Monday, 28 March 2011

Italy 6 – Northern Marche and San Marino

14th to 21st March 2011

The Marche region has the sort of knobbly green landscape that strikes us as so quintessentially Italian, where little hills jostle for position from the mountains to the sea, and at times every third summit seems to be crowned by an ancient village or abbey, although sometimes they are hard to tell apart.

After our short foray into Umbria we crossed back over the spine of Italy to Visso in the Marche on Monday14th March. Visso sits at the intersection of four valleys – or perhaps gorges describes them better – at the edge of the Monti Sibillini national park, high in the Apennines. It clearly had a period of considerable wealth in the 15th century, when the town centre was built up with tall palazzi and town houses reaching four storeys, and castle walls stretched across the steep hillsides above. Today it is more large village than town but the mediaeval fabric is intact, and it is billed as ‘one of Italy’s prettiest villages’.


We only found it as we were passing that way, but it had a camper stop too, that was free with optional electricity charged by the hour, and we ended up staying two nights. The tops of the Monti Sibillini were still in snow, and I (Rob) had a great afternoon cycling up to the ski resort of Frontignano in the bright sunshine, with the light glinting on the snowy peaks all around me.

Rob’s bike ride from Visso with views of Monti Sibillini from somewhere near Frontignano

From Visso we headed north to Urbino, through more of this undulating patchwork scenery. Several towns on the way tempted us, but we’ve got to a stage where we can’t do them all. Camerino looked interesting, high on its hill and enclosed by sheer walls of churches and houses, but we were put off by not instantly finding an easy place to park the van and so decided the town could wait for another year. We drove all the way up another hill, to Arcevia, because we had some idea that it had plentiful camper stops, but we failed to check our book and found only a well-signposted campsite. So, despite it looking like another appealing hill town, we drove onwards in search a good place to wild camp. We found it shortly afterwards behind a hilltop chapel with terrific 360° views – until a cloud enveloped us an hour after parking up, after which we saw nothing, but heard plenty of wind and rain.

View from Monte Sant'Angelo chapel overnight spot

On the next day, Thursday 17th March, the Italian state celebrated its 150th birthday, and the flags were out when we got to the village of Pergola. It had been declared a bank holiday and there was quite a Sunday feel about, with many people out sightseeing and strolling. The official celebrations have been accompanied in the Italian media by an outburst of soul-searching about whether the country has ever really been unified – Italians generally love their regions but are less fussed about Italy itself, and on the day, the politicians of the Northern League caused a stir by refusing to sing the national anthem, or just not turning up at all.

Italy’s 150th celebrations

We continued towards Urbino on some very minor backroads, many of which had recently experienced landslides, ‘frana’, but which took us through some typically gorgeous Marche countryside close to Acqualagna and Fermignano.

The village of Appennino near Visso, and typical Marche landscape near Genga

In some respects you could view Urbino as a palace with a town attached, so much does the Palazzo Ducale, built by Federico de Montefeltro in the 1400s, dominate the place. The palace building itself was fascinating to us for its classically Renaissance design, but since the place is now largely a museum and art gallery we got to see a few important works thrown into our bargain price of free, due to arriving on Italy’s birthday. It’s hard to imagine how life was lived in these walk-through series of staterooms, apartments and bedrooms, now devoid of furnishings, and we were struck by the lack of privacy there must have been. The room decorations were marvellous, especially the inlaid wood doors and panelling. Some of these depict all the accoutrements needed by a true Renaissance prince, and Federico was regarded as an enlightened ruler, despite looking a bit of a bruiser, so much so that a de rigueur book for princes of the era, ‘The Courtier’ by Baldassare Castiglione was based on the court at Urbino.

Urbino – Palazzo Ducale

Famous sons of Urbino include Rafael, the artist rather than the ninja turtle, and someone who struck a real chord with me (Lesley), as he comes up time and again through my interest in Tudor history and my experiences of taking school journeys to Church Langton in Leicestershire - Polydore Virgil. He came to England in 1501 and while there wrote his Historia Anglica, a book still used as a contemporary source despite its very strong Tudor bias. During his time in England Polydore Virgil managed to mingle in exalted circles at court, and was at one time given the rectorship of Church Langton, among some of his many clerical appointments. He fell out of favour though, after making the mistake of writing some unflattering comments about Henry VIII and Wolsey in a letter, and failing to realise that all his correspondence was intercepted. After a short spell in prison and intercession from a pope, he remained in England to complete his history and dedicate it to Henry VIII, returning home to Urbino around 1551, where he died a few years later.

Urbino views

The rest of Urbino is classic hill town strolling territory, with mediaeval walls and gates, narrow streets and alleyways, a few steep climbs and a main square, the Piazza della Repubblica, which just cries out for a stop for coffee or a gelato. We were not so impressed at first with the overall ‘brickiness’ of the place, after some recent towns we’ve visited, but it actually kind of grows on you, and has its own elegance.

