The Big Read: Charmed by authentic Italy, from city to sea...
From flavoursome food to lofty landmarks, Tanya Sweeney immerses herself in the authentic Italy
As soon as I put my knife to the fresh ravioli, I'm met with a mock-stern glance. "We definitely don't use knives on our pasta," our tour guide Paola cheerfully admonishes. Later on, one of our party orders an after-dinner cappuccino: another minor transgression. As to mentions of Spaghetti Bolognese: not on your life.
The way locals tell it, the world took a culinary classic (tagliatelle with ragu) and changed it beyond recognition. Spag Bol is an Americanised abomination, not unlike tam o'shanters or Shamrock Shakes round these parts.
Italians aren't necessarily stuck up about their food, but they're certainly vocal and passionate about it. There's much talk of emotion, of food being soulful. At the heart of quotidian life is fresh food, prepared honestly, without fuss and with great care. Those careworn clichés about Italians and their food may be tiresome, but they're true.
Even their fast food is seemingly better: "I've had McDonald's all over the world, but we have the best ingredients so ours is superior," proclaims one local. Driving through endless vistas of olive trees, vineyards and farmyards, it's hard to disagree.
Bologna, the largest city in the Emilia-Romagna region, is primarily a university town (it's home to the oldest university in the world), though you'd be hard pressed to find kebab-munching students. Even in the summer months, the city crackles with a youthful energy. It's a stylish and vibrant town, dotted with cobbled backstreets and pretty portico structures.
Down one of these laneways, replete with deli shops and curiosities, you'll find the Osteria del Sole (Vicolo Ranocchi 1, 40124 Bologna, Tel: +39 347 968 0171, osteriadelsole.it). It's a down-at-heel dive bar that's been around since 1465. Come lunchtime, it's mainly populated by boisterous groups of locals (and the odd charmed blow-in).
In Ireland, we've embraced the concept of BYOB restaurants, but here, the reverse stands. They provide the wine (local Sangiovese, Lambrusco and Chianti: around €6.50 for three glasses), while patrons bring their own mortadella, prosciutto, piadina (flat) bread and melon from the local delis.
Try the Mercato di Mezzo food market, one of the city's biggest (Via Francesco Rizzoli 9, 40125 Bologna, Tel: +39 051 296 0801). Nearby, the Eataly emporium (Via degli Orefici 19, 40124 Bologna, Tel: +39 051 095 2820, eatily.it) is doing similarly brisk business. This newly opened food court is where you'll find locals getting their no-frills lunchtime fix.
You'll certainly need to carb-load if you want to tackle one of Bologna's renowned towers. The highest of these is the Torre degli Asinelli (Piazza Ravegnana), right in the heart of the postcard-perfect University District. With 500 winding steps, it's not for the faint-hearted ... even if the expansive views of the city make the mild terror worthwhile.
Back on terra firma, serious foodie fans can get their hands dirty at a pasta cooking class at pasta store Uova e Farina (Corte Isolani 5a, 40125 Bologna, Tel: +39 051 095 9620, uovaefarinabologna.it). It's pretty mind-blowing to realise that pasta is made with nothing but flour and eggs ... and a whole lot of elbow grease. The recipe hasn't changed much since the year 300.
After making up pork tortellini and nests of tagliatelle with the owners Rita and Simona, it's possible to lunch on the fruits of your labour afterwards, and stock up on fresh pasta goods and local desserts like the rice-based cake torta di riso.
The Italian courtyard where you'll dine is also home to a number of boutiques and wine bars.
Though the city of Bologna has much to offer in the way of gastro delights, visitors to the Emilia-Romagna region are waking up to the possibility of a different, more immersive foodie experience. For years, Agriturismo (or Italian farm-stays) has been a well-guarded secret, but no more. These farm-stays are intimate and informal, while the hosts – often the owners of the land, who create menus of their own produce – are usually on hand to talk shop about their produce. At the Antiche Macine (Via Provinciale Solgliano 1540, Montalbano. Tel +39 0541 627 161, antichemacine.it), a country house built on the grounds of a 17th-Century oil press facility, the fare is rustic and restaurant quality.
We gorged on fosse cheese (seasoned underground), honey from the estate, and Parma ham before a five-course 'slow food' meal and lashings of Sangiovese wine and grappa liqueur.
The rooms here are €90-130 a night, which buys visitors not just accommodation, but breakfast, dinner and wine that's fresh off the estate. This particular farm-stay has 10 rooms, a pool and a banquet hall for 160 people (incidentally, there's a small church 300 metres from the door if you're in the mood for an intimate wedding). In the near future, they hope to offer wellbeing, detox and yoga packages to visitors.
