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Ascoli Piceno - Things to See and Do - Highlights Around Town
Valerie Schneider (Valerie)
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.
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.
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.
Piazza Arringo fountain
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
© Valerie Schneider, 2007
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