PEOPLE OF THE SEA:
Looking for an authentic experience for your next cycling destination? Cattolica offers a quiet elegance, a surprisingly easy pace and great convenience. Situated at the edge of Emilia Romagna, just at the border of Marche region, Cattolica is something of an undiscovered secret amongst travelling cyclists. Chris Balogh reveals all.
Cattolica is an elegant town with tree-lined streets , cozy bars, shops and restaurants. It feels like less of an exclusively tourist town compared to nearby Riccione. Although it also offers the quintessential beach clubs with campy names, it is perhaps the old churches , city squares and bustling port with an active fishing fleet that lets the visitor blend into the everyday rhythm of local life.
Local fish is an important part of the cuisine. Aside from the seasonal fish caught in the Adriatic waters, Cattolica is known for a popular variety of oyster (Ostrea edulisoysters) which is harvested from two natural beds a few miles from the coast.
The region of Emilia Romagna has grown into a mecca for visiting cyclists, because of the bike hotel model which originated here. Cattolica is also a strong player in the cycle tourism model with Hotel Europa Monetti and Hotel Ancora leading the way in innovation, amenities and services offered to cyclists.
Cattolica is also known for its large aquarium which is the home of several endangered Taurus sharks. The aquarium makes a splash (couldn't resist) with the cyclists as the sponsor of one of the most charming Granfondos in Italy; GranFondo degli Squali (the GranFondo of the Shark). The 4th edition of Granfondo degli Squali will roll out on May 13th, 2018. It is the brainchild of Filippo Magnani who also runs the Hotel Ancora Bike Hotel. The race has had close to 2000 participants and offers both a challenging course and a wonderful post-race sardine party.
Before we got to soak our legs in the sea, Filippo our host, made sure that we had a daily itinerary for our rides ‘inland’. Filippo has a contagious excitement for sharing the culture, history and gastronomy of his area. He is a young man, wise beyond his years, who wears many hats and has energy to burn. Between Filippo and his good friend Alberto Monetti, owner of the Europa Monetti Bike Hotel, we had all our needs addressed in a flash. We were assigned a guide and introduced to a large group of guests from a UK cycling club; Cycle Out London. The well-travelled group had chosen Cattolica and the Europa Monetti Bike Hotel for their annual trip. We benefitted from their ‘finds’ in Cattolica, as we exchanged stories over breakfast and dinner in the Europa Monetti’s contemporary dining space.
A week’s worth of riding into the interior, provided challenging climbs to impressive communes, and wineries. Determined to check off all the castles, we began with Gradara Castle in neighbouring Marche region (only 7km from Cattolica), a well-maintained fortress famous for a tragic love affair. One of the toughest climbs and most exotic stops, San Marino, the oldest republic in the world was a very memorable day with a breathtaking view from a restaurant built into a cliff.
We rode into Mondaino and drank coffee in the square that recently lent itself to a Morretti beer commercial that the locals were eager to show us. We climbed up through Montegridolfo and tasted wine and feasted at nearby Tenuta Carlini, easily reached but hard to find on the nearby Panoramic route.
It was however, San Leo, a less famous castle that stole our hearts in the middle of the vast Malatesta Seignory area. Perhaps it had something to do with the timing of our arrival; the perfect weather or the off-season calm. We rolled into the cobbled square after a 5km climb, which was breathtaking in only the visual sense. The trees hid the impressive castle from us until it appeared majestically on the final switchback. The final approach is devoid of greenery, suddenly everything is stone of the same colour.
In the square, we chatted with a few locals who came out to meet us. The friendly scene led us to a restaurant where we casually rearranged tables in the street. In Italian restaurants , everything is possible. The Italians not only understand the art of spontaneity, they nurture it.
Enjoying our pasta and feeling the wine hit our legs, we made a promise to visit the neighbour’s Gourmet Food shop. After savouring dessert with a good coffee, we were in no rush to ride and stumbled into an extended cheese tasting session which included a mysterious indigenous fruit and some formaggio di fossa ( cave aged and denomination controlled cheese ) wrapped in walnut leaves. The shop owner’s friends argued over its origins of the small orange plum-like fruits, while one gentlemen returned with a treasure of finds from a nearby farmer’s field which included a 3000 year old Etruscan head the size of my thumb. The party continued and carried over into the ceramic artisan’s shop across the street. After a quick shot of grappa and some promises to return, we saddled up and navigated the cobbled descent through the main archway, feeling like we were leaving another century. We soft pedalled the pleasantly long descent with sweeping views of valleys and the foothills of the Appenines.
Back in Cattolica, our rhythm was well established. The comforts of the Europa Monetti, the bike room, the laundry service and its easy access three-speed city bikes, had us feeling like locals. It is about four lazy strides from the entrance of the hotel to a very cozy cluster of bars on the square. The Adriatic can be felt and heard, a mere 300 metres away. With a perfect Apero Spritz in hand, walking across the warm sand was a small indulgence that made Cattolica ours.
We all went our separate ways on the last day. Some made sure to catch the last warmth of the sun on the beach, while others hit the many stores in the centre of Cattolica. It’s easy to forget that Cattolica is a coastal town once you wander into the older sections and explore its many boutiques.
There is more than enough to keep you occupied for days!