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Cesena, sparkling jewel of Emilia-Romagna

Cesena sits at the elbow of the Appenines as it curves round in a great bow from the plains of Emilia to the coast of Romagna, a provincial town spread out like a picnic on low hills with a slight view over the flat land of Emilia. Its one of those towns, strung out like beads on a necklace, that you normally notice only because there is an exit on the freeway with the name on the signpost. Another lovely place to miss if you don’t know its there.

Cesena is an absolute delight, doubly so because you walk into its heart almost by accident, through doglegged alleys and arcaded streets until the main square opens before you. Everyone here seems to go around on bicycles, which is very much the custom in Bologna also. I used to think that was because of the University there, but it must be because its an easy way of traveling short distances in relatively flat land.

Life has never been terribly exciting in Cesena, except for the awful massacre in the 1300s and the chaos of war of the early 1500s. Most of its life since then was spent as part of the Papal States, mostly ignored if not abandoned. So, people got on with the simpler things in life, creating a town with a very human dimension.

The main square is truly lovely, a counterpoint between graceful, ornate and flower covered houses on one side and the stark simplicity of the Malatesta fortress facing off on the other. As referee set in in the middle of the square, a most wondrous confection of a fountain. This has to be one of Italy’s most beautiful squares, yet few know of it.

You can clamber up and wander within the fortress, trying to guess out of which window the redoubtable Caterina Sforza looked over 500 years ago while kept captive here by the dark and menacing Cesare Borgia. You can visit La Biblioteca Malatestiana, the first ever public library in Europe, still set out in its early Renaissance style when opened in the late 1400s. You can travel over a couple of hills to see the ancient abbey of Sta Maria del Monte – and look back on old Cesena.

Whatever you do, when you see a signpost to Cesena, follow it!

Best times to be there: Winters are cool and misty, summers are hot and misty.

Interesting places nearby: Forlì, Imola, Ferrara.

A little bit of history

Cesena holds one of the passes from the plain of the Po to the valleys of Tuscany, so it was settled early on by Etruscans. They ceded the Po region to the Celtic Gauls, who then found themselves under the sword of Rome, whose generals loved the Cesena wine. From then on Cesena remained a border town between various powers, sometimes getting the chance to vie for freedom. In the Middle Ages the Popes attacked it, the English condottiere John Hawkwood took it, and one Cardinal ordered a massacre. Standard goings-on in the Middle Ages.

The next Pope handed Cesena over to a warchief of the Malatesta family, who rebuilt the castle, opened a library and became a gentleman. A little while later the famous son of another Pope seized it as his capital, but that was shortlived, so after a few more decades of strife the town fell into the peaceable ways of any other town in the Papal States. When given the chance it voted massively to become part of a unified Italy.

Article, photograph and video © Carl Ottersen