Times Union in Albany, December 22, 2002
By Paul M. Bray
A starter trip to Italy is usually to the must see big three cities of Rome, Florence and Venice. American visitors then tend to make their next sojourn to Tuscany or Sicily. But one should not stop there. As residents in Italy at the American Academy in Rome in the mid-nineties and frequent visitors thereafter, my wife and I found Italy to be a bottomless cornucopia of diverse cultural and natural landscapes each well endowed with the delights of Italian cuisine. None has been more interesting than the Po Delta Parks.
Canal of Comacchio in Po Delta Park in Emilia, photograph by Barbara Kaiser
Italian parks are not our gated public estate parks like Yellowstone National Park or Saratoga Springs State Park. Italian National Parks or regional protected areas frequently encompass large inhabited landscapes. The mountainous Alpi Apuana protected area in Tuscany where the famous Italian marble is mined or the flatland Po Delta Park are two outstanding examples.
In October we visited the Po Delta Parks, the largest protected area in Italy. The vast area of the Po Delta along the Adriatic Sea between Venice in the North and the Italian Rivera around Rimini to the South is divided between the two Italian regions of Emilia-Romagna and Veneto (comparable to our States), each having established its own Po Delta Park.
These flatland parks encompass the world class heritage cities of Ravenna and Ferrara, historical monuments like the Abbey of Pomposa, pinewoods, extensive farm land and, most striking of all, alternating fresh and salt water in branches of the Po River, marshes, lagoons and beaches. These Parks offer a multitude of opportunities for biking, trekking, bird watching, fishing, swimming, camping and enjoying the typical foods of the region.
Local tourism officials have information in English like a brochure mapping the route and describing the sites along the approximately 80 mile cycling path on the right bank of the Po River (firstname.lastname@example.org). Birding information is available from numerous sources including (www.eurobirding.co.uk/valli_di_comacchio.htm). Merroti Passarella (email@example.com) is an English speaking bird guide in Commachio. Plenty of hotel accommodations are available throughout the area.
While a personal guide is not necessary to navigate and enjoy the Po Delta Parks, a good guide can be valuable for opening one’s eyes to the dynamic story of the tension between man and nature still being played out in the Delta. Giacomo Benelli, a young and environmentally aware man from Piangipane near Ravenna who had worked in a nature center in Westchester County, was our primary guide (firstname.lastname@example.org).
After our arrival at the Milan airport, the sky cleared after a four-hour foggy drive to the Po Delta. Giacomo immediately took us to see the glittering gold mosaics in the Cathedral in the ancient Capital City of Ravenna, a crossroads city between the Byzantine east and western culture, and to participate in the passeggiata or walking about that takes place every afternoon in Italian cities.
But it was really water that Giacomo wanted us to see and in the late afternoon we headed out of Ravenna a short distance to the Park’s salt marsh visitor center in Cervia along the coast at the southern most point of the Delta. After seeing exhibits about the many bird species that can be found in the Delta and viewing a video on the marsh and its extraordinary bio-diversity, we set out to challenge the mosquitoes and see for ourselves the old process used to farm the salt or “white gold” from the salt rich water and do some bird watching. The Po Delta is an important north-south, east-west migratory bird crossroad in Europe. We held our own against the mosquitoes and stayed out until the sun set.
Our base camp was in the “little Venice” town of Comacchio, the historical center of the Po Delta were we stayed in very comfortable B & B called Il Ponticello (email@example.com). Comacchio was built on 13 islands formed from sediment carried by the Po River to its outlet. Like Venice it is characterized by a network of canals, bridges that connect the town quarters, terraced-pastel colored houses overlooking the canals and civic and church architecture like the 1634 Cathedral of San Cassiano.
