Ferrara – The seat of the Este dynasty

When trying to decide which Italian University to pick for my year abroad, I inevitably headed straight to Google to discover more about the different cities and towns I had on offer to me. Being off the general Italian tourist trail, I had like many people never heard of Ferrara before doing some research. It’s elusiveness was one of the aspects that immediately attracted me to the town however it was this article written by the novelist Sarah Dunant that really sparked my interest –  Why less-visited Ferrara is as fabulous as Florence. Funnily enough, having spoken to the other British students here, it seems as if we all have Sarah Dunant to thank in swaying us to come to this little gem of northern Italy. I mean, with a title such as ‘As fabulous as Florence – and not a coach party in sight’, how could any student wanting to get the real Italian experience and improve their language as much as possible not get excited?

Ferrara’s main landmark il Castello Estense certainly does not disappoint. ‘Estense’ comes from the Este family name, a dynasty that ruled Ferrara from the 13th-16th centuries, until 1597 when the last Duca d’Este Alfonso II died without heirs and Ferrara passed on from the House of Este to the Papal States. With four turrets, a moat and two drawbridges, the castle seems to have not lost any of the grandiose or intimidating statue intended by its builder. Built in 1385 by Niccolò II d’Este, the story of why the Duke ordered its construction is really worth its own entry so hang on for that.

I won’t go into the details of all of Ferrara’s historical landmarks but if you do go, of the ones available and that I do not mention, be sure to visit the Palazzo Schifanoia, Palazzina di Marfisa d’Este, Casa Romei, Piazza Ariosto and Il Cimitero Monumentale della Certosa di Ferrara. Besides these, from the castle in the centre of town there are two main areas of the rest of Ferrara to explore. To the south you’ll find the area of the city that was home to the Jewish Ferrarese population from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. It’s impossible not to sense the history of the area with its maze of small cobbled streets and tall, wonky buildings. This is my favourite part of town and is, in my opinion, the place to search for Ferrara’s best trattorias. To the north of the castle is supposedly one of the best (and first) examples of Renaissance city planning and the area in which Ferrara’s numerous Renaissance palaces can be found. Corsa Ercole I d’Este is a huge cobbled street that runs all the way from the castle to the periphery city wall and is your best starting place for exploring that side of town. About half way down is Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara’s biggest palace and now home to some of the town’s rich Renaissance art and impressive temporary exhibitions. The other Renaissance palaces on Corsa Ercole I d’Este are now used as university buildings and during the warmer months students often head straight from these across the road to the Parco Massari to enjoy some sun after lessons.

Piazza Ariostea
Via delle Volte in the Jewish Quarter of the town
Looking down Via Mazzini in the old town onto Piazza Trento Trieste at Christmas. The whole town was covered with these lovely lights throughout the festive season.

Back in the centre of town and around a hundred metres from the castle is the main square, la Piazza Trento Trieste, il Cattedrale di San Giorgio and Ferrara’s Renaissance campanile (bell tower). Unfortunately I can’t show you a picture of the front of the cathedral because it has been covered with scaffolding since my arrival. The works were supposed to be finished by October 2016 but unexpected problems with the facade are apparently to blame for the project’s extension. The thought of spending a year here and not being able to see it for myself is frustrating (particularly considering that I haven’t actually seen much activity on the scaffolds), but restorative work is obviously extremely important and slow not only in Italy, and I would definitely prefer that it is around in the future to see it than not at all!

View from a turret of the castle – spot the scaffolded cathedral

The town is also still holding on to its Renaissance defences, in the form of almost 10 kilometres of wall that surrounds it. Along with the town of Lucca, Ferrara’s wall is one of some of the best conserved in Italy and it is well worth taking the path that follows beside it. Finding ‘la campagna dentro le mura’ (countryside within the walls) and the outside bar and restaurant just off the northeastern section of the route is the perfect place to stop for a drink or spend a lazy summer afternoon

Part of the path following Ferrara’s city walls

Coming from a large city such as Leeds in the UK, the dinkyness of Ferrara was something that I thought I was going to struggle with at first. To be honest I am pretty sure that I have walked almost every street here, however as you have read there is so much to history and interesting things to see. Moreover, in no way does its size compare to it’s strong sense of community and the huge variety of events you can find on almost every weekend. Besides the multitude of markets boasting fresh farmers’ produce from the surrounding countryside, antiques, clothing, books and more, Ferrara is host to an impressive number and quality of events, including one of Europe’s largest hot-air ballooning festivals, a renowned international buskers’ festival and the town’s own concert, film and jazz season.

View from my bedroom window of il campanile (bell tower) – I hear the bells everyday but still haven’t figured out what schedule they run on… on Sundays it feels like they never stop! 

2 thoughts on “Ferrara – The seat of the Este dynasty”

  1. Welcome in Italy! I wish you to enjoy your year in Ferrara!

    Mentioning literature that sort of “promotes” specific destinations, when talking about Ferrara, as Italians we always think about Bassani’s Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (The Garden of Finzi-Continis). It’s a novel about a Jewish family during WWII and there’s a lot of Ferrara in there. I don’t know if they published an English traslation, but it’s a huge Italian classic.

    Welcome also here in the WordPress community 🙂


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