Urbino views

Daytime parking for motorhomes seems to be on the large lower square just outside the walls, Piazza Mercatale, which is perfect for views of the palace looming above and is just a short, if steep, walk away from the heart of the old town. If you don’t want the climb there’s even a convenient lift up to the palace. We would have been happy to spend the night there, if it were not for the fact it worked out expensive and there’s a new, free, area di sosta downhill on the edge of town. It’s another carpark, with water and dumping facilities, and at 3 p.m. it had been deserted, but when we returned there in the evening we were amazed to see a long line of large white motorhomes parked in a row up the side of the area. We hadn’t seen that many motorhomes since Norway. We left a decent gap in order to avoid claustrophobia, only for the next van to arrive and line up neatly beside us, filling in the space we had left. We have not yet been able to ask an Italian camperista about the compulsion to huddle together so much, rather than spread out, but it was a phenomenon that amused us on several different sites.

Urbino camper stop – this was a massive car park, so why did they all line up on one side next to us?

In recent days we seem to have crossed an invisible north-south divide in the Italian camper world, and suddenly we are finding well-indicated camper stops everywhere. Many are free, some are just carparks, others like Visso or Urbania have electricity, and in between these are yet more ‘camper service’ facilities for dumping and refilling, sometimes at petrol stations and the like. The number of motorhomes on the roads has also mushroomed, but we don’t know how much of this is down to arriving in the affluent north of Italy, and how much down to the approach of Easter and the better weather.

Valle dell'Orsaiola near Urbania, and the Barco Ducale – the very nice area di sosta is behind this impressive building.

Only 17km from Urbino lies the little town of Urbania, whose name relates not to its bigger neighbour but to Pope Urban 8th after whom it was named in the 1630s when the town was part of the Papal States. The town is older though and has another of those lovely mediaeval-looking centres at which Italy excels, this time of brick buildings and arcaded streets all on a strict grid, and overhanging the gorge of the River Metauro. We happened across the camper stop here, in a country location beside a former ducal hunting lodge, and it was so nice we stayed for two nights. It had free electricity (how do they do it? It was fairly low capacity but at that price we couldn’t complain!) and we caught up with some washing while chilling out for a while. Not that the rest of our life is that hectic at the moment.


Urbania’s most curious sight is situated in the Chiesa dei Morti, or Church of the Dead, and it lives up to its name. The church belonged to a religious association dedicated to providing proper burials for the destitute, and from the 1500s onwards these poor souls were buried in great numbers under and around the church. In the 1830s however the law changed, and all the bodies had to be transfered to new cemeteries outside town. On exhumation, a dozen or so were found to be mummified and extraordinarily well preserved, and these were propped up on display in the church, where they still ‘stand’ today, a rather macabre but fascinating spectacle of dull leathery skin, eyeless grins and taut, dry limbs. Each corpse had a story to tell (well not literally – the engaging guide related them on their behalf, in a slow Italian and bits of English so that we could follow). There were the ailments in life such as malnutrition or a withered limb, and causes of death such as a dagger through the heart – the desiccated heart was passed round in a plastic bag to let everyone see the incision – or in one case, so we were told, burial alive.

Urbania – Chiesa dei Morti

From Urbania we headed north through more quiet back-country towards San Marino, and passed beneath the castle of San Leo which rises sheer from a towering crag, another work of Federico di Montefeltrone of Urbino. It offered fine views across to the rather more built-up hilltop of San Marino itself.

San Leo

San Marino is an oddity. A small independent city state of only 61 square kilometres located on a hill on the Italian peninsula, thoroughly Italian in its culture, its population and general character, but that through some quirks of history got left out when the Italian state was created in the 1860s. It was that oddness that drew us here to have a look, but we also rather expected some kind of sense of history and separateness, a charming old town perhaps, but we were wrong in all these respects. For somewhere that is officially a separate country, San Marino looks just like Italy. The street signs are identical, and only the colour of the police cars hinted at a difference. The steep streets of the centre look like a 19th century gothic fantasy of an Italian hill town rather than the real thing, which is what San Marino ‘city’ essentially is, and they are occupied by a great unending mass of tat shops, both expensive and cheap. There is something rather vulgar about the lines of jewellery, perfume, booze, souvenir and gun – yes, gun – shops that line these streets, and the constant throng of visitors and school parties hardly adds to the charm of the place. San Marino makes part of its money as a ‘tax haven’ and we can only assume that this has something to do with the large number of Russian visitors. You can just imagine the conversations : “No Oleg, I don’t want to go to Venice or Rome or see all those boring Renaissance palaces, it’s got to be San Marino – I’ve heard you can buy cheap watches and knuckle-dusters there, and we can stash our money away tax-free too”.

San Marino shops

One thing that San Marino excels at though is views of Italy. It is situated on the tallest hill for miles around, and commands sweeping prospects over the undulating countryside, from the snowy Apennines to the Adriatic, just a few kilometres away at Rimini. We parked overnight in a designated carpark (number 10), just below the old town, to which it was connected by a suite of public lifts. It was free overnight, and up to €8 for the daytime, but you may not need all day. (A note to other motorhomers : there is a large free carpark further down the hill at Borgo Maggiore, that sounds interesting as it is connected to the old town by cable car. However, with 2 returns on the cable car costing €9, you are better off paying €8 to stay in carpark 10, and with the free lifts you can come and go from your vehicle as many times as you want in the day).

San Marino : two out of the three towers – Torre Cesta and Torre della Guaita

Our brief visit to San Marino coincided with a return of the cold weather, and to the accompaniment of a few thin flecks of snow we set off on the Monday afternoon on the road down to Rimini and the coast. 

San Marino - Palazzo del Popolo

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