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They had just brought in the morning catch. Thousands of varying fish and shellfish. Beneath tarps shielding them from the scorching summer sun, they sorted and cleaned crates upon crates of seafood.

Cesenatico’s fishermen. Quietly. Intently. Not much banter except some forced jokes because I’d been spotted and they wanted to make me feel at ease. Work had to be done and quickly in time for the 2pm fish auction a few hundred feet from where their trawlers and fishing boats were docked, bobbing calmly in the canal harbor rumored to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci himself.

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I’m not sure how I developed my fascination with the fishing trade but I suspect growing up on Lagos’ most famous barrier island, Victoria Island, had a part in it. Our proximity to powerful waves of the Atlantic Ocean lashing against Bar Beach, eating away its sand.

I enjoyed exploring fish markets with my mom, buying mackerel, tilapia, and catfish for tomato-based stews, frying tiny sardines for snacks, eating giant African snails, sucking out periwinkles… I was surrounded by seafood. I was always fascinated to see what fishermen pulled out of the depths, mostly because I’ve never been diving to see for myself.

So fish markets alongside local farmers’ markets are usually the first places I inquire about whenever I’m traveling through a new place.

I observed as they continued prepping with skill. Some crates were being loaded directly onto wholesale supplier trucks. Others were being ferried away into a cylindrical structure where the fish auction was going to be held.

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Upon entering the circular-designed building where the fish auction and market – Mercato Ittico de Cesenatico – is held, I felt like I’d stepped into the stock exchange of fish. Except, there weren’t people yelling or negotiating on the floor.

Rather, they were sitted in the auditorium-style in rows of seats slopping towards the stage. Chatting quietly amongst themselves, in front of some type of individual buzzers. Crates of fish and shellfish came whizzing down the conveyor belt, only to stop in front of a Star Trek-commander style control center where the lead auctioneer was running the show – accepting bids. Above him was a scoreboard showing details of who was bidding on what.

The standing auctioneers were a tag team – one chanting out the daily catch and other vitals like weight, the other printing out the winning bid receipt, placing it on the crate of seafood, and sending it further down the conveyor belt to be picked up later.

The fish auction is held every weekday (Monday through Friday) at 2pm. The vessels participate in a lottery which determines who gets to sell their seafood first.

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Amidst the sea of middle-aged men is where I met a vivacious soul – Jessica Quadrelli.

Rather, she spotted me and animatedly beckoned me over to come join her and the guys. A group in which she clearly held her own within. Ripped biceps and physical features that testified she wasn’t a stranger to hard back-breaking work. They were curious about me, why I was there, and why I found this seemingly mundane environment fascinating. Their positive energy was the only validation I needed.

Because for me, traveling and exploring a place deeply means finding out what is important to its residents. What they feel is worth spending their waking hours creating, building, doing.

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And above all, respecting that and the dignity it brings to their lives. This is why I love hanging around fishmongers, fishermen/women, market vendors, traditional artists, and others who find strength and dignity in using their hands this way.

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A village with deep historic links

A photogenic seaside town on the coast of Romagna, located between Ravenna and Rimini along the Adriatic Coast, Cesenatico’s main claim to fame is its purported tie to Leonardo da Vinci. The very same da Vinci. One camp says he designed the canal in 1502, the other camp says he just gave suggested improvements to its current design. Either way, it’s an historical tie this small community holds on to like an anchor. The town itself dates back to 1301 when its harbor was dug and a defensive fortress was built.

Today, Cesenatico is a thriving fishing community with a wholesale fish auction, historic fish market, and several independently owned fish shops – pescheria.

Along the Canal Harbour is where you’ll find Museo della Marineria di Cesenatico, The Maritime Museum, with historic wooden boats and – all testaments to the town’s important nautical history. It also doubles as an open air museum because docked along the canal are old fishing and cargo boats with colourful patterned sails.

There’s a daily farmers’ market right in the heart of Cesenatico where we picked up some fresh cherries en route to lunch amidst charming little storefronts and gelaterie including traditional textile artists who I swung by to visit.

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Street + lifestyle scenes around Cesenatico
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Lunch was at Pizzeria Nero di Seppia where alongside platters of fresh sardines, octopus salad, and large prawns baked in salt, I dug into the “spiedini misto con verdure” which were skewers of grilled shrimp and squid with grilled vegetables – my favorite lunch had during my entire stay in Emilia Romagna.

For a bonafide seafood lover, learning that every autumn, Cesenatico holds an annual seafood festival which brings out over 70 regional restaurants making their own seafood specialties, felt like a tease and I’ve started devising a plan to return to Cesenatico during this festival one of these years.

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Which leads me back to Jessica…

It was while roaming Cesenatico’s narrow streets after lunch that I noticed her own fish store – La Piccola Pescheria della Jessica. Translated as “Jessica’s Little Fish Shop”. It didn’t take long to figure out it was the very same Jessica I’d met an hour before at the auction. After all, the odds of finding many “Jessicas” in a tiny seaside community were pretty low.

She’d been at the auction early afternoon when most shops and restaurants were taking their breaks to stock up on seafood for her ice displays.

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Following the fishermen cleaning and prepping fish for auction to hanging out with fishmongers who were bidding to replenish their stock to finally seeing Jessica’s shop with her wins of the day being filleted, weighed, and wrapped in paper for her customers, was a full circle moment for me.

The very reason why I keep traveling slower to explore and experience a culture through its everyday lifestyles.

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View more photos from Cesenatico in my image bank including street scenes, food, open air markets, and portraits of her residents. My trip to Italy was with the award-winning #BlogVille campaign and a collaboration between the Emilia Romagna Tourism Board and iambassador.