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Rimini, Pearl of the Adriatic

Along the Adriatic coast with beautiful beaches of very fine sand, Rimini may seem like a sleepy vacation spot, but it's not. The old Roman port of Rimini, immortalized in Fellini's Amarcord, is also the capital of Italian night life and a center of historical sites.

By Kyle Phillips
http://italianfood.about.com

WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, Florence in August was a disturbing experience: Hot as Hades, and (except for the really touristy sections) as deserted as a ghost town, the shutters of the stores down and the blinds of the windows closed tight. This was before the days of supermarkets, and the newspapers would print guides to tell the few unfortunate souls who remained where they could buy food. With the exception of Siena, which has the Palio on the 16th, things weren't much different in the other major and minor Italian cities far from the coast. Where did all these people go, you wonder?

Well, Florentines went to Versilia, a beautiful plain sandwiched between the Apuan Alps and the Tyrrhenian, and the Romans to Punta Ala and Orbetello, resorts on the Southern Tuscan coast. The majority of Northerners, on the other hand, went to the Adriatic, together with a sizable segment of the German population. Rimini, which began catering to vacationers in the 1840s, and was immortalized in Fellini's Amarcord, expanded, merging with the towns north and south of it, and now the developed area extends for more than 50 kilometers along the Adriatic coast. All those people had to have something to do after their sunning, and in addition to building hotels the locals built night clubs; Now Rimini is the capital of Italian night life, with clubs of all sizes and for all tastes. Indeed, for many the sea has become an incidental, unnecessary optional, and there are people who live like vampires, emerging at dusk to party the night away and collapsing sometime after dawn.

"Sounds horrible," I hear somebody mutter, and I thought so too, until Elisabetta and I decided to take our 4-year old son to a real beach with lots of fine sand (the section of Versilia where we go to is gravelly). We were staying in Bellariva, just south of Rimini proper, and our initial impression was not good: a sea of tawdry 2-story buildings, with our hotel rising above them, the train tracks just beyond the parking lot, and a soccer field next door. We were mistaken: Riccardo loved watching the trains from his balcony, and we were wowed by the view of San Marino, off in the distance inland, while the lack of buildings around us meant we always had a breeze to enjoy (there was air conditioning for when it died down), and silence at night. The beach (a 5 minute walk) was impressive too, about 400 feet of very fine sand and then a gently sloping sea-bottom; the water was quite clear, warm, and there were occasional schools of fish. The bathing establishments were also a far cry from what we were used to in Tuscany. In addition to umbrellas and lounge chairs, they provide playgrounds for smaller children who've had enough of sand, basketball, volleyball, weight lifting, aerobics and more.

If you decide to forgo the beaches there's lots to see and do. For small children there's Fiabilandia, an amusement park with rides and entertainment geared for the under ten crowd. Mirabilandia, just north of Rimini, is a large traditional amusement park with roller coasters and such for those older. In Riccione there's Acquafan, one of Italy's largest water parks, with miles of watery slides of all kinds (the minimum age for many of them is about 8) -- you can easily spend a day in the place. There's also San Marino, which is perched on a hill just a few miles inland, and, if you like caving, the Grotta di Frasassi, one of Italy's most spectacular, is about 20 miles away.

Then there's Rimini itself. The original settlement, which was Umbro-Etruscan, became a Roman colony in 268 BC -- The Romans wanted a port, but also a base from which to overrun Cisalpine Gaul (the Po Plain); the town also rapidly became a strategic communications hub. In 27 BC Augustus rebuilt Rimini, and the grateful citizens dedicated a monumental arch (the first built north of the Apennines) to him that is still the main gate; the white marble bridge Tiberious built shortly thereafter is also still standing. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire the city was overrun by the Goths and was later conquered by Bellisario, the great Byzantine general. Rimini stagnated under Byzantine rule for several centuries, then became a free commune during the XII and XIII centuries, rebuilding its walls and establishing its independence; by 1320 the Malatesta family had taken power and ruled for more than 200 years.

A visit will take a morning and should begin in Piazza Tre Martiri, which is dedicated to three men hung by the fascists on August 16 1944. Their monument is under the clock (built in 1562, while the calendar dates to 1570), and includes the names of others who were either shot by the fascists or died in the Resistance. As you face it Augustus's arch is to the right. The battlements above the gate are mediaeval; in Roman times the arch hosted a statue of the Emperor. Until Mussolini had the square around it opened, it was crowded by houses.

Return to Piazza Tre Martiri and turn right, onto Via Garibaldi. The Tempio Malatestiano is one of the oddest and most interesting churches of the Renaissance. It began life as the chapel of a Franciscan convent, but was selected by Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta to house the family tombs; reconstruction began in 1447. The exterior was assigned to Leonbattista Alberti, the great Florentine architect, and may have been his first major commission (some think he used it to verify the theories he set forth in his ground- breaking work, De Re Aedificatoria). Though unfinished, the fa�ade has a definite flavor of antiquity to it that was revolutionary at the time, and derives from Alberti's desire to draw from Classical architecture to express the nobility of Humanity. The upper section was to have included an arch similar to Augustus's gate, which would have served to tie the composition together. Though fascinating, Alberti's work has little to do with the church inside -- when Matteo de'Pasti, who was directing the work (and overseeing the reconstruction of the interior, as an architect in his own right) complained that the placement of one of the pilasters supporting the arches along the side of the church would block one of the windows, Alberti replied "were it to go elsewhere it would disrupt the harmony of the composition."

