by Lucia Mancini
Ph Diana Agostini, Antonio Castagna, Lorenzo Peroni
There are wonders in Italy, incredible and famous places that attract a great flow of tourists every season. And then there are those places that are not usual to dominate the front pages, that are struggling to receive constant attention from the media and travelers but that actually are worth the “effort” of a visit.
Among these there is certainly a city like Ascoli Piceno. This little jewel set in the south of the Marches, like all precious things, must be searched, identified and discovered. Even if the time to dedicate to it can’t go beyond a weekend, this central Italian town – located in the confluence zone between the Tronto river and the Castellano torrent – will know how to amaze you, conquering the mind and the palate.
According to an Italian tradition cited in ancient literature, a group of Sabini arrived in the area where today rises Ascoli Piceno led by a woodpecker, a bird that is today one of the symbols of the city. Well before the foundation of Rome, the Sabines would have merged with other indigenous peoples giving rise to the Picenes, who founded Ascoli. After a long period of alliance with Rome, Ascoli rebelled with other Italian people but was conquered by the Romans in 89 BC. And it is the Roman era that dates back to the first regular plant of the city, still visible today in the layout of the streets of the historic center. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Ascoli was repeatedly sacked by the barbarians and dominated by the Franks, by Frederick II and by Francesco Sforza who established a cruel dictatorship until 1482.
It was Frederick II who, in the thirteenth century, destroyed many towers of the city: Ascoli Piceno is in fact also known as “the city of 100 towers” because of the large amount of these buildings, nobles or bells, built over the centuries. Today fewer are left, and some have been resized and incorporated into homes or transformed into church bell towers. In addition to the towers, the feature that immediately catches the eye to those who are preparing to visit this location is the white of many of its historic buildings. Ascoli is in fact built on travertine, a particular marble that is located in the territory and that offers simply unique scenarios. One of these, perhaps the pride of the whole city, is that of Piazza del Popolo. Considered one of the most beautiful in Italy (and immortalized by various films), this square is the heart of city life, the center par excellence where the Ascolans stroll or sit at some of its bars to sip a coffee or have a drink. Built in Renaissance style, it owes its name to the Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo, one of the main historic buildings that, with its medieval crenellated tower, occupies the central part of the western side. The northern side, on the other hand, is entirely closed by the right side of the beautiful Church of San Francesco, that serves as a spectacular backdrop for the whole square and to which the charming Loggia dei Mercanti is set. The rest of the perimeter is occupied by Renaissance palaces with porticoes and loggias, which close the eastern side and the side opposite the church. Also on the western side, next to Palazzo dei Capitani, there is Caffè Meletti, one of the oldest bars in Italy (opened in 1907) that still retains its original Art Nouveau charm. On any side you enter Piazza del Popolo, it’s not possible not to remain open-mouthed in front of such a triumph of travertine beauties. When the floor is then wet with rain, it creates an incredible mirror effect that does nothing but expand the splendor of this place. Another very elegant urban space is the nearby Piazza Arringo, the oldest square in Ascoli, where interesting buildings stand such as the medieval Baptistery of San Giovanni, the Cathedral of Sant’Emidio (which contains the crypt also dedicated to the saint patron and the polyptych by Carlo Crivelli, signed and dated 1473), the Palazzo Vescovile and the Palazzo dell’Arengo, seat of the Civic Picture Gallery and some municipal offices.
In the religious buildings, don’t miss the Romanesque Church of Ss. Vincenzo and Anastasio, the thirteenth-century Church of San Pietro Martire, the Church of Sant’Agostino and the sixteenth-century Church of Santa Maria della Carità. Two characteristic temples are dedicated to the patron saint of Ascoli, Sant’Emidio: Sant’Emidio alle Grotte and Sant’Emidio Rosso. In your tour of the streets and alleys (“rue” in Ascoli) of the city, you can’t miss the visit to the ruins of the Roman theater, the Pia Fortress, the Malatesta Fort and the suggestive Ventidio Basso Theater, that still hosts a rich prose season. Among the most curious attractions is certainly the Roman Bridge Agusteo, dating back to the first century BC. The reason is soon said: it isn’t possible just to walk on this bridge (travertine, of course), but also inside this bridge. In fact, inside there is an inspection corridor, whose entrance is located in the outer head with access from the door of the building that flanks it. And then the city gates, the fountains, the cloisters and almost mythical buildings like the hermitage of San Marco, built next to a rocky wall of Colle San Marco in the thirteenth century. In short, in Ascoli Piceno the wonders to be seen are not lacking. But at the same time, you will find many to taste. Among the most famous delicacies of the city, whose fame has crossed national borders, there are undoubtedly the Ascolan olives, tender green olives which, after being pitted and filled with a soft mixture of mixed meat, are breaded and fried. If you have not eaten them in Ascoli, you can not say you really ate them. This delicacy is present in the fritto misto all’ascolana, a dish that also consists of lamb chops, artichokes, zucchine and cremini (fried cream). The most famous alcoholic beverage is certainly the anisetta, a liqueur made from green anise. But the area of Ascoli is also known for the production of wines, such as Rosso Piceno Superiore and Falerio, and for the preparation of cooked wine, obtained from the concentration of the must by cooking. Among the best times to enjoy a tour of the city there is certainly the Carnival (party strongly felt throughout the province by people of all ages) and the first Sunday of August: in this day takes place the Giostra della Quintana, evocative historical re-enactment of medieval origin with an equestrian joust and a procession of costumed figures. In short, Ascoli Piceno is really a place that deserves more than a visit, and that will give you, if you have time and desire to discover it, the indelible memories of its charm and its beauty.