Canal and tower in Comacchio, Little venice in Po Delta Park in Emilia-Romagna, photograph by Barbara Kaiser
We forsook the aforementioned recreational activities in the Park (except for plentiful dining) for the opportunities it offered to grasp its economic and environmental heritage going back to the time when the Po Delta was a Greek-Etruscan trading center between VI and VII centuries BC. Archeological finds from that early period are kept at the National Archeological Museum in Ferrara. In Ferrara we had dinner at Quel Fantastico Giovedi on via Castelnuovo, a charming restaurant serving many of the fruits of the nearby sea.
Most interesting to us was to see first hand were the forces of nature and man shaping and reshaping the embroidery of land and water.
Comacchio has made an effective effort to tell the story of the early 20th century harvesting of eels. Its visitor center contains artifacts used to capture and process eels and has a vintage 1939 black and white, Italian realist style documentary on the eel farmers. By boat we traveled across the vast, brackish Valli di Comacchio lagoon and were taken to an isolated former eel farmhouse where for forty days at a time fishermen lived and harvested eels. We had a taste of the local specialty of roasted eel at lunch in Comacchio at Al Cantinon Osteria on via Muratori.
Further north of Comachio are Goro and Gorino associated with one of the Po branches called Po Di Goro. Gorino is home to a large fishing fleet, a lively fish market and clam and oyster beds. Here Giacomo introduced us to Vadis Paesanti, the Town’s Deputy Mayor and a guide (Vadis@Katamail.com), who took us on a tour of a working and apparently still prosperous fishery on his boat with an environmentally friendly 4 cycle engine. Vadis knew everyone and everything. He pointed out a last of his kind fisherman laboriously picking out the valuable soft shell crabs from the day’s catch and took us over in the boat to meet a couple of fisherman waste deep in the clam beds protected from poachers 24 hours a day by an armed guard in wooden building in the water on stilts.
View in Comacchio Lagoon- The Largest lagoon in Europe – Po Delta Park in Emilia-Romagna, photograph by Barbara Kaiser
As we boated through the Goro salt marsh we passed an old lighthouse surrounded by marsh grasses and then more than a mile further out we came to a new lighthouse on the coast. The land grew by that mile in less than a century from sediment from the Po Di Goro. Although the coastal light-house seems uninhabited, in typical Italian fashion it housed a cafŽ (La Lanterna) so we could have our espresso.
The northern most branch of the Po is Po Di Venezia where guide Sandro Vidali (firstname.lastname@example.org) took us to see the past and present of the major 20th hydraulic engineering that reclaimed more than 25,000 acres of marsh land for the production of cereals, fodder and beetroot. We visited the Ca’Vendramin plant that originally had four groups of centrifugal water scooping machines powered by 12 steam boilers. Now a museum and visitor center, it symbolizes the redemption of “desolated and plagued lands” for 26,000 inhabitants. We then went by boat to the coast to see the latest reclamation, this time by the rising sea caused by global warming reflooding land formerly made farmable by Ca’Vendramin. Now many people are welcoming the water for restoring the ecological condition of the area.
Lunch during our Veneto sojourn was at Oasi Val Pisani in Porto Viro. It was a feast with scallops in a shell, white polenta with shrimp and tomato sauce, roasted eel, roasted sea bass in salt, salad and a liquid ice cream. Our final stop in the Veneto Park was at a many decade old fish farm raising sea bass fully monitored by a computer.
Back home, the Po Delta experience made us more aware of the natural and cultural historical signs of our own special landscapes like the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys that are now recognized as “heritage areas” and the Adirondack Park. We now noticed that deltas have formed on the mouths of the streams feeding into Lake George obstructing the spawning of fish albeit on a much smaller scale than the Po deltas. Just as we looked for signs of the past in the Po Delta, finding for example, ancient dunes of the Etruscan age, we have a keener eye out for canal cuts of the original Erie Canal, historic homes and geological formations in our own backyard.
A visit to the Po Delta Parks is not only a treat for the senses. The authorities managing the Po Delta Parks have done a good job in proving lessons in reading and understanding landscapes that we can use in understanding the story of man and nature played out in all of our backyards.