The Adriatic Sea coast of Emilia-Romagna in northeast Italy is renowned for its sun-drenched sandy beaches, amusement parks, family fun and lively nightlife. Just steps away from the tourist resort bustle, quieter inland roads and paths on gentle, rolling hills are ideal for cycling and Nordic walking.
Marino and I are at the seaside for a week. We're in Cattolica in Romagna, which borders Gabicce Mare in the Marche region of central Italy. These towns are on the Mediterranean Adriatic coast between the cities of Rimini and Pesaro.
To get here, we took highway A1 from Milan to Bologna and then followed the A14 east to Cattolica. We hope to do some Nordic walking and meet up with Raffaele Bartolini, the local Nordic walking association's president and instructor extraordinaire.
Nordic walking is like cross-country skiing without skis or snow. Pole technique lengthens the walking stride and stabilizes the walker's gait while lightening the load on joints and gently exercising the upper body. It's an ideal sport on flat or in hilly countryside.
It's early summer morning. After two days of swimming and tanning, we're armed with our poles, looking at a Nordic walking announcement in our hotel lobby. Among the staff are Nordic walking enthusiasts who give us directions to Valle della Conca, the association's headquarters with its instructor's path.
"Take state road SS16 towards Misano Adricatico," they explain. "Before Portoverde, there's a sign for Conca Village, the association's hut. It's on the left. Raffaele should be there by 8 a.m."
We find Valle della Conca easily — it's a hollow along the Conca River just after the bridge. It's also deserted.
On our own, we follow the signed path inland, walking past orchards, olive groves and hayfields. This is life behind the Riviera. Horses rest in the shade. In the evening they'll pull tourist carriages in the resorts. We travel under road and train bridges. Above, everything's moving to serve tourism.
The path leads to a small dam and boardwalk over the river. We cross and walk half way up the hill to a path on the left. The trail is now unmarked but leads back to our start on the opposite side of the river. It's a seven-kilometer, 90-minute walk.
Back at the hotel the staff pull out a new Nordic walking schedule. We keep trying to reach Raffaele — busy man. Meanwhile, we walk from Cattolica to Baia Vallugola.
An early morning Nordic walk along the beach leading to Cattolica's port is refreshing, with fishermen starting their morning selling at 7:30. After the port, we follow the river up to a bridge and enter Gabicce Mare in the Marche. We continue up Via Panoramica to Parco delle Genestre and take the park path to state road SS16. It's busy with cyclists but not traffic. We pass a Padre Pio monument and a wall mural dedicated to Marco Pantani (1970-2004), nicknamed "Il Pirata," the famous but drug-addled cyclist from nearby Cesena who trained here. We climb to Gabicce Monte, a pretty village overlooking the sea and inland valleys.
From Gabicce Monte, still on SS16, we enter Parco San Bartolo, a new park still without well-marked trails. We walk to a sign for Baia Vallugola and follow the road down to the small bay. We've earned our swim in this pretty cove.
We take the same road back to Gabicce Mare and then take the promenade to Cattolica. We've clocked a five-and-a-half hour, 18-kilometer walk with a 284-meter climb — worth another cooling swim.
Finally, on our last day, we await Raffaele on the SS16 at Case Badioli at 7 a.m. with another 30 Nordic walkers. This time he does show up, arriving in his van looking sportsman lean and energetic. He sets up his coffee maker and cuts slices of bread and cake. Walkers drop coins in a box to cover costs.
Soon, the group follows Raffaele up a gently uphill dirt road that transforms into an unmarked path running along the edges of fields and through woods. The group chats. Raffaele instructs new walkers. We climb at a snappy pace to San Bartolo promontory above Baia Vallugola with its breathtaking sea-view from Rimini to Pesaro. Across the water is Croatia.
Next, we descend to the bay, clamber over rocks and then climb a very steep, ancient path. After 20 minutes, we stop at a gushing spring of fresh mineral water.
"It's got copper in it," Raffaele says. "Roman ships stopped in the bay. Sailors hauled the water down."
Soon we arrive back on the road. Poles click as we take another road back to our cars on the SS16. To finish our 12-kilometer, two-and-a-half hour walk, Raffaele brings out a huge watermelon — a superb ending to the week.
Local Ricci hotels are good lodging spots for Nordic walkers.
Gradara Castle, famous for lovers Paolo and Francesca and immortalized in Dante's "Divine Comedy," is located on SS16.
Commonwealth cemeteries at Gradara and Coriano Ridge, part of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, memorialize the more than 3,000 victims of some of Italy's fiercest World War II fighting, as Allied troops trooped north in 1944.