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Thirty minutes’ train ride north of Bologna, FERRARA was the residence of the Este dukes, an eccentric dynasty that ranked as a major political force throughout Renaissance times. The Este kept the main artists of the day in commissions and built a town which, despite a relatively small population, was – and still is – one of the most elegant urban creations of the period.

At the end of the sixteenth century, with no heir to inherit their lands, the Este were forced to hand over Ferrara to the papacy and leave for good. Life in the city effectively collapsed: eighteenth-century travellers found a ghost town of empty streets and clogged-up canals infested with mosquitoes. Since then Ferrara has picked itself up, dusted itself off, and is now a vibrant, provincial town that, with its grand squares, restored medieval palaces and portico-lined streets, looks a bit like a mini Bologna. It’s a popular stop for tourists travelling up from Bologna to Venice, but they rarely stay, leaving the city centre enjoyably peaceful in the evenings.

Ferrara’s main sights are clustered together in an area that’s easily explored on foot. The castle is the main focus, but several other palaces and museums offer reminders of the town’s more glorious past. Ferrara’s market days are Monday and Friday, with most activity taking place on Piazza Travaglio. On the first weekend of the month (except Aug) a large antiques market takes place between the castello and the Duomo.

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