Seven Hill Towns of Romagna:
Picture a relatively flat, agricultural landscape populated with villages and towns painted in numerous shades of pinks, golds and rusts with a generous supply of rustic clay bricks thrown into the mix.
Picture that landscape merging into a more densely populated coastal plain that finds its ultimate relief to the East in the Adriatic Sea between Rimini and Ravenna.
Picture a series of rolling hills rising from that same landscape to the northwest, west and southwest. And those rolling hills receding back to the horizon, layer beyond layer, in ever lightening and hazy shades of deep to light blue/grey. And ultimately merging with the Appenines.
And among those rolling hills, picture spectacular rising, rocky peaks dotted here and there, high above their hosting hills. And on each one of those peaks a town (or is it a crown!), clinging for all its life to the rocks and crags from which it appears to seamlessly emerge. Picture them on a windy day when everything receives a work out and a battering from trying to withstand the force of the horizontal lampooning.
Picture those towns in the process of being constructed. The effort, the energy and the labour that it would have taken to construct the maze of buildings making up each one so many centuries ago. Imagine the challenges taking in supplies. And the headaches involved in planning for and incorporating at a later date, services we take for granted – like running water, power, communication cabling…and these are thriving towns!
How cars navigate the narrow winding streets of hilltop towns is a continual source of amusement for me. But navigate they do! And with determination and perseverance there is usually a parking space to be found somewhere. San Leo unravels from the main square via a maze of winding stone steps up and down the spur. There’s no point in trying to follow a map! Best be open to every possibility a doorway, archway, corner or opening offers. And unfold they do! Described variously as an art capital, San Leo bears testimony to that descriptor in past and present indicators all over. Home for approximately 3000 people, the buildings are mainly Romanesque and Renaissance. It was a place of passage for St Francis and for Dante. It was a place of imprisonment for the Count of Cagliostro and for Orsini. And Piero Della Francesca used scenes from the surrounding countryside as “balconies” in at least two of his paintings.
Signage at the entry point to Montebello describes it as the city of honey, “Le Citta del Miele.”Apart from this descriptor the only other reference to honey that I could find was a point of sale at The Armoury in the Castle. Montebello has one other claim to fame: the legend of Azzurrina. A little girl, Guendalina, was born to her parents and lived a cloistered life because she was an albino and the subject of much superstition. In an attempt to hide the distinguishing features of albinism, her mother used natural dyes to mask the colour of her hair. On one of these attempts, Guedalina’s hair turned azure blue, the very same colour as her eyes, and so she became known as Azzurrina. One year, on the summer solstice, she was playing in the castle with a cloth ball, because the weather was bad outside. She fell through a trapdoor into the annals of subterranea and was never seen again. However, she is known to still be within the castle somewhere because on every summer solstice year that ends with a 0 or a 5 her cries can be heard.
If you were serious about protecting yourself from invaders, the rocky peaks certainly made brilliant observation points. Not to mention places from which all manner of deterrents could rain down on the enemy. Torriana is one such place, and the fortress dating from the 15th Century was part of a system of fortresses that basically barricaded the region.
This was an interesting one to navigate! Ways that seemed impossible always led to a surprising outcome. The town of 9000 people is clamped to the top and immediate downhill slopes of the peak. Verucchio has a system of ever-winding cobbled pathways winding back upon themselves, interconnected with steep flights of stairs that stretch forever upwards and downwards. And it has the BEST aperol spritzes! These are essential for recovery. (But not recommended for tackling further flights of steps until the effects of the alcohol have well and truly passed.)
Imagine being there during late afternoon, with the sun casting its last golden rays of the day, and with everyone emerging from their shuttered apartments ready to socialise, shop and play. It’s a city of 20000 overall, mostly sprawling outwards from the base of the hill, but the Old Town of Santarcangelo clings to the hilltop and is a veritable smorgasbord of buildings and picturesque streets enclosed by a 15th Century walls. Many of the buildings are enjoying sympathetic renovation with sections of wall exposed to reveal previous centuries’ finishes. Others are still in their rustic state, with roughly cut wooden shutters and doors. There’s a sense of peace and calm among the churches, towers, fortress, archways and winding steps. And the whole town sits atop a maze of 150 grottos thought to have been constructed by the Romans. Today many are used to store wine, but the jury is still out on their original purpose. Architecturally they are quite extraordinary.
Sant’Agata Feltria is home of the annual white truffle fair, held on each Sunday through October. And the stalls laden with fresh truffles, truffle infused oils, and truffle condiments snake their way through the piazzas and streets of the old town. The wines of the region are show-cased alongside the truffles, cheeses, chestnuts, mushrooms, honey and herbs – regional specialties. The fortress perched on the peak is one of the most beautiful. It could have stepped directly out of a fairytale. And as with all of the hill towns, the buildings have an essence of their own, giving each place its characteristic feel.
Over the Pass from Sant’Agata Feltria, Pennabilli is built on two rocky outcrops and has a Medieval feel all of its own. There’s poetry in the air, thanks to the legacy of Tonino Guerra – writer, poet and screenwriter. His Places of the Soul (see previous blog #2) make Pennabilli even more worthy of exploration! These places include the Refuge for the Abandoned Madonnas, the Road of the Meridians, the Path of Thoughts, the Sanctuary, the Flight of Thoughts, and the Garden of Forgotten Fruits, a collection of different fruits that once grew spontaneously in orchards dotted around the Apennine countryside but that are no longer cultivated.