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.
And now festival season was approaching BIG TIME!
Sant‘Agata Feltria is truly beautiful and it has many assets that make it even more attractive. It has a historic soaring medieval castle, a pretty wooden working theatre, lots of lovely restaurants and a complete range of cobbled piazzas. It is quite spacious but even then there are so many people that want to attend the festival that it has to run over four ram-cram-packed weekends rather than just one. In the event hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Sant’Agata in October.
And all these visitors get great value. There are hundreds of stalls selling truffle-related things from dried ceps to truffle sauces and oils to the real McCoy – little truffles protected from the air in little glass domes. And because it’s the end of the season everything else is on sale too – there are dozens of stalls selling forgotten fruit and veg (plus the remembered ones as well). There are rows of stalls selling sweets, chocolates and sweet things generally – cakes, sweeties, spun sugar etc – winter is on the way! And there are many stalls selling cheese and butter and other dairy products. Plus of course the local fast food – piadina – flat bread stuffed with anything you want, mainly prosciutto, squacquerone and rucola, always warm and delicious. Performing bands strolled around to accompany singing and dancing and the 17th-century little theatre opened its doors. It was lovely.
Obviously, this was autumn after harvest so there were festivals cropping up everywhere and, as the truffle festival closed and the town swept up, Santarcangelo was preparing for the Biggie. I’d heard about the Cuckold Festival but this was the first time I would see it. Luckily, I had a couple of chaperone/interpreters in the shape of Daniela and Chiara.
The rain was just letting up and the clouds clearing a little as we got to an out-of-town parking place where we were to get the bus into the city. There were such massive crowds that the city itself was closed to cars. The bus dropped us off about half a kilometre from the main square but even there it was heaving.
Santarcangelo is a fairly substantial place but the whole city was crammed. I would not have been surprised if there were over a hundred thousand visitors that day.
Why? To eat and drink and buy and chat and watch and laugh and joke and hug and kiss and walk just like their forefathers had been doing for at least the last thousand years or so at the Fair of San Martino here in the heart of Romagna.
First we fought our way through to the main square where we could see the ceremonial arch now surrounded by heaving crowds and dozens of colourful stalls. As is usual at San Martino, many stalls display great bulls’ heads and suspended from the arch itself is a magnificent pair of bull’s horns. The idea? Men who are brave enough walk under the arch – and if the horns wobble – the cry of “Becchi” goes up as the man is accused of being a cuckold – his woman has given herself to another!
That emotional challenge over, we wander (or to be more exact push ourselves) around. Today Santarcangelo truly is the harvest land of plenty. Around the main square many stalls have joined together to create great tented emporia stuffed full of autumn delicacies – mush- rooms and truffles, great sausages and cheeses, enormous mountains of sweets and other sugary treats, cakes and jams and chutneys. And, of course there are gallons and gallons of great wines, olive oils and vinegars – from all over Italy, and in particular from the local area – fertile Romagna. And each emporium was stuffed full of local people too, great extended families, young couples arm-in-arm and loads of kids – buying, feeding, laughing, cavorting often all at once – after all the harvest is in!
Of course, there are fruit and vegetables too, food-packed stalls, great heaving tables, trays and plates, baskets and boxes, crates and crates of it. Gleaming fruits and vegetables I recognised and local speciality exotic fruits and vegetables I didn’t. Here in Santarcangelo you can find anything you want at the Cuckolds Festival – succulent Cardoons of course, volpina pears for pickling of course, perfect lumpy yellow quinces, of course, piquant medlars, of course, plus dozens and dozens of forgotten varieties of apples and pears and berries. All beau- tifully presented and delicious.
Here there is everything you need for your home and everything you need for your wardrobe and everything you need for your kitchen and your garden plus many, many things that you never knew you needed.
So the Cuckolds Fair was enormous and amazing, gargantuan and packed with local people walking and talking and eating and falling out of cafés and restaurants and bars and gelateries obviously set to eat and drink the city dry.
