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September 10, 2008

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Where's Mike?                                          Rimini, Italy


Destination: Valmarecchia
An exploration of this picturesque region of northern Italy.
By Michael Manna

In the northern part of central Italy, there exists a region of charming hill towns and imposing castles. Panoramic vistas beautify the Apennine foothills and the Adriatic appears in the background. Gazing upon these views, a visitor will quickly realize how this beautiful landscape could easily become an artist's inspiration. For centuries, saints, poets and noblemen have frequented this fertile terrain of chestnut and olive tree orchards seeking sanctuary, inspiration and a lasting heritage. History enthusiasts take note; this location has afforded complete gratification for those seeking to admire medieval grandeur and Renaissance brilliance.

The picturesque region is the Merchia Valley, also known as Valmarecchia, situated between the states of Emilia Romagna, Marche and Tuscany. In addition to its striking countryside and history, the Valmarecchia boasts a celebrated cuisine that offers flavorful regional dishes accompanied by some of Italy's most renowned wines. So without further delay and with much interest, I'm pleased to say that the Valmarecchia and the Province of Rimini are my next destinations. Join me, won't you?

During the past year, the beleaguered airline industry has seen its share of companies attempt to consolidate and form mergers as they cope with rising fuel costs, ongoing labor negotiations and a slowing economy. But amidst all this strife, Alitalia, Italy's pride and joy, has managed to stay afloat. The airline bearing the Italian flag has appeared in a multitude of rumors regarding potential mergers with other airlines but none have materialized. Without a suitable partner, Alitalia has managed to continue operations with the assistance of heavy subsidies from the Italian government.

My experience with Alitalia began rather smoothly and without incident. The pleasant woman at the check-in counter in New York was polite, considerate and accommodating. She courteously asked if I had any bags to check in, to which I replied no. Prior to my trip, I'd made a conscious decision not to check my bags due to the numerous stories that have circulated about Alitalia's reputation for losing checked luggage. So with my small carry-on bag in hand, I proceeded to my gate, assured that my bags would arrive safely with me in Rome.

The flight from New York to Rome was on a Boeing 777, which departed and landed as scheduled. I had a connecting flight to Bologna so when I made my reservations I opted for the last flight out of New York, which provided me with just enough time to catch my connecting flight. Landing in Bologna I was off to marvel at the Valmarecchia. TIP: Another option for traveling to the Merchia Valley is to book a flight into Federico Fellini International Airport in Rimini, although there will be more flights available flying into Bologna's International Airport.

My journey in the Merchia Valley began in the charming town of Santarcangelo Di Romagna, a perfect place to serve as home base while exploring the Valmarecchia region. Located in the Province of Rimini, the town is easily accessible by car, train or bus. The medieval town is centuries old with stone buildings, beautiful churches and an inspiring clock tower that sits high on the hill affording views of the surrounding area. Admiring these magnificent monuments, I was enticed to set off and explore the historic town. Leisurely I meandered through town passing small boutiques offering provincial products.

Allowing my instincts to lead me through the network of narrow medieval streets, I unexpectedly found myself alongside a small gathering of people relaxing in the town square. Taking in the atmosphere, I found myself listening in on two locals as they fervently discussed their beloved Italian national soccer team. Amused by the spectacle and immersed in their passionate dialogue, it struck me that only in Italy could such drama exist over a simple subject like soccer.

I continued to wander up the twisting streets. A vibrant energy exuded from the neighborhood restaurants and the scent of fine Italian food emerged from a nearby Osteria. In its kitchen, a chef was preparing yet another classic dish for the ambitious Friday night clientele.

Italy is a food aficionado's paradise where culinary bliss awaits those seeking to find a delectable meal. The Emilia Romagna, famous for its cuisine, is fittingly nicknamed La Grassa, or The Big One. Within the gastronomic capital of Italy, visitors will find exceptional food at reasonable prices. One enjoyable choice is the Calycanto. The Calycanto provided an assortment of tasty dishes in a casual and inviting atmosphere. For starters, guests were indulging in the Pomodoro Calycanto or sampling the Cariciofi al Zorba, a dish of freshly picked artichokes, served with a creamy honey mustard dip. Both appetizers left me craving more. The spaghetti with pesto was pleasing while the Galletto, a flame-grilled spatch-cock chicken marinated in lemon and rosemary, had the Calycanto's patrons raving.

