It is a unique experience to finally arrive in a distant place where we have chosen to live when the decision to live here was reached from far away. The choosing process was done in a very contemporary way; research was largely done on the Internet. A combination of Google searches, augmented by Email exchanges with English speaking Ex-Patriots in the region, and not to mention the on-the-ground explorations via Google Earth, created a sense of familiarity with the prospective new home. But as everyone knows in advance, being there in person adds the final and most critical dimension.
Carried forward by the momentum of so many decisions and actions, such as selling a home and deciding what little is to go on the pilgrimage and what is worth storing, is being carried on a tide of ones own initiating. It needed to be decided at the outset whether or not the commitment to follow through was really there. Because once the process was set in motion it became very difficult to turn back.
There is a wonderful core element in our marriage; our communication with each other is easy, fluid and includes the ability to talk feely about dreams and wishes for the future. A common theme in so many of our travels has been to ask, “I wonder what it is like to really live here?” In our travels, we gravitated from the use of hotels to a preference for living independently in rented apartments and also to having more direct experience with the people of a new place by choosing to stay in an Italian Agriturismo.
We have found more in depth, direct personal experience of new places much richer than seems possible in being a ‘tourist’ in the more traditional sense. That inclination has fuelled the desire to immerse ourselves in places we have had limited time to really understand and experience in depth in the past.
And now, life in Italy has begun. In over about a year, we have gone from, “What would you think about . . ?”, to stepping off a sleepless, overnight flight into Rome and having our hired van and driver deliver us to our new home town – Ascoli Piceno.
Ascoli Piceno – A Sense of Relief.
On first arriving in a brand new location of choice, there is a natural self-justifying predisposition to feel the decision to come here ‘has to have been right!’ But in truth, in any really big decision that involves a commitment this large, made with limited, reliable knowledge, a Leap of Faith is a very large component. That being the case, a sense of apprehension is not always too far under the surface.
As our stupor from limited sleep over several days and the mental, emotional and physical exhaustion from making the move gradually subsided, our sense of our chosen new home increased from a somewhat muted, “Thank God,” to an enthusiasm not unlike the zeal of religious conversion.
In observing and analyzing vicariously from afar, it was too easy to impose desire on reality. But with the retrospection that three whole weeks affords, at this point we like to think what we thought were the needs we hoped a new home might fulfill may very well have guided the decision after all. Wonders never cease!
Ascoli Piceno – The Place.
Ascoli, as the locals refer to the town, is a community with two distinct personalities. The central core of the city is the historical district (Centro Storico). The surrounding communities are much more contemporary with more modern apartment blocks that transition into a commercial and industrial zone to the east toward the Adriatic seacoast.
The older central district is located on a flat, former flood plain at the junction of the river Tronto and a smaller tributary, the Torrente Castellano.
Ascoli is situated in the Apennine Mountain chain foothills and is at the head of a valley formed by the River Tronto. It is inland from the Adriatic coast by about 25 kilometers (ca. 16 miles). The Valley of the Tronto gradually narrows to form an apex where Ascoli is situated. In this narrowed area, the surrounding hills descend at fairly steep grades forming the western town perimeter. From the town, some of the highest peaks (over 10,000 feet) of the Apennines can be seen. West of Ascoli there are two of the larger National Nature Preserves in Italy.
Over time the river and the smaller tributary cut deep channels that became something of a natural mote around the two eastern sides of the town. The natural defensive advantages of the setting explains the selection of this spot as a very early settlement going back to the 9th century BCE, well before Rome was founded, as the Ascolani are proud to point out.
As a result, the historic central district is literally an island in time with the natural mote boundary of the old town making a very distinct break between the old and new districts. There is virtually no transition zone between the old and the new here in Ascoli. In crossing any of the several bridges between the peripheral contemporary districts and the historic core of Ascoli, one instantly transitions several centuries.
Ascoli Piceno – Time Preserved and Respected.
In Ascoli, the long march of time is evident but does not appear to be an anchor weighing down the spirit of the place. At the western edge of the historic central area, in which we have chosen to live, is the still standing Roman built gateway, the Porto Romana. As the name implies, the gateway leads westward toward Rome. Nearby are remnants of the original Roman town wall and the Roman amphitheater (in process of renovation).
A side note on the Porto Romano: Well before Roman times, an active trade in salt had been established from the evaporation ponds on the Adriatic coast with the peoples to the west including the Etruscans. A more promising route from the Adriatic Sea going west was found in the valley of the Tronto River thus establishing Ascoli as a very early, important trading site. The route from the Adriatic west became known for its function, the Via Salaria, the Salt Road. It is still known by that name and is now also designated as National Highway Number 4 (Stradia Statali 4).
