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Off the beaten path Italy: Exploring the hills of the Romagna region in Emilia Romagna

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The unknown towns of Emilia Romagna

We wind our way through the hills, our Italian driver taking control of the road, as only a true Italian can.  Here, with the sea breezes of the Adriatic blowing over us and the rich abundance of agricultural land, this is Bruno’s domain.  A local, he’s proud of his heritage and this beautiful area that he calls home.   Alongside Bruno, is Francesca, also proudly Italian and with a PhD in languages and literature from the University of Bologna.  She lives in the Marche region, just outside Emilia-Romagna, but I would say she loves it just as much.

For the next two days, Bruno, the owner of Food in Tour and  Francesca as our very knowledgeable guide, will show us the secrets and delights of this area.  If you are looking for hidden gems and to get away from the major cities and tourist destinations and go off the beaten path in Italy, this is one place to do it.

city of sant agata feltria off the beaten path Italy

Day trips from Bologna

Bologna is one of Italy’s most important cities.  A university town, it also attracts large numbers of visitors who come to see their unique porticoes.  Many also use it as a base to explore the food valley of Emilia Romagna, an area well-known for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Parma ham and Modena balsamic vinegar.  It’s very easy to spend at least one week in Bologna.

Read more | Things to do in Bologna: What to do, where to stay, where to eat

Bologna is also a great base for many day trips to Milan, Ferrara, Venice, San Marino and Florence.  It’s also very easy to get to the east coast.  Larger towns like Rimini on the Adriatic Coast are approximately 1.5 hours away from Bologna by car or an hour on a train.  

The hills of Romagna in Emilia Romagna

To the east of Rimini, rolling hills form the connections between the flat coastal plains and the higher hills of the Apennines that stretch over much of Italy.  Here, in the hills of Emilia-Romagna, you’ll find some of the most under-visited and special villages in the region. 

With the full benefit of the climate that comes from being bordered by hills, mountains, rivers and oceans, the food valley of Emilia Romagna is bursting with incredibly fresh produce and the food they in turn produce.  Over the course of just two days, we were blessed to have been able to visit so many, share in the stories with the local producers and visit the ancient towns, all with their own story.

Hills of Romagna map
Emilia Romagna map – showing the main towns of the Romagna hills

Eastern Emilia-Romagna destinations

All of these towns are easy day trips from Rimini and can also be easily reached from Bologna.

  • Verucchio
  • Sogliano al Rubicone
  • Mondaino
  • San Clemente
  • Santarcangelo
  • Forli

Things to do in the Romagna region of Italy

Eat cave cheese – Formaggio di Fossa

In the hilltop town of Mondaino, we found a cheese secret.  Hidden away beneath the cobbled floor of an old mill, where friars once made olive oil, three medieval pits are integral to making a cheese known as Formaggio di Fossa.  Literally translating to “cheese of the pit”, or cave cheese, this is a famous cheese here in the mountains. 

It is made only by a handful of producers and under the very strict DOP guidelines that determine when and how it is made.  Unlike so many cheeses that are made by relatively standard processes, Formaggio di Fossa is quite unique.

Where formaggio di fossa is made off the beaten path Italy

The pits dug deep into the sandstone, have been used for centuries.  In a very small area between the Rubicone and Marecchia Valley the presence of sandstone allowed for these underground caves to be carved out.  From the 12th-century, many wars and invasions occurred in this area, and it was most likely that the pits were used to store and hide food. During World War Two, they were most definitely used for food storage.  Much later, when the food was recovered, it was observed that some items had improved in flavour. Surprisingly, cheese was one of these.

Whilst these pits would have been used for many years, following the war they were discarded and covered up.  It was only about 30 years ago that the pits were uncovered.  18 years ago, the brothers Chiaretti, Emaneule and Michele, started making their own Formaggio di Fossa. This followed a period of experimentation by his family that started in the 1970s.

 

The production of Formaggio di Fossa is protected by the Italian DOP standards, specifying very strict requirements on the type and origin of ingredients, processing and maturation stages.  Only cheese that comes from this specific geographical region that complies with all rules can be called Formaggio di Fossa. 

At il Mulino della Porta di Sotto, the family utilise the three pits they have. Measuring six metres high by five metres deep, they are built in sandstone and covered in straw.  The composition of the sandstone means that the temperature (29-30 degrees Celsius) and humidity are kept at a constant level.

