ExperiencePlus! - Bicycle Tours since 1972

Travel Stories

Hannibal & the ExperiencePlus! European Headquarters

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hannibal & the ExperiencePlus! European Headquarters

Understanding the Italian Landscape

ExperiencePlus! customers tour the vineyards at the Malpezzi family farm outside ForliExperiencePlus! Bicycle and Walking tours has its European headquarters on a farm in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy’s Po Valley, one of the richest agricultural areas in Europe. Several of the tours offered by ExperiencePlus! stop for a picnic lunch and visit of "The Farm." Whether you are there with one of our bicycle tours or touring Italy on your own by car or public transportation, don’t overlook the vast wealth of history and culture in Emilia Romagna. Visit a farm if you can, and experience history first-hand.

 

The history of the ExperiencePlus! farm and of many farms in the region dates to Hannibal’s war against Rome, the Second Punic war, which lasted from 218 – 203 B.C. In 218 BC the Roman Republic had just begun its expansion north into the Po Valley by establishing bridgeheads over the Po River and military settlements at Piacenza and Cremona. Hannibal began his march across the Alps that same winter.

Hannibal’s intrusion into Italy slowed Roman settlement for a quarter century but when the war finished the experience of having a marauding army so close to the gates of Rome prompted the Romans to quickly occupy and settle the "northern frontier" or Cisalpine Gaul. The Romans undertook what was possibly the biggest systematic resettlement plan ever. They built roads, established colonies and settled tens of thousands of veterans of Hannibal’s wars in an effort that dictated the human geography of north Italy to this day.

In the U.S. after World War II President Dwight Eisenhower argued in favor of a nationwide system of roads to move troops and military equipment around the country in the event of another war. This initiative gave rise to our interstate highway system, the biggest public works project in history. The Roman initiative after Hannibal was as big a project.

Central to this settlement plan was the Via Emilia, a road that ran from Rimini, on the Adriatic Sea, to Piacenza, the first Roman bridgehead over the Po River. The Via Emilia was built between 191 and 187 B.C. As the road was constructed so were the towns of Bologna, Forli, Modena, and Parma. Other colonies followed shortly after, including Fiorenzuola, Fidenza, Reggio nell’Emilia, Claterna, Faenza, Forlimpopoli, and Cesena.

The Romans built the Via Emilia as a military road and the towns along it as military camps but the region quickly assumed a significant commercial importance which it retains to this day. Roman highway engineers built the Via Emilia as close to the foothills of the Apennine Mountains as they could while still keeping the road on the flat Po Valley. On either side of the road land surveyors laid out a grid 710 meters square. Rural roads and drainage ditches were built following the grid with roads and ditches parallel to the Via Emilia which became the primary baseline for the entire settlement plan.

On each side of the 275 kms of the Via Emilia the land was settled by pioneer farmers, many veterans of the Second Punic War. On the south side of the highway settlement stretched just a few kilometers to the foothills while to the north the settlement stretched up to 15 kilometers (10 miles) or more into the flats of the Po Valley.

The transportation geography of this part of Italy was nearly fixed in stone by the Romans twenty-two centuries ago. For twenty centuries no improvements were made to the Via Emilia except to resurface the old Roman road and to build new bridges as necessary. Just a century and a half ago the important railroad line from Milan to Bologna and on to Rimini paralleled the ancient highway, no more than one kilometer away. And less than a half century ago the A1, Autostrada del Sole, and its continuation from Bologna to Rimini, the A14 paralleled these to corridors no more than four or five kilometers away. Together this corridor constitutes one of the most important historic and modern transportation routes in Europe.

North and South of this major highway, never more than 15 km (ten miles) away and almost never more than that same distance from the next town are tens of thousands of family farms. The ExperiencePlus! headquarters sits in the middle of one of these farms. Eighty-eight generations after this area was settled by the veterans of Hannibal’s wars Paola’s relatives still farm a plot of land about the size of the farms handed out to veterans and their families after 195 B.C.

Paola's family farm in Emilia Romagna, ItalyOur headquarters is in a converted pig barn surrounded by 11 hectares (27 acres) of vineyards, peach orchards, apples, plums and field crops consisting mostly of wheat, sugar beets, and alfalfa. If you drive the freeway or take the train from Rimini to Milan along this corridor you’ll notice hundreds of farms like ours. The crops may change slightly: near Cesena you’ll see intense strawberry cultivation for a short distance, near Modena and Reggio Emilia you’ll see the vineyards producing the lightly alcoholic Lambrusco wines, and near Parma you’ll likely notice large barns enclosing pigs for the production of Parma’s famous ham ("prosciutto") or for the dairy cattle whose milk is used to make parmesan cheese ("parmigiano reggiano").

 

Roman Centuriation and A Walk on the ExperiencePlus! Farm

Join us for a walk on the ExperiencePlus! farm or take a walk on any farm within a few kilometers of the Via Emilia and you will have a similar experience.

Look carefully and you will see fields, drainage ditches and roadways running parallel and perpendicular to the Via Emilia. Little did those Roman surveyors know that they would impact the use of this land for 88 generations and counting!

Traditional agricultural in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean basin consists of the classic triumvirate of grapes, wheat and olive oil. You can stop looking for olives here, though, as the Po Valley is too cold and too far north to allow for olive cultivation (exceptions to this are in a few lateral valleys near Brisighella in the area south of Faenza, in the foothills near Rimini, and in the Lake District across the Po Valley to the north). But you will see plenty of wheat and plenty of grapes.

If you are lucky you may visit a farm or an area where coltura promiscua (literally, "promiscuous culture") is still practiced. This is interculture or mixed cropping consisting of wheat or another field crop sown in fields separated by a line of trees. The trees may be fruit trees, mulberry (once used for silk production) or elm trees. The trees once produced fruit and kindling for fuel but their primary function was to act as natural grape arbors – each tree having had a grapevine tied to it ("married" to it in local parlance). This allowed the farmer to keep the grape vine off the ground, out of the way of field crops and away from cattle or sheep which would otherwise graze it.

This type of mixed farming was practiced by the Etruscans. They taught it to the Romans and the Romans brought it with them to the Po Valley in the second century BC. In the past two decades this interculture has declined steadily as it is inefficient with modern farm machinery.

The field crops you will see here are part of a three-field crop rotation system that developed from a two-field system that goes back to ancient times. Wheat, barley and other grains were the primary crops. In this region of the Po Valley wheat has taken over almost entirely. In the three-field, three-year cycle the year after wheat is planted, sugar beets follow, and then a fallow crop, usually clover or alfalfa, valuable for their nitrogen fixing properties, is planted. Variations on this along the via Emilia might include sunflowers, lettuce or arugula for seed, and sorghum later in summer. Don’t be fooled by the sugar beets which often look like giant spinach plants.