Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ferrara on Two Wheels

Today we went to the nearby city of Ferrara, just a half hour by train from Bologna. We had planned to go to Ravenna to see the mosaics, but yesterday I met with my Italian tutor and it happened that we were reading an article about Ferrara . The article discussed the fact that there are 2.7 bicycles per inhabitant and that 87 percent of the population use bikes as a mode of transportation. The reason for these astounding statistics is that the historical area of Ferrara became a pedestrian zone after World War II, decades before other cities even considered it. I was intrigued and since Boris has become such a bike nut here I thought that this would be a treat and would make the viewing of museums and palazzi go down easier. So Ravenna was postponed and Ferrara was our new destination.

Leaving the train station we found a bike rental shop right away, one of several in the city. For about ten dollars per person we each rented bikes with locks included. They were fitted out with those mousetrap rack things in the back and mine even had an adorable basket. Getting into the historical part of town went pretty smoothly. There are separate bike paths set well away from the roads. Once within the city gates the situation changed a bit. On the bright side we were able to cover a lot of ground and it was enjoyable being part of the passing parade. The downside was the chaos of the traffic in the narrow multi-use streets. Bikes mingled with pedestrians, each pretty much ignoring the other. I know that when I’m walking on the bike/walking path at home I hear these perky alerts every few minutes: “ On your right !” as a bike passes me at blazing speed. There is none of that communication here, but for the most part everyone seems to coexist. Being used to it must be a tremendous help. The trickiest part is that the pedestrian streets aren’t totally without cars. Taxis and service vehicles are allowed and at one point a whole street became clogged because a garbage truck was making its rounds. The street was so narrow that unless we wanted to tag along with the truck all morning we had to practically flatten ourselves against the walls of the flanking buildings in order to pass.

The vehicles at least stick to conventional traffic rules. The bike-riders on the other hand are operating by their own inner compasses. They aren’t rude intentionally, but if somebody wants to cross your lane to buy an espresso they’re just going to go ahead and do it. Intersections were the absolute worst. The biker who has the right of way is the one who believes he has it.

We attempted to follow the bike path that is supposed to be on top of the city wall but I’m afraid we made a hash of that and somehow lost the wall. Or the wall stopped. It’s really hard to say which. We did however manage to find the ugliest square block in the city with derelict graffiti-covered warehouses. Yep. We’re definitely the people you want to team up with on The Amazing Race.

All in all I would say that I enjoyed Ferrara except for the bike experience. Ironic isn’t it ? The very thing that enticed us to go there was the thing I liked the least. It has very few tourists and the people were very friendly. If the tourist sites are few, the singular atmosphere makes up for it. With so few cars and so many people pedaling along, its as though everybody in Ferrara is part of a very quiet procession. As the day became more cloudy the atmosphere became more dreamlike. At times I felt as though I was inside a painting or a stage-set in which everything has less weight than ordinary things. This sensation of lightness, of freedom, reached its zenith for me at the moment I returned the bike.

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