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, Now to learn much more about this strange and wonderful place.
I'd discovered Christmas in San Marino, Passatelli and Tonino Guerra - and I had been kidnapped to the Magic Mountain! Met both the most powerful woman in the world and the Father of Italian Cookery. And I'd had the most amazing birthday party.
Now it was time to go to Berlin for business and back to Romagna for fun!
First stop Prague.
Strangely I had never been there before. Here, I stayed in a lovely art nouveau hotel, cheap. The streets were nice to walk, brilliant bits of architecture at every corner. And great food too. But cram-ram packed with tourists and tourist guides soliciting busi- ness. You could have any kind of tour you wanted free – food tour, fun tour, history tour – even a mathematics tour. However, I found the really offensive tours the ones by Segway. How can you protect and cherish fragile, beautiful places with hordes of young people zipping around on segways and getting 5 minutes to look. Done, zip off to the next spot. Don’t worry, I’ll rant more about the near blasphemy of overtourism later.
So, thanks Prague, next stop somewhere I’ve wanted to go to for years – Dresden, the stunningly beautiful city that my country fire- bombed into oblivion.
Parked up next to a football bus outside a posh hotel in the centre. Walked into the main square right into an anti-fascist demonstration. Doesn’t take long, does it? I had a long chat with one if the demonstrators. It’s a tough call for Germany.
As you know, Germany is very close to my heart, after all it was this country’s beauty and diversity that lured me into tourism to start with. And I’ve visited many times and watched with admiration as this smashed and defeated state has gradually, meticulously, put itself together again. I never visit without thinking how difficult it must be to engage with the hideous actions that were taken, admit them and make amends. Added to which, they had to deal with the destruction of their homes, the raping of over two million women and children, and the largest movement of people in human history – the 15-20 million post- war homeless German refugees.
Against that background, when East Germany folded, the country had been re-united at great cost with the unreconstructed East Germans now part of the family and fanning the flames of a right-wing neo-nazi movenent. That was the spectre as I arrived in Dresden.
Now, again, Dresden is beautiful. It seemed to me like a frail old lady with a fabulous bone structure. And Dresden is big in tourism with about 5 million visitors a year. Once again Dresden is a cultural magnet; one of its famous buildings, the Semper Opera is home to both a great opera and a ballet company. The city’s biggest event, a massive Christmas Market, that mixture of religion, history, eating, drinking and shopping!
Finally I arrived in Berlin for the ITB – the world’s biggest travel show, plus the IHIF – the International Hotel Investment Forum.
The ITB is probably my key to the year’s events. It was big and important when I first went there in the 1970s in particular because it faced East as well as West and because it was where you knew what Europe thought. Plus it’s always been a bit left-of-centre whereas its main competitor the London-based World Travel Market is much more overtly commercial.
Anyway, WTM is in November and ITB is in March so anyone can, and should do both. Now, ITB was big and important 40 years ago when Berlin had a big wall around it and international tourism was a tiny fraction of what it is now. You can imagine just how big it was in 2015 – enormous! And multilingual – possibly just like a million square feet of towers of Babel. At the end of the week of ITB my feet are like raw meat and my brain is blown.
But I am grateful. Although it has got progressively more difficult to distill all the diverse ideas that come from ITB, it really is edgy and thought-provoking.
Plus it’s got heart. My friend Rika Jean Francois is the CSR commissioner of ITB and I guess to her CSR simply means “Do the right thing” so she is constantly adding subjects and making people talk about – refugees, LGBTQ, human rights, child trafficking/tourism, climate change, women’s rights and empowerment, accessibility, all in a tourism context. It really proves the point that tourism can actually be relevant.
But, above all, ITB is held in Berlin and that means three important things to me.
The first is that more than any other city I know, Berlin changes dramatically every year. Well, I suppose it has to. Just 70 years ago, after five years of war and one massive invasion from four sides, it was completely wrecked. It had to be built again. As a yearly visitor, I’ve been privileged to watch that rebuilding take place, I’ve been able to see one of the world’s great historical capital cities take shape as it grows from its ruins.
