Delightful Ascoli: “Like Tuscany 30 Years Ago”
By Kent E. St. John
The moonlight reflects off the travertine marble pavement, smooth as a skating rink, onto the Piazza del Popalo (people’s plaza) in Ascoli, Italy.
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 for sharing another gem to explore.
Ascoli Piceno 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 crowds. It is Tuscany thirty years ago.
Modern 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…true 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.
This afternoon 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 Ascoli’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.
Like most 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.
Sea and Ski
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 mountains.
The Sibillini 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.
My desire 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.
In contrast, 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.
Slow Food Movement
The Slow Food Movement, founded in Italy in 1986, promotes rediscovering the flavors and savors of regional cooking. As a visitor to Ascoli and Le Marche, 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.
Every village 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.
God’s Great Gift…the Grape
“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.
While in 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 Sangiovese 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 (a 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.