The Mystery continues in Italy – Days 12, 13 & 14
The Magical Mystery travellers continue their travels in Italy exploring the La Marche and Abruzzo regions on days 12, 13 and 14. Highlights include the ancient town of Urbino, enjoying a coffee at Mussolini’s favourite tea room, the incredible town square of Ascoli Piceno and a two night stay in the very unusual Sextantio Albergo Diffuso! Read on for Euan Landsborough’s ‘The Mo’ daily commentary.
Day 12 - Ascoli Piceno, La Marche – Tuesday 22nd September
The first stop of the day was in lovely Urbino. When we jumped off the coach in Porto Mercatale we were hit by the impact of the massive walls and turrets of the grand Ducal Palace that seemed to tower above us. Here we met our local guide Silvia for a walking tour through this ancient town. Entering the walled city, we walked up Via G. Mazzini to the heart of the city.
After hearing about the city’s rich history were taken through the wonderful Ducal Palace. The Duke was fabulously rich and he built the palace as a statement of his power and prestige, and it is no wonder it is UNESCO World Heritage listed. To give you an idea of the size of the place, he built it with 365 rooms – one for each day of the year. (I wonder where he went on the extra day in a leap year?) Inside is now an art and heritage museum, and we only saw a sample of the rooms filled with tapestries, art and inlaid wood panels.
During the free time afterwards we explored the old city. Birthplace to one of the world’s greatest painters, Raffaello (Raphael), Urbino is one of the core university towns of the whole region, and the town seemed live with students relaxing in the cafes and squares. The hard walk up the incredibly steep backstreets to the old Fortress was very rewarding as the view across the town rooftops from the Parco Della Resistenza was stunning.
Meeting up again, we walked to the other side of town to take the elevators down to the coach pick up parking area. Very civilized, indeed!
Entering the dramatic La Marche region, we drove through the Furlo tunnel (the mountain pass was not open due to lots of landslides) and stopped for a coffee at Bar del Furlo. Set in a small and pretty tree lined town, flanked by the step walls of the gorge, this place has an incredible history. It was Mussolini’s favourite stopping point when en route to and from Rome when coming through this region with his entourage. Indeed the original tea room he would sit in has been perfectly preserved, along with the memorabilia, photos and graffiti on the walls. It was an uneasy feeling sitting on a wooden seat that ‘Il Duce’ might have sat on.
Later we continued to Ascoli Piceno where we stopped the coach as close as we could to the hotel. We were about 100 metres away, and couldn’t get closer because the streets were just far too narrow. Here we checked into our ‘Palazzo’ hotel where we stayed 2 nights. This delightful Palazzo Guiderocchi Hotel - was once a lovely palace. Rooms were huge decorated with period piece furniture, and outside in hallways the ceilings were often covered in colourful paintings. There was also a lovely pillared stairwell around a small central courtyard open to the blue sky. This is where we had breakfast.
Day 13 - Ascoli Piceno, La Marche – Wednesday 23rd September
What a town Ascoli Piceno is! Pronounced ‘Rrrrskolli Pichayno’, the whole compact centre is a mass of historical buildings, cobbled streets and ancient towers.
Dating back to the 9th century BC, it became incredibly important in Roman times as a source of Travertine stone, and you can see this used everywhere. The central square of Piazza del Popolo has this polished stone work everywhere….mamma mia… it is a visual feast! I would absolutely rate this alongside St Mark’s Square in Venice, and as good if not better than any other square in Europe. On one side you have the Church of San Francesco, with its giant clock and old tower, flanked by two historical buildings, cafes with window boxes bursting with flowers. On the opposite side and down one end you have early 16th century Renaissance arcaded buildings which resemble Venetian architecture, and down the other end you have the Captain’s Palace. Behind and all around you get glimpses of other towers and baroque buildings. By day, stunning. By night, enchanting!
Our local guide Carrie was excellent! Originally from Scandinavia, she has lived here for over 30 years and brought to life the history of this amazing town. Once upon a time there were over 200 towers in town, built by wealthy families and nobles to reflect their social status and importance. Now, only around 50 remain and with Carrie’s help we could see where they have been absorbed and incorporated into newer structures. Walking around town she pointed out Roman remains, turned into medieval buildings and again changed into baroque palaces or houses. Fascinating!
