The ridge itinerary, about 33 km long, starts out from the charming town of Grottammare and winds its way to Montalto Marche, passing through Ripatransone and Cossiganano.
The two villages have links with Sixtus V, the pope who, in the late sixteenth century, gave the papacy a new level of prestige by radically transforming the town-planning and administration of the Eternal City, and resolutely fighting the corruption and criminality that afflicted it.
The future pope was born in Grottammare, but at a very young age moved to Montalto Marche, “patria carissima“, where his family hailed from.
After honouring the town by making it a city and diocese, in 1586 he created the Presidato di Montalto, an administrative district that had power over no fewer than seventeen urban centres.
Felice Peretti, who became pope (1585-1590) under the name Sixtus V, was born in Grottammare, but his family originally came from Montalto Marche and he had such close ties with the town that he transformed it into a “Presidato”, the third administrative centre of Piceno, after Ascoli Piceno and Fermo.
Born of a humble family, he became a Franciscan and reached the highest levels of the Inquisition.
Sixtus V went down in history as “the tough Pope”.
Many anecdotes are told about him, and one of the best-known is that of his scepticism about miracles.
In Rome, a rumour spread about a wooden statue of Christ that oozed blood in a rural building just outside the city.
The owner of the farmhouse was making good money from the faithful who went there and Pope Sixtus, when he learnt about it, decided to go there and see the marvel for himself.
When he saw the prodigious figure, the Pope asked for an axe and, exclaiming “As Christ I adore you, as wood I split you“, he violently struck the statue and destroyed it.
Inside there was a sponge soaked in animal blood which, squeezed by a length of string, made the effigy bleed.
That is all it took, and the owner of the farm was taken to Rome and executed.
This story led to the Italian proverb “Pope Sixtus refused to forgive even Christ!“.
Grottammare stretches out along the Adriatic coast, sheltered by a natural promontory where the upper town stood in the Middle Ages, and protected by walls that are still well preserved.
The Torrione della Battaglia has only recently been restored and is now a museum dedicated to the Grottammare-born artist Pericle Fazzini, referred to as the “sculptor of wind” by Giuseppe Ungaretti.
In 1868, the world-famous pianist Liszt spent a long time here.
Enraptured by the beauty of the place, he wrote: “The blue sea, the delightful verdant hills, the mildness of the climate and the perfume of flowers and oranges create a poetry equal only to the celestial harmony of sounds“.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Hero of the Two Worlds, stayed in Grottammare, as did the future King of Italy, Victor Emanuel II, who right here, in the villa of Marquis Laureati, received the Neapolitan delegation, which granted him the former Kingdom of Naples and the Crown of Italy, on 12 October 1860.
Built to a design by Bernini on the slopes of the village, the Villa Azzolino gave hospitality to Queen Christina of Sweden in 1665.
Nearby, there is the church of Sant’Agostino, which has a fortified apse and a bell tower which was truncated, as was the custom in the Counter-Reformation for those churches which had welcomed Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk who brought about the Protestant Reformation (1517) and who had been a guest in the nearby convent.
The ancient village also houses a splendid arcade with a view over the “Marina”, near the church of San Giovanni Battista, now the exhibition centre of the Museo Sistino, and the Collegiata di Santa Lucia (1590), which was built by the Pope’s sister over the house where they were born.
It contains an organ made by Fedeli in 1751.
When 1 July falls on a Sunday, the Sacra Giubilare, or “Holy Jubilee”, is celebrated in Grottammare, in memory of the time when the Pope’s ship sought refuge in the port (which no longer exists).
Pope Alexander III was on his way to Venice to organise the fight against Frederick Barbarossa, who was preparing to invade Italy, when his vessel was caught in a storm and was forced ashore.
The Camaldolensian monks at the abbey of San Martino invited the Pope to stay on until 1 July in order to attend the festivities that the local population were celebrating according to a very ancient tradition.
Pope Alexander was astonished and moved by the immense participation of the people, so he took off his hat, a “camauro“, filled it with sand and announced that “As many indulgences will be granted to each pilgrim as there are grains of sand herein“.
Since then, pilgrims have flocked to the abbey of San Martino, just outside the village on the road to Offida, in order to obtain plenary indulgence.
Ripatransone is a town of art and culture on a panoramic hill, famous for its brick architecture.
Its fascinating history extends from prehistoric times and the Iron Age through to the modern era.
In the Middle Ages it was a free municipality that fought against Fermo and Offida, and during the Renaissance it was a city and diocese with an interesting town-planning structure.
It boasts that narrowest alleyway in Italy (43 centimetres).
On the eighth day of Easter (the week after), the town puts on a spectacular fireworks display called the Cavallo di Fuoco, which provides a popular and exciting illustration of the local population’s devotion to Our Lady of Loreto.
Tradition has it that the origins of the “fire horse” festival date back to the late seventeenth century, when a pyrotechnist, who had been called in for the celebrations, rode a horse packed with fireworks, going round the square and setting off rockets and other great marvels.
The people of Ripatransone loved it so much that they decided to repeat it every year.
These days the horse is an effigy filled with firecrackers, which explode safely in the air, showering the crowd with sparks and creating a phantasmagorical sight.
Preceded by a band, the “horse” passes unlit through the crowd and then, in front of the cathedral, its tail is lit and the show begins.
After Cossignano, a village with a wealth of fine buildings and stunning views over the Apennines, comes Montalto Marche, placed on the divide between the rivers Aso and Tesino.
The family of Pope Sixtus V came from here, and the Pope rewarded it by making it a Presidato until Napoleon, in 1808, re-established the Department of Tronto and definitively cancelled the third centre of power in Piceno.
An authentic citadel of art, Montalto Marche has preserved not only its mighty sixteenth-century city walls but also important buildings, including the water mill (at Valdaso), which was used in the eighteenth century as the Pontifical mint.
On 14 August, the city becomes a fairytale world for children: this is the Night of the Pixies and Witches (“La Notte dei Folletti e delle Streghe“), with recreations of the settings and characters of the most famous fairytales.
Late in the evening, the Great Black Witch is burnt in the square, only to come back to life the following year.