Delightful Ascoli:"Like Tuscany 30
By Kent E. St. John,
GoNOMAD Senior Travel Editor
reflects off the travertine marble pavement,smooth as a skating rink,
onto the Piazza del Popalo (people's plaza). The low lights of the ancient
buildings and arcades that encircle the plaza are dimmed by the glow from
above the Apennine Mountains. My table at the Café Meletti (used
by Fredrico Fellini in several films) provides a backdrop unfound on 18
previous trips to Italy.
The words of my hostess Antonella Valentini, the director of Academia
Italia, also reflect through my mind.
"Ascoli Piceno has no Uffizi,
leaning tower, statue of David. No worldwide destination craved by busses
carrying camera-clicking tourists. What we do have is a wonderful mixture
of history, culture and traditions".
As I sit here on my late night
arrival, what Ascoli does offer is evident; a passage back in time. Before
I head to my lodgings, I toast Chris Cote from Language Studies Abroad
(sidebar) for sharing another gem to explore.
has a history that pre-dates Roman times, and every turn down narrow passageways
delights the eye. Looming tall towers mix with Roman ruins that blend
with cobblestone streets.
The city's history begins 2500 years ago and its name is said to derive
from an ancient oriental root. This city is located at the confluence
of the Tronto and Castellano rivers in a natural amphitheater.
This location gives Ascoli Piceno the unique feeling of independence evident
even today. Its layout is still based on the ancient Roman design; one
of the best examples found in Italy. As I meander through the avenues,
faces of Roman Senators, Longobard and Frankish warriors, and saints such
as Francis of Assisi and Emidio (the city's patron saint and protector
from earthquakes) come to mind.
They too all sought solace in Ascoli's bosom. Unlike many of Italy's other
historic places, Ascoli's attractions are more hands on--I am to view
bits of frescos by flashlight in 13th century San Gregorio's absidiole.
It is extraordinary. The 200 original medieval towers (one a hostel) are
now numbered at 50; still more than San Gimignano in Tuscany. I remember
San Gimignano as tour bus crowded, unlike my quiet walk today through
Ascoli. Sixteen Romanesque churches, two Cathedrals, an archeological
museum, a municipal art museum and a natural history museum are providing
a learning experience equal to that found in Tuscany or Umbria. Ascoli
even has the yearly Joust of the Quintana with the same pageantry and
excitement that Siena's palio provides. All at far lower prices with fewer
it is Tuscany thirty years ago.
Days in Medieval Marches
Ascoli's ancient feel does not hold back its development or its desire
to offer diversions to history. This morning begins under blue skies and
bulbous white clouds at the Piazza del Popolo. A steaming cup of cappuccino
at the Lorenz Café is served with gratis sweets and cookies
decadence and fortification for the day's busy events.
My next stop is the Accademia Italia (sidebar) for some inexpensive Italian
language crash courses. The warm courtyard and friendly staff always uncover
a happening or sight not to be missed. If ever an unofficial tourist board
served a nomad so well . . .. The Accademia should win a Traveler's Oscar.
Antonella has spent years teaching artists, diplomats, and Bishops not
just language--but Italian lifestyles. While a busy lady, she and her
husband Valerrio are teaching me much about the area, and I believe she
would do so for any traveler that reads this piece. She is a Marche's
treasure! The school also offers cooking and cultural lessons.
in Ascoli is spent the best way possible; with no particular plan. I simply
arm myself with helpful brochures from the tourist office located in the
Palazzio dei Capatani (Captain's Palace) on the Piazza del Popolo.
The Palace has a wonderful subterranean archeological route that is a
perfect alternative to the midday sun. I follow the Via del Trivio north
to Ascoli's oldest and prettiest quarters. It's here where the shops and
craftspeople sell the local goods made of leather and ceramic. Luckily
for me, the quarter is bustling with locals (Wednesdays and Saturdays
are Ascoloi's market days at the cloisters of the church of S. Francesco).
Booths are filled with the bounty of the Marches, and sit side by side
with clothing and antiques. Walking towards the cliffs overlooking the
Tronto River, I can see most of the towers including the Osttello de'
Longobard, one of Europe's oldest hostels. Throughout the city are stores
and restaurants to fit every traveler's budget and desires, but I am ready
for my new late afternoon routine.
of Ascoli's residents, I head back to the Popolo for an early evening
coffee or libation. Here I sit with a Cheshire Cat's smile and watch the
locals gather to socialize and plan the night's events.
Ascoli Piceno's location in the Sibillini hills, midway between the Adriatic
Sea and the Apennine Mountains, offers me a perplexing situation. Especially
when the view of snow capped peaks is mixed with winds carrying the scent
of the sea. Fortunately both are a short distance away and easy to reach.
On shoulder seasons it is literally possible to ski one day and swim the
next. I finally decide to follow my heart (and tired feet) up to the enchanted
National Park crowns the mountains of the Marches. Here, skiing and hiking
are just the two top choices available. Legends of necromancers, fairies
and evil spirits give the peaks an enthralling feel. Little mountain villages
situated on the road up to the mountains contain small hot springs, sulfur
baths and spa services. This is exactly what I am looking for after my
perfect day of strenuous activity.
After a good
nights rest I decide to sample the hilltowns. Surrounded by olive groves
and vineyards, each town comes with its own merits and attractions, tales
and legends. As I approach Offida the Romanesque church, Santa Maria della
Rocca, stands atop a wedge of rock with cliffs for sides, the illusion
is of an island outpost high in the Marches is created.
The church's 13th century frescos are surrounded by graffiti scratched
in their borders providing glimpses to the monks and their daily life.
"1559--snow fell in May, miserable." I reluctantly move on to
Fermo, home to one of the ten richest libraries in Italy.