We then walked into Piazza Arringo, alive with market stalls, and then into the Cathedral of St Emidio. This was the absolute jaw dropper. When you tour through the great cities of Europe you always come across so many stupendous cathedrals and whilst magnificent, and often so different, you can develop a bit of church ‘numbness’. We have seen so many striking and splendid ones on this trip, but when we walked into this one, it just struck us. Vivid, deep blue arched and vaulted ceilings, ancient and modern stained glass, huge colourful murals, light and richness. Downstairs was the medieval crypt, with the remains of the martyred St Emideo – in a re-used Roman sarcophagus.
For those who were interested, we carried on through the town to the 1st century AD Roman bridge of Augustus. This is the largest arched bridge of the Roman Empire and it is still used as one of the main roads into town. When restoring the bridge they did something incredible. They made the bridge hollow and, whilst not open to the general public, Carrie had the key! It was absolutely fascinating as we walked inside a perfectly preserved Roman bridge and up and over inside the actual archway. At the top of the arch the ceiling was barely 5 feet high and under foot was glass panels that allowed you to see the top stones and even the key stone of the whole magnificent arch!
By now we were hungry so the whole group reformed in the glorious Piazza del Popolo central square, and we then went up to the first floor of the delightful historic Caffe Merletti, to enjoy lunch overlooking Ascoli's main square. This brilliant café even has its own web site. Have a look at www.caffemeletti.it. They even make their own aniseed liqueur! The rest of the day was entirely free in this gorgeous town.
Day 14 - Santo Stefano di Sessanio in Abruzzo – Thursday 24th September
After a very leisurely start we paid a visit to lovely little town of Offida where lace is made.
The weather wasn’t too kind for us and out came the umbrellas. One person, who shall not be named (Alan) thought buying a coat would be a good idea and in 5 minutes came back with a big glorious Italian wool coat that cost him only 40 euros. He reckons it would be ten times that price back in Brisbane and quite a few people started making him offers for it!
We then walked all the way through town to the far end where we visited the 13th century Church of Santa Maria della Rocca. Whilst the wooden roofed church was impressive, it was the entrance way through the lower level crypt that was striking. Lines of stone vaulted archways, beautifully lit, supporting the whole church structure above.
On the way back we stopped in at the Lace museum and then the gorgeous town theatre. Called the Teatro Serpente Aureo (Theatre of the Golden Snake) it a magical timepiece, with three levels of brightly coloured box seats rising directly up and all around the lower stalls. The old wooden stage was sloped forward and down towards the stalls, and you could imagine actors and dancers on this (still used) museum stage.
Time for lunch, so we drove down to the Adriatic coast to the fishing port of San Benedetto to enjoy a leisurely lunch at the Trattoria Molo Sud, located right on the seafront, close to the fish market and port (San Benedetto has the largest fishing fleet in Italy).
Fully fed and rested, we then drove deep into the Apennines – the mountain ridge that runs down the spine of Italy. The roadway went up and up, and then we reached a large highland plateau at around 2,000 metres. Here we encountered some unruly cows with two young cows deciding to walk slowly along the road in front of us. We needed to speed things up as we were trudging along at a cow’s sauntering pace, so our fearless Tour Manager Gilberto jumped out of the coach to herd the cows off the road!
Stepping back in time we reached the hilltop town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, in the province of L’Aquila, where we stayed for 2 nights.
Our accommodation in the hotel Sextantio Albergo Diffuso was…. unusual…On arrival we enjoyed a welcome drink in the ‘Tiserania’ (Tea Room), whilst our bags were delivered (very slowly) to our rooms. I say rooms but in reality it was houses…scattered all around this mostly deserted, crumbling village. Going back 15 years ago, an enterprising man discovered this completely abandoned village and decided to rejuvenate it by selecting certain crumbling properties and converting them to period piece apartment rooms. Every room was different and, scattered around town, had its own address and giant cast iron key. Some were on 2 levels, some had tiny stone staircases, some steep wooden steps, all had that incredibly battered and aged look about them, because that is exactly what they were. Furniture was antique and the rooms quite Spartan, which is the way they should be. Many rooms had soot engrained walls or ceilings (yes, they were clean!) The bathroom facilities were excellent and ultra modern… phew! Along with electric lights and Wi-Fi, each room was lit with a series of pale yellow, slow burning candles. The effect was stunning. These were perfectly rejuvenated time-capsules, giving us a magical insight into living spaces within a village unchanged over the centuries. One or two of our fellow travellers found the stairs and darkened, cobbled stone streets a challenge and not quite to their taste. But all would agree, it was an extraordinary travelling experience.
In the evening we enjoyed a light meal in the Cantina with its massive stone fireplace.