And by ruins, I don’t just mean the buildings. What happens to a community when their women and children are raped and abused, when they have to scavenge for food, when their city is razed to the ground and split in four, when they must lose their self-respect just to survive, when their countrymen have become part of the greatest refugee movement in the history of the world?
I started coming to Berlin less than 30 years since this utter desolation happened and when still the city was split into two. There was one side beyond Checkpoint Charlie which was grey and impoverished, where you could still buy plastic neckties for useless money – Ostmarks. The west side, on the other hand, was peopled by fascinating international people, often renegades, who found Berlin and its unjudgmental attitude to their liking. I remember walking down Kurfürstendamm at night looking at the glitzy shops, the neon lights and that bright blue light from the gaunt Kaiser Wilhelm church and thinking – this is a demonstrarion of the opulence available in the west.
But things were changing in the Soviet Union even then, and through Land Travel we were a part of it. We were taking people for coach holidays in Poland and Hungary – as it happens many of the coaches brought back cheap caviar and cheap Cuban cigars for me!
And when the wall came down – Bonanza. We brought thousands of people out for weekends in this new colourful destination and we brought back tons of the hideous wall to give away.
The thing I could never understand though was how the local people were dealing with their swap. After all then they all had guaranteed jobs, childcare, holidays, university education, pensions and healthcare and this year they’d swapped all if it for ́freedom’
And the change stepped up a gear. Berlin became a property- developer’s delight. You could see them filling up the top hotels and cracking deals to gentrify the city.
Every year when I visit Berlin for ITB, I stay in an up-and-coming quarter that had been rescued from the rubble and is being given the treatment to deliver massive profits. It was and still is totally inspirational.
And every year I learn more about Berlin’s trauma and against that background the story is even more inspirational. But the fact that takes the Berlin story into yet another dimension of inspirational is that the Berliners didn’t just dust themselves down, get up and start again. They truly engaged with their own country’s part in their downfall. Nowadays you can’t get very far without seeing evidence of Berlin’s and Germany’s dark past, displayed and annotated for all to see.
Particularly heartrending are the brass bricks called ‘Stolperstein’ (stumbling stones) on the pavement in front of individual houses telling the story of the Jewish people (and others proscribed by the Nazis) that lived there and what awful fate befell them.
And then it was back to the UK for a month or two and back to Romagna!
I had a plan and as a result of my visit with Cristina, I had a new friend in Florence. Antonella Chiti was a historian specialising in Dante and the Italian language – she was currently in charge of events in Florence. With a mass of curls and a fun demeanour and was certainly up for a laugh! I thought we would make a great team to check out Romagna’s castles – and have a few nice meals together.
We couldn’t check them all – there were said to be over 300 of them – but we could at least check out the best, so she came over to stay with me in Longiano as a base for our adventure.
Obviously, the castles are on hills and the hills are around the river valleys. All we needed to do was to take the valleys one by one and work from the sea to the hills on each. The two main castellated valleys were the Conca and the Marrechia river valleys – and as Antonella and I drove around checking them out, these historic valleys revealed a glorious haul of fabulous and very different castles.
We started with the Conca valley and the biggie! A long time ago Cinzia had promised to take me to Gradara “Incredible, romantic” she had said, and now I knew why. First its position was perfect, looking out over the Adriatic on the one side and the hinterland on the other; no one could pass without the Malatesta family knowing. Plus it was really big – encompassing a substantial village. And it had a great deal of atmospheric history. It makes the most of the fact that it is the most likely place that Paolo and Francesca kissed (remember Dante’s Inferno?). And the ‘exact room’ is identified. But above all the touristy stuff it is beautiful and a delightful home for a thousand or so lucky residents – with nice restaurants and tea shops, bars and loads of events. None of the Conca castles were as magnificent as Gradara but they were all truly charming.
You’d think that a castle was a castle wouldn’t you, after all in the middle ages there weren’t so many architects or designers. The warlords made their own decisions and forced locals to labour. A thousand or so years of standing up in one place changed each castle, though, to its unique environment, so now each castle is very different. As we travelled down the Conca valley we experienced a fascinating range of castle surprises.
