It was a foggy day in October. As the Peugeot chugged up hills and around sharp bends, we wondered if our little excursion to the notable hill town of San Leo in Emilia Romagna would end up a bust.
Then, as we crested the final rise: sun. Glorious sun.
By the time we slowed for our arrival, it was the late morning. The crag upon which the fortress was built was just peeking out from the valley fog. I hollered for Martha to stop and scrambled up the hill and into the muddy furrows of a plowed field to catch a snap of it while Martha waited in the car snuggled into the verge, watching the mirror apprehensively.
Sun, of course, is seldom a good thing to the serious photographer. But a medieval castle rising from the mist was a decent morning surprise.
San Leo offered countless surprises. The old Romanesque church in the town’s main piazza, Santa Maria Assunta, was a gem as they repeat endlessly in the travel biz, and it would close its doors to host a wedding that morning—but the kind priest let us in for a look anyway.
On a little rise next to the parish church sat the Cathedral. Liturgical music wafted down the hill. We took a look around inside, then approached the modern organ in the front, expecting it to be played by a monkish-looking old coot. But no, the keys were professional caressed by a young man in a tee shirt printed with one of those odd renderings Italians recklessly print on shirts: “Dreaming Aloha Beach Club Surfing 1953”.
Then, feeling a little peckish, we walked the town’s main street, reading menus and looking into stores with compelling little displays in front. You could sense a little play for the tourists, but then when you entered, you discovered locals quietly shopping. A bit of paper with cubes of cheese tempted me, and I couldn’t resist trying a bit of the local “fossa” cave-aged cheese. The flavor was astounding, with none of the funkiness of other versions I had tasted elsewhere. The restaurants were affordable, filled with local specialties, and each of them enticing.
More wandering the little village would be needed before we could decide on a place to eat. We were just in time to see stone carver Georgio Moretti step from the shadows of his little shop, the outside walls festooned with his carvings which remained unsold on a Saturday, even the nudes.
By the time we chose to chow down at the Ristorante Osteria Belvedere, at the edge of town on Via Pietro Toselli, 19 (promising a fine view of the castello) the fog had begun to rise, and the Cathedral’s bell tower was turned into a ghostly vision. Snap, snap, then on to lunch.
We chose the Belvedere because they offered the first white truffles of the season generously shaved over potato ravioli. My kind of place: waiter with a nervous tick, rotund owner, a pair of local characters discussing cheese and archaeology over heaping plates of pasta, roasts and prepared vegetables stacked up by the pizza oven waiting to be baked the old-fashioned way (the gallo —a tasty rooster—cooked in the wood oven was fabulous!) The three-course meal with a very tasty local wine and coffee set us back a bit over 50 euros, a bargain in my book. Don’t miss the ravioli with fossa, a cheese long aged underground.
After lunch, the town was quiet. The fog had won; puffs of it wandered the empty streets. It was time to go.
San Leo is worth at least a day of your time. It offers the perfect combination of tourist services without completely breaking down into a fake Disneyland experience. The locals are friendly, the food is good and if you choose right, local. Go in late October into November for truffles and an almost tourist-free environment. It’s a very nice place off the beaten tourist track; not a single word of English was heard all day.
Travel ToolboxWhy go to this destination?: San Leo isn't tourist free, but it's close enough
Region map and guide: Emilia Romagna
Train Station: There is no station in San Leo
Lodging: San Leo Lodging
Guidebooks to destination Bradt Travel Guide
Best of our travel pictures: James Martin on Picfair
Long Term Traveler Car Leasing: Why Lease a Car on Vacation?