Destinations, Emilia Romagna Tourism Board, Featured Partners, Italy

Pink Flamingos in Italy?

May 3, 2012

How do you deepen a friendship? Let your guard down. Share a comfortable meal. Reveal hidden sides of your personality. How do you deepen a friendship with Italy? Turns out, in the same way.

Think of that sheepish smile when a new acquaintance admits an unexpected tidbit of their story and you both discover the link of shared fascinations or pastime…that’s how we felt on our visit to Ferrara, “Little Venice,” and the Po Delta Wetlands. (“Pink Flamingos, Italy? No way! You have them, too? We just saw Flamingos in Bolivia…small, small world.”)

Looking past Italy’s polished monuments and hotspots in order to get to know Emilia-Romagna better is a bit like striking up sparkling conversation with a character at a black tie affair and then being invited to join them for a backyard BBQ.

On a recent day trip from Bologna, Ted and I found Italy with its hair down, kitchen apron on, and Best of Audubon and Birding Italia laid open on the coffee table.

Stop One: Castelo Estense in Ferrara, Italy

The ancient city of Ferrara is situated near the ticklish spot at the back-of-the-knee on the Italian boot. It’s only a few kilometers south of the Po River, and about 50 kilometers off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

To reach it, we drove an hour or so northeast beyond our home base, through the low, flat countryside between the Adriatic and the Apennines. Out the windows, farmland boasted the largest rice growing region in Emilia-Romagna, and trout fisherman worked the waterways for their morning catch. As we drew near to the city on that sunny morning, brick buildings rose higher, casting a warm glow over the charming streets.

The entire city is a UNESCO heritage site with iconic Castelo Estense looking like it could be the backdrop to a Kenneth Branagh adaption of a Shakespeare play.

The fortress was originally constructed in 1385 after a riot among the weary and over-taxed peasants caused the governing family to throw up defenses and establish a domineering physical symbol above the lowlands of Emilia.

We visited the Castelo with our group of travel writing friends, crawling through dark tunnels into the basement prison cells and then hoofing it up the internal flights of steel grate stairs to gain access to tower balconies overlooking the castle grounds and the city skyline.

The architectural heritage and urban development of the city along the Po River had a profound impact on city planning for centuries following, and my first introduction to this castle and city left me (surprise, surprise) curious to learn more

Stop Two: Manifattura dei Marinati and Museo dell’Anguilla in Comacchio

Just beyond Ferrara on the edges of the Po Delta Wetlands lies “Little Venice” – a fishing town built on 13 islands with a culture deeply tied to the land and the sea, with bike rides and canal waterways to win over any seafood-and-leisurely-afternoon loving heart:

Travel writing friend, Angie, ready to explore the streets and waterways of Comacchio.
Roaming Comacchio and squeezing in an upper body workout, thanks to stepped bridges…

Gelato pit stop with Kash and Angie.

More than sights and spokes and sugary snacks, though, this particular spot in Emilia-Romagna offers a respectable heritage of Slow Food roots dating back to medieval times.

The city’s pride is completely entwined with the stalwart eel that spend two to three years crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Central America to arrive in the salt marsh waters of Comacchio and mature in protection from predators.

Protection from predators is well and good, but with the Slow Food comment you may guess where this is going….

A sad tale for the fish, I’m afraid. But respectful, rest assured.

Beginning in 900 (that’s right, no “1”), residents of Comacchio constructed facilities to block the autumn return of the eel to the open sea, harvesting the creatures for sustenance.

We visited the Manifattura dei Marinati (the town’s historic processing plant) and its Museo dell’Anguilla (Eel Museum), to learn more about the local tradition and sample the salt water cuisine. Restored fishing boats and brining barrels and massive fireplaces now tell the tale. The message is simple: respect the eel, respect its life cycle, respect the land and sea and traditions of the region’s people, and produce delicious seafood.

The traditional method for producing marinated eel involved decapitating the eel, slicing and arranging them to roast whole on long iron spits, cooking carefully over open flame fire, then packaging in a vinegar and saltwater brine.

Not a bit of eel went to waste.

Chopped heads were given to the poor for making broth. Flesh was roasted; oil drippings used in lamps, fat used for frying fish. Dried eel skin was used to make shoelaces. Remaining charcoal in the firepits was distributed to farmers to spread on their fields, increasing soil fertility and crop production. The meat itself was marinated and preserved, sold for income and eaten in the home.

The 1954 Sophia Loren movie, “The River Girl” {film clip in Italian}, features the actress working on the very same factory floor at Manifattura dei Marinati. (Note: pit-hair. What was that about getting better acquainted with Italy?) Also, Ted found the eel toys in the museum lobby. (Incidentally, his pose is #2 in a series that began with the creature at Torres del Paine.)

Below left, the Hall of Fires – a room with a dozen massive brick and earthen fireplaces used to process the eels throughout the years. Below right, our hostess preparing a tasty sample…

Since our springtime visit was not in tune with the autumn eel harvest, we feasted instead on bite sized shrimp and fish, deep fried to perfection and served piping hot with an accompanying glass of the local Rosso Frizzante wine.

