THE STORY SO FAR:
I'd gone back to Romagna with my old friend Angelo and after 40 years we had not only discovered Ravenna but been enchanted by it!
The mosaics, the history, the atmosphere, the food, the fun and the gelatos had us captivated!
And I went on to continue my adventure in Romagna, But now to learn much more about this strange and wonderful place.
AND NOW TO MAGAZINE PRODUCTION!
But first an excursion to Angelo's Veneto.
I remembered the village down the road, San Martino where everyone downed tools and stopped work at six in the evening to dance in the town square – delightful.
Our accommodation was superb. Since we’d stayed before, they had cashed in on cookery classes led by the manager’s mum, the Contessa. All over the world TV cookery programmes had started to get big audiences. Masterchef, for instance was getting millions of viewers from Australia to Italy. Other cookery programmes are becoming a staple on the TV menu. There are often so many viewers who wish to try the recipes that supermarkets stock up in advance with specialist ingredients.
Just when Angelo and I arrived the cookery craze was beginning to offer opportunities for posh struggling old hotels.
No more so than around Italy’s fertile Po Delta where hotels and agriturismo establishments were learning new ways to reap the harvest of wonderful produce and of high-spending quality tourism by creating cookery classes.
Veneto, extending from the Dolomites to the Adriatic Sea, is one of the richest provinces in Italy – full of culture and history and jam-packed with absolutely sensational food and wine.
There is an astonishing range of vegetables. Veneto has no less than seven with DOP protection and richness of waters (the sea, the lagoons, the lakes, the rivers) also gives local people an ample supply of fish stocks. As far as meats are concerned, there is also an amazing variety. The lagoons around also produce superb rice.
And the wines are no less wonderful – Just think of Soave, Valpo- licella, Amarone, Bardolino, Garganega , Prosecco, Pinot Grigio, amongst dozens more, particularly great whites, fabulous reds.
Hence there is a huge range of recipes and preparations in the kitchen. Great specialities, world-renowned foods.
Castel Venezze’s family were determined to collect their bit of the opportunity and become leaders in high quality cooking holidays. In a superb setting, hands-on cooking lessons were now being run by the Countess Maria Giustiniani in the kitchens at the castle. As the estate was set in thousands of acres of woodland, green fields and kitchen gardens they really had something special to offer. The idea was that here, under the steady eye of Contessa Maria, a special menu would be created every day culled from their own local earth.
It was a simple next step for guests to experience the bounty of this rich soil with their own hands and cook it themselves. Hence the Tenuta Castel Venezze cookery classes.
The countess is more than happy to help guests cook and with the aid of a qualified sommelier, and assist them to put together a simply amazing lunch.
A typical day’s cooking could include a whole sumptuous meal with wine. After gathering required herbs and vegetables on the estate, participants would repair to the estate’s kitchens where, under the instruction of Contessa Maria, they prepare a seasonal lunch, usually consisting of a risotto, a typical meat or fish dish (depending on the best ingredients) and a dessert. The created, hopefully superb, lunch will be eaten with local wines. During the day participants also learn about the Veneto’s fabulous history of cuisine.
After lunch there would be time for a walk on the estate before beginning the fine eating process again in the evening with an aperitif and an excellent dinner created again with the best of local produce.
Good enough for Angelo and me then. And after a nice sleep in yet another four-poster, we had our big local breakfast in the awesome dining hall. Today we were off on the river.
There can’t be many more tranquil experiences than slowly negotiating a beautiful Italian river towards lunch.
As it happened lunch was to be something very special indeed. Something neither of us had tasted before, something sublime. Obviously we were in rice field country so it had to be risotto, but what more local and totally deliciously appropriate than eel risotto. Maybe it’s something about the oil in the eel but the dish is a truimph. Angelo couldn’t stop talking about it all the way back to the colonnia in Marina di Ravenna.
The next day we went off for lunch in the little port of Marina di Ravenna. A fish lunch, naturally.
Astonishing. The port has a street full of fishmongers that are also restaurants. So we got starters of pickled fish – little octopus, anchovies, Branzino, clams, shrimp, squid and cuttlefish and prawns – the lot. Then spaghetti alla bottarga (with mullet eggs) delicious. Naturally Adriatic fritto misto followed and grilled fish too. And then he was gone – Angelo was on his way home leaving me in my Mussolini apartment.
I had decided exactly what I was going to do. I would research Romagna myself and I would write a magazine about the place. I thought people would love it.
Of course, I’d published magazines in the past. I’d even owned and run a weekly newspaper, so I knew how it worked. A massive saving was that I didn’t have to print it. I could do it all online.
But first I had a job to do on the other side of the Adriatic.
By now I had an assistant – Jasmine – a highly-educated tourism academic who wanted to work with me. She edited my Sustainable Tourism Reports and produced a report analysis for me on cynical attitudes to tourism sustainability called the ‘Greenwash Report’ Together we created something called the Integrated Tourism Development Initiative and a beautiful part of Slovenia was to be my first project. Slovenj Gradec and Misilnja were two communities in the Styrian part of Slovakia, practically on the border of Austria and just by the European City of Culture – Maribor. They were beautiful, historic and fascinating and they had no tourism.
We had convinced them that we could help. The idea was that tourism is not just about visitors coming and looking at things. Tourism can involve the whole business community at one level or the other – and can benefit them. That’s why the initiative uses the word ‘integration’. If tourism could be used by the butcher, the baker, the farmer etc., they should be involved in creating and developing the tourism project. Plus they could bring more ideas and more commitment.
So, we got a two-day workshop organised which Jasmine and I were to jointly moderate and enthuse, but first we had to learn by travelling around and seeing the opportunities on the spot.