The cheese is made from sheep’s milk procured through the spring season when the sheep roam free and eat from the paddocks.  It is said that the flavour of the grass and flowers they eat perfumes the milk.  Before pitting, the cheese is aged for approximately four months.  The cheese is placed in cotton bags, usually six in each, and numbered.

Each year they make between six and seven thousand cheeses here.  Other producers who live locally use these pits to store their own production.  At the highest point, there can be around 15,000 pieces of cheese being matured in these pits. The numbered bags are necessary to clearly identify the owners.  

 
Emanuele one of the owners of the formaggio di fossa
 

About 20cm of straw is placed on the top of the cheese once they are packed into the pits to further remove any moisture.  The drier it remains in the pit, the better.  Within one week of the pit being sealed, there is no oxygen left which also means no mould.  The pits get completely sealed up for three months.  

No peeking, for this would let oxygen back in.  During this time, the cheese loses water, fat and salt.  Around 500kg of fat is released from all of the cheese during its time in the pits.  This causes the cheese to harden.  If you are the bottom cheese, with 7,000 others sitting on top of you, I guess you’d lose some fat too.

These cheesemakers make two types of Formaggio di Fossa, one traditional and one made a little drier from the addition of wheat into the pit.  This also infuses the cheese with its aroma. The cheese here is taken out every year on 11 November.  They will be around 20% smaller than when they first went into the pit, due to the loss of fat and water. 

For the majority of the cheese that comes out of the pit, there is a tight timeline.  At this point, Emanuele and Michele, aided by their father, must clean around 16,000 cheeses, all by hand within a two week period.  Anything that is leftover in the pit is used as fertiliser, making the process as sustainable as possible.

The best part about a tour of this cheesemaker is, of course, the chance to eat your weight in beautiful cheese.  I discovered that eating Formaggio di Fossa with a glass of local Sangiovese flavoured with wild cherry, is the perfect combination.  

cheeses at formaggio di fossa

Tenuta Mara

Never have I seen a winery quite like this.  As we walked up the windswept driveway, through the impressive wrought iron gate bearing its name, the sultry tones of classical music could be heard. Looking around for a venue of some kind, I realised that the music was being piped out over the vineyard.  Strange to me, but not to Maria Angela Criscuolo, the PR and Events Manager, who gets to spend her days here.

Music has been used in the vineyard for about 10 years.  Following an issue with a vine that resulted in yellow leaves and poor grape production, they became involved with an experiment run by the University of Florence.  Classical and rock music was played near the vine.  According to Ms Criscuolo, the vine became viable after two years and it was determined that it was the influence of classical music.  “It’s also very nice for people too”, she added

opening gate tenuta mara

Across 35 hectares, grapes cover around eight.  Tenuta Mara was the brainchild of Giordano Emendatori, an entrepreneur who rode the wave of the artisanal gelato boom in the 1970s and created a global company, supplying products to gelato makers.  The company and Giordano himself became leaders in the industry.  Eventually, he turned his mind towards the winery, naming it in part, after his wife.  His vision for biodynamic farming was as visionary as his early foray as a young man selling ingredients to gelato makers. 

Tenuta Mara became a biodynamic winery in a time when this was not common, especially in Italy.  It was considered unusual, but Giordano had been to a wine fair and had witnessed the preservatives they were putting into wine.  He wanted to do something different.  He wanted to make natural wine and he wanted to do it in his home region.

The land here showcased a complex yet complete ecosystem, and the owners set about working the land with all of its natural elements in play.  Bird and insect houses along with beehives are dotted over the land, all interacting in the way nature intended.

Vegetables are grown for the insects to see, supposedly so they won’t eat the vines and of course, they also eat the vermin.  No chemicals are used on the property at all.  Planting follows the planetary movements and harvesting depends on the weather.

For all the understated colour of the natural landscape outside, inside the multi-million dollar home of Tenuta Mara is a completely different story.  Bold, sassy and most definitely in your face, every room is filled with vibrant colours.  A mix of modern and classical art celebrating local and regional artists is on display here and ultimately creates a unique environment.

For all the fun of the artwork, the business of winemaking is taken very seriously.  In the “Temple of Wine”, the underlying philosophy is to ensure the grapes aren’t stressed.  The grapes aren’t pressed.  Machines select the grapes and are fed by gravity to the vat.  Only natural products are used.  In most wineries, where the processes are rigid, here such things as fermentation is left to take its natural course.

This means it could take 20 days or 30 days or anywhere in between, to complete.  There is no temperature control so tastings occur twice a day to ensure that the product is ok.  As we walk around, I also notice that everything is incredibly clean.  There’s no wine spilt on the floor here.  Marie Angela explains that there are three things that are important to making good wine, “clean, clean and clean”.

