Sunday, July 30, 2006

Ascoli Piceno

We have readjusted to life in Anzio following our two weeks of language school in the Marche town of Ascoli Piceno. It was wonderful to be situated in the heart of the city, able to walk to everything we needed for daily life. Quintessentially medieval, it is lively and lovely, boasting two main, distinct piazzas where the citizens gather. Beautifully lit at night, they evoke a sense of drama and mystery. The architecture of Ascoli Piceno is typical for the medieval period, but well-preserved, and it seemed that every turn brought us to a pretty building to gaze at, or a new detail to notice.

The town had been built up with towers, boasting over 100 during her peak. Many of them had been torn down, or deteriorated and then incorporated into other buildings. Today, there are about 50 towers remaining, more than in the more-famous, glitter-sister town of San Gimignano in Tuscany. With the artistic riches and beautiful atmosphere, we were amazed that Ascoli is so unknown; indeed, if it were in Tuscany it would be completely over-run by tourists. Because it is in Marche, well off the normal, well-trod tourist track, it remains a largely-undiscovered treasure.

Ascoli Piceno has ancient roots dating back to the pre-Roman Piceno tribes, and also contains remains from the Roman era, including a couple of Roman bridges, gates, and a theatre; but the bulk of the construction was done squarely in the Middle Ages during the 1200-1600s, lending much charm to today’s city. The historic roots run deep, however, as the Quintana, linked to the medieval cavalier’s tournaments (much like Siena’s famed Palio) is still enacted annually, complete with skilled flag-throwers, costumed processions and jousting matches. The historic quarters (sestieri) maintain their neighborhood pride and cheer on their participants. We were fortunate enough to witness some of these activities, including the band practices and some of the bandieri competitions. The men’s abilities to throw and catch the flags with synchronized precision impressed us, some juggling up to 5 at a time, using their legs and feet to catch them as well as their hands.

The heat was rather intense (as it has been throughout all of Italy for the past month) but fountains are thankfully plentiful around the town. Some evenings as we sat in the lovely Piazza Arringo, we watched the kids entertain themselves by running to and fro, then lining up to drink from and splash in the fountains. Some had contests going to see who could drink from the horse’s mouth without soaking himself, while the others tried to throw the drinker off balance. Innocent fun which was always concluded with a gelato.

Speaking of which, the gelato in Piazza Arringo at a chocolate shop was to-die-for. How many ways can you make chocolate gelato? I’m still trying to figure it out, as each visit brought some new concoction to light…every gelato saturated in some manner with the heavenly goods bestowed from the cocoa bean.

The food of this area was something to truly rave about, even in a country well-renown for cuisine. We really think this region has some of the best cooking in the country, and we were constantly amazed by the low prices. Olive Ascolane, a particular, non-vinegary olive stuffed with meat and fried, is downright addictive. Pasta, fish, meats, an almost-creamy tasting prosciutto, the regional Vino Pecorino, and anisette liqueur all tempt and satisfy the taste buds. We tried -without success- to recall one bad meal we had consumed in our two-week stay. It just didn’t happen. After one dinner at restaurant near our apartment, the waitress remembered and greeted us every time we strolled past (yes, we returned for another meal there our last night in town).

There are two rivers, largely undeveloped, though there is a river-side trail along the Torrento Castellano which led us past several small waterfalls in the blessedly-cool shade of the overhanging trees. An oasis right next to the city. Nearly encircling the town are the Sibilline Mountains, offering hill-towns and majestic beauty just minutes from Ascoli.

There are great museums, a host of Romanesque churches, artwork, markets, shops – all the makings of a beautiful city. In two weeks, we still managed to not see everything. It is largely walkable and liveable, with a sense of community. Ascoli Piceno is definitely on our list of potential spots to call home, along with Sulmona. It is a very tough choice.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Beach is That-a-way

Just two minutes from our door is the Mediterranean Sea. We can hear the surf breaking on the shore, especially on days when the sea is roiling and waves are high. Chinks of sea can be seen from our bedroom window when I open the shutters every morning. To reach the actual beach we must walk a block to the seafront, then descend 109 concrete steps on a winding staircase. Going down is no problem; returning home UP those 109 steps, that mysteriously seem to get steeper and steeper as one ascends, can be a killer.

