Discovering Italy’s Unique Adriatic Coast Plus Independent San Marino

Discovering Italy’s Unique Adriatic Coast Plus Independent San Marino

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When planning a trip to Italy, many travelers gravitate to familiar destinations of Naples, Rome, Florence and Venice.  I explored these frontrunners and side-trip darlings like Pompeii, Sienna, and Pisa and soaked up the entire coastline of Sicily, from Cefalú to Catania.

I thought I had seen, tasted and wined my way through the best of Italy, but had foolishly ignored its Adriatic Coast. I recently made that seaside run, down the backside of the boot, from Venice to Italy’s most eastern point, Otranto. These fresh experiences surpassed the old favorites.      

We traveled along the coastal route through seven, personally undiscovered, unknown locations; medieval towns perched on the craggy cliffs overlooking the Adriatic, picturesque fishing villages and off-shore islands.

We stopped to visit the Independent Republic of San Marino, tucked between the cities of Rimini and Pesaro, which earned its own pinpoint on my world travel map and its own stamp in my crammed-full passport.

I hiked up and down hills, uneven steps and cobblestoned streets, tasted the culinary delights of Puglia’s sweets, wine and olives and interacted with the locals. Let’s drift down this historic slice of Italian heritage for a glimpse of what waits to dazzle the traveler.

Burano Island in Italy
Burano Island. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Burano Island

A 30-minute water-taxi ride to one of the main islands in the Venetian Lagoon, Burano Island with only 3000 inhabitants, provides a peaceful getaway from the chaos of Venice. As we approached the main dock, color-splashed across the landscape.

Brilliant, almost wicked pigments draped every building, Strong shades, rainbow hues of turquoise, fuchsia, emerald, sunflower, and violet exploded and no two buildings side by side displayed the same color. 

First settled by Romans during the Barbarian Invasion in 1000 A.D., Burano Island has employed the controlled system of neon-colored houses since the 6th Century. Fishermen, who struggled against the relentless morning fog, used the beacon of color to guide them back to their homes.

Even today, a request to change the paint on one’s house requires permission from the town council. 

Color splashed across the houses in Burano. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
Color splashed across the houses in Burano. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

We strolled through the deserted kaleidoscope on a brisk October morn, as the rising sun bounced off the cheerful buildings. Café owners moved tables to the sidewalk so visitors could enjoy a robust cappuccino.

It gave me chills to think we were walking in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci, who came here for the famed, hand-stitched lace that Burano women have been making since the 15th Century; he purchased a lace runner for the altar of the Duomo de Milano

I wandered into the intricate world of hand-stitched lace at Merletti dalla Olga on Plazza Galuppi. Mesmerized, I watched the shop owner and master lace-maker for over 50 years concentrate on every stitch, as she described the process which has not changed for 700 years. 

I noticed a collection of hand-made lace face masks on prominent display. A sad commentary of the times; instead of lace tablecloths, lace face coverings had become the ‘hot’ item.

The calm, colorful environs of historic Burano Island, topped off with garlic-infused Italian seafood cuisine provided a welcomed refresh from the crowded hubbub of Venice.  

Hand-stitched lace process has not changed for 700 years. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
The hand-stitched lace process has not changed for 700 years. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Ravenna 

Although not directly on the coast, this medieval city is connected to the Adriatic Sea via the Candiano Canal from Porto Corsini. The capital of Ravenna Provence in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy, Ravenna City is relatively flat with banned vehicle traffic in many sections.

Walkers must beware of bikes and scooters zipping through the streets, as pedestrians seem to be considered a nuisance. My stroll turned into a harrowing, dodge from two-wheelers. 

For me, three things warrant a slight detour from the coast. Known for its well preserved late Roman and Byzantine architecture, Ravenna boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage sites. To name one, the Basilica of San Francisco marks the funeral ceremony and burial of Dante in 1321.

Ravenna is Italy's City of Mosaics. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
Ravenna is Italy’s City of Mosaics. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

One can sense the influence that Dante had on this city, as both travelers and locals flock to his tomb to reflect.   

Since the 5th Century continuing on to the present day, Ravenna is known as Italy’s City of Mosaics.

