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Valerie

Le Marche Ascoli Piceno Travel Guide

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Ascoli Piceno is a provincial capital in a pretty setting. Nestled at the foot of a few mountains which encompass two national parks, it has a picturesque valley location surrounded by hills, yet is just a short distance from the sea. Its medieval heart beats proudly and resonantly.

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View of Ascoli Piceno from San Marco

Ascoli is a town that retains grit and graffiti. It hasn't been gussied up to attract visitors. Nowhere to be found are shop-loads of tacky tourist kitsch that are ubiquitous in more well-known towns of this size. There are regional products, of course. But the shops are here to provide services and amusements for the inhabitants. This is a place that is – above all – lived in, and comfortably so. It is a place where the locals are still bemused by the presence of foreign travelers visiting their city.

That it contains dozens of pretty churches, some world-class artwork, stunning architecture – including more towers than San Gimignano – as well as fantastic dining and classy museums is a grand bonus. That it offers all this and is still largely unknown is astounding. And therein lies another bonus for the traveler willing to cross the central Appenines from Umbria or Tuscany to discover this corner of Marche - uncrowded splendor in a dynamic city, with citizens proud of their heritage who make the entire centro storico their playground and living room.

Things to See and Do - Highlights Around Town

Stop into the tourist office in Piazza Arringo for a map; a decent guidebook is available, translated into passable English at a cost of 5 Euro. Nobody in the tourist office speaks English (and I've never heard them conversing in German or Spanish, either), and don't be surprised if they're not especially helpful. Take a look around the large room while you're there as they have some artifacts and examples of local crafts on display.

Pretty Piazzas
In the very heart of the city lies one of Italy's most beautiful piazzas, the Piazza del Popolo. Renaissance reconstructions brought it to its current state of beauty, equally dazzling in the sunlight and moonlight, as each plays differently upon the smooth, shiny travertine and the colonnades. Neatly ordered and enclosed by the surrounding buildings, it is the town's greatest gathering spot. The impressive Palazzo dei Capitani dominates the piazza's west end and frequently houses art exhibits or special civic events. The three-story inner courtyard of loggias is lovely. Next to the main entrance to the right is a door leading to the Roman ruins below. The church of San Francesco and its high bell towers form the northern end of the piazza.

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Piazza Popolo at night

The even larger and older Piazza Arringo is more sedate but no less used and enjoyed. It is the site of many activities and parties throughout the year, including New Year's celebrations and the flag-throwing competitions during the exciting events of La Quintana in July and August.

The enormous rectangular piazza's focal point is centered upon the Duomo and Baptistry. The historic Palazzo dell' Arengo, the city's seat of government, stands guard across the southern side, while two beloved fountains playfully spurt water in front of it. The piazza is also museum central, with the acclaimed art museum (pinacoteca), archeological museum, and Diocesan museum all located here.

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Piazza Arringo fountain

La Quintanta
A rich medieval tradition since at least 1377 and continued right on through today, it pits the different sestiere of the city against each other in various contests, including the flag-throwing bandiatori accompanied by trumpets, drums and horses, and a jousting match in which the cavalieri on horseback compete for the coveted palio, all done up in full regalia. A grand procession through the centro storico includes 1500 costumed participants. It is an historic and visually exciting event. Some of the festivities are held on the second Saturday in July, with the main jousting event and procession taking place the first Sunday in August.

The City of Centro Torri
During her heyday Ascoli boasted more than 200 towers. Now it lays claim to about fifty, but many are difficult to distinguish as they have been reduced down or incorporated into other buildings. Some have been turned into church towers; others have been reborn as apartment buildings. It is fun to stroll around town and locate some of these hidden monuments of past prosperity. Most are "happened upon" and are to be found lurking in the backstreets. None of the intriguing towers are open to the public, unfortunately.

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Porta Solesta

For pretty views of the more prominent towers, cross the Ponte Augusteo to the borgo Solesta where you'll have a nice vantage point. You can also see the antique lavatoio (wash basin) here, but watch your step! (Trust me, it's very slippery down there.) Another good perspective is found below the Porta Tufilla.

Wonderful Walks
At the confluence of two rivers, the city is mostly flat, facilitating easy walking. Ascoli Piceno's centro storico retains much of the original Roman grid layout making it fairly easy to find one's way around, but has enough influence from the Middle Ages to offer a lot of intriguing, narrow streets called rue to delightfully wander.

After you've seen the washbasin in Solesta, retrace your steps across the bridge and then turn right under the arch. The meandering streets in this part of town are particularly pretty and provide glimpses of courtyards and walled gardens among the travertine homes. You'll find forgotten churches secreted away, too. Via delle Stelle, via Soderini, via del Sotto and the myriad narrow passageways connecting them are all fantastic to explore.

As you meander around town be on the lookout for shrines attached to the buildings (known as edicole), and also for the "talking walls" - stone inscriptions carved above doorways that became a hallmark fad during Ascoli's period of medieval grandeur. There are more than 100 such Latin proverbs perched around town. (If you want to go on a scavenger hunt, try to find the inscription we lovingly call the Slow Travel Script. It bears a snail and three Latin words about speed.)

