Italy celebrates Ferragosto today, and there may be no place more apt to mark this quintessential summer holiday than the ever charming Riviera Romagnola of Emilia-Romagna.
For someone from Bologna like me, the first introduction to the seaside as a child is often the so-called Riviera Romagnola, the stretch of coast facing the Adriatic Sea in Emilia-Romagna, about an hour’s drive from the region’s capital.
The Riviera Romagnola stretches for 90 kilometers from the mouth of the Reno river in the north to Gabicce Monte in the south, traversing the provinces of Ravenna, Forlì-Cesena, and Rimini. These provinces, disputed for centuries by the Papal States, have been the scene of battles that have left their mark in the towns and fortresses dotting the hilltops, such as the charming borghi of San Leo and San Marino; the memory of those ancient times is re-enacted in the many festivals and sagre animating the villages throughout the year, like the Feste Medioevali in Brisighella or the Palio del Daino in Mondaino.
But what makes the Riviera Romagnola so famous and sought-after is the number of seaside resorts offering facilities and relaxation for everybody and every taste: umbrella and chair rentals, bars and restaurants, sports facilities, lifeguard services, entertainment, all seasoned with that warm hospitality the Romagnoli are always praised for.
The first seaside resorts on the Adriatic Coast were built between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, starting in Rimini, which is considered the capital of the Riviera Romagnola. Until the 1930s, the tourist exploitation of the area had been limited, and equipped resorts alternated with kilometers of free beaches; starting in the 1950s, all available space was gradually filled with more and more resorts and, a decade later, the Riviera had become a favorite vacation destination catering to a wide range of visitors, from families with children to the elderly, who come for the healthy marine air, to the youngsters who flock here for the unbeatable nightlife, with famous discos open all night long.
In order to access the beaches, you have to pay a daily fee to the “bagno” (beach resort) of your choice. This will provide you with an umbrella and a chair and the ever-amusing chance to eavesdrop on your neighbors’ conversations; the umbrellas in fact are lined in neat rows close to each other, so if you’re looking for privacy, head somewhere else. If at some point you start hearing some loud music and see a group of people gathering by the shore, that’s because a workout class or a dance session is about to begin, just one of the many services offered by the bagni. It’s not unusual to see people in their seventies and eighties exercising or dancing with much gusto. That’s just part of the charm of the Riviera. Many bagni have a bar in the back, so you don’t have to venture far if you’re hungry or thirsty; these bars often offer delicious lunches of seafood or piadina (the classic flatbread from this area) and aperitivo in the late afternoon.
The king of all seaside resorts is Rimini, where it all began. With 15 kilometers of sandy beach and hundreds of hotels, restaurants and discos, Rimini is one of Europe’s most popular seaside resorts. Not only that - venture a little farther away from the beach and you will discover a rich historic and artistic heritage.
Founded by the Romans in 268 BC, Rimini has preserved some important monuments from Roman times, including the simple yet solemn Arch of Augustus, built in 27 BC to celebrate Emperor Augustus; it is the oldest surviving arch of the Roman world. It signaled the end of the via Flaminia, which connected the cities of Romagna to Rome. Another important monument is the Roman bridge, also known as Tiberius Bridge; work started during Augustus' reign and was finished under his successor Tiberius in 20 AD. The bridge features five semicircular arches with an average span length of 8 meters. It is still in use today.
After a period of instability, around the year 1,000, Rimini began to expand with the construction of a new river port. From the 14th century, the House of Malatesta, an Italian family who ruled over Rimini from 1295 until 1500, as well as other lands and towns in Romagna, called to their court artists of the caliber of Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti and Piero della Francesca. Testimony to the golden age of the Malatesta is the Tempio Malatestiano, the city’s cathedral, inspired by the great celebratory Roman architecture. The original church, built in the 13th century in Gothic style, was transformed into a Renaissance masterpiece by the Florentine architect Leon Battista Alberti, working under the commission of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta. In the cathedral are the tombs of Sigismondo and his wife Isotta, and the fresco by Piero della Francesca, Sigismondo Malatesta inginocchiato davanti a San Sigismondo (1451).
Smaller seaside towns worth a visit include Riccione, Cattolica, Cesenatico, Cervia, Milano Marittima and Marina di Ravenna.
This article should serve as an introduction to the charms of the Riviera Romagnola. There is so much to discover in this area beyond the beaches, so stay tuned for more articles exploring Romagna.