Slice of an old world
IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A LESSON IN HISTORY AND AUTHENTIC ITALIAN FARE, THE FORGOTTEN CITY OF CESENA IS YOUR ANSWER
At first look, Cesena in the rustic north of Italy reaching out to the Adriatic Sea looks a little bit like a city where your old aunt lives. She survives on pension, her children have moved away and are reluctant to visit her. That’s not to say she’s charmless and not worth paying a visit. She is filled with stories to tell — pleasant and unpleasant, both. Her piazzas, monasteries and churches are nothing short of architectural splendours and her piadina — an Italian quesadilla, if you will — is to die for. And it’s not difficult to get to know her better, you only have to try.
One morning, at the supermarket near where I was holed up at, I saw an old woman scrutinising a row of milk cartons, with her scrunched up eyes and raised eyebrows. “I’m 87. Eight, seven. I can’t eat
too much fat, you know,” she said in her booming, Italian-grandmother voice. “I used to, in those days, but I can’t now,” she added. “What am I saying; we had nothing to eat in those days,” she corrects herself quickly and laughs heartily.
With supermarkets in every neighbourhood, she need not worry about food shortages of the past anymore. As Italy’s economy still reels under pressure, Cesena’s local economy got a mild boost when 15 years ago, the neighbouring University of Bologna decided to scatter its faculties in cities like Forli, Ravenna and Cesena. Now, as many as 15 faculties are in Cesena alone, fuelling a student population. “Lot of the buildings that were empty earlier are now occupied by students and businesses that cater to students,” said my host Giancarlo Amadori. “I had rented out a couple of my rooms to students too,” he added.
Cesena’s reputation in engineering seems to solely lie with the Trevi group founded in the city and credited with “building and execution of multistorey automatised and underground car parks,” one of which is located just opposite the Malatestiana Library, a 15th century library, touted to be the world’s first public library with a remarkably preserved reading room and manuscripts from far back as 1104. When in Italy, it was all but impossible to avoid religion.
One day, I walked into an exhibition highlighting extremities around the world in the name of religion. It was in a church, and I had my doubts. Soon I realised that cruelties meted out to Christians was the theme. At the entrance of the exhibition was a jar with an appeal for donation for the Christians of Syria and Iraq.
Not surprising, considering Cesena is a stronghold of Catholicism, having produced as many as three popes — Pope
Pius VI, VII and VIII. Only a week before my visit, Pope Francis made a rather political statement by visiting a refugee centre in the city of Bologna and meeting young migrants.
Face of fascism
Curiously, a few metres away from the same exhibition was artist Mario Sironi’s exhibition. Sironi’s work, during his active years, was exhibited outside Italy since he was a subject of cold-shouldered scrutiny by art historians, for his close association with fascism.
Receding from the exhibitions that perpetrated religious exclusionism was a street food festival where Italians queued up to eat regional specialities and wash it down with two-euro drinks in plastic glasses. After taking a spin of the festival and tasting arancinis from Sicily and chestnut torte from Modena, I sat on the grand stairs leading to a piazza, sunning myself along with the locals.
After a week of travelling in and around Cesena, where no buses seem to dispense a truckload of tourists, I messaged a friend: “It’s gritty grungy and the right amount of crazy I can handle.”
But on a cold and rainy evening as I waited for the train and it pulled over, I saw passengers swarming at the gate even before the gates opened. The swarm raced ahead of the perplexed passengers waiting to alight, leaving a pregnant woman, with a pram and a baby, distressed. This act of selfishness shocked me. Perhaps not just “the right amount of crazy I can handle” after all, I surmised.
The 15th century Malatestiana Library is counted among the greatest in the world.