Even when you’ve had your fill, you’ll return for more

So where to go in Italy? There’s no contest says Annmarie O’Connor — the Emilia Romagna region, a northern province known for its medieval cities, rich gastronomy and unstudied elegance.

The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna

When tasting the sweet life, it’s arguable there’s no better place than Italy. ‘La Dolce Vita’ has long been a paradigm for living well, even before its meaning acquired international currency. After all, enjoying everyday luxuries, from food and wine to culture and the arts, are sanctified Italian rituals — simple pleasures that qualify as special occasions. It is still arguable where the tastiest of these simple pleasures can be found. Not a mean feat in a country celebrated for its enviable lifestyle.

I’m happy to hang my geographical hat on the Emilia Romagna region — a northern province known for its medieval cities, rich gastronomy, and unstudied elegance.

Here’s why. Having lived in Bologna (the capital of Emilia Romagna) for a year at university, I was no stranger to the area’s gourmand status (they don’t call it ‘the fat’ city for nothing); not to mention its equally robust historical and architectural rap sheet.

That said, I was none the wiser about the outlying regions, particularly the Adriatic Coast, until I recently sampled its delicious heritage.

My travels took me an hour’s drive outside of Bologna to the historical town of Ravenna (easily reached in 90 minutes, with 24 trains a day leaving Bologna Centrale station). Small and perfectly formed, its unassuming size belies a more prodigious reputation. Once the capital of the western Roman and eastern Byzantine empires from the 5th to the 8th centuries, Ravenna has since accrued a laundry list of must-sees: Eight UNESCO World Heritage sites to be precise; a staggering boast which blends nonchalantly with its pedestrianised streets, unassuming wine bars (enoteca), and family-run restaurants (trattoria). Given my short overnight stay, I was surprised at just how much I could fit in.

My tightening trouser waistband was another surprise but more on that later. Five of the eight sites can be covered under one 24-hour round ticket (€9.50; www.ravennamosiaci.it). Pro-user tip? Aim for two and soak it all in; the sheer magnitude of the gilded basilicas and ancient mosaics will leave you slack-jawed. Speaking of which…

The mosaics. The oldest mosaics in the world. Words don’t quite do justice to the ornate 6th-century tiles which were used by the ancients to illuminate biblical parables and Christian teachings. Given their pervasive presence, the best individual examples can be found in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and neighbouring Basilica of San Vitale. Greeted by a ceiling of breathtaking stars and representations of Christ’s triumph to eternal life, the mausoleum ranks as one of UNESCO’s best-preserved mosaic monuments. The basilica’s gilded Byzantine interior, vaulted ceilings, and vertiginous columns ranks an equal contender. True to Ravenna’s elegant discretion, the brick-faced exteriors of both monuments betray a certain awe upon entering. A neck pillow in both instances would have helped.

Fast-forward to the present moment and you’re bound to spy some colourful street art (Brazilian artist Kobra pays fitting homage) dedicated to the poet Dante Alghieri.

Exiled in the 14th century from his native Florence to Ravenna, the author’s neo-classical tomb can be found a few short steps from the basilica. Prefer your poetry in motion? Don’t miss the Ravenna Festival (www.ravennafestival.org), a two-month-long summer celebration of the performing arts which often includes theatrical re-enactments of the Divine Comedy among other Dante-inspired pieces.

After raising the mind’s eye to God, a two-minute cobblestoned walk to Al Cairoli restaurant (www.alcairoli.com) is in order.

Serving regional produce with oodles of charm, this modest trattoria is vastly territorial. Expect only locally produced fare like fried ‘crescentine’ breads, cold cut meats, parmesan cheese, 12- and 24-month old balsamic vinegar (rumour has it, most families have a tub of the sweet elixir in their attics); and, of course, Pignoletto and Lambrusco sparkling wines (bearing the strict Italian DOC and DOCG quality labels). We haven’t even talked pasta yet. Cue: Disappearing waistline.

Need a post-prandial walk? Take a leisurely stroll to Cabiria Wine Bar (www.cabiriaravenna.it) — one of Ravenna’s most popular after-dinner haunts; order an Aperol Spritzer and call it a day.

Why? You’ll want to save your appetite for Rimini.