On the beach there is a restaurant with a fake-thatched roof that juts out over the water. A few steps further down, in the direction of the Saracen tower, is a coffee bar (very good espresso for 70 cents). They offer full restaurant service on the weekends, specializing in seafood (naturally). Small shells are abundantly scattered about on the beige sand.

Ubiquitous are the stabilimenti. These businesses erect ordered rows of umbrellas and chairs - colorful shadings to be had for a price. These represent the only ordered anything in Italy, by the way. They also include little changing cabins and cold-water showers, along with snack bars or full restaurants. Francesca pointed out to us the few small expanses of free beach open to anyone. These are dismal, unkept plots of sand with trash and doggy doo-doo. No umbrellas or chairs unless you haul your own down the 109 steps. No shade; no showers to rinse off the salt. We have inquired about the prices at the stabilimenti closest to us. The lure of shade and the prettiness of the well-tended rows prove very enticing after an hour of roasting on the shabby public plot.

Sunscreen is rather costly here, and the SPFs available are lower than we normally buy. Bottles containing lotion with an SPF rating of 2 and 4 are common; why bother, I say. Anything with a rating of 20 or above is clearly marked “per bambini”. Only kids and foreigners would consider it necessary to have real sun protection. The sun worshippers bake and burn, toasting themselves to a golden brown, oblivious that doing so makes their skin look leathery. One friend of Francesca is frequently found in various poses to maximize sun exposure, despite surviving cancer a few years ago. Sunscreens also contain a high proportion of strong scents, making me gag when I try to find one senza profumo. Finally, after much searching I located one at the farmacia in Anzio and forked over gladly the 14.00 Euro for a small bottle (SPF 20, thank you).

As for swimsuit fashion, anything less than a bikini cannot be tolerated, apparently. I have seen only about 5 one-piece swimsuits thus far. Irregardless of body shape, overhanging bellies, saggy boobs, or cellulitic backsides…it matters not, bikinis are the choice. The surprise is not how truly awful some of them look in their bikinis (which many of them do), but how utterly confident they are that they look good. If they are wearing what is in, they must be attractive. I don’t have such self-assurance. While I sport a two-piece suit, I am fully aware of my deficits and where I am sagging.

Immigrant salesman, referred to as vu compru, troll the beaches hawking everything from fresh coconut and watermelon slices, to sunglasses, t-shirts, beach towels and jewelry. They haul around heavy loads in the hot sun, trudging through the sand for miles. On the streets, small trucks drive slowly through the neighborhood with loudspeakers perched on the roofs announcing services such as knife sharpening and shutter repairs. Giorgio tells us they are not worth the money (and that he sadly has learned by experience).

These are the tell-tale signs of a beach resort on the Mediterranean. It is a different life than most of Italy, which is why so many flock here in the summer, for a taste of something different, something more casual, more colorful. Indeed, the atmosphere is much more casual than usually seen in an Italian city. Romans, normally well-dressed, come here and wear flip-flops, shorts, tank tops, wild colors and big sunglasses. They are careful to re-dress themselves in their city clothes before returning home, though. There is a carnival-like atmosphere, with beach parties on the weekends, karaoke nights, aerobics classes and beach volleyball. Ice-cream bars and granitas, the Italian version of a snow-cone, can be purchased from carts at the water’s edge. Jolly voices, barbecues smells, and music waft through the neighborhood. It’s like a holiday every weekend. Then Sunday night arrives and the Romans clog the roads northward. Some will spend a week or a month here during the August holiday season, and for that month we know that we won’t be able to find a chair or patch of sand to rest upon, but for now the weekdays are back to a quieter, less-crowded tempo.