A letter written by Christopher Columbus to Queen Isabella in 1493 highlights
the 400,000 volumes, and the descriptions of his voyage to the New World
impart the topic. The historian in me is thrilled to see such a treasure
in relative silence without the imposing clicks of tourists' shutters.
The letter was stolen in 1986 and recovered during an auction at Sothebys
in New York. It is now back in Fermo where it belongs.
and the scent of the sea lead to a short 30-minute train ride from Ascoli
to the coast and brings me to the seaside town of San Benedetto del Tronto.
The ancient fishing town that grew up to be one of the Adriatic's keystone
resort and fishing ports. Eating seafood and lounging on the beach is
the order of my day here. In many ways San Benedetto was a South Beach
Miami years before there was such a place. Wandering, I see that the Art
Nouveau of the early 1900s has left its graceful mark on the promenade.
I decide to board the train for dinner a few miles north on the coast,
and I arrive at Grottammare's old center above the beach sprawl. It grants
a film set like glance into the past.
Sitting in a restaurant serving only the catch of the day mixes well with
the church Santa Lucia; built in 1597 as a memorial to Pope Sixtus V that
sits across the small piazza. The blend of sea below and castle ruins
above will surely provide a night to remember.
army Marches on its stomach, so does a traveler
The Slow Food Movement, founded in Italy in 1986, promotes rediscovering
the flavors and savors of regional cooking. As a visitor to Ascoli and
the Marches, I find that the marchigiani have stuck to these principals
for centuries. The region's location provides a rich bounty from both
land and sea.
The menus offered in Ascoli and its environs are based on recipes passed
down from generation to generation. I notice Olive oil is prince of the
cuccina and a main ingredient in Ascoli's best known dish, the Olive alla
Ascolana (sidebar recipe). Poets, artists and writers have spread the
word about the dish throughout Italy since its inception. It is basically
the stuffing of local olives with a ragout of beef, pork and chicken that
is breaded and fried in olive oil.
My next meal
back in Ascoli (typical for the Marches) follows as such: antipasto (of
mountain cured sliced ham), primo (a generous portion of vinisgrassi--a
backed lasagna without interruption of tomatoes), with grilled lamb, pork,
or beef and garden fresh vegetables and fungi.
For those with an aversion to meat, fish dishes are in abundance. One
Adriatic standout is brodetto; a fish stew made with 13 species of fish,
no more, no less. Thin spaghetti dressed with vongole (baby clams) becomes
a delicious option. Fruits and cheeses such as formaggio di fossa (strong
flavored cheese aged by being walled up in limestone caves) is a great
ending. An Anisetta Meletti is considered as the only fitting apéritif,
and is renowned as any in France. It is the perfect finish to my extravagant,
yet inexpensive, meal.
and city in the Marches appears to have a specialty that is its signature
wine or food dish. Throughout the spring, summer, and fall events called
sagres are held. Festivals to pay homage to their specialty; really a
reason to gather in order to eat drink and be merry. In Vererotta it is
the sagre della vitella allo spiedo (spit roasted veal). Apiro has the
sagre del formaggio pecorino (pecorino cheese). More information on sagres
will be gathered at the tourist office on Ascoli's main square.
"Wine is an art capable of making you dream," says Ercole Velenosi.
As we sit in the tasting room of the Velenosi Ercole, I couldn't agree
more. Winemaking it seems has become a dream fulfilled for Ercole and
Angela Velenosi. The plaques and medals won over the years for their wines
are a testament to hard work and good soil. A move is underway in the
area to shift away from quantity towards quality, and Ercole Velenosi
is obviously a leader in this goal.
One standout that I sample is Lundi; a mix of Montepulciano processed
with Sangiovese as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes from the
owner's vineyards. Two years of refinement in wooden barrels obviously
result in a wine that is soft and wide. Cases sent to New York City recently
received rave reviews, and tasting I can see why.
the Piceno region, I try some wonderful DOC vini da meditazione wines.
The best known is Rosso Piceno and the even better Rosso Piceno Superiore.
The blend is of Montepulciano and Sagiovese grapes.
As a lover of the
white, I try the Falerio. Not to be prejudiced, but the finest I taste
so far is the Vigna Solaria produced by Velenosi. Perhaps because I just
sat in the single small ten-year-old vineyard placed in the sunniest and
highest part of the estate where the grapes for this wine were grown.
In a Heartbeat
As the sun's rays dip below the vineyard's hills I contemplate my time
spent in Ascoli and the Marches
history, art, mountains, coastline
and people who share their culture and lifestyles. After another passing
of the Olive alla Ascolana, I think about an inscription found above the
doorway (local tradition) to one of Ascoli's renaissance gems that Antonella
had translated for me. "Thank God I am here," it read. I could
not agree more.
Carnival- Masks and satire highlight this yearly event. Like Venice the
masks provide a license to party hard and long. The Piazza de Popolo is
strung with lights, and the city uses it as the place for non-stop partying.
Parades and parodies are the order of the day.
The Quintana (22 July and 5 August)
The fight for each quarter's honor (as in Siena) this is a medieval pageant
complete with jousting, excitement and Italy's best-undiscovered festival.
You can go to the palio in Siena in July/August or be a part of a local
celebration in Ascoli. Over 1500 participants are dressed in clothing
designed from 14th century paintings. Parades, banquets, and fireworks
encase the highlighted event--the jousting. The tradition dates from 1377.
Wild Boar Hunt--a medieval chase in the square. The event displays the
village's pride in the abundance of its favorite food.
Ferignano (first Sunday after Easter)
Strangest festival in all Italy is the Palio della Rana. Its main event
is the racing of wheelbarrows full of frogs, again based on their famed
has music and food festivals galore. To check out the dates and events
click on le-marche.com.