MY ITALIAN ADVENTURE
EPISODE 15 - THE END OF THE BEGINNING!
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...
I had been hoping to take Angelo to Gradara but he hadn’t had a good meal for hours and it was probably just an hour away from his bitching time. However, on our way to our dinner on another moun- taintop I told him about it. The story is in Dante’s Inferno, which is part of the Divine Comedy – strange title because there is nothing funny about it at all.
Poor, beautiful Francesca da Rimini, I always think, falling in love with the wrong Malatesta!
By now we were up another mountain in Verucchio the birthplace of the Malatesta clan. And pretty beautiful it is too with amazing views and the mandatory castle plus a very, very splendid restaurant. It’s called the restaurant della Rocca – which means castle or fort so it’s pretty Malatestian and while you’re eating you can practically see all the way over the Adriatic to Croatia.
Angelo isn’t interested in the view, though, his head is immersed in the menu.
And he chose a splendid meal for us – a big plate of starters, two sorts of freshly-made pastas – cappelletti stuffed with ricotta and tagliatelle with their sensational ragu, then everything that they had that they could cook over their log fire – meat, veg, the lot. Obviously Angelo was hungry. I even risked a Zuppa Inglese for my dessert. And then it was home to Longiano, which I’ll tell you about tomorrow!
Longiano is where I came when I was ill and it’s where I stay now. The kindness of its people made me better when I was very sickl. I didn’t realise then that the town was well known for its miracles and a pilgrimage place for centuries. Once this hilltop town of about a thou- sand souls had seventeen churches!
Nowadays there is still the massive convent with its miraculous crucifix and a much-depleted family of monks and just one other oper- ating church. The rest have been converted – one church has become a fabulous bar, another convent is now a theatre, yet another, a row of shops and a bar, an exquisite chapel has become a museum of cast iron another has become an amazing art space, another lovely church has become a museum of sacred arts and yet another church has become a public space and a special place for Christmas where every year there are dozens of nativity scenes on display.
Quick whistle-stop tour of the churches for Angelo and I tell him that at least two of the churches have miraculous objects in them. That’s enough to make him hungry again.
We walk up the hill to one of my most favourite museums in the world – Longiano’s Museum of the Territory. Basically, the idea is that when anybody dies or clears out their house all the ‘junk’ goes to this museum. This has been happening since the last war and the museum is now crammed full of fascinating items from 1950’s Lambrettas to film posters. It’s a complete history of ordinary people and full of faces of the past that peppered our bedrooms like Sophia Loren and lovely Gina Lollobrigida and difficult to tear ourselves away from it. I tell Angelo to stop playing the table football machine – we need to see Longiano’s castle.
The quite beautiful edifice which dominates Longiano and has extraordinary views to the hills and the sea brings a story to life. What happened here is sheer conjecture but the castle was actually built for Gianciotto Malatesta, and it’s sure that he lived here for a while. Until, that is, he was dragged away to his own private hell one of the hideous dungeons at Torriana castle, 20 kilometres away, where he met his slow death.
Anyway, this castle, apart from being beautiful, has a great art collection – said to be the best of modern art in the province. Here you can see Kandinski, Renoir, Cézanne, Degas and others of that ilk, not perhaps at their million-dollar best but certainly very good. Plus, a bunch of superb modern Italian painters of the 40s and 50s which Angelo loves. And a great collection of modern etchings...
The collection was started by a local poet who had little money but lots of words, which he swapped for pictures. Obviously a very effective ploy.
Time for lunch! And a Michelin-listed restaurant is in the castle grounds. Dei Cantoni restaurant is one of the main reasons I chose Longiano that October when things were going wrong: they were so incredibly kind, plus they did an amazing spread for my birthday. Today Angelo and I go for the no-nonsense lunch – two courses on one plate, a ‘Piat Unico’ each. Today’s set lunch includes Garganelli – short lengths of tube pasta – with a rich sauce of Formaggio di Fossa – piquant pit-matured goat’s cheese – and roasted leg of pork in a lovely rosemary sauce with rich mashed potatoes. Naturally there was freshly/baked bread and piadina. Naturally I had a teeny, tiny chocolate mousse with my coffee. Now off to another hill with a story for the afternoon.
