Ferrara is a rare example of a city whose historic centre has remained surrounded by the walls over the centuries. For nine almost entirely uninterrupted kilometers, the city still boasts one of the most powerful defensive systems of the Middle ages and Renaissance. While the city walls could be a nearly impregnable defensive tool in times of war, it became an extraordinary garden that hosted the leisure and entertainment of the court’s nobles in time of peace. The city’s entire history is enclosed within these walls and today they are an authentic monumental park, containing a unique historic and artistic heritage that is made available to citizens and visitors.

 

Duration: 2 hours
Length: 10,5 km
Road type: mixed paved/dirt road
Number of stops: 13
Departure/end point: Castello Estense, Piazza Savonarola


 
  1. CASTELLO ESTENSE
From fortress to noble residence
This route departs from the castle (on the Piazza Savonarola side), one of the rare examples of a dwelling surrounded by a moat. The symbol of the city, it was built by Marquis Niccolò II d’Este in 1385. Declared a symbol of strength and power, it became a noble residence at the end of the 1400s, when a part of the Este court moved there from the nearby Palazzo Ducale. Still today, the two buildings are united by Via Coperta, a covered walkway that passes over the arcades along one side of Piazza Savonarola.
Inside, visitors can admire the mysterious prisons, rooms and halls of extraordinary artistic beauty with frescos from the late 1500s, while the Torre dei Leoni offers a breath-taking panoramic view of the city.

 
  • With the castle to your back, head down Corso Martiri della Libertà until the Volto del Cavallo portico in Piazza Cattedrale. Turn right and head into the Piazzetta Municipale.
 
  1. PIAZZETTA MUNICIPALE
This square was once the inner courtyard of Palazzo Ducale and contained the apartments of Este princes and princesses and many administrative offices of the Este government. Today, the square is backdrop to interesting cultural events, dominated by the elegant Scalone d’Onore staircase.
 
  • Continue along Via Garibaldi, one of the oldest roads in Ferrara. Stop at number 90.
 
  1. PALAZZO BENTIVOGLIO
Erected in the 1400, the building was commissioned by Borso d’Este and given to his advisor Pellegrino Pasini in 1449.
The current appearance is the result of the restructuring ordered by the nobleman Cornelio Bentivoglio in the early 1580s: as history has it, the work was done in part by Neapolitan antiquarian Pirro Ligorio and Ferrarese architect Giovan Battista Aleotti. After the WWII, the building became the seat of the Court of Ferrara and today, after a careful restoration, it is home to private offices and apartments.

 
  • Continue along Via Garibaldi until Via Arturo Cassoli. Once you reach Viale IV Novembre, turn right. The city walls will begin to appear. Cross Viale Cavour. At the end of Via delle Barriere, after another pedestrian crossing, continue along the walls.
 
  1. THE BELVEDERE WALLS
You’ve just crossed what is known as the “Quartiere Giardino”, the Garden Quarter. The name highlights the city’s ongoing desire, already existing in the Este era, to integrate urban areas with oases rich in lush vegetation.
This section of the city walls was designed mainly by Biagio Rossetti upon the request of Ercole I d’Este near the end of the 1400s. The Ferrarese architect, as well as other intellectuals, contributed to the grandiose urban plan of what is called the Erculea Addition, an expansion that, thanks to its originality and rationality, made Ferrara the “first modern city in Europe”. Before Ercole I d’Este focused on buildings and palaces, he decided to fortify the zone with defensive fortifications. He thus constructed the walls on the north, destined to enclose a new portion of the city, characterized by large, organized, regular quarters, just like in a true European capital.

 
  • Continue along until the Porta Catena bridge.
 
  1. PORTA CATENA – TORRIONE DEL BARCO
The name of this site – Gate of the Chains – derives from the chains that stopped boats arriving from the north from passing through. This threshold was the access point to Ferrara by water, the entry of the Panfilio shipping canal into the city, allowing boats departing from Pontelagoscuro to pass through. It was a toll gate where the entry fee to the centre of Ferrara was paid. The water, in addition to extending all the way to the castle, ran through a system of locks all around the city in a ditch. These ditches were drained and cleaned of their stagnant water only in the late 1800s, long after the time in which the walls had ceased to fill their role as a defensive system.
Proceeding for a dozen meters or so, on the left-hand side is the Torrione del Barco, a still-standing example of military architecture. The openings that can be seen on the left were used to position the gunners who protected the area at the base of the walls. During times of peace, it was also a docking place for flat-bottomed boats that used the external flooded wall for commercial transactions. The section that follows differs in its semi-circular towers and long walkway along the parapet for sentries.