Food is certainly big noise in the Emilia-Romagna region, but the locals are every bit as passionate about their local wines. Sangiovese, Barolo and Albana are the local wines, and over at the Azienda Vitivinicola Celli (Viale Carducci 5, 47032 Bertinoro. Tel +39 (0)543 445183, celli-vini.com), the proprietor, Mauro Celli, likes to wax rhapsodical about his work.
"That sound is emotional to me," he says as he pops the cork on a bottle of Le Grillaie 2013 Sangiovese. "When I get to sit with a good glass of wine, I get to be satisfied in the moment."
Ninety minutes down the motorway to the south-east lies Rimini, the most popular family resort town in Italy. Nine million visitors – the vast majority of them Italians, and a smattering of Germans and Austrians – go there every year to enjoy over 15kms of sandy beach. It's a town rich with ancient history and Roman architecture from the Augustus Arch and the Montanara Gate to the Tiberius Bridge, built in the year 14AD.
Yet by all evidence, Rimini is the town that people come to let their hair down. Rimini doesn't have the heady, romantic glamour of the Italian Riviera, and the place is all the better for it. It's not a place to see and be seen: rather, it's the spot for unfussy family relaxation.
It's certainly developed to cater for the masses – as in many tourist resorts, souvenir shops and neon-lit bars jostle for pavement space. Still, you'll be hard pressed to find a chips-with-everything pub. Come midnight, the pavements are replete with families still enjoying their evening meal. The atmosphere is buzzy, without being raucous.
Rimini's beaches are broken up into around 250 bathing clubs. At each one, you'll find row upon row of sun loungers, cafes, restaurants and various amenities.
Over at Marano (Beach 151), it's possible to learn stand-up paddleboarding and – for more adventurous types – kitesurfing (see 151riccione.com for details).
At Beach Club No 110 in Riccione (called 'la spiaggia del cuore', or 'the Heart Beach', laspiaggiadelcuore.com), three people can rent a lounger next to the surf for €28, and then avail of a host of beach club activities.
There's an outdoor gym, kids' entertainment, shaded lounging area, a pool, a spa and even Pilates classes. It's a true family affair as generations of Italian holidaymakers, young and old, convene together for all activities (including hip-hop dance classes on the beach).
One word of advice: Rimini is perfect for Irish families who fancy something off the beaten tourist trail ... though, as the vast majority of visitors here speak Italian, it's probably best to travel in a group, or with a second English-speaking family, to avoid feeling too isolated.
Rimini boasts 16 theme, water and marine parks, and at the nearby Aquafan water park (aquafan.it, Via Ascoli Piceno, 6, Tel. +39 0541 603050) visitors can test their mettle on 10 water features, from the Extreme River ride (truly not one for the lily-livered), to the Kamikaze. Tickets are €28/€20 for children.
Two thousand five hundred visitors a day make their way there in June (4,000 in July, 6,000 in August), while the park acts as a 17,000-capacity dance/foam party venue come night-time (David Guetta plays on August 3).
In early July, Rimini comes up smelling of roses during its annual Pink Night, a high point in the summer's calendar. It's an ostensible celebration of women that's open to everyone, and the local newspaper issues free pink T-shirts for revellers. Music, lights and fireworks liven up the seafront while local musicians, performers and dancers chime in to create the electric atmosphere.
Rimini is cheery and charming throughout the summer, but through this rose-tinted lens, suffice to say that the place becomes even better.
Topflight provide sun holidays to Rimini, Riccione and Cattolica on the Adriatic coast, as well as weekend and short breaks to Bologna. A typical three-night stay in Bologna during low season costs from €309 with Aer Lingus (depending on flight timings). Call 01 240 1700 or see topflight.ie
Need a room in Rimini? Try Hotel Patrizia, Viale Regina Elena 84, Rimini. Tel: +39 0541 380607, hotelpatriziarimini.it.
To experience the region's local wines, go to Azienda Vitivinicola Celli, Viale Carducci 5, 47032 Bertinoro. Tel +39 0543 445183, celli-vini.com
Try a farm stay at Agriturismo Antiche Macine, Via Provinciale Solgliano 1540, Montalbano. Tel +39 0541 627 161, antichemacine.it
Stay in Bologna's buzzy shopping district at the Hotel Internazionale, Via Indipenza 60, Bologna. Tel: +39 051245544, hotelinternationalebologna.com
Try some local Bolognese fare in the open air at Cantina Betivoglio, Via Mascarella 4B, cantinabentivoglio.it
For a romantic meal for two in Bologna, go to Ristorante Ciacco, Van San Simone 1, 40126 Bologna.