Legend has it that the Empress Galla Placidia, on a tour of her local province, stopped at a hill for refreshments. She was given a cup of the local albana wine in a rough terracotta vessel. After having drunk it she pronounced “This wine is so good it should be drunk in gold!” Hence the local community took the name ‘Drunk in Gold’ or “Bert in Oro” in local dialect.
Angelo and I were on our way to Bertinoro to check out just a few of the hundred-odd vineyards growing mainly the golden albana, the rich red sangiovese and the fizzy white Pagadebit – all delicious fragrant local wines.
Of course, although Bertinoro is not only famous for its great wines, it is a stunningly beautiful place too. The soaring Bishop’s castle which once dominated the whole area is now a conference centre dedicated to ecumenism and peace, and the pretty town itself is focused on hospitality, even has a festival dedicated to the pursuit of welcoming visitors.
It’s always nice to have a walk on a hill taking in lovely sites, but it certainly improves your appetite and Angelo was dreaming about dinner. I had a nice surprise in store for him.
Just 15 minutes down the road from Bertinoro is an old Via Emilia town called Forlimpopoli. It’s had a bit of an up-and-down ride, rebel- ling against the papacy and getting pillaged etc. But now things are calmer and Forlimpopoli has re-invented itself as a centre of excel- lence in cookery, food and wine. This new life has been made possible because of Pellegrino Artusi who was born here.
Nowadays Pellegrino is not as well known as he was although he is still famous in culinary circles as the ‘Father of Italian Ccokery’. His fame and influence stem from the fact that during the 19th century he travelled the length and breadth of the territory that was to become Italy, collected recipes, tested them, categorised them and in 1870, as the country of Italy was born, published a book called “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well” – in Florentine Italian, the language of the new country – Italy. It was a sellout, reprinted many times and and as floods of Italians emigrated, was carried with them to remind them of home.
As a result of Artusi’s influence, a foundation has been established in his birthplace, complete with a few restaurants following the same delicious recipes printed in the book.
This was to be Angelo’s surprise dinner. We were to have recipe no 117 to start, followed by recipe no 69, followed by recipe 324 and then we were to have a 675 for dessert!
The flowers and herbs on tiny toasts with anchovy were delicious, freshly-made tagliatelli with the prosciutto sauce amazing, the stew of veal breast with fennel sensational and of course the Zuppa Inglese unbelievably good. Not only did we get a great meal but we were trans- ported back a hundred and fifty years to an age of real cooking.
There was nothing for it other than to go back to Longiano quietly for a great sleep.
I still can’t believe what Angelo was obsessing about the next morning – Nodino di Vitello. He knew that today we were to take the train to Florence to check it out and he has this favourite trattoria there. By the time we left Longiano to get the train to Florence, he’d mapped out exactly what we were going to have for lunch. But first we had to get there.
The little train from Faenza takes a heart-stoppingly picturesque route over the Apennines with just amazing views. On a good day it’s simply unbelievable, roaring rivers, high mountain passes, pretty little villages and it was a very good clear day. So when we arrived at Florence Santa Maria Novella station we were satiated with beau- tiful sights. Naturally we did all the tourist stuff and more, the Ponte Vecchio, Boboli Gardens, the amazing panoramic Belvedere, the palaces and the piazzas.
Everywhere, though, there were crowds. Angelo had little fits of rage as he spotted the enormous lines of tourists in shorts and sneakers ringing the delicate duomo, eating snacks as they shuffled forward before they were herded in. He reached boiling point as he was nearly run over by groups of tourists whipping past us riding segways. And when he spotted tourists on fat-wheeled bicycles screeching to a halt and circling their tour guide beside the glorious statue of David he nearly reached breaking point. “They are vandals” he said “I brutti! It’s terrible”
So, we were in desperate need of some light entertainent – the glorious three-floor central market – food porn and more. It has every- thing perfectly displayed. Anything you can eat – the very, very best of all foods, it’s here. Our tongues were hanging out. We bought enough amazing food for an army, to take back with us.
And now for lunch in Angelo’s chosen trattoria. Of course we had to start with those little Florentine specialities – bits of toast covered with chicken livers, then, in Angelo’s words “Pappardelle, suco di lepre is one of God’s own creations” and so it was, the rich wild hare sauce the perfect complement to the large flat freshly made eggy pasta. And then, of course, the veal saddle meat in its stew – the “Nodino di Vitello” was stunning. What could we have for dessert other than reviving lemon sorbets?