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Palace Row
Corso Mazzini is littered with imposing Renaissance palazzi constructed with an aim to impress. Slicing the city in half, the Corso runs from Porta Romana to Porta Maggiore, and becomes the hub of activity at the Piazza del Popolo, smack-dab in the center of town. Some of the businesses and buildings on this street have glimpses of the buried ancient Roman road below.

City of Travertine
The milk-and-honey appearance of the architecture throughout the city comes from the extensive use of travertine, utilized from the time of the Romans right on through today, in the construction of everything from humble homes to magnificent churches. Drawn from quarries in the nearby Sibillini mountains, the durable stone was cut into blocks, carved into columns, and fashioned into fanciful designs to decorate the city's public buildings and private palaces. Keep your eyes open for the myriad ornamental details scattered throughout the centro; they give glamour to even the most mundane building.

Sights Around Town
Porta Romana
: Sits on the western edge of the centro storico, in the direction of Rome. It was built in the Middle Ages just beyond the more ancient Roman gate, Porta Gemina and its accompanying circular fortifications. Inside the gate to the right are the remnants of a Roman amphitheater, much of which was scavenged for building materials.

Palazzo Malaspina: In Corso Mazzini, one of the most prominent of the patrician palaces is Malaspina. The upper loggia boasts stone pillars uniquely carved to resembled tree trunks. The palace retains an almost Florentine splendor, and now also houses an upscale restaurant with lovely courtyard dining.

Torre Ercolano and Palazzo Longobardo (via dei Soderini): The Ercolano tower is the tallest in town, built in conjunction with the palazzetto next door. Together they form a fine example of how the wealthy constructed their homes and accompanying status-symbol towers. The mysterious triangular carving over the door is debated, but many say it has connections to the Templar Knights. The palazzo is now a youth hostel.

The Twin Towers: Located in Piazza Sant'Agostino, the dual medieval skyscrapers are among the easiest to find (and photograph). One leans noticeably. The neo-Gothic palace next door is modern, erected in 1929.

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Ascoli Twin Towers

Scalinata Annuziata to the Convento dell'Annuziata and Fortezza Pia, and Roman "grotte": Not for the weak-legged, this staircase climbs the only real hill in Ascoli Piceno, ascending 314 steps through a park to several historic places of interest. If you're strong enough to withstand the grueling climb you'll find views from the ex-convento, now the Architectural school for the University of Camerino. There are partial views overlooking the city from the edge of the front park.

Inside the ex-convent and former hospital are two impressive cloisters. Behind the parking lot is a peaceful park.

Further up, the Fortezza Pia is currently closed but offers a peaceful spot with views partially obstructed by the overgrowing foliage. The defensive structure was constructed in 1560 but, as with many structures in Ascoli Piceno, it has ancient roots with medieval reconstructions.

The Roman "grotte" sit below the architectural school. Partially overgrown with brush, the cave-like rooms are the remains of the foundation for an enormous Roman structure, believed to have been a temple. Most visible from the walking path (when descending the other set of steps from the Architectural school), they are further evidence of Ascoli's importance during the Roman era.

Porta Tufilla
The elegant city gate next to the Tronto River seems more decorative than defensive with its loggia and slender line, but has served the city since 1552. Walk down under the arch, following the street to a little bridge across the river. From the middle of the bridge you'll get a good view of the ancient part of town with towers standing proudly.

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Porto Tufilla

Museums

Purchasing a ticket for one museum garners you half-price admission on the others. Tip: Hit the cheaper-priced Archeological Museum first if you want to tally up bigger savings!

Pinacoteca Civica
Located in the beautiful Palazzo del Comune (also known as the Palazzo dell'Arengo), the Civic Art Gallery displays an impressive array of paintings, sculptures and tapestries, as well as a collection of violins. Frescoes ceilings and windows overlooking the piazza add interest, as well. The courtyard of the palazzo is a pretty, tranquil spot, too.

Archeological Museum
Across the piazza from the civic art museum lies this villa-turned-museum containing a slew of artifacts scattered about three floors. From the pre-historic Piceni people to the Romans, there are more than 3,000 years' worth of treasures represented here. Also noteworthy is the exhibit on the Roman Forum that formerly occupied the site of the Piazza Arringo. Funerary jewelry recovered from burial sites, mosaic work, and more let you travel through prehistoric eras. Special exhibits are frequent occurrences.

Diocesan Museums (Museo Diocesano)
Next door to the cathedral in the Bishop's Palace is a small but impressive collection of sacred art gathered from area churches, some of which were destroyed or deconsecrated. Frescoes, paintings, sculptures continue to inspire awe.

Cartiere Papale
Elegant Renaissance structures alongside the Castellano River housed a prestige paper mill that turned out paper for the popes, until the early 1900s. There is a museum dedicated to the mill's past, and the complex also contains the Orsini Museum of Natural History, displaying rocks, fossils, fauna and shells in the naturalist's original 19th century showcases.

Next to the Cartiere Papale is a restaurant and from here, a trail along the river leading you to little waterfalls and cool, quiet spots. It's a great place to escape the heat if you visit in the summer, or if you just want a nature walk.

