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The mysterious Po Delta
Even though I was born and bred in Italy, the country still has some ‘blank spots’ for me, places I know little or nothing about. The Po Delta was one of these. A mysterious land, where the Po, Italy’s largest river that slices the plains of Northern Italy in two meets the sea, and splits into a dozen smaller rivers, creating swamp lands, islands and lagoons.
In the Po Delta, it is hard to distinguish between land and water. The landscape is flat and windswept, with brackish lagoons fringed by reeds, strips of land crisscrossed by canals, and the lone shell of a house here and there. People – locals, tourists, curious wanderers – are few and far between. You may glimpse a naturalist in full rain gear or some fishermen, but that’s it. As such, the Po Delta is a haven for wildlife – flamingoes, bulls, horses and thousands of water birds, from herons and egrets to wild geese and ducks. They all thrive, retaking the land that men have left behind.
Blogville and us
But let’s take a step back. In mid-June, Nick and I were in Emilia Romagna to take part in the Blogville project. Bloggers are invited to explore the region at their leisure, focusing on the aspects that they and their audience like best. Emilia Romagna is known for several reasons; its beautiful cities, the seaside around Rimini, for being the birthplace of Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and several other motoring legends, and above all, for its wonderful food. I mean, check out these Emilia Romagna food experiences to see what I mean!
However, our plan was to explore the nature of Emilia Romagna, and the Po Delta was firmly on our radar.
The Po Delta is a remote land that feels removed in space and time. It may not be far from Ferrara, which in turn is easily reachable from Bologna, but it feels a million years away. Public transport in the Po Delta area is pretty much non-existent, so the best way to explore if you don’t have your own car is taking a tour. We were booked on a trip with Delta Adventures, the only company offering day-long, ‘safari’ style tours of the Po Delta in a 4X4.
Antonio and Birdy
Meeting Antonio, the owner of Delta Adventures, is reason enough to take a trip to the region. He’s a former fashion photographer turned birdwatcher extraordinaire, and he exudes enthusiasm when talking about his land. He’s one of those people that works for passion, because he loves being with people and sharing with them his love for birds and for nature.
On the way to the Po Delta from Ferrara, he told us the reason for his career change. He was growing increasingly jaded with the fashion world, and one day on his way back home he found a tiny sparrow, fallen from the nest. He took him home and nursed him back to health, feeding him droplets of sugared water from a syringe, until he regained his strength.
However, there was a problem. The bird had spent months at home with Antonio, and was unable to fly properly and fend for himself – he would probably be eaten by a cat or a larger bird within hours of Antonio setting him free. So, Antonio kept the bird, and named him Birdy (Beerdy with an Italian accent) – Antonio and Birdy have been best friends for the past eight years, a very long life for a sparrow.
Birdy made Antonio fall in love with all things related to birds. He studied bird feeding and turned his back garden into a haven for passing birds – he even wrote a book on the topic and started running bird feeding workshops in schools. He travelled to the Po Delta as often as possible to watch birds, and got to know the area like the back of his hand. Opening Delta Adventures was the next step, and now Antonio runs daily tours to the region, in his camouflage Mitsubishi 4X4.
Isola dell’Amore, an island in the Po Delta
An hour out of Ferrara, and we were deep in Po Delta territory. The land became flat, the horizon a thin hazy line between land and water. We drove for a while along one of the branches of the Po, a strip of green-grey water flowing slowly. Reeds and a few trees grew on the sloping banks.
It wasn’t a hot day, but the landscape seemed to have absorbed the stillness of hot summer afternoons, mixed with the quietude of places that are devoid of humans. There was barely a soul in sight. Villages were empty. It was halfway between Macondo and a post-apocalyptic scenario – but somehow, it was pleasant.
Antonio took us over a bridge made with boats, that marks the border between Veneto and Emilia Romagna. But borders matter very little around here. Nature is what matters; the slow action of the river, rearranging the land with the soil it carries from upstream, creating islands that didn’t exist before. One of these islands was our destination – romantic Isola dell’Amore, the island of love. The name was given in the 19th century, when lovers used to row to the then-deserted island for a bit of privacy. We jumped on a rickety wooden ferry, sailed by Valentino, keeper of the Isola dell’Amore lighthouse.
A lighthouse on an island – everyone’s romantic dream. Isola dell’Amore was not picture-perfect. It was an edgeland, a frontier, stuck between freshwater and the Adriatic sea, swept by the wind and lashed by the sea that littered its beach with driftwood and other junk, including the corpse of a huge sea turtle.
Somehow, though, it has its charm. You felt suspended, floating in a liminal place that is neither sea, nor land. A place where you can reconnect with nature and live according to its rhythms. Between one mound of driftwood and another we saw a dozen shacks, homes of hippies that spend their summer on the island. Building on the beach is illegal, of course – but the island is a kind of no-man’s land.
Po Delta Wildlife
Returning onto the mainland, we drove south, and the further south we got, the larger the lagoons became. Water appeared to push its way through, one inch after another, until all land left were thin strips between one lagoon and another.
Antonio took us offroad, in search of wildlife. It didn’t take long before we spotted a herd of white Camargue horses, the image of freedom standing fierce among the reeds, their manes ruffled by the afternoon breeze. Then, we made out some curved horns and black heads peering from the reeds. ‘Black bulls’ Antonio explained, even though there were a lot of cows.
Some of them wore yellow ear tags, and at a closer look, I noticed that some of the horses were branded. Antonio told us that these animals do indeed have an owner, but they’re kept free range and semi-wild, roaming the vast lands of the Po Delta.
When the sun started to dip, Antonio took us in search of birds. We snuck across the bushes to snap a shot of graceful Cavaliere d’Italia, a black and white bird with long red legs. We lost count of the number of herons and egrets we saw – black ones and grey ones, tiptoeing among the reeds, perched on power lines, or flying gracefully with their curved necks. We even spotted a hoopoe, looking regal with its crown of feathers despite its tiny size, but it was too fast for us to photograph.
The Flamingo Lagoon
We couldn’t believe our eyes when we got to the flamingo lagoon. Dozens of them were pacing the shallow lagoon, their heads underwater in search of food. They barely stirred when we drove past. This place sees so few tourists, that birds are rarely bothered. To be honest, I kind of wanted them to fly away, to see them display their wonderful pink and black feathers in full glory. At the same time, it was nice to see them so relaxed in the presence of humans. Let us not forget that this is their place, not ours.
The Po Delta was one of those rare places where nature seems to be moving forward. Ivy crept over the shells of farmhouses. Man-made levees were crumbling. Roads hadn’t been maintained in decades and wildflowers grew in the cracks.
There were no people for miles, save when we drove across tiny hamlets surrounded by canals and lagoons. The Po Delta is a place to contemplate, and absorb the meditative stillness of nature. A place that defies classification, because it is neither land nor sea, neither swamp or marsh, and its water is neither fresh nor marine.
In the Po Delta, land and water kiss, make love, become one. Nature wins – and we can just sit and watch.
Our Po Delta trip was sponsored by Delta-Adventures and Emilia Romagna as part of the Blogville project. We LOVED the experience and would never recommend it if we didn’t!