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 - then we explored the romantic hilltop castles, festivals and fireflies.
The big event this week was the exhilarating Mille Miglia – the thousand-mile drive for classic cars paraded near to Santarcangelo, then over the 2,000 year-old Tiberius Bridge in nearby Rimini. Pity any car broken down and left for dead as Mutoids would certainly pick it up and transform it!
Dozens of purring top-class Mercedes led the parade followed by every kind of Ferrari growling across the bridge. Then... well over 400 classic cars mounted the bridge to the cheers of the spectators. Participation is limited to cars, produced no later than 1957, which had attended (or were registered) to the original race. So Porsches, Jaguars, Bentleys, Alfa Romeos, Bugattis, Mercedes, Aston Martins, BMWs, Maseratis, Fiats, Abarths, and the rest of a multi-billion dollar parade of classic cars participated – a true feast of engineering beauty.
Although the entry fee is €10,000 per car, you do get a free pair of Chopard watches to remember the occasion!
And, for free, onlookers get a truly incredible spectacle. It is described as “A demented and indulgent road race around Italy – the fulfilment of so many pleasures at once – speed, gluttony, bravado – all crammed into three days.”
Whereas on the other hand the Motogiro d’Italia, although showcasing classic motorbikes and passing through Romagna the weekend after, is a different thing entirely. Yes, it is also run over 1,000 miles (1500km) and yes, it showcases classic bikes – but no – it’s not expensive to enter. So, the amateurs say it’s much more fun – even if they come from the other end of the world to take part.
On the day I visited San Marino to see the Motogiro – it was like motorcycle city – beautiful bikes everywhere, and the enthusiasm of the owners and the spectators is infectious.
Something like all the rest but less noisy (if you exclude the wild cheers of the spectators) was the Giro d’Italia. Naturally this massive cycling event comes down the Via Emilia in force so that all the Romagnoli can crowd the streets to watch.
While first the advance guard of smart cars zooms down, then the police and ambulances, then the dozen or so lorries selling pink souve- nirs. And finally the competitors – a massive colourful bunch.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, the same week there was a MASSIVE metal sale. Mostrascambio – just 20km from Rimini) Over 800 stallholders take over the pretty little town of Gambettola selling scrap, antiques and items related to cars and vintage bikes and motorcycles.
It takes hours to pick through the maze of streets and the amazing exhibits and offers for sale.
Time to pick up a bargain to enter in the Mille Miglia or the Moto- giro d’Italia or the Giro d’Italia or for Mutoidi to cart it away and make it into art.
Time for a party? In Romagna it’s always time for a party! And at the tiny picturesque hilltop settlement of Pennabilli (pop 1,500) a massive party had just kicked off. ‘Artisti in Piazza’ plays host each year to 64 international theatre, music, circus and street art companies. This festival attracts no less that 40,000 guests from all over the world who enjoy great music and entertainment, fabulous food and wine and astonishing hospitality.
Asked “Why do you do this festival?” – Tonino Guerra, Romagnolo hero, replied “To have fun, of course!”
As you may imagine I was partied and dinnered out for a while and it was lucky the big food festival was a whole week away. Time for a little rest and relaxation on the balmy coast before a final two events before I left.
Forlimpopoli, Romagna has held an annual gastronomic event dedicated to Pellegrino Artusi “Father of Italian Cookery” and that year was its 18th birthday. For over a week every night between 7pm and midnight, the historical centre of this small town came alive as a ‘City of Taste’ for the Festa Artusiana.
Streets, alleys, courtyards and squares become stages for food stands featuring Artusi’s dishes, exhibitions, performances, multi- media productions, tastings and gastronomic tours, concerts, chil- dren’s events, cultural events, art displays, and more.
And, that week foodies from all over the world swarmed to Forlim- popoli to eat, drink, buy, learn and be merry! And with free entrance for everybody, there was fun and tastes, music and conversation for all.
Music was a melodious background around the town’s citadel where more than 150 stalls opened up for business together with 40 open-air restaurants, which together with the 11 local ones, served massive portions of amazing food and wine every evening for 9 warm edible nights.
Everywhere you were able to buy and consume delicious specialities from the Artusi cookbook – listed by recipe number AND at extraordinarily low prices.
Pride of place was given to really local seasonal foods and great wines such as the Mora Romagna pork, the Squacquerone di Romagna cheese, Romagna peach and nectarine, the Romagna shallot, Volpina pears and the amazing wines including DOC Sangiovese di Romagna, DOCG Albana di Romagna and DOC Trebbiano di Romagna.
