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Rimini, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
Today, the Italian city of Rimini is probably most famous for its beach and the long line of resort hotels that stretch along it for kilometres. Go in summer, and you’ll barely be able to see the sand for the beach umbrellas and sun beds that cover it in a grid-like pattern.
It attracts visitors from across Europe, but Rimini is a particularly popular domestic holiday destination, somewhere that the Italians go in the middle of the year to escape the stifling heat of the inland towns and large cities.
It’s about the water and the nightlife, somewhere the summer party is welcomed and a day may involve no more than lazing in the sun.
The coast has always been an integral part of what Rimini is.
Two millennia ago it was an important Roman city (then named Ariminum), which was the junction of two arterial roads connecting the north and the south of Italy. They met at the sea port that extended trade across the Mediterranean, and a river that opened up the inland.
The historic centre of Rimini still shows the evidence of this time, when Roman emperors erected grand monuments here, like the Arch of Augustus.
The wealth of the city continued through the ages, and there are also magnificent buildings from the Renaissance, like the Malatestiano Temple and the Palazzo Garampi.
But it’s one of the poorest parts of Rimini, neglected and maligned for so many centuries, that I think is one of the most interesting today.
The northern edge of the historic centre hits the Marecchia river and, crossing it at one point, is the famous Tiberius Bridge. It was built in 20 AD and has five arches about eight metres wide each.
It’s an important landmark in Rimini and, crossing it and looking at the worn stone, it’s amazing to think about all the people who have walked across it over the past 2000 years.
But the area I want to tell you about is just over the bridge. It’s a neighbourhood called Borgo San Giuliano that was formed about a thousand years ago as an impoverished fishing village, with easy access to the river but tucked far away from anything important.
Borgo San Giuliano, Rimini
Borgo San Giuliano would often get flooded when the Marecchia river would overflow. It had no drainage or sewerage. And it was notoriously crowded.
For most of its existence, Borgo San Giuliano was known for poverty, criminals, prostitutes, and the other unsavoury things that every city tries to hide in a forgotten neighbourhood.
But don’t worry, these are not the reasons I am recommending it. It’s what Borgo San Giuliano has become that makes it worth seeing when you visit Rimini. It has transformed from an impoverished neighbourhood into a little pocket of colour and charm.
In some ways, it all began with the Festa del Borgo San Giuliano, a large street fair with music, theatre, food, and fireworks. The first one was in 1979, the second in 1980, and then every two years since then. It began small but now brings in tourists from across Europe when it’s held on the first weekend of September.
The festival brought attention to the neighbourhood and everything that comes with it – visitors, income, investment. But it also brought a sense of pride.
Suddenly the people who lived here began to see their homes in a different light and they made an effort to improve and maintain their community. It also made the accommodation here more desirable and new people moved in, bringing a new layer of wealth.
When you visit Borgo San Giuliano these days, you may get a sense of this. You’ll see a few new restaurants – hip places with crowds most evenings, and clean streets and well-maintained houses where the pride is evident.
But what particularly stands out are the murals that cover many of the walls. These colourful scenes, telling different stories, projecting different messages, are what I think Borgo San Giuliano is now defined by.
The murals of Borgo San Giuliano
The murals began with the Festa del Borgo San Giuliano festival. Each time, there was a new theme and artists decorated the neighbourhood with the murals and they stayed there until the next festival two years later, when a new series of murals was painted.
But in 1994, the organisers hit upon a theme that was so special it could not just be painted over.
The murals this year were painted in honour of the famous film director Federico Fellini, who was born here in Rimini. On the walls were scenes from his life and his movies, magical and almost dreamlike, a more colourful and romantic version of the world we live in.
It could almost be the way to describe Borgo San Giuliano these days, which can seem almost unreal compared to the rest of Rimini.
It’s so much more colourful than the historic parts of Rimini. The walls have such vibrant hues and the depictions in the murals seem animated by their brightness.
And it seems so much more alive than the hotels and seaside resorts of Rimini. They are for relaxing and are intentionally calm. Borgo San Giuliano may not be crowded or hectic, but there’s an energy that comes from the gentrification and newfound cultural layer.
You don’t need to spend too much time in the neighbourhood here to appreciate it – this old fishing village is not particularly large. You could walk through it in 15 minutes, but I would suggest giving yourself an hour to explore some of the side alleys, to look at the murals properly, to take a few photos of your favourite.
There is much more to Rimini than just this small collection of painted blocks, and there are lots of good reasons to come to the city. But don’t miss Borgo San Giuliano or you’ll leave with a little less colour in your life.