The next posting in a series during Safari’s inaccessibility.
So now my friends, Mike and Marilee, have left for Greece. It was a whirlwind of time when they were here. They had arrived first in Venice and then went to San Marino before arriving in Ascoli Piceno.
Having them here was a joy. It felt to me like the connection between Ascoli Piceno and Oregon was becoming narrower. They were the fourth set of friends that I have hosted in Italy and it felt very comfortable. For years they had heard my stories and viewed my photos. They watched my videos and read my book. They had wanted to visit and they finally got the chance.
I took the bus to Ascoli to meet them on the evening of May 25th. They had already been in Ascoli for about four hours so they did some trekking about on their own. Their hotel was a former palace remodeled into a spectacular hotel, only two blocks from the Piazza del Popolo. After showing me their room, we walked some more, ultimately having dinner at Café Lorenz, a regular hang-out of mine, in the piazza.
The weather didn’t cooperate too well while they were here. We had quite a bit of rain that was disconcerting. Nevertheless, we made the best of it. The second day we piled into their rented car and I took them to Castel Trosino. This town, an ancient fortress located on a mountaintop, was introduced to me and my then-partner, Curt, by my cousin Maurizio back in 2010. I was so captivated by it that I continued to take other friends there to visit. This was my fourth time.
Approaching the mountain atop which Castel Trosino sat was impressive. The monolith sat menacing in the foreground while fog shrouded it from behind. The town is resplendent in its current rehabilitated state.
We parked the car and walked a short distance to the entrance of the town. The street leading into Castel Trosino actually has a fortress entrance that had, at one time, a door blocking the entry. Every building has been remodeled and all the stonework has been scrubbed of grime from past centuries.
The town has perhaps fifty people and is quite quiet. The church is no longer in use and now contains two separate homes. The atmosphere is the epitome of Italian quaintness with flower boxes everywhere. Travertine steps leading up to front doors are lined with pots filled with red geraniums. An unused well was covered with an iron arc, also holding flowers.
Despite its tiny size, Castel Trosino has a full restaurant. Borgo Medievale. It is very small, yet boasts a full menu. When we arrived, it was closed. I read the menu and it appeared to me that the restaurant would open at noon which was thirty minutes away. We decided to wait. So we looked around some more.
Speaking no English, I was able to gather that she was asking if we needed anything. I explained to her that we were waiting for the restaurant to open. She offered to call to make sure they would open at noon. After chatting with the owner, she regretted to inform us that they were only open on the weekends. It made sense. How much business would they get during the week?
I asked her if they were open at least for coffee and the answer was, again, no. Then she offered to have us in her home for coffee. I was bowled over. I ran to get Mike and Marilee and relayed the invitation to them. They happily accepted.
Walking into her immaculate little apartment, our hostess busied herself with the preparation of our espresso. While she worked, I chatted with her. I gave her the crib note version of why I was living in Italy and introduced Mike and Marilee as my good friends visiting from Portland.
A few moments later the door opened and her son, Andrea, walked in. I introduced all of us and our hostess (whose name I cannot remember!) told him about our attempt to have a coffee at the restaurant. He amiably chatted us up before retiring upstairs to his room.
A few moments later the door opened and our hostess’ daughter, Luciana, arrived. Again, I introduced ourselves and our hostess repeated the story. Luciana sat down and we talked before the door opened yet again and Luciana’s husband, Tomas entered.
Yet again, we repeated our little stories. Andrea and Tomas were all very forthcoming and welcoming and didn’t seem the slightest put off that their mother had invited us in. Tomas insisted we visit a similar town called Civitella del Tronto. He said it was better than Castel Trosino. I was dubious.
We stayed with our hosts perhaps an hour before excusing ourselves to continue our tour of the Marche region. Clasping their hands in mine, I gushed to them our gratitude for their enormous hospitality. We left with our head in the clouds over such an incredibly generous experience. It was Italian hospitality in all its basic glory. We talked about it for the next two days.
After leaving Castel Trosino, we drove eastward towards the Adriatic to the small city of Offida. Offida is yet another town that my cousin, Maurizio, introduced to me. This particular town is intact in its architecture. Throughout the city’s old section, the building style remained the same. Hundreds of homes, stores and structures reflected the town’s original construction.
The crown jewel of the town is the Santa Maria della Rocca cathedral on the western edge of town. As one approaches the church, one is struck by its magnificence. The church, built in Romanesque-Gothic style, sits on a slight hill, separate from the town, surrounded by ravines. Built in the thirteenth century, it seems to regally watch over Offida.
