MY ITALIAN ADVENTURE
THE STORY SO FAR:
I went on to continue my adventure in Romagna, Now to learn much more about this strange and wonderful place.
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.
Then we explored the romantic hilltop castles, festivals and fireflies. Now it was time to show our work and this amazing place to professional travel agents. Finally, before the real clients came I needed to check it all out personally.
Angelo and I were to eat our lunch in this first Casa Spadoni restaurant. We were excited!
The restaurant has been created out of an 18th-century silk mill on the outskirts of Faenza. It is massive and incorporates a substantial owner’s residence now made into a 12-room luxury boutique hotel plus a lovely garden with pergolas. Leonardo and his assistant Beatrice have obviously spared no expense to make a substantial – about four hundred covers in three separate restaurants – and unique environ- ment. The overwhelming design ethos is fun, rustic, piggy and very retro-chic! Big oak tables, a massive, specially made cast-iron barbeque, kitchens and big ladies making fresh pasta by hand all on display.
We started our lunch with a selection of meats, relishes and cheeses. There were the most amazing Mora Romagnolo prosciuttos, salamis, tiny sausages and other bits of the sweet little pigs, plus fresh squacquerone, other local cheeses and fig relish.
For our second course, the pasta ladies had made us something special – a “bis” – two different pastas. Tortelli di ricotta a spinaci (pasta packets with ricotta and spinach) and naturally tagliatelle covered with a rich sauce of their own Mora Romagnola.
And our mains came from the fantastic, massive, specially-made barbeque – bits of Mora – chops, steaks, sausages, a beef steak thrown in for good luck plus the most delicious, perfectly cooked pork liver.
Of course, there were grilled vegetables, and, of course warm just- cooked piadina flatbread, naturally stamped with the Spadoni pig logo. There were white and red wines to accompany our feast – a sangiovese and a dry albana both from the Spadoni estate. Dessert? Of course, with the classic sweet albana dessert wine we had the ubiquitous Zuppa Inglese and little pannacottas and semifreddos.
Just down the road lay the erstwhile hub of ultra-exquisite European ceramics. After a thousand years of high-class production, Faenza is still big in pottery. There was a time when any European royal family simply had to have their Faience-ware to entertain their guests – and that was when there were hundreds of royal courts in Europe. And Faenza grew rich on the proceeds. Even now the main squares are stunning and the artisan workshops fascinating. Faenza’s position on the Via Emilia still helps in transporting its beautiful wares around the world. No time for gelato unfortunately even though Faenza housesone of my top dozen gelaterias.
I’d never heard of Forli until low-cost airline Ryanair called its airport Bologna-Forli and I flew into it on a visit to Bologna. Now I know the city for what it is. A rich and beautiful city of art with a deeply dark recent history.
Dusk is just falling in the beautiful main square, the piazza Saffi, and I’m just explaining to Angelo that the fine eagle-headed cast-iron lamp posts that surround the ornate square have been dual-purpose in their time. With its history of fascism, Forli can be quite a dark city. During the Second World War, local anti-fascist partisans were hung from the lamp-posts and after the war they provided a hanging- place for fascist collaborators. So apart from emitting light these lovely tall eagle-headed sculptures also emitted shadow.
So, we went for a stroll – in a quite different Via Emilia city of art – Cesena, I think, has the most lovely main square I have ever seen. On one side is the big bold golden-stone Malatesta fort with its wide opening for medieval horse-mounted troops to emerge, opposite the fort there is a row of pretty shops, cafés and good restaurants, on the other side a lovely park and finally a tiny road to a sweet little piazza. Everything in Cesena is pretty, authentic and comfortable. There is lots of interest and simply nothing threatening – plus it has a fabulous five-hundred-year-old library and the best gelateria ever.
But Angelo reminds me, it’s time for dinner. We’re off to the spiritual home of Romagna food and drink, culture and history – Santarcangelo di Romagna.
The moment I return to Santarcangelo I am filled with memories – about my visits to the great millennia-old fairs the city holds; the Bird Fair each September and the Cuckolds fair in November both draw thousands from all over Romagna for fun and food and wine-packed merrymaking. Great hordes jostle to buy and talk and sing. But also I remember my involvement in the International street (or in Santarcangelo’s case piazza) theatre festival – an open-hearted event if ever there was one.
Everybody I bring to Santarcangelo loves this city of medieval terraces on a hill so I always study them to see if they’ve got it – Angelo certainly had.
But I had a problem. There are two sensational restaurants in Santarcangelo and a half a dozen amazing ones, but we only had time for one.
