About The River Po and Region, North-east Italy
Here is an exploration in some depth (two days to cover all the best places to visit) of the pianura padana, the ‘waveless plain’ of the River Po (Padana in Italian). It is not generally a tourist area, but it is no less explorable for that.
The Po fulfils all the geographical conditions of a great river but never looks like one. View it in summer almost anywhere along its 676-km length and you wonder what black hole has swallowed the myriad torrents of the Alps and northern Apennines almost entirely. On the river’s broad bed quarriers of sand and gravel have set up factories. When you cross it on a bridge which would not disgrace the Mississippi you see among marsh flowers a sluggish stream and a trail of stagnant ponds. On its wide fruitful plain the condottieri fought their feudal battles and paved the way for luxurious ducal courts. The Po presented no obstacle. Armies could wade across it.
There is not much boat traffic on the Po. Someone some day will re-establish those massive flat-bottomed barges which, at a snail’s pace, used to transport long-distance travellers (except in summer) stage by stage. The river is navigable downstream from Ferrara to the sea (about 80 km) for eleven months in the year; from Mantua for about nine; and from Cremona for about seven. Recently the entrepreneurs of Porto Garibaldi and other Romagna coastal resorts have been offering boat trips into the Po delta, where the river’s artificial mouths pour out a saturated suspension of mud and you hear the cries of birds trapped in thickets of papyrus.
The roads marked on the map follow its windings as closely possible, generally avoiding as the creeping suburbia of featureless bankside towns. You travel through an archetypal ‘peasant’ Italy (though the modern mechanized farm-worker will not thank you to call him a peasant). It is a land of shimmering horizons in summer, eerie mists in winter, straggling villages and large farmsteads, rice and corn plantations, pigs, sheep and oxen. Here, and not in Parma (covered in The Northern Appenines), you can visit the isolated estates where Parma ham and cheeses are produced and stored. Lower down the plain, near Ferrara and Rovigo, you drive through miles of apple and cherry orchards, a lovely sight in April. Between Rovigo and Padua you can visit the only clump of hills in 400 km of dead-flat landscape.
The nearest airports to the region are Bologna and Parma.
Main railways run parallel with the general direction of the Po at some distance from it: Cremona-Mantua- Legnago-Padua to the north; Piacenza-Parma-Bologna to the south. You could travel on branch lines along the valley via (for example) Parma, Guastalla, Suzzara, Quistello, Bondeno and Ferrara to Rovigo, but these are slow, monotonous journeys.
On the Po Plain most people without cars travel by bus. A comprehensive network is based on the major cities and the autostrada and ‘superstrada’ routes between them. At the main bus termini of Cremona, Mantua and Rovigo north of the river, Parma, Modena and Ferrara to the south, you can embark for any town or village in the provinces of those towns. Main roads are very busy, the countryside is not exciting. A local bus-ride has little of the magic you experience on the mountain roads and corniche routes farther south.
A tourist boat service is based at Boretto on the Po north-east of Parma. Contact the Porto Turismo Fluviale.