Something new for me. We got to a ‘Tourist Farm’ and they asked us to take our shoes off. Not when we got to the farmhouse, but when we got to the land. Soil and grass between our toes, we entered the farmhouse for a little ‘refreshment’ actually a fabulous treat of local (well, from the farm actually) fresh, organic, sublime delicious food. Apparently there were dozens like this charging ridiculously little money for a comforting wholesome break.
From the healthily organic to the light fantastic. Off we went to a pretty little airport. Here we were to have a taste of ‘sport flying’, well actually I was! Up, up and away I went with Damian Cehner (not the 666 one) and got to fly his dinky little plane. His company Aviofun owned the airport and did fun things like selling parachute jumps; luckily I wasn’t on the jump!
Finally, I visited the magic triangle. Very special! The Magical Triangle of the Mislinja Valley embodied three spiritual points that are related to the mythology of the old Slavs. The top point is at the place where the church of St. Pankraty stands, from where one can see the two other points, the church of St George and the church of St Mary. Within this triangle there is a special mythological story, which includes archeology and mythology. It was a beautiful but a strange place where it is said that all growing things receive extra energy. The idea was to research and create a tourism programme around the area which would help heal visitors’ minds, bodies and spirits.
I was fascinated – I’d only ever heard of St Pankraty before in terms of St Pancras station in London!
In the following days we created four local groups at an intensive tourism workshop to visualize these projects and put them into action. The idea was that local residents would benefit from more tourists coming to sky dive at the Slovenj Gradj sport airport and to enjoy great local hospitality and the natural world on special farm and forest stays. The visitors would also be able to experience health-giving relaxation in Mislinja valley’s magic triangle and to try specially branded holidays and locally produced goods.
I really loved the place, the people the food and the potent spirituality and thought it was just a matter of time before it would be a really successful little destination.
Back in Romagna, for the next few months I’d go out and around every day getting stories and pictures and then I’d come back to the collonnia and write them up.
The first edition came out! Wow. Certainly, the cover was a knockout – a picture of a smiling Romagnola girl eating an enormous piadina, that perfectly circular, particularly Romagnolo flatbread which locals lust after – particularly when it’s filled with fresh local cheese, prosciutto crudo and rocket!
By now, of course, I’d learnt a lot about the Romagna food and wine, and why piadina (now designated a special DOC product) was so important.
At its heart, piadina is simple, unpretentious unleavened flatbread, but every restaurant in Romagna serves it and competes with all the others as to its quality. It is a simple mix of flour and water, a little salt and strutto (lard) or olive oil. After being flattened it is baked on an earthenware telia, usually made in one specific place – historic hilltop Franciscan Montetiffi. It is always served hot. Given its simplicity there should be little difference between one piadina and another yet there is. Simply everybody has their way to make the very best from humble homes to grand restaurants and your piadina will always be delicious. It is Romagnolo soul food, like passatelli in brodo. OK, I’ll tell you about passatelli after I’ve told you about the magazine!
It was 48 pages full of stuff about fascinating places that I’d visited and researched. Of course, I went back to Brisighella – the gypsum hill that grew the extraordinarily delicious olives. Naturally I revisited Bertinoro the hilltop wine village where they discovered and cherished the sublime golden Albana wine.
But there were some things that I just hadn’t known about after these many visits, that featured in the magazine. Take Mona Lisa and Mussolini for instance.
There was a time in Romagna that borders were fairly fluid between neighbouring regions like Marche and Tuscany. Artists attracted by superb scenery and rich commissions used to work for local warlords like the Malatestas from Romagna, the Montefeltros from Marche and the Borgias from Florence. The artists liked to use the most atmospheric and classically beautiful scenery, in this respect many preferred Romagna backgrounds. One particular artist is now known to have done so – Piero della Francesca and it is likely that Leonardo da Vinci did too. Now it is possible not only to see pictures by these great artists but see the backdrops that they used too – the sensational and quite magical countryside of Romagna.
And just down the road, on the Via Emilia, is the city of Forli, also very artistic but in a very different way. Mussolini (probably the most important warlord that Romagna ever produced) was born in a village close to Forli – Predappio. The village, by the way, is even now a big-time pilgrimage site. Yes, there are many people who still revere Mussolini. Anyway, the biggest shrine to the regime and that era is Forli itself.
The city is chock-full of what I call brutalist art deco. Well naturally Mussolini was the local lad made good and he made sure that everybody knew it. The Forli masterwork is its railway station and the wide triumphal way that leads from it. Down the route there are massive buildings for railway workers to live in, a university, a flying school with amazing mosaics and other iconic architecture. And that’s not all, Forli’s public buildings are also massive emblems to ‘Il Duce’. I was lucky to be involved with a controversial programme to use these and other totalitarian regime buildings throughout Europe as a gruesome art project.
But the architecture that always chills me in Forli is the ancient town square – the Piazza Saffi. The square’s most visible totem is the eagle, it is everywhere, on buildings and on street furniture. The eagles that freeze my stomach are at the top of each lamppost which were also adorned by the bodies of hanged partisans during the war. After the war, of course, from the lampposts hung collaborators.
And another thing that I hadn’t known about was Christmas in San Marino.
TO BE CONTINUED...
and more about Romagna at www.BestofRomagna.com
To enjoy the whole 241 page book full of Italian adventures you can buy "You Lucky People" from Amazon.
Valere Tjolle is the travel and tourism insider. An entrepreneur, consultant, developer and journalist, he has been in at the beginning of almost every tourism development for the last sixty years. There is no one better placed to expose the seedy side of tourism nor its enormous opportunities to unite people across the globe.