The music we heard in the vineyard is continuously played in the wine barrel room, although this time, it’s the chant of Benedictine monks, softly soothing everything in its path. 

Aside from the brightly coloured barrels, a timber egg-shaped one sits proudly on a frame in the centre of the room.  There are only two of them in the world, the other is located in France.

egg barrel Tenuta Mara

Like all good businesses, having a diversified strategy is integral to survival.  In August, Tenuta Mara opened the doors to its boutique accommodation space, with four rooms Roma, Firenze, Venezia and Milano.  The attention to detail and creativity of everything that Tenuta Mara strives for in the wine business is continued here. 

If Giordano’s wish is that he “wants the person to enjoy outside and then come inside to continue the experience”, I can truthfully say that the brief has been met.  The rooms are stunning and so different from the standard luxury hotel room.

A stay here at Tenuta Mara is an exclusive offering with personal chefs and a dedicated on-site restaurant. 

Of course, it wouldn’t make sense to come to a winery and not taste their wines, all of which are only made from the Sangiovese grape.  I’m not a wine expert but they tasted good.  Any red wine that hasn’t been loaded with preservatives is always going to be easier on my body too.

wine tasting tenuta mara

Roberta Frontali olive oil 

Last year, when we were in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, we visited an olive oil producer in Brisighella, an easy day trip from Bologna.  At DonnaLivia Agriturismo, we learned so much about how to know if you have good or bad olive oil.  So, when we arrived at Via Degli Ulivi and met with Roberta, one of the owners, we were ready to try her special blend. 

On this olive farm, Roberta and her brother have two areas.  One has olive trees that are over 150 years old, the others are more recent additions at around 15 years.  In total, there are 5,000 trees on this property. 

The business was started 15 years ago.  Roberta’s father had been farming as a hobby.  Roberta wasn’t enthusiastic about it, “hating getting up at 5 am”.  She went to Bologna and in her words, “escaped”, later becoming a designer for a marketing company.  Eventually, she returned to the farm, where her marketing and creativity assist with the business.

olive oil

As we learned last year, to get good olive oil the olives must be pressed immediately.  The longer the olives are left after picking, the higher the quantity but the lower the quality.  I have heard these types of numbers before, but Roberta reiterates that “any olive oil under €8 a litre is poor quality”.  Cheap olive oils are full of chemicals, are usually blended with vegetable oil and is filtered which removes the antioxidants.

Three olive oils are made here; a delicate, a middle-of-the-road and a strong.  Interestingly, they only make one tank of strong oil as most people don’t like it.  In the heart of the Italian food valley, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard that!  Most of their oil goes to northern Italy, Belgium and Germany.  Some are exported to New York.  Locally, it is also available at the cellar door.  

olive oil tasting

Rocca del Sasso 

It seems these hills are made for castles and fortresses.  They were such an important part of the lives of those who lived here all those years ago.  What is pleasing today is how well preserved they are, meaning people like us can continue to learn and appreciate the history that surrounds them.  During the 12th and 15th centuries, the Malatesta family controlled the area from this fortress, also known simply as the Malatesta Fortress.  It is one of the largest and best-preserved in the region that relates to the Malatesta family.

Malatesta fortress

Truffle hunting

To say I was excited about going truffle hunting in Italy would be a complete understatement.  I had wanted to do this for years, but I will also admit to being excited just about going hunting with a cool dog.  After all, in my mind anyway, the dog is one of the coolest things about this ancient way of foraging for food. 

Long before we got round to introducing ourselves to Sauro, our esteemed truffle hunter, the introductions were all for Chico (pronounced KiKo).  This adorable dog would lead us around the forest for the next hour or so.

We were extremely lucky on this occasion to find both a black and a white truffle.  Whilst the black truffles are more common, white ones are much harder to find.  

Read about our truffle hunting in Italy experience

sauro and chico truffle hunting

Sant’Agata Feltria

The small village of Sant’Agata Feltria is another fairytale village, complete with a fairytale castle, perched on the top of a hilltop in the hills of Romagna.

city sant agata feltria

Like many of these towns, the feudal system dominated ownership of towns and their properties.  The Malatesta family, who ruled over the Rimini region from the late 1200s until 1500 were previous owners.  The Fregoso’s were involved from the early 1500s until 1660.  Their lasting legacy is Fregoso Castle, the city’s fortress.  The fortress is one of the reasons visitors flock to this town.

fortress fregoso

Visitors from all over also come here to visit the  Angelo Mariani Theatre.  Built entirely from wood, the theatre is one of the oldest in Italy and is still used for productions today.

