A few miles from the coast of Romagna, there lies a truly enchanting place.
If you leave the glimmering shoreline and venture a little way inland, in the direction of Montefeltro, a thousand surprises await you. Crests and drops, tight bends, often challengingly steep slopes, and woodland that alternates with the arable and villages. We are up in the Conca valley, which starts between the coastal towns of Cattolica and Misano and runs to the ancient walls of the Montefiore fortress, an immense structure that catches the light of the setting sun and blazes on the horizon, a three-dimensional image of stupefying beauty.
Strolling the alleyways of Montefiore Conca, you scramble up a cobbled road that takes you through the old city gates and up to the Muro Grosso (thick wall). An apt name, as it turns out, for these layers of brick and mortar that ring the citadel proper, which you can visit. A lone public fountain stands just outside the entrance, there to slake the thirst of the weary traveller. Circling these walls gives you a good look at the squat, austere medieval town, loved by its citizens beyond question. Lazy cats loll in the sun; gorgeous views stretch as far as the eye can see, maybe vanishing into a wispy mist.
The name Monte Fiore is documented as far back as 1136, but the place itself, as a defensive position and an obvious place of refuge, was inhabited long before. What we know for sure is that the town dates back to the barbarian invasions of the early medieval period, which forced the people of the floodplain to climb higher. The resulting settlement originally lay within Malatesta territory, but it passed through various hands before the mercenary Federico Montefeltro da Urbino brought it under the papal banner, after long and bloody fighting.
But despite having St Peter’s coat-of-arms over the main gate to the citadel, the sixteenth century saw Montefiore continue to slide between various overlords. The Venetian Republic wrested it from the Borgia family, before it went back to the Vatican. It then had stints in the Cisapline Republic and Napoleon’s Kingdom of Italy, before the Congress of Vienna handed it once again back to the Pope.
There’s nothing today to suggest that Montefiore has had such a tormented history. The circumstant town is a quiet, sleepy little place that welcomes tourists in search of fresher climes. It also puts on a range of cultural events, be it theatre, jazz or classical concerts, folk festivals; you’ll also find the odd busker clamouring in the square, without a trace of embarrassment. It’s probably worth parking a little further out and walking uphill: you’ll find a trattoria to sit down in, where you can enjoy a nice plate of passatelli – which here are not served in broth, unlike in other parts of Romagna – and a glass of Sangiovese.
If you come in winter, however, the best thing you can do is to try some of the roasted marron chestnuts, which grow in the surrounding woods, and just savour the charm of a place that has bewitched artists and writers alike, even earning a place in Ezra Pound’s poetry. If you’re a medievalist, you should see the beautifully well-preserved fourteenth-century crucifix in the parish church, a rare example of a church with two naves.