It is no longer a secret known only to a few well-informed foreigners that the town of Ascoli Piceno and the province of which it is capital contain many of the most beautiful landscapes and townscapes not only in Italy, but anywhere in the world. Come here with camera, with paint-brush, with walking boots, or just with open eyes, and the joys that await you are numerous.
Let us start in the capital itself – a medieval gem of a town nestling under the tree-covered mountains to its south and surrounded on three sides by the rivers Tronto and Castellano; and let us start in its heart, the Piazza del Popolo.
Sitting down at a table outside the Caffè Meletti with its famous Art Nouveau interior, you do what we are here to do, which is look and enjoy. To your left the 13th-century Palazzo del Popolo; beyond it the vertical forms of the church of San Francesco with its twin pentagonal bell-towers; and opposite you, a long and elegant 16th-century arcade in the local red brick. If it is passeggiata time, hundreds of impeccably dressed Italians of all ages will be parading in front of you on the large and highly-polished flagstones that pave the square. This, surely, is the essence of the visual appeal of Italy, and it is the easiest thing to spend whole hours simply observing.
Not only is most of this enchanting town traffic-free, but much of it has not changed for centuries. For example, to the south of Via dei Soderini and to the west of Via delle Torri is a whole mass of narrow cobbled streets whose medieval fabric and spirit are almost perfectly intact. Nearby, the Palazetto dei Longobardi is as near as you can get to an untouched medieval town house; whilst the blocks of travertine stone on the 35-metre high Torre degli Ercolani beside it are so fresh they could have been cut yesterday.
Wherever you go, visual treats abound, all in gloriously unselfconscious juxtaposition; so that just round the corner from the Palazzo Malaspina with its grand Renaissance façade, you get lost in a warren of semi-rural back-streets overhung with foilage and winding their way between gardens filled with fruit-trees.
Do, however, make the effort to walk round the mainly medieval walls of the town. Working your way clock-wise from the 1st-century-BC Porta Gemina with its walls made out of massive travertine blocks, a short stroll along the embankment of the river takes you to the well-preserved medieval Porta di Solestà, beyond which a Roman bridge – again, perfectly preserved – leads high above the River Tronto to the countryside beyond.
Further on round the walls, the impressive mass of the 16th-century Forte Malatesta guards the eastern approach to the town; and those energetic enough can carry on up the open hillside to the well-preserved Fortezza Pia high above the terracotta roofs of the houses below. From here, it is clearer than ever how closely connected Ascoli Piceno is to the countryside around it; so that you are no longer surprised to be woken up the next morning not by the tooting of carhorns, but by the altogether more agreeable sound of a cock crowing.
In the north of the province, spread out on its hill 319 metres above sea level and with fabulous views of the surrounding countryside and the Adriatic beyond, is Fermo, the ancient rival of Ascoli Piceno. Here, too, is an imposing Piazza del Popolo; here, too, along the Corso Cefalonia and the Corso Cavour, is a series of ancient palazzi; and here, too, is a medieval cathedral, its severe 13th-century façade dominated by an intricately carved early Gothic doorway. This is the sort of town the Italians do so well, perfectly a misura di uomo – everything in the human dimension. Just as in Ascoli, the best way to appreciate it is to wander round with no particular aim in mind, drinking it all in.
For any lover of natural and man-made beauty, the large expanse of territory between Ascoli and Fermo offers unparallelled riches. A few miles inland from the sandy beaches along the Adriatic in the east, the land rises rapidly and soon range upon range of hills stretch majestically into the distance, occasionally topped by small well-defined towns surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. But only 60 kilometres inland you are 2,000 metres above sea level, high up in the austere fastnesses of the Monti Sibillini, or Sibylline Mountains.
Along the coast, then, are the famous beaches and seaside resorts of the Riviera delle Palme – home to over twenty varieties of palm tree as well as much distinguished ‘Liberty’ or Art Nouveau architecture – that stretches northwards from Porto d’Ascoli, embracing the old ‘upper town’ of Grottammare and ending at the picture-postcard village of Cupra Marittima, high above the sea.
A mere 12-kilometre drive from the sea takes you straight up to the noble medieval town of Ripatransone, perched 494 metres above sea level. From here, the views over untouched green and rolling countryside take your breath away. On to the walled hilltop town of Cossignano, and you are in the heart of some of the most bewitching scenery in the world, its voluptuous contours irresistably reminiscent of the curves of the female form. Majestic but at the same time intimate, this landscape criss-crossed with vineyards and olive groves is the result of hundreds of years of human effort.
A short journey through similar scenes of unspoilt beauty, and on empty roads from which the signs and hoardings that ruin so many other parts of Italy are thankfully absent, takes you to Montedinove, with further fine views from its hilltop setting 561 metres above sea level.
Heading south towards Castignano, you enter an area that is famous for the strange calanchi that mark the bare clay and limestone hillsides. The result of a natural process of erosion, these deep rifts divided by sharp crests create a stark and quite unexpected lunar landscape.
Now on to Offida, where the crenellated 14th-century town hall with its arcade and loggia dominates the triangular and almost impossibly picturesque Piazza del Popolo, creating a setting much beloved of film-makers. From here, an easy journey completes the circle, taking you back to the Riviera delle Palme.
Throughout the province, dozens of such tours are possible. North of the River Aso, for example, a short drive from Fermo takes you to the hill-top village of Moresco, with its tiny piazza – again triangular – that seems to have come straight from some opera set. No surprise, therefore, to see a sign announcing that this is “uno dei borghi più belli dell’Italia” … although neighbouring Monterubbiano is hardly less alluring. Beyond Petritoli, the road rises as you approach Montelparo; and from Montefalcone, perched on a spectacular outcrop of rock 757 metres above sea level, the view once more takes your breath away. Not for nothing, one imagines, is its name ‘mount of the falcon’.
Here, the beaches of the Riviera delle Palme seem another world, and the intimate scenes nearer the coast have given way to something more rugged, so that by the time you reach Montefortino, you are well and truly in mountain country. This is an excellent starting point for the 15-kilometre walk up the Gola dell’Infernaccio (‘the mouth of hell’), through beech woods at the bottom of a deep limestone ravine whose walls are sometimes only three metres apart.
Further south in this wild area, freezing cold in winter and home to wolves and eagles all the year round, is the bare and forbidding Monte Vettore (2,476 m), the highest peak of the national park of the Monti Sibillini.
And yet such is the variety hereabouts that only a few kilometres away, but almost 1,800 metres lower, is the charming hilltop village of Arquata del Tronto, dominated by its fairytale 13th-century castle and surrounded by the thick deciduous forest that still covers whole tracts of the Apennines.
Here, you face a decision. You might now visit another stunningly beautiful national park – this time Gran Sasso and the Monti della Laga. But you are also on the Via Salaria, named after the vital supplies of salt that the Ancient Romans transported from the Adriatic to the capital of their empire.
So now where? Westwards to Rome? Or a short journey eastwards back to Ascoli? For those who like life to be a misura di uomo, or for those who like a perfect fusion between the pleasures of town and country, there can be no hesitation…