Art and culture were familiar in those small but proudly independent lordships which, at a distance of more or less 1 hour on horseback, surrounded the town of Reggio Emilia: Scandiano, county of the Boiardo (lineage of the famous poet Matteo Maria Boiardo), Gualtieri, fief of the Bentivoglio, former lords of Bologna, Novellara and Guastalla, ruled by two branches of the Gonzaga and Correggio, principality of the homonymous family, which gave birth to one of the most famous Italian painters.
The “small capitals” were so lively and splendid that the town of Reggio Emilia itself attracted the wonderful artists who had already distinguished themselves in these brilliant courts. This is the example of Antonio Allegri, who was called to Reggio Emilia from nearby Correggio to paint the Sacra Notte (Holy Night) for the San Prospero Church; from the construction sites of the Scandiano fortress Nicolò dell'Abate came and from Novellara Lelio Orsi, one of the most significant personalities of Italian Mannerism.
When Ferrara didn't belong anymore to Este duchy in 1599 and this one was reduced to Modena and Reggio only, the small lordships fell one by one victims of the territorial revenge of the Estensi: firstly Gualtieri (1634), then Correggio (1635), Scandiano (1643) and in the following century, Novellara. Although their autonomy has ended since long time, still today these ancient lordships maintain their past magnificence.
If you want to discover new territories, if you appreciate good food and the hospitality of the people in the Po Valley, we have to leave the main road and explore the treasures of the Reggio Emilia province.
Let's start from Scandiano, a town known for being the birthplace of poet Matteo Maria Boiardo and famous scientist Lazzaro Spallanzani.
The Fortress, the main monument of the town, was first built as a defensive castle, then adapted in the Baroque period to a refined noble residence of the Dukes of Este. In the inner courtyard of the Fortress is the Reggio Emilia seat of the Regional Wine shop, where you can taste some of the best Emilian wines. Among these, the Spergola di Scandiano deserves a special mention, a white grape variety recently recognized internationally.
Moving towards the lower Reggio Emilia plain, we stop at Correggio, the town that gave birth to another famous artist: the painter Antonio Allegri, better known as Correggio.
After a short walk in viale Mazzini, which gives the idea of the wide main road with noble arcaded palaces, you should absolutely visit the prestigious Palazzo dei Principi, Renaissance architecture in the Ferrara style which hosts the Museum dedicated to the painter. In memory of the artist, take the opportunity to visit his home in Borgovecchio, his sepulchre in San Francesco Church, the monument by Vincenzo Vela in Piazza San Quirino and, finally, the intense Volto di Cristo, kept in the halls of the Civic Museum.
Concerning the gastronomic stop, try the local variant of the typical "erbazzone" of Reggio Emilia: it is called scarpasot and it is a very tasty savoury pie, which in 2012 obtained the "De.co", that is the "Municipal Designation of Origin".
The last stop of the day is in the nearby Novellara, a small capital of the Gonzaga family, not too far from the Po river, in the hinterland of the Reggio Emilia plain dotted with castles, fortresses and traces of a great past.
Here too we can follow the footsteps of a local artist, Lelio Orsi, who was in charge, in the second half of the XV century, of the urban reform of the town, the design of the Collegiate Santo Stefano Church and the frescoes now exhibited in the Gonzaga Museum, located in the suggestive Fortress.
An other worthy visit is the collection of ceramics from the XVI to the XVII century that make up the so-called Jesuit Spezieria.
Concerning the gastronomic stop, we are spoiled for choice: in summer months, you must absolutely taste the local Watermelon (Anguria Reggiana IGP), in the other months you can visit the Municipal Vinegar factory, located in the attic of the Fortress or take a tour to discover the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar in the area.
The second day is dedicated to an itinerary, perhaps by bicycle, through the so-called Bassa Reggiana, an area which, flanking the right bank of the Po river, extends for about 10 km. The towns are linked by the presence of the Great River, which has always flowed along these lands, characterizing their culture, economy, history and traditions.
The knowledge of these areas winds through the town centres where the ancient traces of the Gonzaga, Bentivoglio and Estensi are still there, in the naturalistic environments of the floodplain and valley areas, and finally going to cheese factories and wine factories, vinegar factories and small restaurants whwre you can savour the scents of a cuisine made of care and wisdom.
Let's start from Guastalla, a town that has more than others the characteristics of the small Renaissance capital: the monument to Ferrante Gonzaga, the Ducal Palace with the Museum of the town, the Cathedral, the Romanesque San Giorgio Church, the parish church and the rich Maldotti Library.
The Guastalla cuisine mixes the flavours of the dukes' tables with those of the river fishermen, ensuring the traveller a pleasant stop in an area of great interest. The local dishes of its typical tradition find their quality peak in the main courses: the cappelletti in broth and the pumpkin tortelli. However, combined with delicious main courses, a wide range of cured meats and excellent PDO Parmigiano Reggiano cheese cannot be missed.
In Gualtieri, you must visit the imposing and scenic Bentivoglio Square, a beautiful example of a Renaissance square surrounded by large arcades and dominated by Palazzo Bentivoglio, now home to the Ligabue Museum.
A type of Lambrusco was also dedicated to this painter from Reggio Emilia. This is a wine with a characteristic ruby red color and a rich and delicate foam, with a packaging based on the art of the Gualtieri-born painter. On the website of Cantina Sociale di Gualtieri it is possible to discover all its qualities!
Continuing the route along the Po river, the towns of Boretto and Brescello are also worth a tour. In Brescello it is possible to retrace the stories of Peppone and Don Camillo and relive the atmospheres and landscapes of the "small world" described in the tales by Giovannino Guareschi.
As a last gastronomic stop, we cannot miss to taste the Boretto onions, in the numerous recipes with which they may be cooked: one above all, the sweet and sour onions, excellent as a side dish both hot and cold, and as delicious cocktails. As a dessert, if you visit Emilia during Christmas holidays, we recommend to taste the Brescello spongata, a flat and round dessert with a strong spicy flavour.