Churches

The city seems awash in churches, and boasts no less than sixteen that were done up in Romanesque style. There is also an impressive cathedral and a monumental Franciscan church that will make you gape.

Duomo – The Cathedral of Sant'Emidio
Dedicated to the city's patron saint, the Duomo's foundation rests atop a Roman forum. First constructed in the 4th century, it has been expanded and enhanced throughout the centuries, most significantly during the late 1400s. The original cupola mimics the upper octagonal portion of the next-door Baptistry. The impressive interior is resplendent with lofty, vaulted ceilings from which hang elegant chandeliers. The vaults contain vibrant frescoes. Scalloped bays line the side aisles, and the columns are each topped with differently-carved capitals. On the right is the chapel containing a famous polyptych (still in its original frame) by Venetian painter, Carlo Crivelli. Unfortunately, Napoleon's troops made off with the gemstones that had originally been embedded into the painting.

In the spacious crypt you will find a forest of columns, Roman ruins and a memorial to the saint for which the church is named.

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Piazza Arningo at night

Baptistry
The unique, detached structure built in the 4th century almost appears to be a tempietto. A solid, square base cradles an octagonal, columned crown. It is rarely open, so if you see the door ajar, run, don't walk, to view the simple interior which preserves the ancient central baptismal pool, and a more recent free-standing font.

San Francesco
Constructed in phases beginning in 1258, the enormous structure forms the northern boundary of Piazza del Popolo, but its main and elaborate Gothic entrance fronts via del Trivio. Elegantly carved travertine alternately looks delicately lace-like and solid, with roaring lions and towering columns, of which no two are alike. Inside, the modern stain-glass windows tell tales and filter the light in the vast, austere interior.

The sacristy holds several important paintings. The newly reopened cloister has been recently renovated to its original, simple splendor.

Loggia dei Mercanti
The stately, vaulted loggia attached to the south side of San Francesco was built by the powerful wool merchants' guild. It is a favorite gathering spot for the citizens, and also hosts a daily flower market.

Other Noteworthy Churches
  • San Gregorio Magno (Piazza Sant'Agostino): A first century temple turned church with ancient Corinthian columns embedded in the exterior facade. The interior is rarely open.
  • Sant'Agostino: Important Romanesque church dating from the 14th century, it contains a fresco called the Madonna della Pace, which has played an important role in Ascoli's history; it continues to be revered as a peace-making icon. The former cloister has been converted to a cultural center and contains a public library, contemporary art museum, and exhibit space.
  • Santa Maria della Carita (Piazza Roma): An example of what happens when high is Baroque unleashed in a small space. This church has a very devout congregation.
  • SS Vincenzo e Anastasio (Piazza Ventidio Basso): Unique rendition of Romanesque style, the facade contains 64 square panels (echoed in the wooden doors). Interior is rarely open.
San Pietro Martire: An airy, sun-drenched interior gives off a golden glow, the church is lined with eight altars hung with massive paintings. Compare the two vastly different entrances.

Practical Information

Parking
Parking in a medieval city can be difficult and parking tickets are expensive (we, unfortunately, know this from experience). If you are visiting Ascoli Piceno just for a day, there is blue-striped (paid) parking on both ends of the city center – on Corso Vittorio Emanuele near the park, and in a small lot on via Angelini in front of the Tribunale, as well as the via Cristoforo Columbo which ascends behind the Tribunale building (turn right on via Volta next to the ugly white courthouse).

Full day and overnight parking is available as well. The easiest to locate is Ex-Seminario, as it is located behind the Duomo, down the street on viale de Gasperi. Torricella is a large underground structure next to the Castellana river. Both have signs directing you to the lots.

Tourist Information
The tourist information office in located in Piazza Arringo, in the Palazzo del Comune. It is staffed by city employees who do not speak English but will readily supply you with maps and brochures. Open 9:30am - 1:00pm and 3:00pm - 6:30pm. The tourist office that used to occupy space in Piazza del Popolo, funded by the Province, has been closed, and it is uncertain if or when it will reopen, which is a shame because they were always more readily helpful.

Shop Hours
Traditional hours are observed here, meaning nearly everything closes down at 1:00pm for a long break, reopening generally between 4:00 and 4:30pm. This includes churches. The only museum that remains open all day is the Archeological Museum. The nearly-vacant streets and piazzas can present wonderful, leisurely photo opportunities, though.

Caffe Culture
In the big cities when you visit a bar you must first pay, then take your receipt to the barista to order your beverage. Here it's all more informal; just call out your order to the barista and enjoy your coffee and cornetto. You'll probably have to remind him what you consumed when paying.

Artisans
A listing of ceramic producers can be found at the tourist information office in Piazza Arringo. Ascoli Piceno has a long history of producing fine-quality, highly decorative ceramica.

There are also violin makers in Ascoli, located in via Tamburini.

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Ascoli passeggiata

Resources
About the Author
Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She was a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Basilicata where they do geneology research and help people discover their Italian roots at My Bella Basilicata.
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