After an outstanding dinner it was time to head back to the Il Villino Hotel for some much needed rest. Located in the medieval quarter of Santarcangelo Di Romagna on via C. Ruggeri 48, the charming 17th-century, refurbished villa sits in a peaceful setting of manicured floral gardens. Bordering the hotel is a small stone wall fixed with a wrought iron gate draped by ivy and jasmine flowers, the fragrance of which permeates the air.

If you plan to arrive by automobile, there's a driveway lined with cyprus trees and shrubbery that gives way to a petite parking area. From there, a stone stairway leads upwards past a water fountain and on to the villa's entrance. Decorations of antiques and paintings adorn the small lobby and the friendly receptionist's infectious smile makes for a warm and inviting welcome.

The 12 unique and distinctive accommodations were scattered throughout the three floors of the villa. The rooms, imaginatively named after seasonal birds, were undersized, but sizeable in ambiance, decorated with antiques and paintings. My room, La Tortora (the Turtledove room) had a high cathedral ceiling and an iron spiral staircase leading up to a loft with extra sleeping accommodations. The loft and cathedral ceilings were an added bonus and created the feeling of a more spacious room. The contemporary bath with Italian marble had a bathtub with shower, toilet and bidet. The shuttered windows were a nice touch and provided enough insulation to barricade the outdoor light and clamor. A unique characteristic of the hotel was its stone grottoes. Each morning, the hotel offered a continental breakfast, which is available in the hotel's grottoes or outdoor garden. GOOD TO KNOW: Air conditioning is available in each room but guests need to make a formal request with the receptionist in order to have it operational. Il Villino Hotel, Via C. Ruggeri, 48, 47822, Santarcangelo di Romagna, Italy, Tel: 0039 (0) 541.685959.

The grottoes of the Il Villino Hotel are part of network of manmade caves found underneath the town of Santarcangelo whose origins date back 2,000 years. There is a shroud of mystery surrounding the 200 caves; no one seems to know why they existed. There's some speculation that some of the caves may stretch well beyond the town centre towards Rimini. Today, the grottoes function primarily as a wine cellar for the local residents and allow tours for curious visitors.

TOWN FACTS AND EVENTS: The town owes its name to the Holy Archangel St. Michael and each September, the residents pay tribute to their patron saint with Festival di San Michele, a fair that attracts crowds of people from near and far. Another town highlight is the Malatesta fortress, which sits high on the hill surrendering a beautiful view of the region below.

The next morning I was awakened by the crash of thunder echoing through the valley, the threat of rain looming in the air. Italy becomes most inviting during the summer months when warm temperatures and brilliant sunshine can be expected daily. Daytime temperatures in the mid 80s are typically the norm and June is a fantastic time to visit the province. You'll beat the crowds of people who have scheduled their annual pilgrimage for the month of August. But much to my disappointment, the weather was neither sunny nor bright.

The grey beginning should have dampened my spirits but I remained inspired as I was heading to a jewel of a city. Over the next few days I was planning to travel over hundreds of kilometers and frequent an assortment of hill towns that have made the Valmarecchia famous, each with its own characteristics and unique charm. But what truly separates these locations from others are their distinctive histories. Leading the way was the much-adored city of Urbino.

Situated just outside the Valmarecchia is the notable and celebrated walled city of Urbino, considered by many as a classic treasure from the Renaissance. This must-see medieval city proudly displays its glorious past with an historic center that is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Renaissance masters such as Bramante, Laurana and the great Raphael have made their presence known within these city walls clearly reflecting why, for a moment in time, Urbino became the place for the brightest minds of the Renaissance.

Under the patronage of Duke Federico da Montefeltro from 1444 to 1482, Urbino began to flourish into a center for the arts. Revered by many as a man of culture, the Renaissance man had become Urbino's foremost ruler. The Duke, a true patron of the arts, was also a military leader who was skilled in the art of war. During his reign, he brought the city to prominence by embodying the Renaissance ideal and gathering around him the greatest painters, poets and scholars of his day. His passion and efforts successfully established Urbino as one of the most illustrious courts in Europe rivaling the cities of Florence and Siena as a leader in the arts.

