If you hang around folks that write about travel in Italy and mention Ascoli Piceno to them, the inevitable response, more often than not will be, “Is Caffè Meletti still there?”
They mean this:
It happens to be occupy the corner of a Piazza I find far more compelling than Campo San Marco in Venice: Piazza al Popolo. Sorry, Venice lovers. It’s really a square for regular people. You don’t pay 10 euro for an ounce of coffee in the Piazza del Popolo, and the popolo are very nice as well.
The Caffè Meletti is indeed a special place. It faces out upon a piazza floored with gleaming, foot-polished travertine tiles you could eat off of. People stroll. Kids play. The little tourist train winds through.
You can rush through the piazza like the little train, but you know you want to slow down and just take it all in. Piazza life is part of what Italian culture gives to each tourist. Lots of them refuse the gift. Pity.
If you’re alive to the vibe, your brain may be hopping with all the Romanesque and Renaissance architecture that surrounds you. Slow it down. Head for the caffe, built in Italian Liberty Style.
Have Silvio Meletti’s Anisetta. That’s the ticket. Have it as the sun goes down.
You can “correct” it by adding some coffee beans. Try three. An even number is bad luck. You don’t want to give yourself bad luck.
If you come earlier in the evening, you can try the Anisetta as aperitivo with the addition of some sparkling water. Any time of the day you can step up to the gelato window and get a scoop of anisetta ice cream. It’s good, really good.
You see, Silvio Meletti’s Anisetta is special. He studied French distillation techniques. He knew the most aromatic anise grew in the dense clay around Ascoli. He labored to produce the very best anisette he could. Production is still in the family.
He is not a modern man, this Silvio, or he would have made something half-decent and sold it to a humongous corporation so that they could take the flavor out of it and make billions from it.
In any case, I implore you to try this city, Ascoli Piceno, this piazza, Piazza del Popolo, this Anisetta: Silvio’s. You will be centered in the entire universe, right smack in a town known for stuffing fat olives and deep frying them.
Read the whole history of this liquor, then plan a trip to Ascoli Piceno.
Let’s say you come upon a crumbling Tuscan village surrounded by scraggly vines (because the village happens to be in Chianti). There’s a derelict tobacco factory on the edge of town. The homes are vacant with the exception of a few little-used vacation homes.
The tobacco factory closed years ago. There is no longer a reason for working people to live in Castelfalfi.
You’d say “awe, too bad!” right? A little voice inside your head advises, “They should fix it up, put in a restaurant and tourists would come in droves.”
Then, what if I told you a German company, TUI, came in and bought up the whole lot, village, factory, vineyards, decrepit plumbing, churches, streets…
Whoa! They are not the “they” we were thinking of when we used the ambiguous term, were they?
This “they” will certainly turn the whole deal into an absurd carnival, a hoity-toity mutt of a village cobbled together to reflect what the average person who hasn’t been to Italy thinks of deepest Tuscany. We’re talking fake ceiling beams, efficient bureaucracy, beer halls. It’s not just you and I—the locals were quite suspicious of the whole turn of affairs, too, according to the project’s Chief Executive Officer Stefan Neuhaus.
We spent a couple of nights as Stefan’s guest in the hotel, which used to be the tobacco factory. Most of the village has been restored—but there were still a few cranes. There isn’t a beer hall, but there is a wine shop and even a winery with tasting room. On the day we were leaving, a gelateria opened. We were the first outsiders to have an early morning gelato. The farro concoction, a specialty, was very, very good and Tuscan to the core.
You can visit, as we did, with a hotel stay and enjoy the three pools, the bikes, the food and wine, and maybe throw on the apron and experience a cooking class. Perhaps you are a golfer (see our views on the Castelfalfi golf courses). But then perhaps you might consider the renovated houses for sale, targeting the busy executive who just wants to relax and have everything taken care of; just call ahead and let the management arrange your activities. Homes start at 250,000 euro. You can be middle-management and still afford one.
Wine is just now beginning to be squeezed out of the rejuvenated vineyards. There are three reds currently. They aren’t expensive. Our favorite, the 2013 Cerchiaia Chianti costs 10 euros, 16 in the restaurant. In the US, it would cost at least $40 in a decent eatery. The super-Tuscan called Poggionero is a few euros more. Soon there will be a white.
Chef Francesco Ferretti There are two restaurants, a fancy one and a trattoria called Il Rosmarino. We were lucky enough to take a cooking class with the chef of Il Rosmarino, just a short stroll up the street from the hotel. Francesco Ferretti had us making puff pastry and rolling pici, a typical fat spaghetti made without eggs, all the while giving us tips on cooking and telling us of his work in this rejuvenated village.
When we were done, we took off our aprons and chef Ferretti escorted us to our table, precisely positioned to have a view of the Chianti landscape out the open window. Here was where he would force us to eat what we had made. Having your hand rolled pasta turned into a work of art and served to you by a window open to the Tuscan hills is an experience you’ll remember, trust me. That’s chef Ferretti to the upper right, opening our bottle of Cerchiaia.
There is a wildlife preserve bordering on the Castelfalfi golf course. A fence keeps the wild boar in check. A walk with the gamekeeper brought us past a derelict house used in the latest Pinocchio movie and then past the locked gates of the preserve, where we hacked through the undergrowth to see an Etruscan tomb. Along the way we learned of the purpose and history of just about every piece of vegetation that grew around us. We were immersed in a world that poor Italians would have known like the backs of their hands.
Perhaps you are getting the picture here. This is a special place, built and staffed with Italian workers.
