Nestled between Veneto, Tuscany and Lombardy, this province of northern Italy is often overlooked. It’s little more than a pitstop as tourists lemming from Florence to Venice. And yet, Emilia Romagna is the country’s gastronomic heartland. Stretching from the river Po to the vibrant Adriatic coast, bridging the chilly Alps and the warm Mediterranean south, the region’s fertile, rolling hills produce many of Italy’s signature ingredients. Spoiler alert: autumn is truffle season.

Thankfully, between filling your Italian boot(s) with cured meats and Sangiovese, there’s plenty of places to work up an appetite too. Discover Bologna’s medieval towers and sprawling porticoes, Ravenna’s Byzantine mosaics and the region’s pedigree motoring heritage. Explore the walled city of Ferrara, Santarcangelo’s hidden treasures or the pastel-hued streets of Parma. And, when it’s time to chill, head to coastal Rimini – the “Romagna Riviera” – for fresh seafood and even fresher beats at Italy’s finest beachside clubs.

Perhaps best of all, between the Romanesque churches and Renaissance palaces, there’s barely a queue to contend with. Forget coach loads of tourists propping up the leaning Tower of Pisa, heavy from cheap pasta; this is Italy of the silver screen. Old men beckon “ciao!” from street-side cafes, nonnas make pasta by hand and you’re guaranteed to be smitten. Here’s why.

It’s steeped in history and culture

Owing to a divided history during which various city-states fought for independence (hence why the Republic of San Marino sits within the region of Emilia Romagna), Renaissance castles litter the landscape. And they just happen to be some of the best-preserved in Italy. Stop by Rocca d’Olgisio or Castello di Rezzanello – in both places, guests are able to spend the night.

Handsome Bologna’s 40km of porticoes snake their way through the town, forming the world’s longest arcade. Here, climb the 498 steps of Bologna’s Torre Asinelli, the 100m 12th-century answer to a skyscraper. Or, visit the University of Bologna, the oldest in the west, dating back to 1088 – step aside Oxford and Cambridge. The frescoed library and the 15th-century anatomical theatre are awe-inspiring. Little wonder Bologna is also known as “La Dotta” (“the learned one”).

Emilia Romagna houses some of Italy’s most important artworks. Aesthetes will adore Ravenna, once capital of the Roman Empire and home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Byzantine mosaics glitter as brightly today as they have in the 6th century AD – making them the oldest in the world. Indeed, the tiles in the octagonal Basilica of San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia are said to have inspired fashion collections from the likes of Dolce & Gabbana. The city also boasts the elaborate tomb of poet Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, who fled his native Florence to Ravenna when he was exiled in 1318.

Off the beaten track, Ferrara’s Castello Estense cuts as a statuesque figure against the skyline, over six centuries after it was constructed. Despite suffering some damage during earthquakes in 2012, its intricately painted ceilings are well worth a marvel as are its major modern art shows. Nearby, the city’s atmospheric Jewish quarter dates back to the Middle Ages – don’t miss the Via delle Volte, a series of vaulted alleyways.

Once home of the famed director Federico Fellini, Rimini’s charming neighbourhood of Bor San Giuliano is a maze of fishermen’s houses adorned with murals of scenes from Fellini’s films. Inland, explore the mysterious tufa caves of Santarchangelo before picking up a few souvenirs from the Stamperia Artigiana Marchi, a printing shop that uses a mangle dating from the 17th century.

…and postcard-perfect

Yet it’s not all ancient castles and centuries-old murals. Emilia Romagna is a patchwork of diverse geographical terrain. Wide, sandy stretches of Adriatic coastline dotted with gelato stands give way to the marshes of the Po Delta where thousands of birds – coots, terns and white egrets – can be spotted migrating. South of the Apennine mountain range, you’ll find forests, caves and thermal springs – great for if you’re after outdoor activities, be it hiking, kitesurfing or stewing in the Bagno di Romagna or Salsomaggiore. Along the low-lying, flat lands fog rolls in from the sea. Meanwhile up in the hills, mist clings to the valley floor. It’s all very, very Instagrammable.

And you can burn some rubber

Enzo Ferrari, Ferruccio Lamborghini, the Ducati brothers – the roll-call of Emilia Romagna’s former residents reads like the cast of a petrol-head’s fairytale. Indeed, the Ferrari racetrack, museum and shop can be found in Maranello and the Lamborghini Museum in Sant’Agata Bolognese. Since 1940, Maserati has been offering factory tours in Modena, while the Ducati Museum can be found just outside Bologna. Unsurprisingly, the geographical triangle between Bologna and Modena is best known as the Motor Valley. If it’s classic cars that get you revving, head to Emilia Romagna in May for the annual Mille Miglia, when the region’s best vintage vehicles rally around the streets.

So, now you’ve worked up an appetite…

Emilia Romagna is a gourmand’s paradise per eccellenza, affectionately known as the “breadbasket of Italy”. It boasts more DOP products – those with protected designation of origin – than any other place in the country. There’s prosciutto, coppa and mortadella, intense balsamic and, the king of cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano. Emilia Romagna is the birthplace of sfoglia – handmade, fresh egg pasta – including fettuccine and tortellini good enough to rival even your own mum’s dish. Pick up a piadina – a thin flatbread stuffed with all kinds of fillings – before popping the cork on the region’s best libations: Lambrusco, Pignoletto, Sangiovese and Ablana. Osteria Al Brindisi in the centro storico of Ferrara has been pouring wine since 1435, making it the oldest bar in the world.

Whether you’re in one of the region’s humble trattorias or Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana, Emilia Romagna is all about cucina casalinga; home cooking. You won’t find much in the way of pizza here, that’s a southern thing. And spag bol? How very dare you. Bologna is all about the tagliatelle al ragù, in which a sparingly applied meat sauce is tossed through fresh pasta. You can expect hearty dishes such as crescentina (deep fried bread), cappellacci (pumpkin ravioli), passatelli (pasta formed of bread crumbs, parmesan and eggs) and tortellini in brodo (broth). Bold souls could try pesto di cavallo, a speciality of Parma, involving raw horse meat. Sweet tooth? Indulge with a zuppa inglese, an Italian take on the English trifle, or torta barozzi – black cake – an intense mouthful of chocolate, coffee and almonds from Modena.

Should you like to get in on the culinary action, the region has embraced agriturismo – farm stays – which specialise in getting hands-on with home-grown, homemade produce. At the Collina dei Poeti just outside Santarcangelo, guests can learn how to make traditional piadina and egg pasta. Alternatively, join a local truffle hunter and his dog and explore the woodlands for the prized fungi as you’re regaled with tales of fabulous finds and poachers. Keep an eye out for the wild boar, who are partial to a nibble. Come October, truffles are so abundant that the hilltop Sant’Agata Feltria holds a truffle festival each Sunday. Some of the biggest pieces sell for thousands of euros. Earthly desires at their very finest.

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