Parma Ham, Parmesan Cheese and Balsamic Vinegar, from Modena, are the traditional reasons for visiting Emilia-Romagna but, lesser known, are the forests, hills and valleys which are perfect for outdoor adventure.
I arrive in Bologna and it's tough to extract myself from the architectural marvels of the city but my aim is to explore the countryside so, after an excellent lunch, I make my way into the mountains.
Bagno di Romagna
The Romans discovered the hot springs of Bagno di Romagna and, at an altitude of 500m, the town makes a great base for visiting the nearby Casentino Forests National Park. Of course, most people come here for a cure and there are 3 spas in town and all are worth a visit. I take the waters in Hotel delle Terme Santa Agnese, then relax in the thermal grottos before taking a dip in the outside pool.
I certainly come out feeling better but I'm looking forward to lunch at Hotel Tosco Romagnolo where chef/owner Paolo Teverini has a Michelin Star. Highlights include potato tortelli with black truffle, mutton with wild mushrooms and a dessert of ricotta cake, with chocolate chips.
A worthy afternoon's excursion is a boat trip on Ridracoli Lake, just inside the National Park. It's only an hour from Bagno di Romagna and was created by damming the Bidente river in 1982. The turquoise lake contains over 33 million cubic litres of water and green hills slope down to its shore. The boat can drop you off at various points, if you fancy hiking, or you can just enjoy a 45 minute voyage exploring the far corners of the lake.
In the far south of the National Park, across the border in Tuscany, is the Sanctuary of La Verna, founded by St Francis of Assisi. The region was once a haven for bandits raiding Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, but, in the 13th century, Count Orlando of Chiusi gave the land to St Francis for religious retreat. During a 40 day fast, he experienced visions and nails of hard flesh, like those of Christ on his crucifixion, began to grow on his hands and feet. Finally he developed a wound in his side and he carried these stigmata until his death 2 years later.
It became an important pilgrimage site for Franciscans and the complex now includes a monastery, church, museum, chapels, and the cave that was his cell. To experience the sacred energy of the forest, it's worth climbing the 3km path from the small town of Chiusi della Verna.
You pass the 1602 Cappella degli Uccelli before reaching the walls of the Sanctuary, sitting on the huge rocks of the Mount Penna. Entry is by the Southern Gate, the original entrance, and you pass through its huge arched door, into the monastery itself. You can visit the relics chapel in the Basilica and see the coarse woollen habit that St Francis is reputed to have worn.
Just outside the National Park, at the foot of the mountains, is the attractive town of Bibbiena with another religious site, the Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Sasso. The first church was constructed in 1347 following a reported appearance of the Virgin Mary. Caterina, a 7 year old girl, was playing while her mother was washing clothes, when she saw a beautiful woman dressed in white who gave her a handful of bean pods. Later the pods were found to be full of blood and were seen as an omen of a future plague which left Bibbiena untouched. The Dominicans founded a monastery here and the church is built round the rock where the Virgin supposedly appeared.
Dominating the valley is the castle of Poppi, one of the only ones to have survived after the Florentines won the battle of Campaldino in the 13th century. Inside there's a model of the battle showing how the armies of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines faced each other on the field. Upstairs there's the Great Hall, with a vaulted roof and decorated ceiling and the Chapel of the Guidi Counts, with 14th century frescos of Gospel Stories, attributed to Giotto's leading pupil Taddeo Gaddi.
Sassi di Roccamalatina Regional Park
Travelling back into Emilia-Romagna, the landscape changes to small hills and shallow valleys and it's worth visiting the Sassi de Roccamalatina Regional Park for its extraordinary sandstone rock formations. I climb to the top of one of these on the Salita al Sasso della Croce trail, which is slightly precarious at times, but eventually leads to the summit.
The view is breathtaking and I can see the highest Apennine peaks, although it's not clear enough to see the Alps. Of course I'm just scratching the surface as the park covers an area of about 2,300 hectares and is crossed by numerous hiking trails . Take the 3 day Belvedere Walk, visit churches and castles and eat in rustic restaurants.
If you fancy e-biking, kayaking and canyoning then the Residenza Torre Di San Martino, across from the Castello di Rivalta, in Piacenza, is handy for visiting the Trebbia River Regional Park.
I take a morning's e-bike tour with Bike it Easy to the Castle of Lisignano, then Rezzanello and finally the Castle of Momeliano. Here there's the Luretta Winery where I taste their excellent wines accompanied by local meats and cheese.
Next day, I'm kayaking on the Trebbia River, with the company, Sports in Open Place, trying to ride the rapids but spending more time in the water than out of it. I'm grateful for my hard hat, as the rocks seem to want to rush up and bash me, but it's an exhilarating experience nonetheless. Unfortunately, bad weather means that my canyoning expedition is cancelled but I do get a morning to visit the new Ferrari Museum in Modena. They've renovated the workshop where Enzo's father used to work and there's a stunning exhibition of 100 years of Maserati' cars. If you want to see a collection of Ferraris then visit its sister Museum in Maranello.
Of course, the food and drink in this part of Italy is particularly good. For trekking lovers, there's a new long distance path, Alta via dei Parchii, which follows the Northern Apennines for 500km through Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Le Marche. It starts in Berceto and, after 27 days, arrives in Carpegna, in Le Marche, passing through 8 Parks, both regional and national. Now that's what I call a walk...
Emilia-Romagna Turismo has information about the region.
Casentino Forests National Park has information about the forests.
Information here about nature and activity holidays in the Apennines.
Italia has general information about the country.
Hotel Tosco Romagnolo makes a comfortable base in Bagno di Romagna.
Agricola Casentinese makes a comfortable base near Bibbiena.
All pictures copyright Rupert Parker.