Now we just had to walk off the food as another dinner was ordered in Faenza at Casa Spadoni. Luckily we made it back to Longiano without exploding!
The next night we were to be in Ravenna exactly where this adventure had started some five years previously and we got there via our pit-stop in Bagnacavallo.
Bagnacavallo is a country town that was pretty much surrounded by reeds and waterways. At least it was a few hundred years ago when it established its reed-weaving industry. Chairs, handbags, baskets, once upon a time they were all the rage. Maybe that’s why Lord Byron chose it to escape to with his latest love Teresa. Anyway, he brought his daughter Allegra to Bagnacavallo and it was here that she died aged just five .
Probably Byron would have enjoyed the local market in the Piazza Nuova – one of Europe’s most perfect piazzas. To be honest it’s not so perfect – rather than being perfectly round or perfectly square, it’s elliptical – but stunningly beautiful nonetheless. Built in the mid-18th century as a local trade centre it now hosts all sorts of little festivals. And it’s got a couple of brilliant restaurants. In one of which we were to have our lunch... and our entertainment from Maurizio the proprietor, who’s been everywhere. Top of the list of his stories are his escapades working on the Orient Express.
Anyway, his food and presentation is impeccable, and its mainly fish so we could have a lovely light fish lunch in delectable al fresco surroundings in stunning architecture before we followed the canal to Ravenna.
I want to take Angelo to Sant’Apollinare in Classe en route. It shakes me to the core – always.
You get to the outside of this classic 6th century basilica with its campanile and it looks great and serene. All around there is flat land. And then you remember that here was the second biggest port in the Roman Empire and maybe the most important one as it was facing east. Here usually 500 Roman ships were moored; at one time it was a bustling polyglot port with thousands of Egyptians and Greeks, Libyans, Africans and others working and milling around eating and drinking. At night there was a mighty Pharos flame to keep the port lit and guide ships. It was big and noisy and dramatic. Sant’Apollinare was the port’s church and now it’s all that is left; there is not even water as the sea has receded ten kilometres.
But inside the church is amazing. I’ve seen all the other local Byzantine churches, but to me Sant’Apollinare is special. The others are dark. This is always full of light and very special light it is.
Mosaics and a little fish dinner for Angelo before we go to bed in the cosy palace in the city wall. Tomorrow, I’m taking him home.
It’s difficult to tear ourselves away from breakfast and all the home- made goodies on display. But we must – we are taking the Via Popilia towards the north. It’s a lovely journey through the enormous watery Po Valley park with great lagoons on both sides of the road and we’ve got two little Venices to see before we get to the big one.
First stop is kind of a second breakfast, early lunch sort of thing. We’re in pretty little Comacchio, a lovely pocket Venice complete with canals, pretty Venetian houses and good restaurants. It is truly delightful and here they have one speciality that Angelo and I desire. Eels.
Naturally our second breakfast by the waterside includes the local speciality – delicious, tender, fragrant eels, marinated, grilled, barbequed and in a delicious risotto with local rice too. Unbelievably wonderful.
Set up for our journey we are off to another, but bigger, little Venice: Chioggia. Of course, beautiful little Chioggia is not Venice but it is as Venetian as it could be and it was rich too. It also has the lion of St Mark as its emblem but it’s a bit smaller and not quite as beautiful. Angelo describes it as a cat, but that’s going a little too far in my view. And it’s on the side of Venice’s fabulous lagoon, just the place to eat a lunch of small deep-fried Adriatic fishes before we ditch the car and get the boat across to the place of Angelo’s birth – Venice’s famous Lido. He’s promised to give me another tour of Venice, better than the one he gave me in 1966. We’ll see.
Couple of boat stops en route and we get off at Palestrina’s little island cemetery, catch the bus to the end of the island, get another boat to the end of the Lido then the bus to the posh bit – Santa Margherita, home for Angelo. Now we’re in the heart of the Lido, home to the fabulous Grand Hotel des Bains, the scene for ‘Death in Venice’, now no longer, having given up its place to the even more plush Excelsior. Here was, and still is to some extent, grand tourism for the wealthy of the world. There still are no shortcuts taken in providing each and every need for their pampered guests. The fact is that they’ve been doing it for generations and wouldn’t know how to do anything different. Angelo and I attested to this fact by having a wonderful aperitif with all the trimmings.
