Ascoli Piceno: the definition of a hidden jewel

Whenever I spoke to anyone about Ascoli Piceno, it was always described as a “jewel” or “hidden gem” due to its many fascinating sights yet relatively low tourist numbers. So I knew that this town in Italy’s Marche region needed to be in my blog. Nevertheless, its beauty and rare qualities still managed to surprise me.

Ascoli’s roots date back to around the 9th century BC, my brochure tells me. It held a strategic position along the Via Salaria, an ancient road used by the Sabine tribe to transport salt from the mouth of the Tiber river. The town’s name derives from the Piceno people who founded and developed it. They were an Italic tribe that occupied the middle Adriatic Coast until the Romans invaded and seized Ascoli in 89 AD.

One of the first things I noticed when I arrived were all the towers looming over the town. I found out that in medieval times aristocratic families would build these to show off their power. At one point there were up to 200 towers in the city, but King Frederick II demanded that almost half of them be destroyed. Nowadays about 50 are still standing.

ascolipicenoOn my first morning in Ascoli, I wandered into the centre to see the main square, Piazza del Popolo, described by many as one of the most beautiful in Italy. It is in fact a glorious piazza, framed by porticoes which were built to cover up disorderly artisan workshops. There are some lively cafes on either side of the square and also a view of the hills on the outskirts of the town. On the right of the picture below you can also see the Captain’s Palace, built in the 13th century for the podesta’ or the town’s chief official, and later used by papal governors.

blogascoli2If you turn around you’ll see San Francesco, an impressive gothic-style church built over several centuries starting from the 13th.

sfrancesco

I liked the little shrine on the side of the church. I later found out it was designed by Lazzaro Morelli, a sculptor born in Ascoli in 1608 who also created one of the angels on the bridge towards Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. It was apparently an altar that people condemned to death could use to say their last prayers before they were executed!

shrineThere were also some amusing sculptures and pretty patterns on a side entrance to the church that I really liked.

lionfaceNext I carried on through the town and arrived at another enchanting square called Piazza Arringo. This is where public assemblies used to be held, and is surrounded by the seat of the Diocese, the town hall, the Cathedral of St. Emidio, and some important museums (which were unfortunately closed the day I visited, but it was such a beautiful day as you can see from the photos that I was probably better off walking around outside!)

arringoAs I could see a lot of pretty green countryside and some hills around me, I decided to walk up to a higher level so I could look back over the town. I walked up the pretty Via Pretoriana, and eventually made my way up to the Colle dell’Annunziata, where I found the views I was looking for.

viewfromannunziataOnce I’d had a delicious lunch (which I’ll tell you about in my food blog on the Marche region) I went looking for the Torri gemelle, or twin towers. They are a well-preserved example of the towers built by rich families in the middle ages to show off their power.

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torrigemelli2I then went for a further stroll around the streets, a favourite pastime of mine, and uncovered some of my own gems, including a beautiful overgrown rose bush and a Madonna shrine on the side of a house.

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mad2Another charming aspect of Ascoli for me were the mottos engraved in Latin or vernacular language above many doorways. This tradition evolved in the second half of the fifteenth century during a vibrant cultural time in Ascoli. They made me think what I would have inscribed above my doorway, maybe something like the proverb: “Visitors’ footfalls are like medicine; they heal the sick” or Mother Teresa’s “Love begins at home”. What would be yours?

doorsign1

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