing the menu, has hand made the water glasses through to the lampshades.
But of course, the main reason people head to The Casentinesi Forest National Park is for the nature offerings.
There is an array of activities you can do in the park, such as hiking through the forest hunting for mushrooms while deer dance in the distance and these activities can be arranged through local guides.
A popular option in the park is to go E-Mountain Biking, especially around the Ridracoli Dam or on a hiking tour in Campigna. The Idro Eco-Museum details how the water and Dam work in harmony with nature in the local area and although a lot of the regions drinking water runs through this Dam, you can cycle through the mountains and around the water, and even head out onto the Dam by boat or kayak. In the summer season, cafes and shops are also to be found here.
Dotted throughout the forest and on its borders are some small agritourism spots, celebrating slow travel and local ingredients. Try and fit in a meal at Poderone, where the characterful family that run the restaurant will shower you with beetroot infused pasta, traditional ragu, and plate upon plate of local vegetables.
So whether you heard to the cute canals of Comacchio and the Po Delta, or The Casentinesi Forest National Park, Emilia Romagna will indulge you beyond its beautiful cities and incredible Emilia Romagna food, or download the free Emilia Romagna magazine containing this article and many more to help you plan your trip!