Alberti's exterior is a masterpiece of rational thought. The interior is more a celebration of Ancient Roman d�cor, a sumptuous celebration of the decorative arts that gives a good idea of what the Malatesta court must have been like, at least on the surface: frivolous and fun-loving. The crucifixion above the main altar is by Giotto, and in addition to being beautiful, is certainly the most serious artwork in the church. The first chapel on the right, as you enter, is dedicated to Saint Sigismondo, King of Burgundy, and has representations of the Cardinal Virtues in the niches of the pilasters (Justice is oddly absent; perhaps a comment on the history of the Malatesta dynasty). Next is the sacristy (you have to ask to get in), which has Piero della Francesca's fresco of Sigismondo kneeling before the Saint, and also relics from Paolo and Francesca (In the Divine Comedy, Dante met them in hell, where she told him how she was forced to marry the brutish Gianciotto Malatesta to cement an alliance, and fell inlove with his brother, Paolo il Bello, who also loved her; Giancotto found them entwined and spitted them on his sword). The sacristy is followed b a chapel dedicated to Archangel Michael (in the niche, striking down the Evil One), with scenes of angels singing and dancing on the pilasters, and Isotta Delgi Atti's spectacular tomb set into the wall. Next is the Cappella dei Pianeti, so-called because of the representations of the planets and the signs of the zodiac on the pilasters; though it might strike a modern viewer as a strange subject to place in a church, the scenes are intended to show how God predominates over All.

The Cappella dei Pianeti also contrasts with the facing chapel, known as the Cappella delle Arti Liberali because of the figures representing the arts of Man (rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy, geography and so on). Both chapels clearly draw from Roman decorative traditions, and have screens separating them from the nave that look very much like the scola cantora (screens around the main altar) one sees in Paleochristian basilicas. They are also strikingly beautiful. Returning towards the door of the church, the next chapel, that dedicated to guardian angels, is known as the Cappella dei Giuochi Infantili (Chapel of Children's Games) because the pilasters have scenes of children playing tag, swimming among dolphins, sailing, and doing all sorts of other fun things. The chapel mirrors the d�cor of the chapel dedicated to Archangel Michael, and both bring to mind Della Robbia because the figures on the pilasters, white marble bas-reliefs, are set against blue backgrounds. Across from the sacristy is a small chapel dedicated to Rimini's war dead, with their names engraved on the walls. The final chapel by the door is known as the Cappella delle Sibille e dei Profeti because of the statues in the niches; it has the tomb of Sigismondo's ancestors, and was initially dedicated to the Martyrs, though it is now dedicated to the Madonna dell'Acqua, the Virgin in the niche. The color scheme was reworked by Luigi Poletti in the 1860s.

The apse of the church looks quite different, and indeed it is: Sigismondo was excommunicated in 1460 by Pious II, and the Franciscans were forced to complete the reconstruction of their church as best they could. The apse was rebuilt again in the seventeenth century, and destroyed by bombs during the war. During that restoration, carried out in 1946, the fa�ade was also completely taken apart and reassembled; it was discovered that much of the facing stone had been taken from Roman buildings.

Once you have seen the church, duck into the Town offices next door (#37); there's a pretty Gothic window frame set into the wall. Return to Piazza Tre Martiri and turn right onto Corso d'Augusto; after about 100 yards you will come to Piazza Cavour, which has the town hall, a Malatesta fortified residence with nice brickwork in the insets of the Gothic arches (it's being restored), and a neoclassical theater (at the far end of the square). There's also a wonderful circular fountain built by Pope Paul III in 1543, which must have been superb for watering horses. It's right next to the fish market, a delightful portico with two very long marble tables where vendors could set out their catch. Circle around behind the theater (this can take a while on Wednesday, which is market day), noting the remains of the 19th century boxes on the other side of the fa�ade -- the theater was bombed during the war -- and stroll around to the fortress, which is imposing, but is also being restored. Once you have viewed the fortress, return to Via d'Augusto and follow it to the bridge Tiberious built between 14 and 21 AD.

You will at this point have seen many of Rimini's major monuments; as you return towards Piazza Cavour, duck into the Chiesa dei Servi, which was built in the 1300s and has frescoes by Giotto's students in the apse. The stuccos in the nave are also beautiful; note in particular the caryatids supporting the lectern. Turn back into Piazza Cavour, and zigzag through the Peschiera to Via Cariali; the church of Saint Augustine, on the corner with Via Sigismondo, has spectacular Baroque stuccos in astonishing profusion, and is literally ablaze with gold.

There is of course more -- More churches, a fragmentary Roman amphitheater, an important art museum, an aeronautical museum with modern MIGs and unique WWII fighters, a biker's museum, and� you get the picture.

Getting there, and all that:

Rimini is easy to reach: If you're north of the Apennines, or along the Adriatic coast, take the A14 highway (If you're in Lazio, cross the peninsula on the Roma-Pescara highway and drive north). If you're in Tuscany, the quickest way is to take the A1 highway to Bologna and then the A14 to the coast. However, the old road from Florence to Forli, which crosses the Passo del Muraglione, is much prettier -- once you're at Forli continue on the Via Emilia to Rimini. There are hundreds of hotels in the area; we stayed in the Bellariva, which was quite nice and reasonably priced. The food was good, and Riccardo loved the pool.

A final warning, aimed primarily at young ladies: Rimini may seem like a sleepy vacation spot, but it's not. The nighttime population of the Riviera swells to over a million on summer weekends, and they're not all nice people. Last week two 20-year old Swiss girls went to watch the sun rise with six Albanians they'd met in a disco and were raped. Don't follow their example.

Be safe, and have a great time!
Kyle Phillips

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