 
  • Continue along to the next building at the end of the famous Corso Ercole I d’Este.
 
  1. PORTA DEGLI ANGELI
Built as a part of the Erculea Addition, this “Angel’s Gate” was named after Via degli Angeli, the former designation of Corso Ercole I d’Este, considered one of the most beautiful streets in Europe. It was once the city’s noble gate, providing a connection to Castello Estense, and today is the only one that can still be visited on the inside. Tradition has it that Cesare d’Este, the last Duke of Ferrara, left from this gate in 1598, when the city became part of the Papal States. In the 1800s, Porta degli Angeli was first used as an abattoir, then an armoury (a wartime ammunition depot) and, from 1894 to 1984, a civilian home. In front of it you can see what’s left of an arrow-shaped bulwark, connected to the structure by a bridge (no longer standing), now replaced by the metal walkway you see before you. Today it is used as a venue for temporary art exhibitions.
 
  • Continue until the dirt road runs along an actual hill.
 
  1. PUNTA DELLA MONTAGNOLA
When today seems to be “just” a modest mound of land where energetic runners go to train, once had an important defensive function as a “cavalier” where weapons aimed outside the city were placed. It must have been truly impressive in its prime, back in the 1500s. Tucked into the corner of the defensive walls there also was once what was called the “Rotonda del Duca”: a pleasant place for entertaining important people, with finely decorated rooms and gardens with cedar, orange, lemon and olive trees, where plays, theatrical events and water shows were staged. These whims included the Isola Beata, presented in 1569 at the request of Duke Alfonso II d’Este: a sort of naumachia/tournament, with knights, nymphs, giants and sorcerers performing in the moat and in a papier-mâché palace while nobles applauded from temporary stands and the people from steps on the walls.
When Ferrara became part of the Papal States, this defensive section was altered to what you see today.

Continue along, slowly…
Large trees such as linden, elm, chestnut and oak line the path. Here, the walls separate two realms. That outside the city, with the frenetic buzz of never-ending yet distant and non-bothersome traffic, contrasts with that within the city, which seems as if time has stood still, meditative and enchanted. A serene silence envelopes the vegetation.
Here you’ll find two historic symbols of the city: the Jewish Cemetery and the Ferrara Charterhouse and Cemetery (La Certosa). Along with the Church of San Cristoforo, the latter can be traced to an ancient monastic complex built at the behest of Borso d’Este and later transformed in the 1800s into the most important, most monumental cemetery in the province. Here you will find tombs listing famous names such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Giovanni Boldini and Filippo de Pisis. Next to La Certosa are the fields of the Jewish Cemetery, dating back to the 1600s. This vast expanse of greenery inspired Giorgio Bassani when he wrote The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, an extraordinary novel that tells the tale of a wealthy Jewish family living in Ferrara during the 1930s. its adaptation as a film of the same name by Vittorio De Sica in 1970 placed Ferrara square in the public eye.

 
  • Continue towards the end of this first section. Note the periodic appearance of circular towers and the walkway atop the bastions.
 
  1. TORRIONE DI SAN GIOVANNI BATTISTA
This tower, larger than the others as it was built to protect one of the main entries to the city, at the start of Via Porta Mare, is the last stop on the section of city walls designed by Rossetti and commissioned by Duke Ercole I d’Este. Originally, the ends were characterised by battlements where, between one merlon and another (the teeth-like sections along the top of the battlements), artillery was kept. The current umbrella-like roof was completed when the walls of the following section were built. With the evolution of defensive techniques, it was no longer necessary to place heavy weapons on the top of the building.
In 1999 the tower become the headquarters of the Jazz Club, one of the most beloved music venues in Europe. Enjoying a jazz concert within a perfectly-maintained Renaissance building is an absolutely one-of-a-kind experience.

 
  • Continue along, through you will no longer be on the embankments. Cross Corso Porta Mare via pedestrian crossing on the left, go past the car park in front of you and enter into what is called the “sottomura” (the area just below the walls), until you reach a long hedge.

A very important section for the history of the city’s defence system begins at this point. In the 1500s, as military strategies evolved and new defensive needs emerged, the walls changed, becoming more imposing and impressive. Duke Alfonso I d’Este, nicknamed the “Artilleryman Duke”, was the one to build the large outcropping bastions in the shape of arrows. These structures, as high as the walls themselves, were positioned so as to protect the dangerously exposed straight sections.
 