But as I was to learn, all this too was just a rehearsal for a region- wide festival that would start in just a few weeks – on the festival of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th of December, panettone would be baked and the Nativity would be ushered in.
In Romagna I found out that Christmas festivities, fun, frolics and feasting are taken very, very, seriously. I drove around the whole area to see it.
Romagnolo people just love any celebration and Christmas is the big one, so in Romagna, all the fun and the magic of Christmas is of enormous importance! Villages, towns, cities and seaside resorts enthusiastically compete with each other with the quality of their Christmas markets, Christmas lights, decorations, and Christmas music – but above all they take great pride in their nativity scenes.
Artistic nativity scenes that involve whole towns; nativity scenes on the water or on boats; live representations with hundreds of figures; delicately made in sand or salt; small mechanical moving masterpieces; multi-ethnic nativities and scenes in grottoes. Every- where in Romagna local people treasure their own evocation of the traditional Christmas story
All along the coast, and up in the hills, historic townships were vying with each other to create the most outstanding traditional (and non-traditional) Nativity scenes and Christmas Markets. Schools and families and local church groups were making all the little figures, the cribs the shepherds, the angels and the stars – painstakingly putting them all together and making little scenes everywhere and out of anything! There were pottery nativity scenes, ones made of wool and cotton and glass – everything!
I saw the Holy Family up on hilltops, inside castle cloisters, on beaches and in harbours – made of simply every material you can imagine – and often animated, both acted and mechanical. Here in Romagna Christmas was not Christmas without a Nativity Scene and pretty much every Nativity Scene has its own little Christmas Market, where locals could buy Christmas presents and stock up on Christmas delicacies, decorations and other delights.
So, in the historic Leonardo da Vinci-designed sea harbour of Cesenatico, the ancient ships in the open air maritime museum had Nativity Scenes on each; in the historic Pope’s salt-port of Cervia, there were harbourside and beachside nativity scenes; in the hilltop vine-coated wine and olive oil townships of Bertinoro, Brisighella and Longiano there were hilltop and castle court nativity scenes. And in the important cities such as Cesena and Forli, Rimini and Ravenna – massive acted Nativities in the historic centres.
Rimini hosted two spectacular nativities made of sand and in the heart of glitzy Milano Marittima there was a stunning work of art using modern animation techniques. Created using glass fibre, the one hundred elements in this setting glow at any time of day or night.
Top of the pops for many – close to home for me – were the magical mechanical nativity scenes in the local pilgrimage site – the convent of the SS. Crocifisso, in Longiano. It was full of complex and fasci-nating mechanical movements, lights and sounds. From here, I did the nativity walk to different nativities throughout the entire historic centre, the museums and many other surprising and beautiful settings.
Santarcangelo was showing a mechanical nativity scene inside its labyrinthine grottoes, this featured a 200-metre underground nativity walk. Animations, lighting and special effects dance over one hundred statues, created by hand by a local sculptor, Davide Santandrea.
Another original representation along a spectacular underground pathway winds through the Solfatara grottoes, the old sulphur mine in Predappio Alta, near Forli.
And in the mountains, in soaring Montefiore Conca, the entire centre of this medieval village became a natural stage for the nativity scene. More than 150 figures and thirty episodes are represented along a path winding through the streets of the town and it ends with the Nativity set up in the magnificent Arena.
My favourite – Pennabilli’s starry scene winds around a picturesque hilltop from its ancient cathedral.
But the knockout big jobs were San Marino and Sant’Agata Feltria. There were many more of course that I didn’t see, but to be honest wherever you were in the world Christmas wouldn’t get any more full-on than San Marino.
High on the top of Mount Titano, soaring above the Adriatic coast, are the ramparts of a unique World Heritage Site – the tiny, atmos- pheric Republic of San Marino.