There’s just two of us and there is going to be a lot of food so we had to recruit a willing partner – the lovely Ofelia – a local girl who loved food and could certainly eat! We started with the pork platter – prosciutto, salami, dried sausage, seasoned coppa (head), flat panc- etta, seasoned lardo (fat), goletta (cheek and throat), and testarda with pickles and squacquerone and ricotta cheeses. Then we had three pastas – the passatelli (made of breadcrumbs, parmesan, nutmeg and lemon zest bound by egg yolk and swimming in a rich chicken and pork stock), strozzapreti (strangled priest pasta – in a sauce of rabbit and artichoke) and gnocchi made of semolina and ricotta with a sauce of pit-aged sheep cheese, green beans and black truffle.
So, we got to the main course with little trouble and shared veal cheek on a bed of cooked mixed wild herbs, veal tripe in a rich tomato and herb sauce and slow cooked veal with mashed potatoes and black truffle.
Phew! But that wasn’t all. Apart from the pasta station that created our fresh pastas and the piadina station sending us baskets of warm freshly cooked flatbread from time to time, there was also a gelato station and one for totally yummy desserts.
Fresh squacquerone cheesecake with candied figs and almond crumble, ricotta cake with chocolate sauce, another Zuppa Inglese and an almond gelato with a pistachio cream.
That was certainly a big end to our day on the Via Emilia.
On day two after our exertions on the Via Emilia, we needed to get some sea air.
Those Romans had an eye for a good thing. As I said they needed roads to transport their troops to keep the locals in order. So, when they conquered up north – that is up to the Apennine mountains, they had to build a road over their newly-conquered territory. Obviously before the Via Emilia was built, they had to have a road to its begin- ning. But where? They naturally built a starting point – a city of course. At the end of the Via Flaminia, the road which took them from Rome to the coast at the end of the mountains, they built a city to be the start of the Via Emilia.
And not just any old town, they built a brand spanking new Roman one on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. Ariminum was complete with its Grand Forum, its two central streets the Cardo Maximus and the Decumanus Maximus and its triumphal monument (an arch to the emperor Augustus). On top of all that there was the beautiful Tibe- rius bridge and the biggest amphitheatre outside of Rome which held twelve thousand spectators. So Ariminum was big stuff – a worthy stop for any of Rome’s armies, diplomats, merchants – anybody, in fact.
Here the Via Flaminia stopped after leaving Rome’s Aurelian walls and wending its three hundred kilometres through the Apennines arriving in Ariminum in time for tea, or whatever.
Ariminum was the crossroads – at the Arch of Augustus you could choose either the Via Emilia to Bologna and Milan or the Via Popilia to Ravenna and (later) Venice.
For the next couple of thousand years it remained important and historic. In the middle ages Rimini, as it came to be called by then, was the home of the enormously wealthy and powerful Malatesta family who ushered in a glorious era of art and architecture.
And massive amounts of all this wonderful heritage from the Romans until now is still here for all to see. Roman and medieval Rimini is a real treasure chest.
But it wasn’t heritage that attracted Angelo and me to Rimini in the 1980s. It was the fact that the coastal bit of the city with its vast beaches, the birthplace of Federico Fellini of Dolce Vita fame had become Europe’s biggest, glitziest fullest-on mass tourism destination in about 1965 and since then its progress was mainly downhill. This meant that the over a hundred and fifty thousand hotel beds were available as cheap as chips and we wanted them to make and sell cheap holidays.
Rimini is a tale of two cities and now the bit we overlooked for years – ie the bit without a beach had become more interesting and we needed to re-explore the Roman bits, and the Malatesta heritage. A sensational and historic walk.
Just down the road from Rimini is the rather smaller and prettier resort of Cesenatico – our lunch stop.
The beach runs pretty much all the way from Cattolica in the south right up the Po Valley in the north. There are dozens of resorts from big to small, from really pretty to quite ugly – but the beach is the beach.
Cesenatico is unexceptional apart from two things: it has one of the biggest fishing fleets in the Adriatic and a port that was re-designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The port is fabulous, every metre is a photo opportunity and the restaurants, supplied by the fleet, are sensational.
I have a favourite restaurant and a favourite meal, which we sit down to share. Angelo and I have a long history of eating spaghetti alla vongole – possibly the simplest and most delicious and most more-ish pasta that exists. Added to the sight and smell of the sea those little cockles tossed into hot fresh spaghetti with a teeny bit of chilli, parsley, garlic, and a slug of white wine – sensational! In this little harbourside restaurant our massive helpings are served in big copper bowls – they always look like there’s enough for five at least.
There is no argument about the second course. It’s fritto misto for him and mixed grill for me. The key to deep-frying little Adriatic fishes is the batter – it must be light and dry not heavy and oily so you get the taste of the shells, the bones and the fresh, fresh, fish combined with the sweet airy batter – in Angelo’s massive bowl go little prawns, baby squid, fresh anchovies and small sardines plus a few fat shrimp. I try one – remarkable. And my simple mixed grill – skewers of grilled squid and prawns, a lovely little Adriatic Sole, grilled Branzino – what more could you want? A coffee and a rest after all that eating exertion.
