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