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The Ferrara Balloon Festival: You May Never Be Earth-Bound Again

Aug 17, 2007
When travelers think of historic Italian cities, they often think of Florence, Rome, and Venice. But for those who know the real Italy, there are other incalculable riches. One such treasure is the town of Ferrara, protected by UNESCO on the World Cultural Heritage list as a priceless example of a living, breathing work of Renaissance art.

A vast portion of the town survives from the middle ages and in the off-season, before the arrival of eager tourists, a quiet morning walk in the pedestrian center along the cobble-stoned streets and brick and stone palazzos will bring you back hundreds of years to a less complicated existence. Now picture a crisp cool day in September and try to imagine the sky above that beautiful city filled with the dancing colors of hot air balloons. First one, then five, twenty, then thirty.

Alex and I braved an actual take-off, but even from the ground, the festival is filled with sights and sounds that most of us are not used to experiencing in every day life. Imagine a flaccid piece of colored parachute-like material, slowly inflating to a balloon the size of a three story building and then float off into the sky amid the sound and sight of the flaming forced air entering it. Let's face it, your adrenaline is going even if you are not one the lucky ones to take a celestial journey. It's not necessary to wait until next year. Ferrara has many other sites, none of which should be missed. But should you decide to combine your trip with the experience of the magnificent "mongolfiere," the hot air balloons will be waiting for you next September.

Our favorite hotel is Hotel Ferrara (+39) 0532-20.50.48, in the historical center in the main piazza overlooking the Castello Estense an imposing 14th century castle and the symbol of power and refinement of the historical presence of Ferrara. There could be no better base for a visit of the town. Using the complimentary hotel bicycles, we were able to bike to the Balloon Festival.

The region of Emilia Romagna is known world-wide for its food, and our dinner at the Big Night Ristorante (+39 0532 242 367), a restaurant that shares an entrance and collaborative relationship with the hotel, was no exception. We ate a crostata salata di ricotta, which is a ricotta pie topped with grilled radicchio. This was followed by pasticcio di macaroni alla ferrarese con tartufo, a wonderful macceroni pasta with truffles covered by paper thin and crispy pasta dough. Our second course was filetto di manzo in crosta con punte asparagi, crema di Roquefort profumato al tartufo nero, which is a beef fillet in pastry with white asparagus tips, a hint of Roquefort and black truffles.

All dishes melted in our mouths and were some of the finest I have tasted. The entire dinner was topped off with a chocolate masterpiece, dolcetto di cioccolato fondente con crema alla vaniglia, gelato di pistachio e curry indiano. If you can picture this, it was a warm chocolate cupcake with a liquid center, with vanilla cream, homemade pistachio ice cream and Indian curry. It would be the one food I would request should I have the misfortune to find myself on death-row some day. The chef, Fabio Zanella, is sure to have been scooped up an aggressive hotelier somewhere else in the world, were it not for the fact that he was born and bred in Ferrara and reluctant to leave.

Ferrara has many other sites, none of which should be missed. They include La Pinacoteca Nazionale (The National Picture Gallery), a home for a panorama of paintings from the mediaeval era to the 18th century and many other beautiful museums. The most heart-rendering, however, and one not to be missed by those exploring their Jewish heritage is that of the Jewish Ghetto, beautifully preserved with its three synagogues.

The Jewish community prospered here throughout the 1400s thanks to the particular protection of the Estense dukes who welcomed refugees to the city from other European countries. Later in the 1600s, the community endured taxes and other impositions, restrictions and segregations. Still later, under fascist rule, gates closed off the quarter. The history of these centuries, both beautiful and horrendous is preserved in the walls, the streets, the synagogues and the Jewish museum and serves as an enduring historic monument to all that was endured over the centuries. Much credit must be given to the people of Ferrara for their dedication in preserving it. Whether you wait for next September, or hop a plane tomorrow, we will in all likelihood see you there.
About the Author
Denise Hummel is an American, who moved to Italy with her husband and children for a one year cross-cultural experience that has expanded to two. Denise Hummel directs a communications business focused on tourism called Imagine Communications.
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