  1. EX-BALUARDO DI SAN ROCCO
The scenic hedge that dominates this strip of land at the walls recreates the space occupied by the Baluardo di San Rocco (the Bulwark of Saint Roch). Though it was demolished in the 1800s along with other fortifications, that were considered useless, it was undoubtedly the largest bulwark ever built in Ferrara. Its destruction brought with the inevitable creation of a large opening in the curtain wall, and this empty space was filled with the arches that today create an architectural simulation. This joining element can also be seen in the different colours of the bricks, each belonging to different eras.
 
  • Continue along, paying attention to the intersection that briefly interrupts the area at the base of the wall near Piazzale delle Medaglie d’Oro. The pedestrian crossing is on your left. Once back on the dirt road, after 1 km there will be a small square with an ancient passage. Get off your bicycle and take the corridor on your right.
 
  1. PALAZZINA DEI BAGNI DUCALI
Small houses, known as Delizie (singular: delizia), still stand as testament to the charming, enchanted places that the Este family created to embellish the region. Here, members of the ducal court cultivated their hobbies and passions, or simply spent time relaxing or enjoying some form of entertainment. No matter their use, a sense of naturalism characterises these noble buildings, as if they came straight out of a fairy tale. Existing documentation on this small palace mention a bathroom, which led historians to once call in the Fabbrica del Bagno or the Bagni Ducali (Bathroom Factory or Ducal Baths). The building was constructed in the early 1500s at the behest of Ercole II d’Este, based on the drawings of architect Terzo Terzi. Famed artists such as Girolamo da Carpi, Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, Camillo Filippi and Battista Dossi were assigned the task of decorating the exterior of the noble building, their paintings now sadly lost. The building is arranged around an inner courtyard, clearly a reference to the floor plan of a Roman domus. With the devolution to the Papal States, almost all delizie were destroyed, yet this one survived because it was used to house the Pope’s troops. With the French occupation, it became a military barracks and stable. In the 1800s it became a warehouse, an elementary school in the early 1900s, and shelter for displaced people during WWII. It is currently used for public administration purposes.
 
  • Continue along the tree-lined street to your right and admire what time has preserved up close. Go around the mountain, then go back to Palazzina dei Bagni Ducali. On your right is an inner courtyard, what was the Baluardo della Montagna (Bulwark of the Mountain).

The Palazzina was set amid a landscape that one could only describe as paradise-like. What the residents of Ferrara now call the “Montagnone” (large mountain) was once an imposing defensive cavalier measuring over 100 meters high (so soldiers could shoot long distances) with its slopes covered in streams, grapevines and fruit trees. At the foot of the mountain were two grottos designed by Girolamo da Carpi and decorated by Flemish artists with grotesque motifs, studded with precious marble and shells. At the base of the artificial mountain, facing the slides, was a fish farm, while between the lake and the city was a long pergola, made of marble columns and iron arches, covered in grapevines and trees. There was also a labyrinth that stretched between the mountain and the walls. Here they raised albino peacocks, monkeys, ostriches, dwarf donkeys and turkeys. Today, on the peak of the mountain, stands the structure that from 1890 to 1932 was the city’s aqueduct.
 
  • Head back down the same road you came on to return to the bicycle path. Pedal until the 17th-century watchtower. Use the pedestrian crossing to get to the other side of Viale Alfonso I d’Este and then follow the path ahead of you. Continue along the area at the base of the walls to your right.
 
  1. THE SOUTHERN WALLS
In front of you is the 14th-century Porta San Giorgio. Alfonso II d’Este decided to improve the already-existing, yet ineffective, fortifications that had been damaged by the earthquake of 1570. The Po River, which ran to the south of the city, not far from the fortifications, was increasingly buried due to the overflows and floods that changed the look of Ferrara over the centuries. The river could no longer act as a natural barrier, so there was an urgent need for a new defence system. The result, from that point on, was characterized by the strong curtain wall and the increasingly imposing bulwarks.
 
  1. PORTA DI SAN PIETRO
More recently built, this gate is a reminder of the presence of a 15th century gate commissioned by Borso d’Este. In 1630, papal dominion led to the gate being torn down and the closing of the threshold, reopened only in 2002.
 
  • At the end of this section of the walls, you’ll see Porta Paula in all of its splendor.
 
  1. PORTA PAULA
This gate was designed in 1612 by architect Giovan Battista Aleotti and dedicated to Pope Paul V. This important monument, with its Mannerist and Baroque characteristics, was connected to the city walls and protected on each side by two bastions up until the end of 1800s.
 
  • With Porta Paula behind you, head down Corso Porta Reno to return to the area near the castle.


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