Finally, just down the road at the serene city of Cesena, another more ancient festival took place – the three-day celebration of St John the Baptist – Cesena’s patron saint – has been taking place regularly for hundreds of years.
The city of Cesena was endowed by the rich and powerful Malat- esta warrior family with both a soaring citadel overlooking the city and the world’s first public library. But the thing that most Cesenate know best how to do is to celebrate, traditionally and, it must be said, rather stylishly.
The cobbled alleyways, elegant streets and delightfully paved squares are all festooned with stalls helping the inhabitants to drink, and eat and buy all they need to have a good time.
In pride of place were the red sugar cockerels, symbols of Romagna. The idea is that you resist eating these succulent delights until the eve of St John’s Day and you whistle through them to get rid of all your sins! It’s no wonder that all the stalls with cockerels on display (I counted a dozen at least!) were sell-outs.
Other stalls included even more traditional bits of St John’s ware – beautiful hand-made sprays of lavender and garlic – the garlic to ward off witches and the lavender to ward off the smell of garlic! These bouquets were made by a daunting group of women numbering at least 20 who were creating them to fund the Red Cross. Special icecream (gelato) made of milk from the local 0-kilometer dairy was also on offer.
One of the traditions of the St John’s Day festa is to buy something for your house – and (given that this is in Romagna) to get it at the very best price. All manner of stalls were doing great business – around 500 of them throughout the city centre!
Plus, a big fair, plus the usual outside summer culture that is Cesena.
And to cap it all, my friend Cristina Ambrosini finally let go of the reins of her publication for a few days and came from Rome to stay with me in Longiano.
Of course, there was a festa that weekend – a special party in the main square in celebration of the ‘Streets of Taste’ in the local area – in other words many opportunities to taste great local food and wine and music.
We’d also been invited to a fascinating evening called Cinema DiVino – where you watch a good film outdoors and taste great wine. As it happened very good wine indeed, organic and biodynamic wine at a stunningly beautiful boutique vineyard – Villa Venti close to Longiano with views of the castle.
Next day we did some shopping for olive oil, promised to work together on a number of projects including Cristina’s first foray into the UK’s World Travel Market and I put her on the train for Rome.
I went back to the UK for August to see my family. It’s always a wonderful time and I feel so truly grateful and privileged to have them around.
Back to work at the end of the month, I drove to Belgium.
Professor Geoffrey Lipman, the man that I had first met in South Africa after he launched Green Globe some 20 years previously, had invited me to present at a summer school that he was holding at Hasselt University.
The summer school was a great idea. All about sustainable tourism, it was full of ambitious passionate young people from all over the world – all committed to sustainability. Plus, there were some great innovations.
In the heart of Flanders, Hasselt shows just how much Belgium has progressed socially and economically in the last 50 years.
When I went to buy shoe polish the shop-owner looked at my shoes and sold me the best and most expensive shoe polish I’d ever bought. It matched my shoes exactly, smelled wonderful and was an exclusive brand made in Paris. Not bad for a country that was practically destroyed in the First World War and emerged penniless from the second.
The lovely cobbled main square had lots of very good restaurants around it – and in the middle of the square there was a massive marquee, with a big band and singers who led the dancing every Tuesday and Thursday night. What fun!
And, being Flanders, there were dozens of great chocolate shops. But one in particular is lauded as the ‘Best Chocolate Experience in Belgium’ and it is. The attention to detail from the very best ingredients to superb design of shapes is meticulous. The tastes – heavenly.
All in all, a lovely, rich small town of which there are many in Flanders.
Of course, Belgium has a reputation for art and literature, architecture and learning. It also has a reputation for deep surreal quirkiness as exemplified by Magritte, Tin Tin and the Manneken Pis.
The University of Hasselt is set in a massive 17th-century city jail right in the downtown area. Its brilliant architectural design: a heavy- duty Belgian building, a cross between a convent and a castle.
The seminar inside was on the border of surrealism and futurology. It was totally ram-packed full of mind-bending questions.
OK, many of the lectures were, in fact, lectures in the formal sense of the word but if you wanted to know the future of tourism it was here in a very raw state of practically pure thought.
Geoffrey’s got this project called ‘SunArk’ and it’s more than very very futuristic. Imagine a totally zero-emission modern-day ark (a kind of Dr Who’s telephone box filled with people and screens. Imagine a world (today) where everybody who enters a tourist destination is tracked on their smartphone. Imagine a computer program that feeds on big tourism data. Imagine a set of algorithms that use all this personal data to identify and direct visitors around the destination to see, to eat and drink, to sleep and spend, all in the right places and at the right times.
