Circle Tour in Romagna - the Malatesta lands
May 13, 2007
|May 13 - Circle tour in the 'Malatesta Seignory' (Rimini & area)
Bellaria to Santarcangelo di Romagna, through San Marino (another country), to Montegridolfo, back through Coriano to Bellaria
We left Bellaria about 10 a.m. (very early start!) to drive through the hills and valleys that are inland from Bellaria. We stopped on the road to let the runners cross the road: there is a marathon race around Bellaria today. The first 10 kilometers of our drive was through flat farm country to Santarcangelo di Romagna, on the northern edge of the lands owned and controlled by the Malatesta family in the 14th & 15th centuries.
The Malatestas battled constantly with other noble families for territory, and they built many castles. As always in Italy, their fortifications were on the highest hill or escarpment available. The region of Romagna, part of the modern province of Emilia-Romagna, was owned and controlled by the Malatesta family for several generations until it was conceded to their rivals, who then turned it over to the Pope as part of his territory in the early 1500s. The Malatesta dukes left behind many impressive defensive castles, and the roads between them are marked out as tourist routes, for good reason - the castle and the countryside are beautiful.
The fortified hills were not just military posts, but whole towns, and several of the towns are still medieval in flavour (except for the tourist shops, of course). We visited Santarcangelo, and walked around in the walled 'historic centre' of the modern town. Visiting medieval towns in Italy always involves a steep climb, often on cobbled streets, and this was no exception. At the top, we found the local people having a 'fair' with displays of photos of people and events of the last 70 or so years. One of the booths set up in the medieval town was for the Italian blood bank, AVIS, so we took a picture and picked up some of their brochures for Ingrid. (We'll lend you our Italian-English dictionary for the translations!)
In the streets below the medieval walled town, there was a big fair going on - the 'flower festival' - so the streets were busy with local people looking at and buying houseplants and garden pots, as well as handicrafts like tombolo lace and pottery. We enjoyed sitting on the piazza with coffee & 'lemonsoda', looking at the flowers and at the triumphal archway erected to celebrate Pope Clement XIV, a local boy who got to the top of the heap in the 1700s.
After checking in at the tourist info office, we got a guided tour (just the two of us) through a few of the 150 caves that have been dug out of the soft rock under the walled city. We saw only two of the 'special' caves, ones that are not simply corridors and square rooms. The 'monumental' caves have complex arches at the junctions of corridors, and one of them has several large niches arranged around a circular room with a domed ceiling. The guide says that no one has any secure knowledge of the age or purpose of these special caves. Most of the caves were made for storage of wine or cheese (formaggio di fossa) and are at least 500 years old. Like other visitors, we took uneducated guesses at the original purposes of the special caves. Our guide had heard all the possibilities before. She liked the school groups' guess, that they were medieval discos, better than my musings about religious purposes....
But the caves also have a more recent history that is interesting and important. They were used as living space for 5 or 6 months, continuously, by the people of Santarcangelo during the Second World War. The area around Rimini and inland into the mountains and valleys of Romagna suffered during the prolonged and intensive battles between the Germans and Allied forces for control of the 'Gothic Line'. This defensive line of guns and soldiers was set in place across the Italian penisula by the Germans to keep the Allied troops confined to southern Italy in 1944. When we looked at the landscape, we could see why it was so difficult for Allied troops to overtake the German defences. The Malatestas fortified the high points because they could see for miles from them, and shoot anyone who tried to attack. The German forces built a defensive line for the same reasons. Canadian soldiers from several regiments, including the Princess Pats and Lord Strathcona's Horse, were involved in the long battles to break through the German line, and many of the Canadians remain in the Commonwealth war cemetary nearby.
The Italian people who lived in the towns suffered terribly. The Germans, and then the Allies, bombed all of the hill towns over and over, and virtually obliterated some of them. The inhabitants of Santarcangelo took cover in their network of caves, and made new passageways and rooms to live in during the several months that it took for the Germans to be driven out. They had no heat, little light, and dreadful sanitary conditions after several months in tiny caves. We did not get to speak to anyone who lived through the war in Santarcangelo, but our guide (a young woman of 30 or so) certainly spoke soberly about the problems of Italian civilians during the war.