Ascoli Piceno - City of 100 towers (& faded marble glory)

As we drove around Le Marche, I was beginning to sink into the rhythm of "Slow Italy" - wandering around medieval towns, gaping at some real gems of Renaissance art, the mandatory evening passeggiata, followed by a local liqueur at the corner cafe - life in Le Marche is all about slowly savouring the moment, and then some more. One of my favourite places in the region was Ascoli Piceno, known as the city of 100 towers. While historical records show that the city had some 200 towers, today about 50 of them still stand - quiet sentinels, presiding over this medieval city built in marble.

Ascoli Piceno's foundations pre-date those of Rome's by several centuries; the city was established by the Italic tribe of Piceni on the important salt trade route known as Via Salaria. Ascoli has a long, proud history - from being a federated city in 268 BC to revolting against Rome in 91 BC, from being ruled by the Lombards and the Franks in the Middle Ages, to finally becoming a part of Le Marche and unified Italy in 1860. 

The historic city centre of Ascoli is largely built out of marble, known as travertino (travertine), extracted from the surrounding mountains. A naturally grey-hued limestone, the travertine's once shiny appearance has today faded away, and the centuries of dust has not helped matters either. This gives Ascoli Piceno the look of a grande dame, old and slightly ashen but with the unmistakable air of prestige, especially evident in the sumptuous architecture in its main squares. 

Begin with Piazza Arringo, the oldest monumental square in Ascoli Piceno. It's surrounded by several important buildings, including the Cathedral of St. Emidio, Palazzo Fonzi, Palazzo dell'Arengo and the Baptistry of San Giovanni, not to mention the elliptical fountains flanked by seahorses, dragons and dolphins. At the far end of the square, stop by at Migliori for the city's best known street food - olive all'ascolana. These delectable little flavour bombs are made by stuffing Ascolana olives with minced meat (cooked with wine and lemon zest), which are then crumbed and deep fried. Make sure you buy from a freshly fried batch and enjoy them slowly; bite into each one (instead of popping them whole in your mouth) and taste the individual layers of crumb, olive and meat. Before you know it, you'll will have polished off the lot and will possibly be queuing up at Migliori's on your way out of Ascoli! 

Head over to Piazza del Popolo, the beautiful Renaissance square that is considered to be one of the best in Italy. The day I went to Ascoli, the town was gearing up to host the weekend market, so the square was almost completely covered with awnings and stalls. Yet, a look around the square and I could understand why it's a beautiful "living room". Surrounded by buildings with elegant loggias and ornate facades, it's a visual treat strolling around in the square. The 13th century Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo is the most imposing building in the piazza and it was the seat of the papal governors. The massive town clock is mounted on the facade of this building. The gothic church of San Francesco also stands in the piazza.

There are several cafes and restaurants in the square, the most famous being the historic Caffe Meletti. Try the anisetta here - an anise-based liqueur whose recipe was perfected in this cafe way back in 1870. The cafe also has a huge selection of gelato, and their limone (lemon) flavour was the best that I have had in Italy (and I had a LOT of gelato all over the country!). 

Couple of doors away is Bar Centrale, another old cafe, smaller but more atmospheric than Meletti. Here I tried mistra - a particularly strong anise-based liqueur typical to Le Marche, which I preferred to the anisetta

Wandering around town you can see some of the old towers in unexpected places, rising amidst houses, at the edge of a bridge (over the river Tronto) or in one of many small piazzas. There are remains of ancient Roman gates and tower-like medieval gates that still stand tall, whispering tales of a glorious past. 

That's Ascoli Piceno for you - encouraging you to stand and stare; or sit and read - whatever you prefer, as long as you take your time with it :) 

Disclosure: Our experience in Le Marche was made possible by Life Marche Magazine. Views are entirely my own.  

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