Alone bell tolls from somewhere close by, not an unfamiliar sound when you’re in Italy, but at this moment it’s rather more poignant. I’m inside Ferrara’s ancient shul, still going strong in the heart of the former medieval ghetto, nearly 600 years after it was built. Tonight though, it’s rammed, standing room only for the Friday night service and Rabbi Luciano Caro is beaming from ear to ear.
Whilst Rabbi Caro might not enjoy a full house every week (this particular weekend, the city is hosting the annual Jewish Book Festival) Ferrara’s Jewish community has long played a key role across the whole region of Emilia Romagna.
Rome’s Jewish provenance is said to be directly linked to the people of Judaea. However, it’s the diversity of Emilia-Romagna’s Jewish communities and the social and commercial impact they achieved that prompted the state to pick Ferrara as the location for a new National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah (MEIS).
Set to open fully in 2016 in an impressive new structure on the via Piangipane, it promises to become the definitive chronicle of Italian Jewry.
Emilia-Romagna borders Liguria, Lombardy and Tuscany, and it’s a region said to have the best food in Italy. Not surprising when you consider it’s the home of Balsamic vinegar in Modena, Parmigiano-Reggiano in Parma and the stomping ground of Pellegrino Artusi, the man dubbed as the grandfather of Italian cuisine. When you add in the stunning cities of Bologna, Ferrara and Ravenna and legendary names such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Ducati you realise this is a region to take seriously.
It’s a treasure trove of Jewish history, and the cities of Bologna, Cento and Ferrara owe their very existence to their Jewish communities.
Ferrara is dominated by the huge Castello Estense, the 14th century home of the powerful Este dynasty, which included Lucretia Borgia and the medieval ramparts that circle the city are a pointer to its importance throughout the middle ages. Back then, the Po River literally lapped the streets of the city, and today, down by the via Delle Volte, you can still see the raised archways linking the ancient vaults and walk the narrow cobbled alleyways.
I take a stroll around the ghetto quarter, created in 1627 after the Este dynasty fell, and find it still pretty much intact, the remnants of two of the five gates sealing off the area after dark, still attached to the walls. Many of the restaurants here still have what is termed “Jewish food” on the menus (although not Kosher); Ferrarese burriche pastries, spelt soup and ricciolini pasta at Yom Kippur.
I wander down via Mazzini just off the main square next to the cathedral and find the old shul at number 95. Actually, there are three shuls here, but the other two are small museums these days.
Walking or cycling along the remains of the ramparts, all 9K of them, is a great way to see the different aspects of this beautiful renaissance city, stopping off to explore interesting little corners.
At the Jewish Cemetery tucked away in one corner I find the grave of Ferrara’s most famous Jew, Giorgio Bassani who wrote The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. There are regular “Bassani walks” where you can join a group walking in his footsteps, stopping every so often to hear an extract from his novel.
The cemetery is a sprawling space, but full of large grassy areas noticeably stone free. The marble and stone was taken by the Inquisition in 1750 to build the left hand pillar on the Palazzo del Municipio opposite the cathedral.
On my way out I spot two stone slabs side-by-side inscribed with the name Ottolenghi and wonder if the famous Israeli chef is a descendant.
It’s under an hour to get to Bologna from Ferrara, but Cento is worth a diversion. At one time, Cento was the centre of hemp supply it to the Royal Navy. The Disraeli family was a major benefactor of this custom and lived in Cento’s small ghetto for many years before emigrating to the UK.
Today the ghetto has been restored, with original 18th century balconies overlooking a web of courtyards.
Bologna, in my opinion, has it all. An underrated Italian gem, perhaps still hiding under the shadows of Florence and Rome.
It has the oldest university in the world, over 40 kilometres of porticoes ranging from ancient wooden to renaissance splendour, too many historic buildings to count and a rich history of gastronomy that dates back to the middle ages when it was dubbed “Bologna the Fat”.
Top of the that particular list is handmade tagliatelle and tortellini always with a ragu sauce (never mention the word Bolognese in these parts). Food markets abound in Bologna so take time to wander .
The 16th century ghetto area adjacent to Bologna’s famous medieval twin towers, the nearby synagogue, still used by the 100 odd members, and the Jewish museum in a 17th century palace on Via Valdonica, all offer images of the city’s rich Jewish heritage.
Close the circle on your Jewish tour of Emilia-Romagna and visit the concentration camp at Fossoli near Carpi. From 1942-1944 it deported nearly 3,000 Jews to German camps including the famous Italian writer Primo Levi.
My tour of Jewish Emilia-Romagna opened my eyes to a region that, in the most part, lovingly embraced its Jewish community. Rabbi Caro still does of course, whenever he possible can.
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