San Giovanni in Marignano is now one of Italy’s most beautiful villages. In San Clemente, the village has forced itself into the castle, each year in Montecolombo visitors stream over the drawbridge to a magnificent strozzapreti pasta festival; in fascinating Gemmano the castle hosts a wild boar festival; soaring Montefiore Conca looks like a modern skyscraper until you get there and see the old stones, gardens and the delightful castle-village. Saludecio, which often feels gaunt and deserted, comes to life each year with its own medieval festival. Mondaino has a semi-circular piazza where each year there is a real ‘Palio’ complete with soldiers in ceremonial costumes and medieval bands. Finally Montegridolfo is a true classic of Malatesta design with a moat, a drawbridge and a watchtower. As all the castles are on hills they were naturally surrounded with historic vineyards producing wonderful wines.
And the fact is that the river Conca is not even really important locally, whereas when we got to the more important Marecchia river, the curtains were opened to some glorious surprises.
We started off in Pennabilli. Right up in the foothills of the Apennines, the city has a colourful history. It’s changed hands (and ruling families and regions) again and again – the Malatestas of Romagna owned it, then the Montefeltros of Marche’s Urbino and vice versa and now it boasts its own cathedral, a couple of monasteries, an array of piazzas, a bunch of quirky museums, and a hilltop garden complete with prayer-wheels inaugurated by the Dalai Lama. And of course, its own magnificent castle!
Down the road we saw a classic chocolate-box castle – Petrella Guidi. Stunningly beautiful, from the battlements of this pocket- sized Malatesta castle it’s possible to see the gorgeous backgrounds that both Piero della Francesca and, allegedly, Leonardo da Vinci used for their pictures.
And as the lovely hill road wound into a valley, we spotted, on the next hill, Sant’Agata Feltria. Like a dream this real fairytale castle appeared. Built by the Fregoso family we thought it was possibly one of the most beautiful we’d seen. And the town around it delightful – it has an antique, still-used, teeny tiny wooden theatre, some fabulous piazzas a lovely 10th-century church and a bunch of big festivals including the massive autumnal National Truffle Festival.
Just a hop, skip and jump down the very pretty winding road we found yet another jewel. San Leo, even more important, soaring and perched on a higher rock than the others, it was sensational. The heart of the Montefeltro warlord territory, the impregnable forbidding castle, designed by Martini, has securely housed extraordinary prisoners such as the magician and alchemist Calliostro and various doomed political prisoners until just 70 years ago.
Yet the ancient cathedral built on pagan ruins was a part of St Francis of Assisi’s domain and the rest of the tiny hilltop area embodies a fabulous pocket-sized real city of art.
By now we were only half way down the valley, still to come were the lovely castle of Montebello with its legend of Azzurina the albino fairy; the daunting castle of Torriana where prisoners such as Gianciotto Malatesta, who killed his wife and brother Francesca and Paolo (remember Dante?) were held in deep pits – and the castle of Maiolo which was pushed down the hill by the almighty when the inhabit- ants performed the ‘Dance of the Angels’; naturally we couldn’t miss Talamello where hundreds of cheeses were busily maturing in pits, ready to be taken out in November!
I just couldn’t believe that there was much more to come, but then we were halted in our tracks by the sight of Verruchio, the Malatesta eyrie, the fabulous walled town created by the robber-baron family with views all over their territory.
Getting back to urban civilisation we were confronted by yet another massive Malatesta citadel dominating the sophisticated medieval city of Santarcangelo di Romagna.
Then the mountaintop republic of San Marino became visible. The triangular peak, a maze of rock-hewn streets, houses, shops, churches cathedrals and grand government buildings. And no less than three amazing gothic castles.
This should have been the zenith of our journey but the best was yet to come.
Episode 1 Romagna Mia
Episode 2 Meeting the most powerful woman in the world
Episode 3 The adventure continues
Episode 4 More food and fun
Episode 5 Mona Lisa Mussolini and marvellous meals
Episode 6 Paradise in a bowl
Episode 7 My Big Fat Romagnolo Birthday Party
TO BE CONTINUED...
and more about Romagna at www.BestofRomagna.com
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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.