I binned my umbrella triumphantly as I descended underground at Victoria station to catch the first tube of the day. It was the perfect chilly wet autumn morning to escape London for more clement climes. Before I'd even had time to wake up properly, my friend and I were peeling off layers on the train from Ancona airport to Rimini. The seasons had turned back a notch – it was now late summer and the neat orchards and parched plains of north-eastern Italy were still gently humming with life, the calm Adriatic glinting emerald in the sun.
We planned to explore the stretch of coastline between Ancona and Ravenna, visiting the little manicured towns, beaches and castles that hold so much beauty and history. But the crowning glory of our trip was to be a foray into the tiny independent state of San Marino, which sits high above the rolling countryside and flat coastline of Emilia Romagna.
A tale of two cities
Pasta, calzone, gelato, cappuccino – the memory still makes me hungry for more. The Italians know how to live and nowhere in the world is eating and drinking such a pleasurable event. Small moments that would normally pass unnoticed – stopping at a cafe for a morning pick-me-up – are brought into sharp focus by the sensations and aromas of fresh pastries, biscotti and foaming coffees expertly decorated by a smiling barista.
In Rimini, we stumbled upon an organic ice cream parlour – Dolceneve Bio – in a quiet sweeping street north of Tiberius Bridge – with a myriad of flavours signified by stylish illustrations hung on the wall. It's no exaggeration to say this was the most delicious ice cream I have ever tasted, even if I couldn't quite identify one of the flavours. Apparently Rimini is renowned for its gelato, and I can certainly see why.
Rimini itself is a town of two halves – the atmospheric and historic old part of the city sits behind the railway station to the west, while the newer Italian seaside resort fronts onto the wide sandy beach to the east. There's a marked contrast between the two – the old quarter's largely pedestrianised streets and narrow back alleys are linked by wide squares and flanked by ancient Roman structures, while the new part of the city is set out on a grid-like system of hotel-lined streets.
On a mission to the beach, I strolled down a wide leafy avenue of majestic Italian mansions fanning out into little parks scattered with fountains and locals relaxing on the benches. As I reached the seafront promenade, I came upon a giant Polaroid camera dedicated to renowned Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, who grew up in Rimini. Its lens was pointed towards a bank of beach huts obscuring the none-too-picturesque beach. I was all set for a swim, but the beach seemed to be in the midst of an end-of-season clean up – banks of coarse sand had been pushed up by mini diggers, and mounds of debris dotted the shore.
Fortunately I hadn't come to Rimini for a beach holiday, and the charm, archaeology and architectural beauty of the old town are more than enough reason to visit. There are few tourists in October but the streets are alive with locals cycling, dining and socialising.
Within half an hour of arriving in Rimini we had discovered the old arch-roofed market place flanked with stone benches that seemed to be a magnetic meeting place for locals, situated just off the beautiful Piazza Cavour with its medieval town hall and pinecone fountain. On weekend evenings, the restaurants, cafes and bars are full to the brim and we tried out several of them hidden in the narrow alleys and enclaves. My favourite meal was the simplest of dishes – hand-made tortellini in sage butter showered in parmesan. Even the most humble of dishes – pesto linguine – was unexplainably scrumptious.
Crossing a waterway that marks the north boundary of the old town, the ancient Tiberius bridge is still inscribed in Latin and smooth as marble underfoot, the stone worn down by almost two thousand years of use. It's one of Italy's oldest bridges and provides a clear link to the past – Roman engineering still in action. On the opposite side of town is the oldest surviving triumphal arch in northern Italy, built under the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar and bearing his name. From here you can follow the road into the pretty Tre Martiri square that has been the city centre since ancient times. Another Roman relic that I kept on coming back to – a useful landmark for navigating the wider city – was the Montanara Gate at the western edge of the old town – a large sandstone arch built in the 1st century BC that's a great place for photo calls.
There is an air of prosperity and tranquillity in this part of Italy that's a far cry from the busy gritty streets of major cities like Napoli. After Rimini, Cattolica was the unexpected surprise of the trip that hadn't really figured much in our rough itinerary – a smart holiday town with such a breezy relaxed feeling to it. Life seems easy here – even the tourist information centre is housed in a majestic high-ceilinged building that I took for a town hall upon first glance. Inside it was tastefully decorated with vintage Pullman tourism prints, with an extremely helpful multilingual guide sat behind shallow stacks of pamphlets and maps.
Like many others in Italy, Cattolica's real town hall is preposterously big and beautiful, made of stone and dominating a huge square with dancing fountains. A few streets around the seafront are paved in patterned cobbles and closed to traffic, where the restaurants and cafes are perfect for al fresco dining. We tucked into recipes handed down from generation to generation – flavoursome cappelletti, the ubiquitous piadinas, and wine produced in the surrounding hills.
