Legend has it that at the height off her career, Sophia Loren became fascinated with eels and asked that they be incorporated into one of her films. The most beautiful woman in the world, the greatest actress of her era – and she was asking to co-star with slimy electric tubes that have the capacity to creep most people out. What in the world was happening here? And what the heck was so special about eels?
Sophia Loren wasn’t the only one to wonder this. Sigmund Freud spent an entire summer slicing eels apart to find their sex organs; he didn’t succeed. In fact, to this day, the sexual life of eels remains a mystery, and the place where it takes place, Mexico’s deep Sargasso Sea, still holds the mysteries. But one thing is certain: such is the power of the eels’ urge to reproduce that it drives them from the far points on the globe – places like Iceland, Turkey and the small Italian town of Comaccio, which sits on a lagoon where the Po River meets the Adriatic Sea.
The life cycle of the eels is, frankly, rather astounding. The females lay a couple of million eggs which hatch into little leaf-like things and then drift across the Atlantic before growing into tiny ‘glass eels,’ which then continue to the place where their genes come from, where they grow for several years before heading back across the Atlantic to the big eel orgy at the bottom of the Sargasso Sea.
But there is more to eels than that. They are among the few creatures in the world that can effortlessly move from salt water to fresh water; they produce an electric current which they use to hunt their prey; they are fairly long-lived, with lifespans of up to 85 years — but they die after spawning. They are also very tasty, and around the world they are said to offer some incredible benefits to those who eat them. For example, drinking wine that has been infused with eel skin is said to cure alcoholism; eating the heads (or any other parts) is said to create massive sexual desire and health — and more.
But back to Sophia Loren. While she didn’t talk about the eels in her memoirs, what we do know is that in 1954 she played a worker in an eel factory in the film La Donna del Fiume – or the Woman of the River. The film was set in Comaccio and show Sophia at the height of her beauty proudly displaying her armpit hair and a can of pickled eels.
As to Comaccio itself, this beautiful Italian town is worth more than a short visit. The best way to see Comaccio is by bicycle; don’t be surprised when you find yourself wondering if you’ve accidentally wandered into Venice. The city is composed of thirteen different islets which are surrounded by canals, ponds and the Po River Delta.
All the this is connected together by a series of beautiful bike paths, hiking trails and even a couple of great Italian gelato shops. Bikes are available from the tourism authority.
Comacchio is one of those wonderful gems that you don’t find much about in the guidebooks. You don’t see a lot of travel writers writing about it, and as a result, a holiday in Italy becomes much more affordable, less crowded and interesting when you go there.
The city is located in the Emilia-Romagna region and is roughly halfway between Venice and Bologna. In fact, in its history, the city was once a main rival for the salt trade with Venice and shifted from independence to becoming the subject city of both Ferrara and Venice. Today, the salt ponds still exist and the city has a couple of tourist draws – bird watching in the Po River Delta has become a big business and visitors flock there (sorry for the pun) all summer to see flamingos, cormorants, falcons and more in a beautifully preserved estuary environment.
In addition, you can visit the eel canning factory and museum. While it may not sound all that interesting, in truth, it is, and you can learn about the interesting specialized tools the local population used to farm and harvest them. In addition, you can eat them and drink some very nice local wine here as well. Plus, they have a theater that shows the Lady of the River in a constant cycle.
There is much to do in Comacchio, from shipwrecks recovered from the lagoons, to the massive nature reserve, to strolling through this UNESCO world heritage city center; you won’t get bored. If you do, you can head to some of the nearby beaches, ride horses or take a boat ride through the canals in a gondola for much less than you would pay in Venice.
The eel-pickling museum has 12 working fireplaces where, from October to December, you can eat the eels just the way the locals always have: heads removed and roasted on spits. Maybe you can figure out the secret of the eels, but one thing for sure, you will find them delicious.
If you want to eat fresh eels in Comacchio, you will have to get them in autumn or winter; the pickled variety are available year round. If you want them to costar with you in a film – La Donna del Fiume is due for a remake – right Hollywood?
Story and Photos by Vago Damitio
Originally Published on Vagobond.com