As I entered the city gates it felt as though I was stepping back to a time where knights and squires roamed. I began to walk up the steep cobblestone street until I reached the famed Piazza della Repubblica. The beautiful monuments reflect true artistic genius and the town's buildings proudly display a variety of architectural styles.

A short distance from the Piazza awaited Urbino's most distinguished landmark, the Palazzo Ducale. Built by Duke Federico da Montefeltro, the twin towers provide a renowned identity to the palace. Today, the National Gallery of Le Marche makes the Palace its home and houses a noteworthy collection of Renaissance paintings by the likes of Raphael, Titian and Bellini. The Palazzo Ducale is open Monday from 8:30am to 2pm, Tuesday-Sunday, 8:30am to 7:15pm. The cost for admission is 4, which includes entrance to the Galleria Nazionale. For more information, visit:

GOOD TO KNOW: Urbino is not accessible by train lines but there is bus service from the towns of Pesaro and Fano.

Sitting high on a cliff overlooking the Valmarecchia valley is Verruchio, a picturesque town with historical traces from the Villanovan culture, dating back to the 9th and 6th centuries BC. The present structure of the town dates back to the 12th century and is the location where Malatesta da Verucchio, founder of the Malatesta lordship of Romagna, was born. During the next 200 years, the House of Malatesta would rule over Rimini and other strongholds in the surrounding area. It wasn't until October 3, 1462 that the reign of the Malatesta family came to an end, when the fortress was under siege and finally captured by Duke Federico da Montefeltro from Urbino.

Atop a mountain ridge overlooking the town of Verruchio is the Fortress of the Rock, where the Malatestas had strategically plotted their next round of attacks. From the castle was an amazing view of the province of Rimini allowing visitors to marvel at the fertile landscape and the Romagna coast in the not-too-distant background.

Within the interior of the fortress is a room exhibiting shining amour and a collection of medieval weapons used centuries ago. Situated throughout the castle are secret passages, an inhospitable dungeon, guard's rooms and a clock tower. For more information on Verruchio, visit:

I was in a state of utter joy while visiting these enchanting hill towns, each boasting a rich history. But it was the castle at San Leo that truly astonished me. Soaring 600 meters high, atop a rocky cliff stood an imposing medieval castle forged into the crest of a limestone mountain. Walking underneath the castle walls I imagined how invaders must have felt years ago when viewing this majestic and intimidating structure. For centuries, the strategic site has been impregnable against unwelcome invaders. Today, the incursion is of a different sort; delighted tourists take pleasure in viewing the region's beauty and picturesque surroundings from high above the legendary castles walls. The fortress museum is open every day between 9am and 7pm. The cost for admission is 8 for adults; 3 for youths (6-14 years); and 5 for seniors (65+ years). There is no cost of admission for accompanied children under six. For further information, visit:

MUST-SEE DESTINATION: Montebello is a quaint town situated in The Merchia Valley. Take an opportunity to visit its beautiful castle from the Malatesta Seigniory and explore a town that offers beautiful views from up above.

Join me next week as we continue our journey and I visit another country, completely surrounded by Italy.

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All information presented here is accurate at the time of publication but prices, dates and other details are all subject to change. Please confirm all information before making any travel arrangements.

Note: This trip was sponsored in part by Alitalia and Italian Tourism.

Pictures From

The Trip




Scenic View of the Italian Countryside


Medieval Grandeur


Imposing Castle


Merchia Valley


Celebrated Cuisine


Ancient Discoveries


Charming Hill Town


The Brilliance of the Renaissance


Clock Tower of Santarcangelo Di Romagna


Narrow Medieval Streets


Renowned Italian Wines




Centuries Old Stone Building


Il Villino Hotel


Wrought Iron Gate


The Grottoes of Santarcangelo


A Classic Treasure From the Renaissance


Picturesque Balcony


Valmarecchia valley


Exhibit of Shining Armour


Coat of Arms


Artifacts From the Villanovans


The Imposing Medieval Castle of San Leo


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