The town's large and long yellow sand beach and calm shallow sea is great if you want a few days on the beach and it is much more appealing than the beach at Rimini. I took a refreshing dip in the languid, green water and looked back at the smart seafront. Far in the distance, atop the highest hill, I thought I could see the fairytale castle of Gradara surrounded by one of the region's characteristic ancient hilltop villages.
Castles in the clouds
In the sun, huge, clean and bright Gradara, gazing over bucolic bliss, put me in mind of Camelot – the vanished castle of Arthurian legend. It has none of the forboding air that is sometimes associated with old fortresses. On the day we visited there was a vintage wedding event causing a peculiar mix of time warps within its medieval walls– a 1950s style band was playing rock n roll in the square and vintage cars were parked in the narrow 12th-century streets of the outer citadel. Looking across the battlements to the countryside, a Hockney-esque patchwork of rolling hills and neat bordered orchards unfolded before my eyes – it occurred to me that this is the rural Italy I had always imagined.
A steep climb uphill from Gradara's bus stop took us past a large Italian house with music floating from the back garden. As we got closer, I glimpsed a middle-aged local singing his heart out and playing on a keyboard beside the house – the Italians are certainly not afraid to express themselves and their carefree exuberance is infectious. This is exemplified by little things like the grand hand gestures that accompany speech, somehow making conversations livelier. I even found myself mimicking this primitive signing as a way of making up for my lack of Italian language skills.
We also spent a day exploring the "Most Serene Republic of San Marino" – the very name is deeply inviting. And it does feel most serene too, if a little windy, sitting between the clouds on the lofty slopes above the Italian provinces of Emilia Romagna and Le Marche. San Marino's diminutive capital is a perfectly-preserved medieval remnant that has an unmistakable air of myth and legend. Its steep, spotless, cobbled streets are like an open-air museum climbing towards a trio of towers built on the three peaks of Monte Titano between the 11th and 14th centuries. Spaced out along a sky-high escarpment with dizzying views over the landscape, a stone pathway clings to the edge, linking the three towers.
Given the town's appearance, it's not surprising to learn that this place was founded by a stone mason in 301AD, nor that this is one of the wealthiest enclaves in Europe. I was intrigued, however, to learn that San Marino had the first democratically-elected communist government in 1955.
Mosaics and marble
Known for its mosaics and Byzantine architecture, the little ecclesiastical city of Ravenna was once a port and capital of the eastern Roman Empire. It has existed for so long that the land has shifted around it, with the sea now several miles to the east. Though the manicured narrow streets are filled with smart shops and boutiques, food stalls and arts and crafts markets, Ravenna has the solemn spiritual air of a place that has seen centuries of religious worship.
The churches are monolithic and thick with history dating back to the 6th century. In fact, it's considered the best place in the world to see early Christian mosaics and architecture, though some of the churches charge an entrance fee. The austere brick exterior of the Basilica of San Francesco belies its typically ornate interior, and I found out that this church has been continually modified since early Christian times so that the original floor is now several metres below street level. This explains the enchanting surprise that awaits visitors inside.
Beneath the altar is a curiosity that I almost missed. Some American tourists were peering through a gap in the masonry and as I got closer I saw a light on inside. ‘Quick,' said a friendly fair-haired lady ‘The light will go out in a minute', as she beckoned me over. I looked into a glassless window down into an arched crypt with fluted columns. Illuminated by a solitary light, the bottom was flooded with water, and bright orange carp were swimming around above an early Christian floor mosaic. There is a romance about this city, and evidently the Italian poet Dante Alighieri felt it too. He chose to make his home here until his death in 1321 and is buried beside the church in a grand white mausoleum.
Though I'm not religious, the history and architecture of early basilical churches like Sant'Apollinare in Classe is enough to warrant a visit. This one in particular has a gorgeous round tower and a beautiful blue, green and gold ceiling mosaic that appears to depict a shepherd and his flock. I craned my neck to get a good look while oddly discordant organ music filled the cathedral with strangeness.
Eat, pray, roam
The reliable train line that skims the north-east coast makes exploring this little patch of Italy easy-peasy, allowing a peep into a quiet and prosperous local life. The past and present sit happily side-by-side, one simply being the continuation of another. There is much here to nourish the soul – every morsel that passed my lips was unerring delicious, the landscapes were sublime, the locals were always hospitable and friendly, the churches and monuments exuded the wisdom of the ages, and the castles spoke of myths and legends that felt only just out of view.