The quirky mountaintop state that refused to join Italy, that kept itself aloof from the European Union (and that scored the fastest-ever goal in the World Cup!) creates possibly the most magical Christmas- time event in the world – rightly called “The Christmas of Marvels”
Naturally there is an ice-skating rink; naturally Santa Claus sets up his village (with lots of elf helpers) to help lots of kiddies – of all ages – make Christmas delicacies and wrap presents; naturally there are stunningly beautiful nativity scenes, naturally there are traditional carol concerts in the atmospheric churches, naturally there is a vast array of duty-free and branded outlet shopping in the pretty boutiques. naturally there are Christmas shops stuffed full of Christmas goods from decorations to cuckoo clocks to electronic Santas – everything – and naturally there is a fabulous Christmas Farmers’ Market full of glorious local produce.
Everyone can Christmas shop to their heart’s content (and often to their wallet’s benefit!). From a vast range of world-famous designer brands to great Christmas decorations – and authentic cuckoo clocks! There is even a superb local Farmers’ Market selling local panettone
(naturally), local honey, local preserved fruits, local salamis and prosciuttos, local nougats and sweets and much, much more.
Plus, Christmas music, plus Christmas lights, plus stalls selling hot Christmas drinks, sweet Christmas confections and delicious stuffed piadina flatbread, plus the aromas and sounds of Christmas- time everywhere.
Exhausted by it all, I returned to the UK for a really quiet Christmas in Bath and a few winter months with my family.
By the next year, I was pretty much ready to knock Best of Romagna on the head. I felt that I was getting nowhere fast.
However, I had been in touch with Valentina over the winter months since we met in Dozza, and she seemed pretty enthusiastic about the project. Anyway, she said that she was prepared to do some work with me and see what happened.
As it happened, her blend of rather caustic wit, Teutonic concentra- tion on detail and bursts of determined energy looked like it would keep me in order for a while plus I was desperately in need of her energy if I was to continue.
One other asset that Valentina had was her language. She was a joy to talk with in English, her range of words, phrases and construc- tions was enormous and she played her instrument of words with enormous flair. Usually her language was colourful but that added to the impact and the fun. So Valentina was fun to work with, plus I have never known anyone who could eat more pasta as quickly and I could depend on her, so life became a bit of a ball.
Quickly we got to work creating a team of friendly locals and preparing to show Romagna to travel agents from the USA.
The idea was simple, we would choose such brilliant co-operators with such brilliant products and services and full of such passion for what they did that what we created with them would shine out as the real Best of Romagna. Naturally we chose people that we liked and could have fun with too. After all what we did had to be happy and it had to infect our clients with joy or it wouldn’t work.
So, we ate great food at super restaurants, Valentina tasted wine at great vineyards, we inspected lovely small hotels, we talked to artists and guides and lots of other people.
Finally, we had our initial team of 20 – all people we really liked and that were full of passion and professionalism. And they were full of fun. Our dream team in fact.
We had three great vineyard owners: one historic, one organic and one biodynamic. We had five great restaurateurs, all offering different twists on great Romagnolo cuisine and all making their pasta fresh by hand every day. We had five hoteliers all with different styles of hotel but all giving warm hospitality with superb service, we had a master cheese affinateur, an olive grove owner and oil producer whose family had been doing the same thing in the same place, wonderfully, for seventeen generations.
As this is the land of Federico Fellini we had a couple of great film- makers and philosophers. Naturally we had an organic piadina maker. We had a bunch of artists in metal and fire and other unusual stuff. Above all Casa Artusi had become a partner too – here our clients could experience the culture of Romagnolo food started by the “Father of Italian Home Cooking” – Pellegrino Artusi.
Then we put together our offers and created our website.
Our customers would get what we considered was the very best of Romagna food and wine, history and culture sights and hospitality. They would stay not in five-star chain hotels, but lovely local country houses with warm hospitality, they would visit beautiful ancient historical places with local people and they would enjoy wonderful local food and wine.
And then we welcomed our American travel agents.
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
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.
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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.