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A little outside the historic center of Ascoli Piceno stands the Forte Malatesta, which defended the Castellano river. Beside it is the Cecco Bridge, a Roman work completed during the last period of the Republic. The bridge was bombed by Germans during WWII, and was reconstructed using original materials in 1971. The bridge was one of Italy’s many “devil’s bridges”, constructed in a single night with the help of the devil, according to local legend.

forte malatesta pictureForte Malatesta, the Castle that guards the bridge over the Castellano river.

Design of the fort you see today, built over previous forts, carries the signature of Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane. The Renaissance fortified architecture makes it one of the more spectacular castles in Italy. Today it hosts the Museo dell’Alto Medioevo, the Museum of the High Medieval, covering the years from 476 to 1000, many of the artifacts coming from the Necropoli Longobarda di Castel Trosino. like those presented below:

burial treasures pictureJewelry artifacts in the museum of the Forte Malatesta

This is no low-tech castle museum installation.

ascoli piceno museum pictureHigh Tech Touch Screens in the Museum

The twelve-sided Santa Maria del Lago church is also unique. Built in the early 1500s, it was built over a fort reinforced by Galeotto Malatesta that was destroyed and rebuilt several times.

The interior of the church has some quite spectacular brickwork.

interior tower pictureTower Architecture

The courtyard in front of the church is also beautiful.

castle interior courtyardInterior Courtyard with Frescoes

A visit to the Fort is well worth the 4 euro they charge for the privilege. You can see it in a couple of hours or less, depending upon how long you take to visit the museum installations.

Ascoli Piceno is a town of medieval towers, Roman bridges and some of the prettiest piazzas in Italy. You should visit, especially if you like a good plate of expertly fried food.

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Rating:
Unique: One of Italy’s most interesting castle/forts.
Festival not to miss: La Quintana Medieval Jousting Festival
When to Go: Spring or Fall. Summers can be hot, but the Adriatic coast isn’t far away.
Region: Le Marche: Map
Days: 3 days for Ascoli Piceno, half day for Forte Malatesta
: Train station: southwestern terminus of the San Benedetto del Tronto–Ascoli Piceno railway.
Travel Guide: Ascoli Piceno Guide
Antico Borgo Piceno, From here you go out the door, turn right, pass over the Roman Bridge and through the city gates and you’re in the historic center. While you are at the hotel, you have a great view of the city and its towers.

Ascoli Piceno: Forte Malatesta originally appeared on JustGoItaly.com Jul 03, 2015, © James Martin.

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Castel Sant’Angelo has been through history’s humongous wringer many times, starting out as Hardrian’s tomb (cylindrical, staid, garden on top) then becoming, at various times, an Imperial tomb, a fortress, a prison, a cozy and opulent place for Popes to hang out with their collected treasures and finally, an army barracks. It has now transformed itself into a museum. You should go. With all those uses, the Castel Sant’Angelo is a layer cake of cultural madness.

The place is easily visible on the map, a star along the Tiber. It has its own interesting bridge, riddled with statues. It awaits your visit, with views of Rome that are quite spectacular.

The best place to get on of those views? On the upper level cafe and restaurant called Caffetteria Ristorante Le Terrazze Castel Sant’Angelo. If you happen by in morning you’ll see people casually reading a map or sipping odd coffee drinks that tourists order. You’ll notice there is a great view.

rome view picture

A little further along you’ll see hints of a restaurant…and more enticing slivers of view.

castel view pictureSaint Peter's Dome from a table for two

If you open a menu, you will be amazed at the prices for a (very) simple meal or panino. They’re, let’s say “economical” because the word “cheap” is often overused on this stretch of internet alleyway. You can actually treat your whole table to a bottle of Prosecco for 25 euro. Of course, the lunch menu has pictures and is in English, which tells you, the enlightened tourist, that you are the focus here and not Italians, but that’s ok, the coffee was quite good. By that I mean the caffè that comes in a little cuplet of condensed wonderfulness, not the chocolate latte cappuccino frappe spritz with lemon peel the tourist are trying to convince the barista to spend the next half hour preparing.

But what I’m coming to is shown below. If you are lucky, or have perhaps earlier slipped, in rather large bills, the price of an El Lay condo into the hand of the head waiter, you might get this table:

castel sant'angelo viewThe Big View of the Vatican from Castel Sant'Angelo

And remember, you’d be sitting on top of all that Papal opulence and art. Not only that, but when you exit the cafe, you can see a little museum of the Italian Risorgimento that stitched the historical territories of the boot into the thing we call Italy. You can see one of the original butcher’s tunics Garibaldi provided to early troops.

History takes some interesting little swerves, doesn’t it?

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Rating:
Unique: Eat Cheap! (for Rome)
The papal apartments—beautiful frescoed rooms. Below them are several floors which include prisons and even a torture chamber.
Web: Caffetteria Ristorante Le Terrazze Castel Sant’Angelo (Closed Monday)
When to Go: Spring or Fall. Summers are hot; Rome is almost deserted by Romans in August. September and October are high season in Rome. Rome Travel Weather and Climate.
Region: Lazio: Map
Days: 3-7 for Rome, half day for Castel Sant Angelo
: Train station: Termini
Hotels in Rome
Eat with a Local in Rome

Rome: Cheap Eats With a View originally appeared on JustGoItaly.com Jun 28, 2015, © James Martin.