{Note: Ted may or may not have earned the title of “#shrimpface” after his utter love affair with the little creatures. He’s considering launching a line to be sold as a popcorn alternative at movie theaters. We may host a trial run at some future “Ted and Bethany’s Old Movie Club” event to see how the test-market responds…}

A delicious peek through the iPhone.

Slow Food at its finest: gratefulness for the provisions of the earth, attentiveness to the seasons, care for the natural systems, and celebration of the goodness of food and life.

Cheers to food and friendship with Italy!

Stop Three: Birding on The Po Delta Wetlands

But what about the flamingos? “There’s a 99% chance that we’ll see them,” I heard someone say. All those deep fried shrimp? Turns out their cousins often go eaten by the pink birds living in the marshy waterways of the Po.

The Po Delta and its Wetlands are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites along with the city of Ferrara. The natural area is habitat for a great mix of flora and fauna among its channels, lagoons, rivers, marshes, and the sea, and it’s accessible for up-close investigation by walking and biking trails or by boat.

The timing of our visit coincided with the International Po Delta Birdwatching Fair, a large event held annually in late April. We joined an afternoon boat tour, watching for all sorts of wildlife…

Abandoned “casoni” (fishing huts) remain standing along the shores of the canals.

The Valli di Comacchio (Fish Basins of Comacchio) host over 300 bird species, including black-winged stilts, egrets, purple herons, kingfishers, moorhens, coots, mallards, cormorants, and yes, flamingos…

And then, after drifting lazily down the channels for an hour or two, the calm afternoon came to a close. The end of a pleasant day on the plains and waterways.

No exclamation points, no giant conclusions. Simply a farewell to a new friend, and the hope to spend time again soon discovering quirks and mining interesting depths of a new character.

In the meantime, I’m not sure how to repay Italy for its hospitality. I’m thinking dinner at our place someday…and we can toast the architecture in our City of Bridges, grill Pacific Northwest Salmon, and go for a nature-watching spree on the Springwater Corridor… But we’ll take it slow. No need to rush things.

A good relationships grows organically, and it’s lovely making friends with the world.

Tips for a Visit:
Ferrara Tourism
Details on lodging, food, events, and sights in this part of Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Castelo Estense
Visitors information, history, and virtual tour

Comacchio Eel Festival
The city hosts a celebration each fall: Exhibitions, shows, tours, cooking classes, seminars and guided boat tours over the first two weekends of October

Valli di Comacchio – Po Delta Park
Tours run March through the end of October
9am and 5pm boats leave with 10 passenger minimum
11am and 3pm departures are guaranteed

Reservation required: tel. 340 2534267

Visitors Centers of the Po Delta Park
Seven spots including Manifattura dei Marinati in Comacchio, each devoted to regionally-specific artifacts of heritage, food, culture, and ecology.

Thanks for reading our series from Emilia-Romagna: A region of Northern Italy ripe for exploration. Artisan Local Foods (tortellini, lasagne, pancetta, traditional balsamic vinegar, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to name a few!), Historical Cities (Modena, Ferrara, Bologna, Rimini, and more), and Beautiful Natural Areas (the Po River Delta, the Apennine Mountains, and the green, green farmland in between). Photos and story snippets are flying on Twitter under the #blogville hashtag. Feel free to jump into the conversation to share insights on enjoying the best of Northern Italy!


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  • Reply Kirsten May 5, 2012 at 2:21 am

    As I don’t eat seafood, a large part of this would be difficult for me but I can appreciate a slow afternoon in Little Venice. It sounds divine.

    Most of all, I am so happy you are both getting to know Italy so well. Through your words (and beautiful pictures) it sounds like the kind of country I could happily call home.

    • Reply twoOregonians May 6, 2012 at 1:04 pm

      Yes, it’s such an easy place to slow down… People were eating under the umbrellas outside cafes, next to the canals, but none of them had cameras around their necks or guidebooks on the table. The streets were so comfortable – and seriously, the orange bikes? How perfect. I think we could live here a long while and be quite content…

      Miss you! So much fun to be tracking your travels now in Instagram. Thanks for twisting my arm ; )

  • Reply Stephanie - The Travel Chica May 6, 2012 at 5:25 am

    Sounds like you guys are having an amazing experience in Italy.

    • Reply twoOregonians May 6, 2012 at 11:42 pm

      Such a treat! I thought we’d already seen the best sights of Italy on our past visits to the main cities…but this exploration of small towns is really where the fun is at. (Fun *and* good food.) Fun reading your Buenos Aires updates : )

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  • Reply Angie Away May 7, 2012 at 12:32 am

    The parts of the day that stand out most for me are Sophia’s armpits and Ted’s shrimpy #shrimpface. Add those to the list of things never to mention at a press conference! Miss you lovely Oregonians!

  • Reply Grandma & Grandpa Menzel May 7, 2012 at 2:05 am

    Very interesting!! How much of “all of this” are you going to remember ? Maybe you will have some kind of way to preserve (even one special part of this area) by pictures ?… Written instructions / comments in scrapbooks? What a future!
    God bless you both thru your travels
    Love, Grandma

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