The visitor can explore the 1400-year-old Basilica di San Vitale, where mosaic tiled walls and floors remain magnificently intact or spend time at one of the many mosaic workshops where tiny shards of interlocking colored stone turn into masterpieces of commissioned artwork.

The historic art form is visible throughout the city, with mosaic motifs on the sides of buildings, street signs, and house numbers.

The third tower at the peak of Mt. Titan in San Marino. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
The third tower at the peak of Mt. Titan in San Marino. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Independent Republic of San Marino

For me, San Marino became the country of superlatives. The smallest independent republic, an enclave of 24 sq. miles sandwiched between two Adriatic coastal towns, the oldest, founded in 301 A.D, and one of the richest constitutional democracies in the world, San Marino jumped to the most fascinating place I have visited in a long time. 

What country does one take a cable car to reach its lofty mountain location? What country has followed basically the same constitution since 1600? What country is governed by two equal heads of state from opposing parties, both serving only 6-month terms at the same time to ensure a political balance? 

Where was I thrilled to pay 5 Euros to have a silvery, national stamp glued into my passport, rather than an imperfect hand stamp? What country has no flat land, every step is either up or down, and the ultimate goal of making it to the peak of Mount Titan at 2457 feet above sea level challenges every traveler? 

What country lies within Italy’s geographic space, does not belong to the European Union, but does use the Euro as currency, its people speak and eat like Italians, but they don’t consider themselves Italian? The Republic of San Marino. My only recommendation; put this country on your ‘must go’ list.

Start at the Ducal Palace and work your way down. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
Start at the Ducal Palace and work your way down. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Urbino

A rival of Florence during the Renaissance, the birthplace of the artist Raphael, and a thriving hub for artists during the 15th Century, today, Urbino is a city of contrasts.

The historic center, surrounded by an expansive sandstone and brick wall sits high above the down slopes of this medieval city, with spectacular views from atop the Albornoz Fortress and the Ducal Palace.

Although one can walk there, it’s straight up. I sighed with relief to find an elevator that swooshes customers to the top for only 1 Euro.

Starting at the summit and walking down to the central car park is the only way to explore Urbino, without huffing and puffing.

A university town since 1506 with the founding of the University of Urbino, it’s a vibrant, lively place with a pulse that only young, enthusiastic students can bring. The streets murmur with the sound of chatter, as co-eds hang out at sidewalk cafés in between classes.

Countless examples of Renaissance architecture dot the winding labyrinth of narrow alleys, but it is these old structures that provide housing for thousands of university kids. I watch them glide up and down the steep-sloped streets with ease, despite their book-loaded backpacks hanging from their straight shoulders. 

I loved the buzz of this medieval town, with a center city that was hopping.

Urbino is a labyrinth of narrow alleys.  Photo by Carol L. Bowman
Urbino is a labyrinth of narrow alleys. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Ortona

A small fishing village of only 23,000 people, Ortona draws thousands of Italian visitors in the summer who enjoy its wide expanse of white sand beaches. But for the international traveler just passing through, the Battle of Ortona between Allied Canadian troops and Nazi paratroopers in 1943 holds the greatest interest.

Due to its deep port, Ortona became paramount to the Allies’ movement up through Italy following MacArthur’s invasion of Sicily. Almost 1400 Canadian military casualties resulted from the fierce close contact fighting.

A Canadian Cemetery on the outskirts of town holds special meaning for American and Canadian visitors. Aside from an impressive 15th Century Aragon Castle, a 12th Century Ortona Cathedral, and dramatic views of the Adriatic from the malecon, I found little to keep my attention. Skip it.

Tremiti Islands

A welcomed stop at the archipelago of Tremiti Islands in the Adriatic, unfolded. I felt eager to be with nature, to feel the wild side, to explore caves along the craggy island coast. Emerging from the sea near Gargano, Italy, the islands, whose name means ‘tremors’ indicate their seismic beginning.

The summer throngs of tourists gone, we relished the serene quiet of October, shimmering deserted waters and giant coastal pines swaying from off-shore breezes. Although the archipelago consists of five different pieces of real estate, two are merely rocks jutting from the sea.