Unexpected surprises still astonish us. While walking to a bus stop on a shopping expedition east of Ascoli, we crossed a modern road bridge over a stream and happened to look down. There was an obviously older and narrower, stone bridge that appeared in very serviceable condition. Then we noticed a sign; the bridge had been built “during the reign of the Emperor Caesar Augustus.” Now where have I heard that phrase before?
The surrounding foothills of the Apennines have obviously been a rich source for the ubiquitous building material seen in the historic central district – Travertine Marble. This durable and decorative stone is seen everywhere from providing the pavement of the major town squares, some of the building elements of the cathedral and the many other churches and buildings (Palazzi a Palazzini).
Given the strategic position of Ascoli, control of this area has been contested repeatedly over time. From the Romans, to Germanic tribes after the fall of Rome to the dominance of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire, to the Papal military, and the armies of Napoleon, each has left their mark on Ascoli.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the rise of mercantilism saw many prominent families building major Palazzos, from whence comes our term ‘Palaces.’ These edifices became a mark of status with each family attempting to outdo the others. Many of these buildings also included tall towers as fortified retreats to fend off the violent turn rivalries of the day often took. In time, many of the prominent families were displaced and invading forces required the truncation of many of the towers to enforce ‘humility.’ Today, most of the towers have been assimilated into other uses such as church bell towers. The Palazzos of an earlier day were further renovated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ultimately into apartments and office suites of today.
With the dominance of many things French in the world of cultural taste in the nineteenth century, much of the renovations done to major buildings bear a certain impression of French architectural flare such as wrought iron balcony railings. Some of the smaller streets carry the designation of ‘Rua,’ which suggests an Ascolani nod to the French ‘Rue.’
There is clear evidence that at critical times, the influential in Ascoli had an appreciation of the historical gem that was under their stewardship. We are left to speculate that some pretty draconian measures were put in place to impede the “march of progress” from raping a cultural landmark. What is in evidence is that extreme care was taken to preserve the architectural tone of past centuries while bringing Ascoli into the modern age.
A careful look detects that the individual stones making up the pavement of the streets were carefully taken up, excavations were done and modern water, gas, electric, communication and sewer lines were installed – all subterranean. The stones were then carefully reinstalled with discrete storm water drains at appropriate places.
In structures several centuries old erected with building stones, in some cases eighteen inches thick, installing utilities by boring through walls is not a promising process. Instead, conduit and piping run up old walls in a, more often than not, careful and not too distracting fashion.
Walking through Ascoli would be like having taken a time transport back several centuries if it weren’t for the occasional parked car or motor scooter. For anyone with any appreciation for architecture, Ascoli is a visual feast.
Ascoli Piceno – On First Impressions.
Over these initial three weeks, it has become apparent that this experience is different from how we approached previous travel. On its face, that seems like a pretty self-evident observation. Because all of our past travels put us in a mode of seeing time and place as a very finite resource that had to be carefully rationed. When we were in a place for a limited time, a list of priorities had been in constant readjustment. Having been previously limited to the ‘tourist’ experience, we have had to readjust how we are now starting a transition to becoming longer term residents of a town in Italy.
We are now changing our approach to this place to be less in terms of what has to be seen and experienced in as efficient a manner as possible to asking, “How do we define the lifestyle we want to experience over the next several years?” And then, “What is available to support the kind of life we think we want to have?” So the differences in approach to being a ‘tourist’ and a ‘resident’ are really quite different.
We had to ask ourselves at the outset if we were open to the likelihood that we would go through some level of personal ‘reinvention.’ We came to the conclusion that unless we were open to the prospect, we were going to be hindered in adapting to a new place. It became clear a new place was very likely to change us. And so, we are trying to be better at accepting the ‘tentative’ while all the initial readjustments are taking place. And that can at first be a little uncomfortable – particularly for a couple of ‘control freaks.’ We have felt the need to have some sense of security to start building on ‘who we are in the process of becoming.’ That being the case, the initial, instinctive feelings we have gotten as to whether the ‘place feels right’ have been very important.
Surrendering to the process of reinvention is turning out to be less of an ordeal than we might have thought. The stimulation of inviting new sensory experiences, the warmth of people we have met and the comfort in walking these ancient cobble stone streets has been very reinforcing. So, the First Impressions of this place have been very important. We are feeling more and more comfortable with each passing day in calling Ascoli Piceno – home.