The Most Serene Republic of San Marino, San Marino, 12-2013

Today is the last day of 2013. So to close the end of the year we took a tour of the coastal regions of the Po River Valley in the Province of Rimini. It was quite interesting. The information available for the area had been quite kind to this strip along the Adriatic that had long ago seen its glory days. Unfortunately it’s downright unattractive. The main road from Ravenna to Cattolica is packed full of concrete blocks lacking in any architectural personality. And what’s peculiar about these drab structures is they have such tiny windows although there are full sea views available. As to why they don’t take advantage of this my guess is that the air conditioning costs are probably pretty high to keep the humidity levels bearable during the steamy summer months. I could only imagine the mosquitos feasting on the sunburnt bodies of the corpulent tourists that flock to this swath of coastal track. The beaches and empty wall to wall hotels were closed for the season as were the numerous concession stands that rent out beach chairs and a square of sand to bake in. The shores were lined with a plethora of faded Little Tykes play structures. For me they were a symbol of this area. Shabby, dated, and plastic. These were our impressions of this most curious of places.

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The city of Rimini is a well known destination for packaged tours that pack in the hordes of sunbathing tourists during high season. It offers the sun seeking masses nine miles of sandy beaches with thousands of hotels, bars, restaurants, as well as decked out discos pumping the latest techno pop tunes for the nightlife partier. Its other claim to fame it was the hometown of the famous Italian director Federico Fellini. If Fellini were alive today it would be interesting to see what kind of film he would make here now.
After getting more than our fill of this monument to mass tourism we drove through Rimini to San Marino about 10 miles away. It’s an easy drive and the inland countryside was surprisingly rich in agricultural land and the landscape similar to that of Croatia which is located right across the pond. The same evergreens and salt loving shrubbery and plants grace the hilly landscape. The roads are narrow and not well maintained but they are popular with bike riders who whizz by in their colorful cycling fashion.

We drove through the hilly terrain of the north-eastern Apennine Mountains until we reached the Republic of San Marino. The hilltop microstate is perched high above the surrounding plains with a commanding view of the lands that lie below. It’s small, covers only 24 square miles and has a population of 30,000. It is one of the wealthiest countries in the world with low unemployment, no national debt, a stable economy, and a budget surplus to boot. They are also highly protectionist as we were to find out. They have one unique regulation they have instituted in order to “protect” their rich elderly men from foreign gold-digging housekeepers. The minimum age of housekeepers is kept at 50 years so that enticing foreign young women cannot snatch up some of the available older men of means to attain citizenship and money. Somehow I don’t think this has been a big problem for the feisty old men. In addition the land is handed down only through the male line. It seemed that women’s rights were not a priority for this conservative society .

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The tiny republic has a Disneyland like quality to it. The stone buildings are meticulously maintained with ultra cleanliness and perfect facades but it exudes an air of artificiality. It’s a city made for mass tourism from its underground parking garages to its numerous tourist kiosks that are well organized and tailored to handle the large hordes of tourists that flock to the city for a few hours during high season. It seems that every seating area is designed for the perfect photo shot. Even on New Year’s Eve it was teeming with busloads of tourists (like us minus the bus) making the obligatory trek to view the highlights that the fairytale city has to offer. During our wanderings we stopped for a bite to eat at a small cafe shop. We had a sandwich with mozzarella cheese, tomato, and arugula served on a a piadina flatbread that was quite delicious. After our obligatory round of the city we made our way back through the undeveloped coastal backroads and looked forward to the New Year’s Eve festivities back in Ravenna.

New Year's Eve 2013

Ringing in the New Year 2014
After our day’s excursion we returned late and had not yet made a reservation for dinner. But with luck we found a table at the same place we had dined at the previous night. The hostess lamented that it was so early, for Italians yes, but for us perfect. The name of the restaurant is Ca’ de Ven and our meal was delicious, the service knowledgable, and our waitress charming. The restaurant is housed in a lovely 15th century building with aged brick walls and a beautiful restored interior that lent an authenticity to the bustling ambience of the establishment. In addition it has a fine wine cellar that offers a large selection of wines from the fertile Emiglia-Romagna region. They also have a great happy hour with all kinds of cheese and cured meats such as prosciutto and salami and other goodies from the area. We began our meal with bubbly Veneto Prosecco and an antipasto platter served with piadina flatbread. Our second dish was steaming gnocchi with smoked goose breast garnished with radicchio and we had a glass of white Albana wine. For our main course we chose a succulent lamb with asparagus and potatoes and paired it with a deep red Burson. What a wonderful feast to close 2013 with.

After devouring our dinner we stepped out to stroll the streets of Ravenna to partake in the revelry of the evening activities. We found the city to to be lively but subdued and that fit us just fine. We are a tad leery of big Italian New Year’s crowds. A few years back while ringing in the New Year in Rome we had experienced a dangerous situation when someone set off a series of firecrackers in the middle of the crowded Piazza del Popolo and the massive crowd reacted accordingly. It was a frightening episode and one we do not care to repeat. But in Ravenna it was a merry but mellow mood as we wandered into the Piazza del Popolo il salotto di Ravenna where a live jazz band played to an appreciative audience. We enjoyed the music and toasted to the end of 2014 in one of the most beautiful of Byzantine cities. Buon Anno!
http://www.cadeven.it/index.php

New Years Day 2014
To welcome the first day of 2014 we drove along the Northern Adriatic coast from Ravenna to the Po River Delta where the fresh waters empty into the coastal lagoons. We stopped in the sleepy town of Lido de Volano. It was quiet and there was practically no traffic although there were remnants of the previous night’s partying with its tell tale fireworks strewn about. It was a nice day to travel because there was very little traffic. Along the coast almost all of the businesses were closed until the summer season when the vendors would return to hark their wares to the throngs of tourists. We enjoyed the quiet drive through the rich agricultural delta until we reached the Po Delta Regional Park where we took a stroll among its well preserved ecosystem that supports water fowl and the much needed wetlands.This protected landscape stood in stark contrast to the concrete jungle of Rimini.

From the marshy environment of the park we drove to the UNESCO World Heritage site of the city of Ferrara. The medieval inner city was a maze of streets that lead the unwary driver through narrow alleys and dead ends. And unwary I was. I found myself driving through closed pedestrian areas and I had no choice but to continue on until we found our way out of the labyrinth. Fortunately for us it was New Year’s Day and the streets were pretty empty so luckily I had displaced only a few wary pedestrians. Oops! Unfortunately everything was closed but we were still able to enjoy the red bricked architecture and to wander through the streets admiring the well preserved facades and the crowning achievements of 12th century architecture the San Giorgio Cathedral, the Piazza della Repubblica and Etense Castle, and the Palazzo del Municipio. We’ll definitely be back to further explore this gem. After our delta drive we began our journey homeward via the Brenner Pass. Happy Travels in 2014!

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