The remaining three, San Nicholas, San Domino and Capraia deserve individual merit. San Nicholas, the second largest of the inhabited islands, accessible only by boat, provided dramatic views as we arrived. From shore, our eyes were drawn one and a half miles straight up to the Abbey of St. Mary of the Sea.

View from the pine forest on San Domino. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
View from the pine forest on San Domino. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Even here, the jewels of exploration, the sweeping vistas, the wonderment of the abbey’s construction in 1045, requires a long climb. Amazingly, my lungs had become so accustomed to hiking up that the walk to the top seemed effortless. 

As we ascended, an outcropping of ancient buildings came into view. This historical site with its stone fortifications was home to monks since ancient times. A wooden cross erected on mosaic tiled floors of the church of Santa Maria remains the only Greek/Byzantine relic in Italy.

The cobalt sea below shimmered in the sun’s rays. We could see Capraia a short distance away. Uninhabited and wild, the waters of the natural marine park surrounding this emerged rock, serve scuba divers well. A wreck of a Roman ship from the 2nd Century B.C. is visible from the surface through the clear as glass waters.

A short boat ride took us to San Domino, the largest, most beautiful, boasting the most inhabitants and serving over 100,000 tourists every summer.

We walked up through the forest of coastal pines, passing now deserted cottages and campsites and spotted turquoise splashes peeking between the fir boughs at every turn.

The beauty caught my breath, the privilege of travel humbled me, and I felt startled by the peace of the breeze whistling through the pines. 

Fishermen’s boats dock at the central wharf. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
Fishermen’s boats dock at the central wharf. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Monopoli

There has to be a favorite and Monopoli stole those honors and my heart. An important seaport on the heel of the boot dates back to its founding in 500B.C. by the Greeks.

Sun-kissed, whitewashed buildings with clay-tiled roofs, fishermen mending their nets by the wharf, and sounds of a strolling musician playing the accordion unfolded.

Situated on the Adriatic shore in the beautiful region of Puglia, the level terrain and sandy beaches came as a delightful surprise.

Outdoor cafes are popular in Monopoli’s piazza. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
Outdoor cafes are popular in Monopoli’s piazza. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Secret winding alleyways begged me to get lost, flowers tumbled down from window boxes, and the 1693 Cathedral urged me to linger, which I did and witnessed a local’s wedding. The scenes had the hallmarks of a painting; the feel of a romantic, storybook setting.

The historic center opened to a huge piazza surrounded by outdoor restaurants, cafes and trendy shops. The historic center opened to a huge piazza surrounded by outdoor restaurants, cafes and trendy shops.

Plates piled high with fresh seafood and the aroma of garlic and olives wafting through the air, lured us to taste the fruits of southern Italy. It was my birthday.

The celebration of the sights, sounds, and tastes of Monopoli will never wane. The celebration of the sights, sounds, and tastes of Monopoli will never wane.

The lighthouse off Otranto is Italy’s easternmost point. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
The lighthouse off Otranto is Italy’s easternmost point. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Otranto

Our discovery journey down Italy’s Adriatic coast ended in Otranto, the easternmost point on the Italian mainland. It is here that the Adriatic joins the Ionian Sea and the strait separates Italy from Albania.

Due to its unique location, Otranto, originally a Roman city has seen violent take-overs and occupations over centuries by the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Turks, Spain and France.

The Argonese Castle and the 1088 Cathedral of St, Maria Assunte, which boasts one of the largest and most detailed mosaic floors in the world, remain the historical highlights. The city center feels vibrant with shops, restaurants and outside cafes and incredible views of unending sandy beaches along the coast. 

For me, the favorite landscape emerged on the outskirts of town, as miles of olive orchards stretched through the fertile hills Arrevidercie, to Italy’s Adriatic coast.

The mosaic floor in the Cathedral of St. Maria Assunte. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
The mosaic floor in the Cathedral of St. Maria Assunte. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Book This Trip

Ready to go on a historic Italian adventure along the Adriatic coast? Start planning your trip with insider tips on how to get around, hotel and VRBO accommodations, local restaurant reviews and more through TripAdvisor and Travelocity.

If you want to plan even more fun along your coastal journey, check out GetYourGuide. Find unique activities, skip-the-line tickets for museums and expert-led tours here.

For the best flight deals, train tickets and car rental options, use OMIO Travel Partner.

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