Emilia-Romagna: an Italian designer, a vintage wine or maybe even a type of cheese? Some might wonder, because this part of central Italy is not on the typical tourist circuit
Emilia-Romagna is off the radar as far as many Brits are concerned. But as I opened my bedroom window at the top of the former soldiers’ tower at Castle Tabiano, I was glad I’d been let in on the secret. In the total silence (apart from early morning birdsong), I was greeted with a spectacular view over the countryside and the wide plains of the Po River. Built during the 11th century, and one of many imposing fortresses across the region, the castle has been lovingly transformed by its present owners into an atmospheric retreat, with spacious rooms designed around the original architecture.
Of the UK visitors that do go to Emilia-Romagna, many head for the sandy beaches of the Adriatic on the east coast, particularly Rimini. For those that explore the relatively undiscovered interior there is a feast awaiting all the senses.
Emilia-Romagna is renowned for its many spas that utilise the mineral-rich water running through the region. After breakfast at the castle we drove to nearby Spa Tabiano. Popular with fashionistas from Milan, which is an hour away, the spa has Italy’s highest concentration of sulphur-rich water, revered for its health-giving properties. Italians take their spas seriously and one part of the ultra-modern building is devoted to water-based clinical treatments and other specialised therapies.
We made a beeline for the Roman Baths, devoted to altogether more pampering treats. After relaxing in the new thermal water area, which included a walk through the novel ‘emotional tunnel’, with its coloured lighting and different water sprays, it was time for a massage using fragrant citrus oils.
Whilst it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever go hungry anywhere in Italy, it’s a guaranteed impossibility in the region dubbed the country’s ‘food valley’. Emilia-Romagna is the country’s largest producer of wheat and fruit and its regional specialities include Parmesan cheese - Parmigiano Reggiano - Parma ham, Lambrusco wine and balsamic vinegar.
Back at the castle we enjoyed a glass of local fizz served with nuggets of Parmigiano Reggaiano. In its birthplace the cheese is served liberally before, during and after meals, and Italians must think we’re mad relegating it to a quick sprinkle over pasta dishes or, horror of horrors, buying the sawdust-like stuff that comes in cardboard tubs.
Locanda del Colle restaurant is linked to the castle and has an enviable reputation in the area. We found ourselves surrounded by locals (always a good sign), and the wonderful charcuterie, pasta and desserts that emerged from the family-run kitchen were matched by a phenomenal and well-priced wine cellar. After a day of pampering and gastronomy in equal measure we contentedly made our way back to the soldiers’ tower and fell into an undisturbed sleep. That said, back on duty the next day we still found room for a delicious lunch of fettuccini flavoured with lemon sauce, served on the restaurant terrace.
Spas in the region are open to day visitors and some hotels have spas attached, such as our next stop at Hotel Terme Salvarola
. The wonderfully ornate old spa building sits alongside the impressive new Balnea Centre, comprising a pool area with heated pools at different temperatures and fun water features to massage aching necks and limbs. Upstairs is a chic Eastern-themed spa, the first in Italy to offer treatments using Lambrusco grapes. Some involve sitting in a giant barrel and others entail being massaged with fresh grapes
in oil. Well, someone has to try it and it is an experience, although possibly not one for spa virgins. Let’s just say that it’s pretty intimate and you end up with grape skins in places other massages don’t reach. That said, my skin felt wonderfully soft and there are many treatments available for those who prefer to stick to more familiar therapies, most of them much less expensive than in the UK.
Warming to our theme, that evening we visited the Chiarli vineyard, founded in 1860 and the oldest producer of Lambrusco and other wines in Emilia-Romagna. It was time to cast aside memories of the much-maligned tipple that used to be the mainstay of student parties, and interesting to discover Chiarli wine shipped to the UK and sold under a supermarket’s own label is sweetened for the British market. Suitably enlightened by our charming hosts, we stayed outside for an al fresco aperitif and after the first sip any stereotypical views disappeared with the setting sun that dipped over the vineyards. The wine was sophisticated, elegant and, above all, bone dry. We all vowed to search out the real deal on our return home and welcome Lambrusco back from the wine wilderness.
Away from a countryside that rivals its famous cousin, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna has lively cities packed with art and culture, including the airline gateway Parma, the regional capital Bologna, which is one of the oldest cities in Europe, and Modena, birthplace of the late legendary tenor Pavarotti. The latter is a classy city - the Italian Military Academy is housed in the baroque ducal palace - and an unmissable sight is the 11th and 12th-century cathedral that’s on the World Heritage list. After wandering around the colourful food market we stopped at Caffè Concerto, in the main square opposite the cathedral, for a spot of lunch and people-watching.
A very prosperous part of Italy, Emilia-Romagna’s ‘motor valley’ is the headquarters for Maserati, Lamborghini and Ducati, with Ferrari based in Modena. Even if you can only dream, the Ferrari Museum is open daily and a great place to visit.
Diverse Emilia-Romagna certainly has something for all tastes, and budgets; although when it comes to grapes, I’ve decided I prefer to have mine poured into a glass than over my body!
Ryanair flies to Parma four times a week from Stansted with fares starting from around £20 return. Airlines flying to Milan include easyJet, from Gatwick, Bristol and Edinburgh to Milan Malpensa, and British Airways, from Heathrow to Milan Linate and Milan Malpensa airports.
Where to stay
B&B accommodation at Antico Borgo Tabiano Castle starts from around £100 per night for double rooms, with price reductions for stays of three nights or more. Private transfers are available to and from Parma airport for an additional cost. The castle has a swimming pool, sauna and Turkish bath and massage room. Mountain biking and riding are among the activities available nearby.
Double rooms at Hotel Terme Salvarola
start from around £98, based on two sharing, and including half-board accommodation, a full programme of treatments (including a grape massage) and use of the hotel’s spa and fitness centre.