By Anna Maria D’Andrea
Once upon a time, in a far out stiletto boot, lived a beautiful almond eyed princess armed with capricious curls and an enchanting smile. Punctually every morning, she would open the windows to her luxurious bedroom and greet her loving sun with a smile. She would set her gaze far out onto the soft apple green country side and admire the perfectly round hillsides, much like two round pecan ice cream scoops as they disappeared in the famous Po.
Of course for most of my female friends, this dream usually includes the princess looking out of a mansion in Westmount, onto a Lex in the driveway and a beau with an unlimited credit card in their bed. However as I dreamily set eyes on the Castello Estense of Ferrara, and imagined myself looking out of one of its towers, I was gently reminded of a time when princesses did live in castles, and Iseult had no need to even brush the velvet skin of Tristan as he had already fallen in love with the mere essence of her.
This was Ferrara’s effect on you. The northern Italian city simply casts an old medieval spell on you. Much like a fairy or a sphinx, its origin is uncertain but mentions of it can be traced as far back as the 8th century AD. Proclaimed by UNESCO as part of World Heritage and hence part of the history of humanity, and well by extension my history and yours; Ferrara is filled, almost crowded with medieval and renaissance castles and churches alike. Winding old roads lead me right, and then left and quite frankly I was easily and happily lost. The air was bewitching and it calls you, urges you rather to stroll on the rich cobble stones and terra cotta mosaics. Surrounded by castles, what more can a princess want? And yet it would seem that each wall of la bella Ferrara slowly guides you, gently points you and allures you to one place, and one place only: Castello Estense.
I believe at some point, we all must have drawn a picture of a castle or for the less artistic such as myself; we were simply contempt with the image of a traditional castle found in story books. The Castello Estense fit this exact image: four proud towers married by heavy stones, bounded by a low rising river. It even was equipped with a slow unwinding castle door, released by heavy and imposing metal chains. I was immediately drawn.
As I uncertainly pass the castle gates, I am spellbound by what lays ahead of me: long and high corridors adorned by marble drawing you in, calling you in. The castle has numerous rooms blessed with paintings and old artefacts, but I need to underline here what really struck me, and borderline haunted me about the Castello Estense: the dungeons.
As you make your way down the narrow stairs, a chill slithers up the back of your spine. Probably because it is about ten degrees colder down here, but I am also convinced that past prisoners have left their mark. It is gray, and cold and damp and the cells still bare the scars of their guests. Letters and moments of despair are well engraved across the thick cement walls of the dungeons. The heavy and muggy air down here was a natural preservative for these medieval graffiti’s. It was said that long ago, in these very walls, that Parisina and Ugo D’Este were imprisoned and then decapitated for carnal treason. Parisina was second wife to Nicolo III D’Este and Ugo was his illegitimate child from a previous union.
Their respective cells have something majestic and magical to them. It still carries the signs of their forbidden love affair.
I make my way out of Castello D’Estense; the experience was intense and my lungs need to breath. This is Ferrara in a nutshell: a spell bounding city where the air lures you in and seems to want to captivate you into its tentacles and you, unsuspecting tourist, are happy to let it.
In this mesmerized state I am profoundly surprised to see the bustling life that lays outside of the Castle. Much like the first gasp of air taken after a deep sea plunge, the same air that imprisoned me is now releasing me to life, and it is done to the sound of bicycle bells. I smile; reminded of my own turquoise eighties bike as a child. Yes, Ferrara is not only capable of casting a heavy chill on you but also a warm smile with its friendly bicycles; and this great contrast is just one of the many faces of its charm.
Tourists are welcomed to use this joy ride to get around the city, locals take them to get to work. On a typical Ferrarese day you can catch locals with their hot wheels, armed with a straw basket at the top filled with good old fashion Italian bread, groceries and of course “un po di vino” ( a little wine). In fact this is among Ferrara’s greatest appeals. Although unfortunately bed and breakfasts are a little pricy (starting at 60 Euros for a single bed!) the experience of Ferrara is well of course priceless but in more practical terms: cheap! Take a bike, tour the city! No need to spend money on car renting, Ferrara is beautifully “petite” and can be done also by foot. Food, much like the rest of Italy, is inexpensive and if you contempt yourself with a simple but tasty piadina romagnola (these are Italian pita bread sandwiches) you can pull off dinner for 8 Euros. What about your evenings? At night, Ferrara’s youth comes out to play in the simplest way possible: sitting around the Cathedral’s steps or at San Romano enjoying a little wine or gelato. They lay back, indulge in a laugh here and there and simply admire proudly their city unsuspecting to the fact that they just have completed Ferrara’s portrait, as they are just as beautiful.
Let yourself be spellbound by Ferrara, lose yourself in its streets among its people, and let the city bring you to a time where chivalry was just as vital as your morning coffee, and where love affairs, although a little dramatic I do admit; testify to the glory of Ferrara and to Love itself.