Italians find themselves at the sea nearly every summer weekend, whether they smartly rent or own a whole beach house, or just a few feet of sand under an umbrella. Having lived in Bologna for years and living as any honorable Italian would do, I joined in the weekend beach-side adventures, fleeing as far as Ancona, but mostly sticking directly East of Bologna in Rimini, Riccione and Ravenna. But mostly Rimini, because it was familiar. As soon as the fan came down off the top shelf of my closet and propped up by my bed, the early Saturday morning train rides to Rimini commenced. So it was fitting that I spent my last weekend in Italy before my big return to the United States relaxing at the Italian seaside lifestyle that had defined my summers there. But this time I didn’t have to wake up early and take the train. Instead, my boyfriend at the time preferred to drive. And he was a different sort of character. He didn’t do things the same way everyone else did. Instead, he suggested we go to the tiny town of Cesenatico. I didn’t have the slightest idea what to expect, but as always, I was up for the adventure.
The non-eventful drive and the parking process played out like all of my other beach adventures. The drive east toward the Adriatic Sea is flat with huge green fields broken up by an occasional ancient structure. As you approach the sea, there are lots of trees shading the streets and houses. I was unsuspecting as we parked in an ugly supermarket parking lot until we emerged onto the main walkway of the village. Stretching before me was a long canal that ran to the sea, flanked by colorful buildings and sporting a long line of cleverly named boats. But these weren’t recreational boats, they were fishing boats. And the canal, apparently, is famous because it was once surveyed by Leonardo da Vinci. Only in Italy.
I was surprised by my surroundings. “Where are we again?” I asked him. I’m bad with proper nouns. “Cesenatico,” he replied. “But this place is so cool – why doesn’t everyone come here?” “I don’t know,” he said. “But that’s why I like it. Not everyone comes here.”
He was right. There were definitely other Italian tourists, but they were mostly families. Instead of walking into a tourist trap, it felt instead like we were stepping into the seaside life of these lucky Italians that call Cesenatico home.
We walked down the crowded main stretch along the canal, toward the sea. I almost felt like a voyeur, watching all the families and the family dogs enjoying their Saturday. There was even a funky shaped boat that cost one euro that would take you to the other side of the canal if you so desired. We drifted until we couldn’t walk anymore, to the point at the end of the boardwalk. Fishermen and teens and couples like us trickled around, but nothing overwhelming. Near the boardwalk was a sprawling restaurant with whitewashed walls and tables. We were led to a table in the sand. A family with a toddler playing in the sand sat at the next table. We sat a bit with our drinks, the sight and sounds of the sea releasing our stress, much of which stemmed from my impending departure. “It seems impossible to believe that in a week you will be in New York. From Cesenatico to New York – I can’t imagine a bigger change,” said my traveling companion. I sat and munched my olive and took a sip of prosecco. He was right. At that moment, New York was absolutely worlds away from Cesenatico.
We eventually found ourselves making our way back up the canal. A pair of sunglasses caught his eye, and as he tried them on I wandered a few steps and discovered a little fair on a tiny side street, so characteristic of Italy. Everywhere I turned this little street was dripping with charm – a candy-cane striped awning and a retro bike, a gelato shop that tempted my traveling companion, and knitted jellyfish hanging from a string tied to streetlights. I followed the jellyfish hanging from the sky, one by one, to a small, quiet piazza, full of families and a few curious adults, officially stepping over any remaining line between tourist and resident. To my delight, there were nautical-inspired knittings livening up the ancient stone fountain, church, and doorways of the building facing the piazza, to match the hanging jellyfish. Children played under trees decorated with diamonds and more jellyfish. With a bit of internet research, I realized I had stumbled upon Cesenatico’s Urban Knitting Group “Il Mare in Conserva,” an installation art exhibit in the Piazzetta delle Conserve. I was utterly charmed to so unexpectedly wander into this peaceful, simple world. I participated as an outsider, snapping photos of the happy children and cats, until realizing my travel companion had probably finished his gelato by now. I reluctantly followed the jellyfish back, and found him happy as a clam (no pun intended), taking advantage of his phone’s data plan as the celebrations went on around him. We made our way back to the car slowly, our departure marking a transition into a much more complicated world, void of knitted jellyfish and children playing jump-rope on the street. It had not been just another beach adventure. It was the end of an era of a naive American girl marveling in the oddities and delights of a beach life so different from my Southern California home. And the beginning of a mysterious something else.