The Panfilia Wood

Written by  Vito De Santis

Suspended between land and water, an oasis of unspoiled splendour in the Po delta territory.

“It is unbelievably interesting, partly because it is a lowland wood and therefore unusual in our country, and also because it is a forest which floods from time to time when the river Reno bursts its banks. To be involved when this event takes place is a unique experience, which combines the drama of the flooding with some fascinating consequences for nature”. Elisabetta Mantovani, who runs the Service for the Protection of Flora e Fauna in

the province of Ferrara, speaks with words that clearly come straight from the heart, when she introduces the subject of Panfilia Wood, an area which stretches over 81 hectares in a huge loop of the highwater bed of the river Reno, in the municipality of Sant’Agostino. Its boundaries are marked by the Cavo Napoleonico (a man made canal which connects the rivers Po and Reno) on the west side and by the village of Sant’Agostino in the north; to the east there is the Poggio Renatico countryside and to the south the Reno river bed which also serves as the boundary between the provinces of Ferrara and Bologna. At the doubts of the layman – but don’t the floods cause damage to both the plants and the animals? – Elisabetta Mantovani smiles and explains: “The flora and fauna in the wood adapt perfectly to the events of nature. The wood would not have these unequalled characteristics if it was not for the floods; it is in simbiosis with its river, to which it owes both its origins and its continuing existence. When it comes to defending the natural habitat, Panfilia Wood is at present an oasis of protection for fauna, set up by the Ferrara provincial authority; it is also a Site of Community Importance (Sic), as part of the Natura 2000 project organised by the European Union. There is a long and impressive list of fauna present in this earthly paradise: many, many species of birds (wren, tit-mouse, skylark, goldfinch, jay, cuckoo, chaffinch, red and green woodpecker etc.), as well as a rich variety of avifauna due to the moist atmosphere provided by the river: kingfisher, night heron, snipe, moor hen, several types of red heron, mallard, coot, great-crested grebe, little egret and bittern. In the undergrowth and along the river banks with cultivation nearby it is easy to spot pheasant. There is no shortage of birds of prey, both diurnal and nocturnal: sparrow hawk, kestrek, buzzard, owl and barn owl. It goes without saying that hunting is not allowed in the area of the Panfilia Wood. As to flora, one can admire the vegetation typical of the damp woods of the Po Valley. Oak, white and black poplar, ash, willow, elm, mulberry, and alder all push upwards, sometimes reaching a height of almost thirty metres; one can also see hazel, elderberry, blackberry, dogwood, privet, sloe and hawthorn.

However, before moving deeper into the wonders of the forest let us mention the origins of its name. Elisabetta Mantovani points out that the watery vicissitudes of the area have been most complicated and played a central part in its history: a study published by the local WWF association tells in detail of the quarrels between Bologna and Ferrara municipalityies to define the course of the Reno river, in order to avoid the seasonal floods which damaged coultivations in the fertile mplains between the two cities. The quarrels went on and on for more than four hundred years, making the course of the Reno river change several times, fron 1522 to the second half of the Eighteenth century. One of the seasonal floods, that of 1750, destroyed the villa and lands of the marquis Panfilo Fachinetti, situated along the banks of the river, and went down in history as the rotta Panfilia, the Panfilia flood. On the alluvial soil left by the flood the hydric vegetation of the wood slowly began to establish itself, taking the name of Panfilia. “One cannot talk about Panfilia – concludes Elisabetta – without mentioning that it is one of the most renowned truffle areas in the province. The most valued truffle of all is the white one, but there are other species worthy of interest, the smooth black variety for example. The geological and climatic conditions, the presence of wooded areas and the rich hydrographic network are the vital elements that allow this “food of the gods” to flourish here; they also give it its special organoleptic properties making it of excellent quality; the perfect accompaniment for the classic dishes of the area, maccheroni pie, to name just one. It is a well known fact that Cristoforo di Messisbugo, the famous ceremony chef at the court of the House of Este used to gather these truffles himself in the woody high-water beds along the river Po and use them in his sumptuous Renaissance banquets.