The Ponte Di Tiberi in Rimini

An hour by car or train from Ravenna, Rimini is, without doubt, the main attraction of the picturesque ‘Adriatic Riviera’. A seaside resort, popular in summer with Italian tourists, the ancient town boasts more than its 15km coastline. Historically one of the culturally richest towns in the Roman Empire, the city is easily identified with era-centric gems from the Tiberius Bridge and Augustus Arch to the artistic masterpieces of the Malatesta era. It’s also got the three ‘F’s going for it: Film, festivals, food.

You don’t have to be a certified cinemaphile to appreciate the town’s reverence for its most famous resident — the late director Federico Fellini. Film buffs can follow the self-guided walking tours (www.gpsmycity.com) taking in the newly restored Cinema Fulgor where Fellini saw his first film; the Borgo San Giuliano — a village decorated with colourful murals that commemorate his films; and the nouveau Grand Hotel — made famous by Oscar-winning 1973 film Amarcord and officially listed as an Italian national monument in 1994. As a child, he was said to have gazed through the hotel’s gates not realising, as an adult, he would be a regular guest with his own favourite suite.

With its coastal location, Rimini is a must for seafood. Not far from the Fellini ‘borgo’ is the unpretentious La Marianna restaurant (www.trattorialamarianna.it) overlooking the Marecchia river — a favourite with Beyoncé who dined here in 2011 with husband Jay-Z. Although Queen Bey reportedly ordered oysters, clam ‘tagliolini’ (traditional Emilia-Romagna pasta), a light broth and a buffalo mozzarella salad; the set menu ‘A Taste of Romagna’ offers a gourmand ‘greatest hits’ of the region for €30 per person. Start with fresh mussels, followed by handmade pasta tagliatelle with clams ‘poveracce’ (onion, garlic, parsley, white wine, and extra virgin olive oil). Take a breather — there’s more. Continue with a mixed fry-up of young squid, anchovies, and vegetables and finish with a lemon sorbet, coffee, and wild fennel digestif. Now, do you see why Italian lunches generally last two hours?

Luckily, Rimini is also known for its year-round festivals from The World’s Longest New Year (www.capodanno.riminiturismo.it), a month-long celebration which turns the town into an open-air stage of performances, DJ sets, Christmas markets, and concerts; to Pink Night (www.lanotterossa.it) — a one-night-only summer beach party involving all 100km of the Adriatic Coast.

Dancing and digestion make fitting partners. Bear this in mind, especially if indulging in Emilia-Romagna’s burgeoning food tourist trade. Fancy cooking with locals?

Don’t leave without visiting Agriturismo Ripabottina (www.agriturismoripabottina.it), a family-run olive mill and restaurant set in the green hills of Montegridolfo. Although a short 40-minute drive from Rimini, it is a much longer, and more expensive, train and taxi journey. That said, it’s worth the trek and the extra shekels. Why?

The sheer fun of it all. Experience an olive oil tasting and learn what to look for when choosing a bottle (four generations of experience makes the Renzi family real experts).

Learn how to make the ubiquitous ‘piadina’ bread made from flour, lard, water, and salt. Try yours with ‘squacquerone’ cheese and a plate of ‘strozzapreti’ pasta prepared by the family and enjoy the countryside view.

You may not have room for dessert (even I failed on that front) but one of the sweetest tastes of Italian life hides within the walls of once medieval fortified village, just a three-minute walk away. Impeccably restored by fashion designer Alberta Ferretti and a team of investors in 1988, the old brickwork town of Montegridolfo with its palace-turned-hotel Palazzo Vivianni (colourful window boxes and red-tile rooftops), resembles something from a movie set; not least its panoramic view of the Riminese hinterland. A true visual feast.

It’s a bitter pill having to leave but that’s the thing about Italy; even when you’ve had your fill, you’ll come back for more.

Getting there

Annmarie travelled to the Adriatic Riviera with Topflight.

Topflight offers a weekly programme from Dublin to the Adriatic Riviera and features the beach resorts of Rimini and Cattolica.

Weekly prices include return flights from Dublin, airport transfers, accommodation for seven nights, 20kg baggage allowance, all taxes and Topflight resort representative services in resort.

There is an extensive excursion programme in the resort including the option to visit the principality of San Marino.

There are also numerous theme parks in the area which are great for families including Italy in Miniature, Aquafan Water Park, Fiabilandia Theme Park and Cattolica Aquarium. Guests can also hire a car and discover the surrounding towns and countryside.

For 2018, La Notte Rosa takes place on the weekend of July 6.

For further details and to discuss Topflight’s holiday options call 01 240 1700, visit www.topflight.ie or drop into your local travel agent.

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Bijou hotel near UNESCO monuments.

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