One of the greatest advantages of traveling in Italy is that one finds history, agriculture and nature intertwined in almost any corner of the country. I’ve been fortunate to be embedded in the Northern Italian countryside for the past several summers in Villa Pasquali a small agricultural community just down the road from Sabbioneta which is about half way between Parma and Mantua. Sabbioneta , a world heritage site, is a fortified community once ruled by the famed Gonzaga family of Mantua.
The two communities are surrounded by farm fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, tomatoes, watermelons, zucchini, peppers and cantaloupes. This is part of the fertile plain of the Po valley. The “arginelli” or embankments are a flood control system of levees designed to keep the farm fields and communities safe from flooding. The levees are complimented by a system of irrigation and drainage ditches. Farmers use the water from the ditches to irrigate their crops and drain their fields. The system is hundreds of years old, but it doesn’t always work as the Po has a long history of disastrous floods.
My nephew, Alessandro, left a mountain bike at our digs in Villa Pasquali. It is ideal for riding along the levees. I first ventured out along the back roads around Villa Pasquali staying on or near the 40 plus kilometer bike way leading from Sabionetta to Mantua. Part of my route traversed the “arginelli” and one day I discovered a sign outlining a route surrounding Sabionetta and totally dedicated to the levees. Thus I began many hours of solitary riding along the tree lined “arginelli’ and completing the circle after several abortive tries. The route looks great on the signage, but the actual directions don’t deliver at several points along the way. Getting lost was part of the fun and speaking Italian guaranteed I wouldn’t ever be lost for long.
One thing that does deliver is the diversity of the flora and fauna that the route offers. I encountered lots of birds, large and small, the largest being the Airone, a large heron that looks a lot like our great blue heron. Every so often I chanced across a nutria which is a large rodent that somewhat resembles a beaver. Nutrias have been imported from South America and are now pests that have in many areas destroyed aquatic vegetation, marshes and irrigation systems. The first nutria I ever saw was a road kill and h of ad me wondering, “what is a beaver doing here in Italy?” I subsequently learned what an unwanted invader the nutria is in Italy. Occasionally I saw a European hare of scared up a pheasant or two. I saw lots of egrets, crows and the ubiquitous Merlot, a black bird that is a relative of our American robin. Their song,if not their appearance, is sweeter than our robin’s.
If all goes well, I’ll be back next year and I plan to obtain a field guide to European birds.