So, the idea is that these SunArks and their teams would be deployed in destinations all over the world to make tourism better, more sustainable and more efficient. In Geoffrey’s word – ‘Smart’.
Geoffrey had lined up some superb presenters to deal with some fairly unusual concepts.
The visionary Polish architect and creator of the Sun Ark, Jurek Kasperowicz, outlined the applications for this revolutionary ecological construction both as an initiative to provide desperately-needed care for refugees and as destination tourism observatories with particular applications in national parks.
The audience were treated to critical insights into the future of sustainable aviation within the European Union and on a global basis. The vision for the future of the airline industry against the background of emissions and critical agreements was delivered by world-class industry figures.
And the dramatic growth of smartphone applications in every area from crowdsourcing and tracking tourism to providing massive data were discussed and illuminated by experts.
Two global heavyweight sustainable tourism brains – Professor Harold Goodwin and Felix Dodds – delivered heavyweight presenta- tions in the Maurice Strong ‘Reflections Lectures’ tracking the sustain- ability agenda, from 1972, its imminent outcomes and the critical need for responsible forms of tourism.
Even I gave a presentation.
But there was one event that quite blew my mind. You look at Geoffrey and listen to his presentations, remember that this man was executive director of the global airline organisation IATA, first president of the World Travel and Tourism Association, and assistant Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organisation. Educated at a rugby-playing English grammar school. On the surface nobody could be more in tune with the hierarchy, more conformist.
And then he presents Koen Vanmechelen and his Cosmopolitan Chicken Project.
By then we were at Koen’s HQ by Hasselt harbour – the “Open University of Diversity”.
“This is a global, transdisciplinary and transtemporal examination of the themes of biocultural diversity and identity through the inter- play of art, science and beauty.” Says Koen
Koen crossbreeds chickens from different countries. His ultimate goal is the creation of a Cosmopolitan Chicken carrying the genes of all the planet’s chicken breeds. In his view, much more than a mere domesticated animal, the chicken is art in itself.
Well, here, it is. There are vast tracts of exhibition space with videos, artworks, living and dead things, sounds and sights – all related to ...chickens.
My mind was totally blown by the sheer surreal audacity of it all – introduced to me by Geoffrey – a palpably middle-class, normal Englishman.
But not so much so as to not be floored by a text message I got later in the day from Cristina’s sister to say that she’d had an accident and was dead. I simply didn’t believe it but after some hours of investigating its truth was proved and I was totally gutted.
The event was over, I’d have to find out more about Koen’s chicken project and its surreal opportunities later. Saddened, I drove back to Italy.
I had a job to do which involved hosting a few American travel agents checking out us and Romagna,
Anyway, one day after the agents had gone back to America, I took Angelo to Dozza so he could see the fabulous painted town and the regional wine museum in the Sforza castle and we got separated amongst the museum’s thousands of wine bottles. “Hello, where are you from?” Said Valentina, the young and beautiful elfin German girl engaging me in conversation. I told her exactly what I was doing in Italy, she sounded interested and told me that she was “As free as a bird” and she’d like to find out more. Quickly we started a correspond- ence that was to lead to much more.
I knew where Santarcangelo di Romagna was because I’d been there one evening for an astonishing performance in the main square of film music, with great light effects. At about €100 a ticket it wasn’t cheap but there were at least 2000 paying punters. And the performances were superb.
So, when I went back for the annual Bird Fair Santarcangelo, I was no stranger. Bird Fair? Well they still sell a few cage birds but birds have become less important over the last thousand years or so and everything else – mainly food and drink – has become more important. A thousand stalls more important in fact. Held on the feast of St Michael, this must be the mother of all harvest festivals!
Piazza after piazza was crammed with people and food and all the stuff that goes with festas, basically food and drink and music. Naturally locals are keen to try new things too so stallholders come from all over Italy with their wares. For sale at the Bird Fair there were lots of sweet things from Sicily, lots of breads and oils from Tuscany, lots of cheeses and hams from Emilia, lots of special and interesting things from everywhere; pretty much every region in Italy has its own cuisine and its own speciality and Italians are a curious bunch interested in trying everything. Obviously, the aroma of food and drink is heady and the idea of plenty is very comforting.
But, big as it was, the Bird FaIr was only really a rehearsal for things to come. The truffle season heralded in two massive festivals in Romagna. The first was the aptly named National Festival of White Truffles in Sant’Agata Feltria the second the truly massive Festival of Saint Martin (more commonly known as the Cuckolds festival) in Santarcangelo.
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
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.