The nice thing is that most of the tourists here are Italians, coming for the sun and surf. The majority of shopkeepers do not speak English and we are the oddities, the few Americans to hang around for an extended period. It’s a good way to hone our Italian language skills, even if it means I must do so in a two-piece swimsuit.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Friday, July 07, 2006

Music and Confetti

We are in Ascoli Piceno for language school, which is much like boot camp complete with a drill instructor, fatigue, and heat, all the things a boot camp conjures up in the mind, but set in a beautiful medieval city with fantastic regional foods and lovely mountains nearby. The temperatures have been in the 90s with humidity, something we are completely unaccustomed to and which we feel intensely. The heat makes us cranky and exhausted as well as lethargic and, to make matters worse, I have an itchy heat-rash on my arm and legs to go along with the mosquito bites I acquired in Anzio before coming here.
The two-week class we enrolled in has proven to be draining on the brain as well as the body. I have an hour of individual lessons with the school’s director before my regular group instruction, rendering me nearly brain-dead before I enter my group. In my class there is a girl from Poland and a man from Mexico, so Italian is the only common language. It can be difficult to understand as they both have their own accents on top of their Italian (as do I). Bryan and I come back from class feeling like our brains have turned to polenta. And so, come Friday we decided we needed a little break for the weekend. We packed a few things and set off on Saturday for points south in Abruzzo. There were several towns we had desired to explore as possible living quarters, and the high mountains of the Gran Sasso beckoned us with the promise of cooler air. We drove as fast as the little Lancia Ypsilon would carry us into the hills.

Abruzzo is one of the overlooked regions of Italy. It has remained somewhat isolated by the Apennine Mountains, and tucked away within its confines are beautiful hill towns, castles, and gorgeous mountains rising majestically. The autostrada has many tunnels and vertigo-inducing bridges erected high over the valleys. Much of the landscape is rugged and peaked, reminiscent of the San Juans in Southern Colorado.

We began by stopping into some towns on a postcard-hunting mission: several friends’ families are from this area and we wanted to send them picture cards of their ancestral lands. Spoltore, Penne and Popoli provided our entrĂ©e’ into Abruzzo. Then, more personally, we headed to Sulmona, our main destination. Driving into town gave us a very good first impression – it is one of the few cities set on the valley floor instead of carved into the hillside, and is virtually encircled by mountains. Beautiful. The town itself is lovely and much more “upscale” feeling than we had expected. The passeggiata brought out most of the town, the streets teeming with people stylishly dressed with care, laughing and walking, eating gelato, meeting and greeting. It gave a nice impression of an active community. We joined in, sometimes walking, sometimes sitting on the steps of the museum to watch and take it all in.

The hotel owners were very kind, spoke slowly so I could understand them (and I did understand them very well and conversed rather easily, I must say), kindly inviting us to a neighborhood party (more about contradas and sestieri in another blog post), and telling us a bit about the closest mountains. We felt duly welcomed.

Architecturally speaking, it is a pleasing sight with several grand palazzos and the typical, narrow streets lined with medieval buildings. At the end of town there is a section of medieval acquaduct that proved to be a meeting spot. After dinner we strolled down there and found a nice surprise: about 5 older citizens were ensconced in chairs with musical instruments, a sweet, little band playing old Italian folk music and 1940s and 50s classics. They were energetic and played quite well. Nearby an old woman, who had to be at least 85, was dancing to and fro to the music and clapping her hands, clearly enjoying the revelry. People milled in and out, applauding and smiling. After the performance someone popped open the Prosecco for the musicians, their payment for providing the town with some entertainment.

Sulmona is famous for their confetti - colorful, candy-coated almonds that are traditionally given out at wedding receptions. They are fashioned into elaborate shapes – bouquets of flowers, pretty pussywillows, cute snails sitting on a leaf. They are adorably simple treats (and quite tasty, too). There are several producers in town and many of the shops specialize in these little confections, to which we are now duly addicted.

We hated to leave. We wanted to explore the town a little more in-depth but had to return to school. We will go back for another visit, to get a better feel of the town, but it is definitely on our “possibilities” list. Sulmona seems a very charming place, indeed; you gotta like a town that welcomes you with music and confetti.

copyright2006 Valerie Schneider