The Angelo Mariani Theatre was built by Fregoso as well in 1605.  Galleries were added in between 1743 and 1753.  The curtain, a painting of the town,  is one of the original backdrops and is still in place.

backdrop on stage at theatre

Santarcangelo di Romagna

As if wandering the narrow streets of this medieval town aren’t enough, imagine knowing you are walking over an underground city.  In Santarcangelo di Romagna, an entire system of underground caves lies beneath the cobbled walkways.  Many of the houses built over them have access to these caves, no doubt using them at some stage to store their belongings.  Kept at a constant low temperature, they are also perfect for the cellaring of wine.  During the world wars, entire families lived down here for long periods of time.  

Today, they can be visited by appointment only.

the key to the caves
The key to the caves

La Stamperia Marchi

Santarcangelo di Romagna is also the home of a centuries-old stamping business, La Stamperia Marchi.  As if being founded in 1633 wasn’t enough, this family business that is still owned by descendants of the founders still does everything manually.  That’s right, in a world overrun by machines, robots and automation, a huge wooden wheel is used to press the material.  

The giant wheel, called Mangano translates to a machine that produces strength.  We watched as the owner and chief stamper, walked out onto the wheel, having placed a piece of linen underneath the heavy stone.  He walks on the wheel, causing it to move the rock and the material becomes wound around the rollers, stretching and flattening it.  

mangano wheel
Mangano

This traditional art is carried out in the workshop behind the shop that fronts the street, tempting visitors to come inside.  Here we are treated to a very special time as we watch the fabric being hand stamped.  Even the stamps that are used to make the designs on tablecloths, tea towels and other material-based items are hand made. 

Many of the wooden stamps are originals, also dating back centuries.  In honour of this age-old craft and in keeping with the true artisanal quality of the business, new stamps are made out of wood.

old wooden stamps
Wooden stamps

Where to stay in the Romagna region

The best thing about all of these locations we visited is that nothing is very far away from each other.  It’s a perfect two-day itinerary for the Romagna region.  With all of the beauty of the hills and the castles as our inspiration, we stayed at L’Oste del Castello, a 17th-century house that has been restored to look exactly like it might have back then.  Located in Verucchio, it is built over underground caves and grottoes, many of which you get to walk in as they are the connection points between the rooms and many of the hotel facilities.

caves on way to dinner
Caves on way to dinner

The room was small but comfortable and with a gorgeous view out over the hills.  The bathroom was almost as big as the room, making it a good size.  Wifi is included in the room rate along with a generous continental breakfast.

The hotel is well known in the area for its Wellness spa, a natural thermal hot spring found down in the bowels of the hotel.  

grotto wellness spa
Timeout in the thermal waters

There is also an excellent restaurant on site where it truly feels as though you are sitting in a cave.  

dessert
An Italian millefeuille with mascarpone

If you would like to stay at the L’Oste del Castello, you can see more photos, check availability and reviews on Trip Advisor.

Looking to stay in another part of Romagna?  Check out all the hotels in the region here.

How to get to Romagna

Getting off the beaten path in Italy creates so many surprises and experiences that just aren’t possible in the big cities.  The closest major town to this area is Rimini.

By car

Bologna is connected to Rimini via the autostrada and is approximately 118 kilometres away.  The drive is easy but be aware of peak transit times.  During summer, many of the locals in Bologna escape to the seaside at Rimini on the weekend which increases the traffic on Friday (outbound) and Sunday (inbound) afternoons.   The A14/E45 are the main routes out of Bologna.

By train

Provided the train drivers aren’t on strike (which seems to happen more often than most people would like), the trains are an excellent way to travel in Italy.  The train trip is quick and inexpensive.  Trains leave from the main Bologna Centrale Train Station and arrive into Rimini Train Station.  You can always hire a car in Rimini for getting around Romagna.

By bus

Buses also operate between the two cities.  You can check timetables and prices https://www.checkmybus.com/bologna/rimini here.

More Italy reading

Italy travel guides

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2 thoughts on “Off the beaten path Italy: Exploring the hills of the Romagna region in Emilia Romagna”

  1. can you provide contact information for Bruno and his tour company? We will be in Bologna in September and do not want to rent a car/drive. hahaha.
    thanks.
    enjoying your adventures!

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