Thursday, 24 March 2011

Italy 5 – Up the East Side, or Another Day another Province

8th to 14th March 2011

We are starting to pick up the pace a bit in our travels - moving faster and taking in more areas, so Molise, Abruzzo, the Marche and a smidgeon of Umbria come thick and fast on each other’s tails in this blog. Though it does have to be said that Molise is very small – blink and you’re through it.

It was into Molise that we headed first on Tuesday 8th March, driving through countryside that reminded us of Umbria, with rolling hills planted up with fields of young, bright green wheat. In every town and village we passed, people were carrying sprigs of yellow mimosa, and a few youngsters were out and about in fancy dress. We had completely lost track of time though, and didn’t realise until much later that it was, in fact, Shrove Tuesday! By early evening we reached Larino, with its small, but appealing old town, overlooking a ravine. Unfortunately the cathedral was closed, so we had to make do with its splendid Gothic exterior. We had a wander around the winding mediaeval streets. Some houses on the main thoroughfares were very well restored, but our impression from the crumbling backstreets was that a lot of the town seems to be held together by scaffolding. A car park on the edge of the old town proved a comfortable overnighting place, even if it was a bit chilly at -3°C.


On Wednesday 9th March we headed down to the coast, driving past lidos with long sandy beaches, on our way into the next province, Abruzzo, where our first stop was the town of Vasto. We reached Vasto Marina first which is a seaside lido area with a wealth of villas in a great variety of styles from the late 19th century to early 20th, and all so much more interesting than the bland modern holiday apartments. Strangely, not all of these villas were in a good condition. You’d have thought they’d be highly sought after with their sea-front views. High above, the old town was compact and elegant, with vestiges of gates, fortifications and a titchy cathedral. One of the palaces wouldn’t have looked out of place in Venice.

Vasto – old town and coast

We found a quiet spot to park up for the night just up the coast at Casalbordino Lido, where the far end of the beach petered out by a river mouth. All the holiday complexes were closed, but were showing signs of preparation for the coming season, with workers sprucing the places up. Still, no-one seemed bothered by us parking outside, though we guess once they are up and running this attitude might change. After a cold night, where temperatures once again dipped below zero, Thursday 10th March dawned beautifully sunny, tempting Rob to try fishing. The result was no fish, a lost Norwegian lure, but on the plus side a bowlful of mussels for our evening meal – the coastline here being home to large colonies just waiting to be foraged for.

Casalbordino Lido

The coastline after Vasto is promoted as the ‘Trabucco Coast’, and you can easily see why as in some places these fishing platforms stand every few hundred metres. They differed slightly to the ones we’d seen off the Gargano coast, in that they are constructed entirely over the water, rather than protruding out from the shore, and entry onto them is via a lengthy stretch of fairly precarious looking planking. We thought we could even spy some kind of similar but taller platforms way off the shore out at sea, but since we somehow forgot to bring our binoculars away with us we couldn’t really be sure what they were.

Abruzzo trabucchi

Up to this point, the coast still had some relatively undeveloped stretches where olive and orange groves reached almost to the shore, and the lidos and resorts were fairly low-key. As we got nearer to Pescara the development got more intense and it was no longer easy to find quiet ways down to the sea, which was made worse by railway line underpasses too low to accommodate our van. Pescara seemed to sprawl on for miles and we took the old main road through the centre. It is a largely modern town, but with its miles of golden beaches and generally smart appearance we thought that it looked quite liveable. We also thought that we were starting to detect an air of affluence that had not been so evident in the south of Italy.

More trabucci

There were no more secluded beaches for wild camping, but passing through Roseto degli Abruzzi at 5 p.m. we spotted three Italian motorhomes in a seafront carpark, ignoring the clear ‘no motorhomes’ sign. We decided that the locals must know the score, so pulled in beside them and sure enough passed a quiet and undisturbed night – apart, that is, from half an hour of loud music from a neighbouring car at midnight. Would the local law have moved us on in high season? Who knows.

Roseto degli Abruzzi

After Roseto we turned inland again, towards Ascoli Piceno in the province of the Marche. We took a meandering but pretty route, heading first for the mountains that almost enclose Ascoli, before descending to the town. We found ourselves on a steep switchback road up to the snowline and beyond, until we were driving along a narrow strip of cleared road between metre-high banks of snow at 1100 metres. We were starting to question the wisdom of this when we rounded a corner and entered the tiny ski resort of San Giacomo, where whole families were out tobogganing, skiing and generally tramping around on the snow. The sun was out and it was surprisingly warm, and we did our own little bit of tramping round in this glorious landscape before heading down the bigger and well-cleared road to Ascoli.

Charlie dog on the piste at San Giacomo

Ascoli Piceno is a medium-sized town that has a historic core of mediaeval and renaissance buildings to rival many in the better known areas of Tuscany and Umbria. We tracked down the ‘ex-Seminario’ carpark, recommended in just about every motorhome guide, and parked in their semi-fenced annex at the back. The overnight payment is cheap but you pay for each hour of parking in the day, which is not so bad a deal when you realise that you would pay much the same for parking anywhere remotely central. The carpark was only 500 metres from the cathedral and we made the most of the central location, staying for two nights and passing a lot of our time in and around the cafés on the main square, which serve up the most enormous plates of delicious snackettes to accompany drinks. Keen as we are on any local specialities, we also tried the breadcrumb coated, fried olives stuffed with veal, which turned out to be incredibly tasty.

