When in Italy, Do Like the Ferrarans

By Tooker Gomberg, Ferrara, Italy.

Fuelled by cappuccinos, Tooker discovers the joys of pedalling around Italy’s best city for cycling.

All roads lead to Rome, they say. But watch your life trying to cross the street outside of Rome’s Termini train station. If you’re not fleet-footed, a zipping car or a zigzagging moped just might zap you.

I longed to get away from the traffic and smog, so instead of battling Rome’s road warriors, I travelled the steel rails north to Ferrara, reputed to be Italy’s best city for cycling where, legend has it, kids learn to ride even before they can walk.

Stepping out of the Ferrara train station, I noticed something was clearly different. A thousand bikes were parked in a jumble, many askew and toppling over. A professor, unlocking the flimsiest of locks, told me: “I have six bikes. Two in Pisa for when I go there, two for getting around Ferrara, and a nicer mountain bike and a road bike, too.” He had just lost one to a bicycle thief, but since he had been parking it for eight years by the station, he thought himself lucky that it lasted that long.

It began to rain, so I scurried to a nearby phone booth. What a strange shape, I thought, until I realized it was specially designed for cyclists with bikes. How civilized!

The rain droned on; cyclists responded with umbrellas, and rode on. Simple!

Not that the whole town is a cycling paradise. At the outskirts, things were more “normal”, with trucks and cars cascading down the asphalt; one can’t get no respect just trying to cross the street. But it’s in the heart of Ferrara, perhaps in its soul, where something special happens.

Ferrara, with its population of 140,000, sports 100,000 bicycles. The town is small and compact, with almost every destination within an easy 5 km ride.

Dating back to medieval times, the streets of the old city are cobbled with old stones and bricks. Most of the old part of town is off limits to private cars, and motorists can park their car at the edge and rent a bike to get around or hop a taxi or bus. A few streets are off-limits to motorized traffic altogether, reserved only for shoe and pedal power.

Five hundred-year-old churches share space with ancient watchtowers, and a moat surrounds the current town hall. The top of the city’s ancient wall doubles as an elevated bike path.

I joined with the flow. Opposite the 14th-century Estense Castle, I plunked down 18,000 lire (about $10 U.S.) and pedalled off on my rented bike to look for what made Ferrara tick. No petrol for this traveller, just a few steaming cappuccinos (cappuccos, as they say) and an occasional hazelnut gelato.

Down the medieval Via Volte I rode, and stumbled upon a vaulted bike shop piled high with disheveled and dented steeds so ancient they seemed to date from Caesar’s time. No shortage of bicycle repairs to be done in this town.

In Germany, and in the Netherlands especially, signed bicycle paths and paint on pavement make it clear that the bicycle has its place in the transportation engineers’ bag of tricks. In Ferrara, there is little in the way of special facilities or engineering for bikes. Without fanfare, cyclists just do their thing.

The bicycle has woven its way into the local culture. From free white bicycles for city workers to do their errands, to a special discount Bicicard for tourists to ride around town, the bike is everywhere.

Hotels offer the free use of a bicycle to their guests, the bikes proudly parked outside the hotel’s front door. By the train station, one can hop aboard the Bicibus, a special bus that takes passengers, and their bikes, to the Adriatic coast less than 60 km to the east. By the ancient historic cathedral, an elderly woman stands beside her bike, feeding pigeons stale bread.

At the end of the day, as the sky darkened, I stoked up on a local specialty: torta filled with smoked cream cheese smothered in walnut sauce – washed down with a glass of vino rosa, of course.

Everybody seemed to be grabbing at handlebars, riding simple, one-speed, rugged and workable bikes. Snapshots from Ferrara: women gliding along with shopping bags swinging from the bars; men in ties slowly meandering by on half-flat tires; kids pedalling their way to school; a couple clinging while he pedals and she sits on the crossbar. Helmets? Who needs ’em – cycling is like walking here. You don’t need anything special: not a fancy bike, not a helmet, no spandex required.

Special bicycle parking racks are lacking, so people just lean their bikes against any wall and clip a flimsy lock around a wheel. Theft isn’t a huge issue when there are so many bikes to go around.

“In other places, young people move on to scooters and motorcycles. In Ferrara, they keep riding their bikes” a city planner with the Officio Biciclette told me. “The bicycle is popular here because people aren’t in too much of a hurry.”

The city has joined the European movement “Cities for Cyclists” to compare notes, experiences, and innovations. Thirty percent of the trips in this town are by bike, which is higher than in Copenhagen.

In a complex world smothered in noxious tailpipe fumes, solutions to our traffic woes seem huge and costly. Maybe they needn’t be. The local Ferrara newspaper headline, speaking of a nearby town, put it this way: “Comaccio favours stopping the car, Yes to the Pedestrian Island.” A Florence newspaper I stumbled upon had a front-page article about urban pollution, and talked about Italy wrestling with its car problem. “In Rome, I think, the main problem is traffic” a city planner told me.

After riding the streets of Ferrara, their simple solution emerges like a phantom out of the mist. This old city can teach us some new tricks: from the seat of a bicycle we can solve the climate crisis and make our cities more liveable. And eat well, to boot.