Then we got the boat across the lagoon to St Mark’s square. Venice’s magnificent skyline appeared while the boat scudded through the waves. There is always a frisson as I see the Biennale gardens, then the Arsenal and finally the Bridge of Sighs, the Campanile, the glorious basilica and San Giorgio Maggiore.
We are off the boat and everything has changed. Not the buildings and obviously not the water and not the appearance of the streets, cafes, restaurants or shops. But between the Lido and St Marks and between my first wonderful visit in 1966 and now. This is not the same place at all.
The Venetians are a gruff and punchy lot but proud, big hearted and brave, and Angelo is typical of his race. But in the past, they have been courteous to a fault. Now they are short-tempered and angry. Why would they not be? Venetians believe in form, it characterises the style with which they live their lives. Rich or poor, good form impregnates each and every day. There are rules in Venice, hundreds of them, which dictate every aspect of life; what sort of coffee you have, and when; which colours you wear together; the care you take to dress; where and when you eat; which pasta you can have parmesan or pepper with and which you can’t; how you stand on your boat etc., etc., etc.
And, of course there is Venetian – the language of Venice, not Italian as you may have presumed, and as like Italian as Dutch is to German. Venetian is not a dead language and every true Venetian, like Angelo, speaks it.
Of course, if you’re not Venetian, you’re entitled to break the rules – have a cappuccino after 11am for instance. But if you break the rules you have to pay like a foreigner and you will be treated with less respect. Not knowing the rules, after all, means that you are not a civilised person and not due the respect of any Venetian.
For centuries the Venetians put up with people who didn’t know the rules in their city and they made a great deal of money out of them. These foreigners came, the Venetians showed them their glorious romantic jewel of a city, sold them fabulous Murano glass, gave them the ultimate in hospitality, built the grandest of grand hotels, prepared the best foods and most amazing wines and... charged them vast amounts of money. The foreigners paid up with grace and, grateful for the life-changing experience that Venice and Venetians had given them, went home, or bought a canal-side palazzo, or both. And often the foreigners even tried to learn the rules because it added to the value that they had got from their visit. Everybody was happy.
Tourism has increased nearly a hundredfold since I first visited Venice with Angelo and now this beautiful city is on the front line of a global battle.
The millions of new visitors don’t know the rules, they don’t even know there are rules and if they did they wouldn’t care, after all they’ve paid to be there, it’s their right to do as they wish. So, they clog every- thing up including shops, streets, cafés and restaurants that locals feel they have a right to visit unimpeded. On top of that they put cheese on their seafood, drink cappuccinos after lunch and wear shorts and sneakers. And as they don’t spend real money, the local thinking goes, they’re not entitled to real things. When the life and soul of your city is dying and you’re overrun, what can you do but sell your shop to a Chinese person who changes it into a Venetian mask shop selling Venetian masks made in China?
You take the money and buy a home in Thailand and a flat in Mestre. And Venice changes a little more and you are sad and angry.
Venetians are angry, their beautiful life in their beautiful city has been stolen from them to display to people who they feel have little understanding and no respect. And they are not even paying a fraction of what it’s worth and they are not even showing respect. Neither, of course, are they getting the real thing; eventually they’ll realise it and stop coming. What will happen then?
So, as we barge our way through the crowds to see Venice’s treasures and we see Angelo’s old friends, we hear them recount with resigna- tion and amazement the latest stories of tourists and their unknowing stupidities.
We’ve seen them come and we’ve seen them go. The last fifty years or so has been a real education for both Angelo and me. During that time many destinations have become fashionable and like comets risen in glory and fallen into disrepair and unpopularity. Big time destinations like The Kenya coast, the Costa Brava, Rimini, all have had to reinvent themselves. And now the world’s great destinations are feeling the heat. It’s not just Venice and Florence, the new discomfort of overtourism is giving pain to the citizens of Amsterdam and Paris; Barcelona and Berlin; Dubrovnik and Skye and the Inca Trail amongst dozens of other beautiful places.
It’s sad, but now I realise why Romagna is so important to me and why it’s immune to the tourism disease.
Angelo and I entered the travel industry over 50 years ago for many reasons, but primarily to share the love of the world’s great beauty and diversity with others.
We’ve both had a good life on the proceeds – let’s hope that somehow the same will be possible in the future. That somehow visitors will take a little time to respect the places, the cultures and the people that we are all privileged to visit.
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
Episode 14 Eating our way around amazing, mouth watering Romagna
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.