Slowly the locals are returning, first out of curiosity, then to try the golf course and eat in the restaurants and finally to stroll the streets. I would say the Germans have almost worked a rejuvenating miracle, but then I’ve stayed for free and might be biased, right? Well, I encourage you to go and see it for yourself. Eat in Francesco’s trattoria. Have the simple Tuscan foods that Francesco has brought to life. I’m talking real basic here, like his fabulous papa al pomodoro. Yes, pap. You will be amazed. And then if it’s on the menu try his Tonno del Chianti. It’s not a fish dish, but pork that looks like canned tuna—and it takes a while to prepare. According to the chef: “marinate the pork for 4 days in a white wine marinade, then take it out and cook it with spices for 15 hours very, very slowly, then Cryovac it with the house olive oil and let it sit a while, like tuna.”
Oh yes, there are olive trees and estate olive oil. The trees are even incorporated into the golf course. It’s brilliant.
And Castelfalfi even has a castle, of course. You can’t think of living in a village without one, can you?
For all the luggage behind door number two, name the battle the Romans fought and won that allowed them to unify central Italy?
Tick tock. The battle was near Sassoferrato in Le Marche. Tick tock.
Give up? Parting prize starting to look good? It was the Battle of Sentinum. 296 bc.
The Samnites had gathered Etruscans, Senones, Gauls and Umbrians (hereafter referred to as “just about everyone else on the boot and beyond”) to combine forces against the Romans, but the Romans were clever and defeated the coalition, which started with about twice the troops.
This important battlefield lies just outside the interesting town of Sassoferrato. There are Roman Baths, Roman Roads, and countless ruins that will take you back to a (slightly) bloodier time. The whole complex is fascinating, really.
I remember as wandered through the ruins a few years ago seeing a sign to a Bed and Breakfast, right smack in the center of the archaeological site. “Only in Italy,” I sighed.
Well, that was a few years ago, and the B&B was closed. Now it has returned as Agriturismo Antico Muro.
The Antico Muro has a view over this momentous history. In the background there are mountains framing it all nicely.
The structure itself is a rather unique look at the architecture of a family farm.
Imagine watching the moon rise over Sentinum in one of those plastic chairs under the big tree. That can’t be a bad thing.
But wait, there’s more. How about eating right smack upon an excavation? Inside! Ok, ready?
Yes, you can reserve a table like this. (Drink enough vino and test your vertigo by trying to walk on the glass.)
And you can eat like this:
This colorful lunch pasta was served to us by the owner Guido Mingarelli. You probably can’t guess the pasta. It’s called “piancianelle” and it’s a local pasta made from the leftover dough you might have when making sourdough bread. The “condiment” on top is all stuff out of the garden and surrounding countryside. This is a serving for four people.
You want this. Oh, my, you certainly want this. If you are a vegan or gluten intolerant, Guido’s got that covered, too.
The full menu has other surprises, including the reasonable price. Although we didn’t stay the night at Antico Muro, the place gets rave reviews on the Internet—and we all know that has to be true.
I hope those of you who have visited Italy’s big three already and are ready to see some of the rural charm you get in lightly touristed Italian regions will come to Sassoferrato. What’s near? Well, the Marche Map shows us Citta di Castello and Gubbio in northern Umbria as well as Genga and the incredible Frasassi Caves as well as Fabriano, the paper making capital of Italy.
The landscape of the Cinque Terre is certainly rugged. On the other hand, what we love about the Cinque Terre are the “5 little lands” themselves—as well as all the man-made things we’ve tacked on to the ruggedness. Otherwise there’s just a desolate mountain prone to rock slides.
For example, take a look at the terraces:
The Terraces of the Cinque Terre
These are fragile. They require lots of maintenance.
When folks abandon the vineyards because there is more money in tourism, the terraces tend to collapse, usually on top of other terraces. Then all it takes is a big rain to bring the whole house of cards down.
Not to mention the wild boar, who delight in this sort of destruction while adding their own.
I was reminded of these facts when I was talking to a map seller. I’ve been linking to a map of the Cinque Terre that is no longer produced. Why? I’m glad you asked.
Recent rains have changed the landscape so significantly it’s time to make new maps. When things settle.
Now that’s significant.
I’m not going to press the issue of the role of tourism in this destruction, because then you will call me an “elitist” and someone who wants the Cinque Terre all to himself because it is the most beautiful place on earth and should be open to anyone who wants to see it.
Yes, it’s happened.
So I will tell you another story of a nearby Italian Riviera town also revered by tourists. Portovenere. Once a bedraggled and crumbling town on the edge of the sea, in 1909 Henry James once called it “a queer, little crumbling village on an headland”, its little streets now resound with the heavy footsteps of tourists wielding selfie sticks.
So, to balance my account of the Cinque Terre, I will tell you of some great success that the money from tourism can bring. (Success in the sense that things get fixed up, restored, and the sea no longer threatens to reclaim a little village that ravages our imaginations; whether you think of this as success or would prefer to stand in solitude in front of romantic, crumbling ruins is, of course, up to you.)
Henry James again:
“There is a ruined church near the village, which occupies the site (according to tradition) of an ancient temple of Venus; and if Venus ever revisits her desecrated shrines she must sometimes pause a moment in that sunny stillness and listen to the murmur of the tideless sea at the base of the narrow promontory…” ~ Portovenere … a queer, little crumbling village . . .
Ruined? Not today. Here:
Portovenere, Chiesa di San Pietro - Church of Saint Peter
Lots of people get married in the little chiesa these days. It is person-sized. It doesn’t try to overwhelm you. It is a little temple, with a cute pipe organ wedged between the wall arches.
Delighfully hand made organ in Portovenere
So visit both places, please, while they stand. Hike the Cinque Terre but walk lightly. Every stone is important.