When I go to the beach, I am not content to just sit around. I get bored after half an hour on a good day, and want to do active things, or alternate beach-going with visits to towns or museums. So Cesenatico, on the ‘Riviera Romagnola,’ Italy’s east coast, was a pleasant surprise. The Riviera Romagnola stretches about a hundred kilometers from Ravenna to Rimini, with vast beaches and just as vast a tourist offering in terms of hotels and activities. With the coast of Tuscany the most obvious choice for those of us that live in Florence, I had never been to this area to go to the beach, nor heard of Cesenatico until I received an invitation to go there last weekend. The weather this year has been crazy, changeable and unseasonably cold, so being at the beach wasn’t super appealing, but I found myself surprised at how, in two or three days, there was still plenty more to do and see here.
This area of Italy was developed primarily in the 1950s, though already from the middle of the 19th century the aristocratic trend of going to the beach was developed due to a belief that sea air is good for you (it is!). The 1950s was a boom period in building, resulting in some wild and inappropriate development in cement, and in the 60s the beaches of this area, especially at Rimini, were the setting for numerous Italian films. With some decline in the 80s, the smarter towns like Cesenatico developed a better tourism offering, not just centered around the beach and water (which admittedly is not as nice as in Tuscany) but focused on nearby alternatives to keep families and restless people like me happy for a whole week.
So, here’s my top 10 list of things to do in Cesenatico (and just beyond), rain or shine!
1) Wake up to see the sun rise, then go back to bed
If you want you can stay up and go for a run or something… but, naw. Go back to bed.
2) play tennis or beach volleyball, run, bike…
We played tennis before breakfast, which felt great. Our hotel had a tennis court, but if yours does not, there are public courts in Cesenatico.
The town offers public beach volleyball courts, and a long boardwalk for running, biking or walking. Sport is a way of life and as soon as the weather permits, everyone is outside being active. The town is also host to an important 200km bike race called Nove Colli during which numbers in town swell to about 12,000 racers plus their families, and there are plenty of hotels to welcome everybody.
3) Museo della Marineria
This museum boasts a floating section, 10 historic fishing boats that are parked in the canal outside the museum building, most of the time with the sails hoisted. They provide a colourful attraction for tourists and are one of the main symbols of the city, put here in the 1980s when the tourism board and mayor decided to make the museum and work on the town’s tourist offering – with good results, I’d say. The boats date mostly from the 1950s and 60s though there is one from the late 19th century. They represent various types of fishing boats (wide, or flat bottomed, etc.) for different uses.
Inside, you can get a closer look at two large boats built in 1921, a trabaccolo and a bragozzo, pictured here, as well as various displays related to sea life.
4) Eat Fish
This is one of the main reasons I came to Cesenatico. I had more fish in 3 days than in the past 3 months (and I am a recent convert to and lover of fish). The restaurant at the Grand Hotel Cesenatico (see below) has lovely, modern presentations and a very light cuisine. We also ate at the restaurant at Hotel Miramare which offers more traditional local dishes. And finally, we were privvy to a local tradition of eating ‘poor’ small fish done on the grill, served with piadine.
5) The Leonardesque canal and port
Legend has it that the great artist Leonardo designed this town’s canal and port. The canal is shorter on one side than the other in order to resolve the problem of the accumulation of sand. In truth, Leonardo visited Cesenatico and other towns in the area under the control of Cesare Borgia, son of the pope and Duke of Valentinois and the Romagna territory, who took the artist on as a military engineer in 1502 with the intention of improving the defense of Cesenatico’s port town and other ports in the area. Leonardo sketched the canal of Cesenatico as he saw it at that date, from a viewing point above the city, a now destroyed fortress. The resulting two drawings are in the Codice L conserved in the Istitut de France, Paris. We do not know what changes he suggested nor if they were implemented.
6) Visit Cesena
Okay so it’s not in Cesenatico, but the town’s big brother is only 25 minutes away. The main things to see are the Malatesta Fortress and the Malatesta Library, or Biblioteca Malatestiana. As you can image, this was the family name of the ruling lord in Cesena, Rimini (remember the Tempio Malatestiano by Alberti?) and surrounding area. I made a point of going to the library because it is a Unesco site and a perfectly preserved example of a Renaissance library with incatenati, or chained books. (See my separate post about this library – coming soon.)
7) The cathedral, Tonino Guerra
Along the boardwalk of Cesenatico is a nice work of public art called ‘La Cattedrale delle foglie e delle piante contadine’ by the sculptor Aurelio Brunelli based on a project by the poet Tonino Guerra, for whom each of the seven large bronze leaves would represent emotions and memories. But each plant represented is also a ‘forgotten fruit,’ part of a regional project to renew interest in rarer fruit plants, encouraging biodiversity. The work was inaugurated in June 2012, while Guerra passed away just months before, in March.
8 ) Play Burraco
This Italian card game is a beachside staple. Typical of Puglia and the country’s southern regions, it has become popular recently with young people throughout the peninsula. It is the perfect way to while away either rainy days or overly hot summer afternoons in the shade or inside. Ask someone to teach you, you won’t regret it.
There are many people who will be able to tell you more about this than I. I can only say that Cesenatico has a rather booming nightlife, with a few pubs, bars and clubs with various target ages and styles that are quite busy until the wee hours. If you are so inclined, it seems you won’t be disappointed.
Where to stay
I was a guest of the Cesenatico Bella Vita consortium, a group of private hotel owners who have decided to take promotion of this town in their own hands (and they’re very social media savvy!). The consortium offers a selection of high quality hotels with amenities like free bikes for guests, wifi and private beaches.
We stayed at the Grand Hotel Cesenatico, one of the most central locations and a historic one too. It sits just beyond the boardwalk – on the other side are just beach establishments and the very deep, sandy beach, on a large urban piazza that used to be all theirs. The building opened in 1929 after a year of construction, and is the work of the architect Rutilio Ciccolini. Its historical significance earns it a place on an itinerary of early 20th century buildings during the totalitarian regimes, that takes you around the province of Forlì-Cesena and would be interesting to follow (the map is available at the tourist office and there is a less attractive online version in italian here).
Owner Andrea Godoli‘s family took over the hotel from the original owners in the 1950s, and although the hotel is relatively large (63 rooms) and fancy, it has the welcoming aspect of a family run hotel. This is certainly an appealing element for the many return visitors – Andrea explains that “almost all our guests come back, many of them every summer. In fact, sometimes they go somewhere else one year, and then they come to me the next year and tell me everything they didn’t like about the other place.” One of the hotel’s strong points is the ease of visits for families, something that the owner himself appreciates now that he, in his mid thirties, has two young boys. With spacious family rooms, pool, tennis, private beach with play area for kids, beach tennis and volleyball areas, outside and inside bars and restaurants, there’s no question that a vacation here is both easy and relaxing for families, without losing any of the class that a historic place like this intrinsically has.