It’s about an hour’s walk over the beach and through the pinewoods to Cervia – the walk is a delight and Cervia itself is a gem.
Time to rest for the evening; it’s going to be a long day tomorrow.
I love Pennabilli, not just because it’s a beautiful ancient town at the top of a hill with a fab cathedral, a lovely piazza or two and amazing views but also because it has a personality.
That personality was Tonino Guerra the 20th century renaissance man who chose to retire there.
Angelo doesn’t think much of Tonino – well he wasn’t Venetian was he? Tonino was one hundred percent Romagnolo. Mosaicist, screen- writer with dozens of films and three Oscars to his credit, poet, artist, musician and dynamic spirit.
But my memories of Pennabilli were wilder. Once a year this beautiful town absolutely comes alive, really alive. There is something happening on every street corner, every park, simply every nook and cranny. In May for four days beautiful Pennabilli plays host to the Inter- national Street Theatre Festival – hundreds of brilliant buskers, dance groups, bands, mime artists, comedians and conjurers, high wire artists, singers, musicians, mystics and more perform and thousands come to enjoy. On any street corner you can hear jazz or country and western, klesma or soul, rock-and-roll or hip-hop. Wild for this festival is too tame a word – once I stood aghast as a mechanical dragon plodded his way through the crowds grunting and moaning as he breathed out great gusts of flame. Naturally there was food and drink and dancing and gelato, naturally there are pretty artisan markets selling everything from leather masks to perfumes and sweets – after all this is Romagna!
And walking Angelo around the hilly parks, the local monasteries and churches, the piazzas and the viewpoints, I tried to explain about Tonino Guerra and the fab festival but to no avail. He was more inter- ested in our next stop – Sant’Agata Feltria.
Just twenty or so kilometres down river from Pennabilli, Sant’Agata Feltria is also stunning. It has a real fairytale castle, a magnificent piazza, the prettiest little wooden theatre you’ve ever seen and a lovely staircase with guiderails made like a long colourful snail by Tonino Guerra. But Angelo wasn’t interested in any of that his mind was set on truffles!
Sant’Agata Feltria has a big Italian claim to fame – every weekend in October the National Truffle Festival is held here. It is MASSIVE. Of course, you can’t eat truffles by themselves so everything else is on sale too. All over the place. There are hundreds of stalls selling abso- lutely everything – from dustpans to beautiful butter, from great hunks of meats and sausages to a hundred different types of cheeses, from lipsticks and shoes to every possible kind of local fruit, from sweets and chocs to dozens of types of dried mushrooms. And the stars of the show, the little beauties to which the main square of Sant’Agata Feltria is devoted and whose musky scent suffuses the whole town – truffles.
Angelo was in his element, tasting truffle oils and truffle paste in the piazza stalls just added to his appetite for more. Naturally tagliolini con tartufo was to be our lunch.
And the afternoon was spent doing a bit more sampling and shopping before we drove down the Marecchia river valley, hills studded with castles, to the biggest one of all – a whole republic with three soaring castles on a hillside, more a mountain really – the pocket-sized republic of San Marino up at the top of Mount Titano.
In my view San Marino really is a tale of two cities – one sacred, the other profane. Sacred San Marino is a beautiful, spiritual ancient UNESCO world heritage site with castles, cathedral, churches and cobbled streets, like Saint Marinus with high social aspirations and Roman law. The profane San Marino is too commercial to be true; its major industries were banking, gambling and selling stuff to tourists, lately, in particular, Russian tourists. As a result, many shopkeepers have taken Russian brides who now run their shops and stand outside grabbing passing visitors. Nonetheless San Marino is definitely the place to buy cut-price Ray Bans. And the views, on the one side to the hills of Romagna and the Apennine mountains, and on the other to the plain and the sea, are truly spectacular.
Before dinner, I just had to take Angelo to see San Leo, as different from San Marino as chalk and cheese. San Leo is also a spectacular mountaintop community but almost totally sacred and not a bit profane. It’s strange because the tale is that Saint Marinus and Saint Leo were buddies: both stonemasons, both coming from Dalmatia to help build Ariminum and both Christian mystic hermits. Be that as it may, both the cathedral built on a pagan site and the old, old community church are unbelievably beautiful, and spiritual. And the impregnable soaring, gaunt citadel prison is fearful.
There are too many good restaurants in San Leo, though, so I needed to shake Angelo out of his reverie before he noticed them. Into the car and off to dinner. At the top of another big hill.
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
Episode 8 River Deep Mountain High - Romagna's Fabulous Castles
Episode 9 Fireflies, Cherries and Soaring Hills
Episode 10 Racing around Romagna
Episode 11 The Sublime and the Ridiculous
Episode 12 The Best of Romagna - will they love it like we do?
Episode 13 Food, food, glorious Romagna FOOD
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.