We’ve all heard the Tuscany hype. And with good reason, the rolling hills of Northern Italy studded with 5 star converted castles-come-spas is something to behold. But in recent years, some places in Tuscany have started to feel a little too well trodden. And that’s where Emilia Romagna comes in.

Home to la grassa (the fat one) of Italy, aka Bologna. The largest city in the region is famed for its mortadella and fresh egg pasta, and is also the birthplace of so-called ‘bolognese’ (whatever you do, don’t go to Bologna and try to order a bolognese – you will be laughed out of town. Order tagliatelle with ragu). Bologna is one of my favourite cities in Italy. With a vibrant atmosphere provided by the famed Bologna university – the oldest university in the world –  and well preserved historical centre, to me, it’s the charmed jewel in the region’s crown. Not far away you also have Parma, where prosciutto di Parma and parmesan is produced (the proper Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) stuff). And not forgetting, the enchanted little fortress city of Ferrara – replete with a medieval city-centre and stunning renaissance palaces. (If you go here, and you really should, you need to read How To Be Both by Ali Smith at the same time.)

Away from the better known areas in the region are Piacenza and Reggio Emilia. Piacenza is located at the intersection of the major crossroads between Bologna and Milan, making it the ideal base to visit the country’s major cities like Venice and Florence, as well as all of the above. We really recommend hiring a car to make the most of the area, and to see the gorgeous surrounding countryside.

Here are just a few places you should visit while you’re in the area…

Emilia Romagna Guide: Day 1

Castell’Arquoto

You may have heard of San Gimignano in Tuscany? A quant little medieval village on a mountain top, with stunning views and cobbled streets, cute little gelateria and sandwhich stools…and not an Italian local in sight? Only until you visit Castell’Arquoto do you fully realise quite how agonizingly touristy SG really is. But this place is the real deal, and it hasn’t much changed since the 10th century. There are no vendors there to cater to the hoarding masses, only local restaurants, local bakeries, an active church, a little designer glasses shop, picturesque views over the surrounding hills and real life actual human Italians just going about their days. It is truly breathtaking.

Ristorante da Faccini

Just a few minutes away (by car) from Castell’Arquoto, you need to stop for lunch as Faccini. This place is a family-run restaurant that has been going since the 1930s, and its menu is rooted in regional tradition. They specialise in typical cheeses, PDO cured meats and fresh pasta, obviously. The meal we ate here was one of the highlights of our week-long research trip, because everything is about providence and quality ingredient-lead cooking. We ordered the plate of coppa and prosciutto di Parma, served with bortellina – a relatively rare regional flat-bread, made from just flour and water, and fried in olive oil. And you need to try the deep-fried courgette flowers (fiori di zucca), if in season. Afterwards we tried the ravioli with spinach and ricotta – a stone cold classic – and an intense, fresh and punchy seasonal asparagus tortellini. The ravioli with duck and black truffle also packed a gorgeous punch. Round off the meal with a macchiato and a grateful sigh, and opt for a table outside, weather permitting.

Borgo del Balsamico

En route to Reggio Emilia, pop into Castello di San Pietro – a strange and charming little castle dating back to 1460 which has been converted into a modern art gallery and luxury hotel. You can take a guided tour on Sundays so you can hear all about the ghost stories for yourself.

Then head to Borgo del Balsamico to bed down for the night in the most enchanting B&B you will ever visit. This place produces staggering aged PDO balsamic vinegars using family-owned caskets in the attic. And no, this isn’t the plot to Jane Eyre Italia. You can arrange for a special tour and tasting, as well as buy their incredible balsamic directly from the little shop on-site.

This family-owned business operates out of a beautiful historic listed home, with a series of rooms to sleep in. The rooms are stylishly furnished with bespoke antique and designer pieces – elegantly melding old and new to create a chic, warm atmosphere. Breakfast the next morning is served under the arched shade of the house, overlooking some of the gardens. And these gardens, oh boy these gardens. The business is predominantly run by two charming sisters both equally besotted with flowers, and they’ve channeled their love into the gardens, which are pungent with the scent of stunning plant life all around. Take it from us, you won’t ever want to leave this paradise.

For dinner, you can travel 20 minutes to Ristorante Capannina in Viano, a family-run trattoria with the sweetest patron in the world, who will be ready to foist pasta in your face at any given moment. Bellisimo.

Emilia Romagna Guide: Day 2

Labirinto Della Masone

This botanical garden and art gallery makes for a fun-day trip. One of the largest labyrinths in the world, it takes up seven hectares of land and is the only labyrinth to be made entirely of bamboo plants. While trying and failing to get out on the other side, you begin to realise that there’s a rare brand of pleasure in letting yourself get lost, letting yourself wonder for the sake of wondering with no specific end destination. After you’ve wondered and got sufficiently lost, you can check out the impressive art collection of Franco Maria Ricci, a publisher, designer and art collector (he built the labyrinth after making a promise to a writer friend who had always been fascinated by the symbol of the labyrinth as a metaphor of the human condition… money? Sense? Whatever, it’s lovely).

For lunch, go to Bistrot Spigaroli which is just outside the labyrinth. Try to go on a Sunday if you want to catch the Sunday lunch buffet, Italian style. A cornucopia of cured meats, roasted vegetables and traditional Italian cuts of meat are available for your delectation, and we can confirm that every single morsel is delicious.

Photo Credit: Mauro Davoli

Castle of Rivalta

This castle is something different. Housed within a “village” which comprises a hotel, cobbled streets, trattorias, and a spa, it’s like an authentic Italian version of an all-inclusive resort (accept fewer piña coladas and more…castle). The castle itself is of epic proportions – defended by thick walls and glowering towers. You can even climb up the tower (designed by the same architect who built the Kremlin in Moscow, you’ll be able to see the similarities) to find the completely horrifying “death well” aka a deep deep hole with daggers jutting out of the bottom – where prisoners were once thrown to their death many hundreds of years ago. But once inside the castle you’ll find the more genteel signs of its renaissance-era owners: an inner courtyard decorated by marble columns, delicate brickwork, and terracotta medallions. The castle was eventually bought by Earl Carlo Zanardi Landi of Veano, whose descendants still live in the castle today. Casual.

Hotel Torre di San Martino

Hotel Torre di San Martino is housed in the stunning 11th century medieval village of Rivalta. The mansion comprises just 10 bedrooms, decorated traditionally with elegant, luxurious features – think wooden ceilings, velvet upholstery, antique furniture, and the four-poster bed is also something to behold.

Next door you’ll find the two restaurants: Del Falco and Ristorante la Rochetta, built into the medieval walls of the village, replete with medieval fireplaces and renaissance ceilings. The whole place is just drenched in history and charm. We recommend sitting outside for dinner on a summer’s evening – the prawns and octopus were spectacular – huge juicy beasts, cooked simply and finished with a squeeze of lemon and extra virgin olive oil.

Luretta Valley

While you’re in the area you can also visit the Luretta Valley, just a 10 minute drive away from the castle through the gorgeous countryside. Accompanied by passionate sommeliers, you can go on a tour of the Luretta wine cellar and taste unbelievably delicious wine alongside homemade cold cuts cured in the wine cellar, and cheeses.

We were hosted by the fabulous Emilia Romagna Tourist Board and Only4U travel company, which organises bespoke trips throughout the region, highlighting the hidden gems and authentic underbelly of Emilia Romagna.