The street leading to the church featured lovely homes with colorful and welcoming gardens so beautiful that even a Sanka would taste good in their environs. The church itself was closed but the surrounding countryside was marvelous with its undulating hillsides swathed in vineyards. We simply stood and gawked.
Offida is also known for its bobbin lace, a form of crocheting done by hand. A dying art, the lacework is amazing to see with its intricate designs and elaborate stitching. Doilies, tablecloths, lampshades and even earrings are created by these elderly women. Watching their hands dance over their creations with the rhythmic clicking of their spindles was fascinating.
After some gelato in an outdoor café, we continued eastward to the town of Grottamare, which means “Sea Cave”. The newer area of Grottamare is along the Adriatic Sea and features modern resorts, hotels and apartments. However, we drove up the hill to “Grottamare Alto” meaning the “top”. It was here that we saw the historical center.
Grottamare Alto is small, also. The streets are very narrow. Yet several restaurants populate the area and two churches were in evidence. The entire atmosphere felt like a medieval experience. We went to Ristorante Borgo Antico, a cliffside restaurant with sweeping 180-degree views of the Adriatic Sea. Once again, it was cloudy, but that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm or the red wine we nursed.
After Grottamare, we returned to Ascoli Piceno where we treated ourselves to a dinner at Nonna Nina’s, a restaurant suggested by Mike and Marilee’s travel agent. This restaurant did not disappoint with its mouth-watering handmade pastas and ravioli.
The next day we actually went to Civitella del Tronto as suggested by our coffee host two days earlier. We had wanted to go somewhere for a picnic. I still had my artisan gorgonzola and handmade grana parmesan from La Spezia. Mike and Marilee picked up bread, wine, olives, salami and apples and we took off down a road through my family’s town of Villa Pigna.
Civitella del Tronto was actually not far away from Ascoli Piceno. In all the years I’ve been visiting Italy, I had never seen this particular community. After a short detour from a wrong turn, we arrived at our destination perhaps forty minutes after our departure.
Civitella del Tronto was yet another spellbinding historical town. It too, featured a fortress, which, in this case, was separate from the community and at the very mountaintop. The fortress was enormous and beautifully preserved with definable rooms and a piazza. The ruins of a pasticceria (bakery) featured actual ovens and chimneys. A public bath had real toilets. There was lodging for soldiers and horse stables. A huge cistern provided water for up to thirty days in case of siege.
An actual church was church was in the fortress, presumably to pray for deliverance. The church, along with another edifice were now used for meetings and seminars. Nevertheless, they were wonderfully preserved.
Outside the church we found a huge shade tree with several park benches. It was here that we opted to have our little picnic and savor our culinary largesse. Plopping down our bags, we brought out our mini feast. As we sat under the tree, savoring a sun that had finally decided to come out, we were in raptures over this experience. Somehow eating traditional, simple Italian food in a fortress, similar to what the soldiers would have eaten centuries ago made the experience more meaningful.
We stayed at Civitella del Tronto for about four hours. A gentleman from Brisbane, Australia talked with us for quite awhile which made the day even more memorable. Finally, we picked up the remains of our picnic and headed back to our car. We drove back to Villa Pigna for gelato before retiring to our respective hotels for the upcoming dinner with my family scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
After a short nap, Mike and Marilee arrived right at 7:20 and we drove several hundred yards up a hill to La Luna, a family restaurant that is a favorite of my relatives. With each set of friends I bring to Italy, La Luna is always on the itinerary. The owner is a friend of my aunt and uncle and now remembers me. The atmosphere is that of a family restaurant and the food is not to be forgotten.
Sitting on a hillside overlooking the valley, La Luna is a comfortable option where one can experience the Italian dining experience firsthand. Olive d’Ascolana is one of the specialties—cored olives stuffed with spiced pork, beef and chicken, rolled in egg batter and flour and deep-fried in oil. A local delicacy, olive d’Ascolana is something that all my friends have raved over, and is an obsession of mine.
In addition to the olives, we ordered spaghetti with seafood and pizza, the former of which is unforgettable. The nine of us yakked for three hours, I played translator as my brain went into overdrive from the excitement of showing off my family to my friends and sharing my friends with my family.
After dinner, Maurizio invited everyone over for an aperitif. Mike and Marilee were reluctant, but I told them it was okay. Back at the house, my aunt proudly offered up her homemade limoncello as well as a black licorice liqueur she had also made. Both slid over the tongue as the perfect coda to a magnificent day.
I was thrilled that my family invited Mike and Marilee over after dinner—a wonderful Italian benediction. Mike and Marilee were touched by my family, their generosity and beauty. All in all, it was a great week. Even as I bid them goodbye the next day, I couldn’t feel sad. Somehow North America had been brought a bit closer to Europe.