Ascoli Piceno - Piazza del Popolo with Palazzo dei Capitani and with the San Francesco church

We spent the whole of Saturday 12th March wandering around Ascoli Piceno, taking in the historic centre as well as the market which was scattered around its majestic squares. The main square, the Piazza del Popolo, is one of the most beautiful in Italy, an expanse of travertino marble paving surrounded by the arches of elegant loggia. The Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo (Palace of the People's Captains) runs along the side, while the Gothic church of San Francesco stands tall at one end. There are many attractive palazzi and churches through the city, plus a Roman bridge over the river, but I (Lesley) was particularly drawn to Santa Maria della Carità (Our Lady of Charity), just a square away from the Piazza del Popolo, with its very baroque decoration of cupids and large scallop shell niches. Ascoli’s other showpiece square is Piazza Arringo, which is flanked by the cathedral and yet more majestic renaissance palazzi. The cathedral itself is also worth a visit for the almost Islamic frescoes resembling Persian carpets painted into recesses in the walls and for a striking modern mosaic in the crypt. Completed in 1954, it shows scenes from WWII which echo traditional Christian images, and is very well executed.

Ascoli Piceno - vegetable market behind San Francesco and loggia on the side of San Francesco

We enjoyed a great lunchtime meal at a restaurant, called ‘Migliori’, just at the edge of Piazza Arringo, where the tables are set in the heart of the delicatessen shop itself, so you are surrounded by shelves of fine wines, pastas and bottles of the local aniseed liquor. We tried their mixed fried bits, which included more of the gorgeous Ascoli style olives, ‘olive fritte all’ascolana’, and the slightly odd, fried breaded chunks of set custard, ‘crema fritta’. In the evening we couldn’t resist sitting under the outdoor heaters back in the Piazza del Popolo and trying out some aperitifs. Pointing and saying “I’ll have what they’re drinking” got over not knowing the names, and they were accompanied by more tasty free snacks. We felt we had to round our evening off with yet more fried olives, since they were so, so tasty and we wouldn’t be seeing them again, and then we left the Piazza del Popolo to the youth of Ascoli while we retired to the van. Ascoli really struck a good note with us, right from the first drive round, and we would like to bestow on it the prize of being a place we could imagine ourselves living.  It is a compact and interesting town, has views of beautiful mountains and access to them is right on the doorstep, and the sea is just an hour away – what more could we want? Perhaps jobs… if only there were some sort of employment for us there, we’d jump at it!

Ascoli food – fried veal stuffed olives

Just over the mountains from Ascoli lies the region of Umbria, where we had a very memorable holiday in April 1992, and some of the highlights were around Norcia and Castelluccio, barely 60km away. Succumbing to the temptation to revisit old haunts, we set off from Ascoli on Sunday 13th March and took the main road up towards the Apennines, but keeping one eye on the snowline and the darkening clouds. The pass on the old high road was open, but we were perturbed by the advice to have winter tyres, so chose the new road tunnel rather than risk it. However, on the Umbrian side we found that the snowline was significantly higher, and the vast flat plain around Norcia stretched out green below us. So, we thought, let’s try for Castelluccio, it might be snow-free too.

Views of Pian Grande

Wrong. We climbed steeply back up towards the peaks and were soon driving through areas of deep snow, but at least the roads were all cleared, then we topped a ridge and found ourselves looking down on the Pian Grande. It is a huge, dead-flat plain enclosed by mountains on all sides, and it is totally uninhabited, bar the tiny village of Castellucio which perches on a small round hill at its far end. Today it was a vast expanse of white, surrounded by white hillsides, with only the thin straight ribbon of the road for contrast. There is an irresistible sense of space and isolation as you drive across the Pian Grande, and the austere grey stone cottages of Castelluccio, huddled together as if against the cold, make it seem a suitably remote destination. Mind you, it seemed less remote than 19 years ago, and the number of shops and stalls selling local cured meats and cheeses, not to mention the two motorhomes parked in the little ‘square’ rather took us by surprise. Our memories of that day involve hitched lifts, sleet, a welcome coffee at the one open bar, and the realisation that there was no return bus. Despite that it was a great day, but things were much easier this time round.


After Castelluccio we drove on to Norcia, a very attractive small town set on another wide, flat plain within an amphitheatre of high mountains. It is still enclosed by a complete set of 18th century walls, beyond which only a few pockets of housing and industry have spread into the surrounding fields. We reached the town just as the place reopened for the evening, and parked up discretely outside the town walls, reminiscing about our last visit 19 years ago when we witnessed the evocative torch-lit Good Friday procession which circumnavigated the walls passing, on the way, human tableau of scenes from the Passion.

Norcia walls

Norcia has two notable claims to fame –  one, its salumi (hams, salamis and sausages), that are reputedly so good that the word ‘norcineria’ describes these products throughout Italy ; and two, as the birthplace in the 6th century of St Benedict, whose rules for monastic life inspired religious orders across Europe for centuries. He also, we learnt, had a less famous twin sister called Scholastica, but not many people know that. St Benedict is commemorated in a statue and a church on the main square, but the pork product trade is celebrated in every other shop on Norcia’s main street, along with some equally formidable local cheeses. We enjoyed the freebie tasters on offer but our fridge was by now too full of this stuff already to buy much more.

Norcia salumi shops

Many of Norcia’s buildings have walls which slope outward into the street to limit damage from earthquakes. The Italian peninsula suffers frequently from earthquakes – famously the St Francis basilica in Assissi was hit a few years back – so this seemed like a sensible precaution.

Norcia town views – main street and main square

After Norcia we headed north, and back through the mountains to carry on our journey up the eastern side of Italy. A few kilometres on, we stopped at one of the last villages in Umbria, Preci, which was famous in the middle ages for a school of surgeons that was run from a monastery here, but the hillside village nowadays seemed more like a big complex of holiday homes, closed up and rather sterile.  Sonn after, we passed through a gorge and were back once again in the Marche, at the little town of Visso.


Provincial night life - Ascoli Piceno - Piazza del Popolo

An Italian classic in Larino

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