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If Ascoli Piceno is one of Italy’s top hidden treasures (and it is), then little Offida, population just over 5000, has to be one of Italy’s top villages. It is a town of lace makers. It has one of Italy’s finest churches, its interior awash in frescoes dating from the 13th century. Some of Italy’s best and lesser known white wines are grown just outside the city limits—and the Piazza al Popolo is full of great architecture, including one of those old, 19th century theaters, cute as a bugs ear, responsible for entertaining the population before the discovery of radio waves. There are museums of all kinds, including a lace museum, and they’re all inside the same building! Let’s start at Santa Maria della Rocca:

Altar with shadow of lace cloth, Santa Maria della Rocca, Offida, Italy

The picture above combines the two top attractions in Offida: lace and the church frescoes. Here on an altar the shadow of lace falls upon a crucifixion-themed fresco. For more color intensity, there’s this:

Frescoes in Santa Maria della Rocca in Offida

The Romanesque/Gothic church was built in 1330 over a pre-existing Benedictine church. What’s interesting is that the crypt is where you find yourself when you enter the front door; upstairs is the church.

Along the Corso Serpente Aureo you’ll find a shop belonging to an association of lace makers where we made a short video of the process of making the local Merletto a Tombolo, called bobbin or pillow lace in English. You can also see evidence of the handicraft at the Lace Museum down the street, marked on the map. We were also able to talk to a person making lace in the doorway of her home. Lace making may be a dying craft, but it’s dying slowly in Offida.

Just down the Corso Serpente Aureo from the association’s shop, there is a great restaurant called Osteria Ophis, serving local specialties. We had the tasting menu and were very pleased with it. You might have caught on by now, but the town is awash in names meaning “snake”, il serpente aureo (“golden snake”) recurs again and again in place names of the town and the name of the restaurant, ophis, is the Greek word for “snake”. It’s likely that the town’s name derives from this word as well.

There are several other churches to visit in town; the Chiesa della Collegiata offers a fine example of a mechanical nativity scene or presepe. Here is a tiny slice of life from it:

Detail of the Presepe, Nativity Scene, found in the Chiesa della Collegiata in Offida

If you have a car, I would visit Offida as a day trip from Ascoli Piceno, where you should allocate at least three days, especially if you want to visit a place that hasn’t had time nor inclination to package itself into a tourist trap.

The major event of the year is the carnival:

Today, Offida Carnival takes place every year following a precise programme: the official opening is on 17th January, St. Antonio’s Day, while the two Sundays preceding the last week are respectively devoted to friends and relatives; meanwhile the carnival parties of Saturday evening take place inside the Serpente Aureo Theatre. The last week, the most important and the busiest, begins with Thursday afternoon, since 1950 devoted to the children’s fancy dress parade inside the theatre; Friday is entirely devoted to Lu Bov Fint; on Saturday evening there is the gala party, on Sunday the masked ball and on Monday the party during which the Congreghe meet inside the theatre. On Shrove Tuesday there is the carnival in the square and the procession of Li Vlurd, on Tuesday evening, which closes the carnival. ~ The Carnicval

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Rating:
Unique: Offida Pillow Lace (museum, shop, and folks making lace in doorways)
Don’t miss: Frescos in Santa Maria della Rocca (pictured)
Major Events: Carnivale, Starts January 17. The week of Lace, La Settimana del Merletto, is held at the end of June.
When to Go: Spring or Fall. Summers are hot.
Region: Le Marche Map
Days: 1-2. or as a day trip from Ascoli Piceno to the south.
: Train station: Yes.
How to get from Ascoli Piceno to Offida
Parking: Relatively easy, see parking spots on map
Recommended Restaurant: Osteria Ophis Ristorante
Hotels in Offida
Local Wines: DOCG Pecorino & Passerino (white), Vin Santo (dessert wine based on Passerino)

Offida: A Gem in Le Marche originally appeared on JustGoItaly.com Jun 09, 2015, © James Martin.

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Italians have been going abroad to work for quite some time. 872,598 persons left Italy in 1913, the highest total ever. You can find out more from the Library of Congress or you can go to the Museo dell’Emigrazione della Gente di Toscana in Little Lusuolo in La Lunigiana and see some of the artefacts and records of those who left from this largely agricultural community. The museum is inside the castle, which is a wonderful conglomeration of ruins and restorations, anchored by an ugly external elevator. The entrance is quite nice though.

lusuolo castleLusuolo Castle

castle ruins pictureA Window onto the Lunigiana

The small museum takes up just a couple of large rooms, and features pictures, postcards, graphs and statistics. You’ll learn where people went and how they got there.

passport picture1913 Passport

lusuolo pictureThe Village of Lusuolo

There are no services in Lusuolo, but head over to Mulazzo, known for Dante’s stay, and have your choice of local grub or Spanish food at El Caracol

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Rating:
Unique: Emigration Museum inside the Castle, open weekend afternoons.
When to Go: Spring or Fall. Summers are hot.
Region: La Lunigiana, a historic territory mostly inside of Tuscany Map
Days: 1
: Train station: No.
Parking: Relatively easy
Recommended Hotel (nearby): Ristorante Albergo El Caracol Restaurant has very good Spanish cuisine as well as local Lunigiana cuisine
Local Wines to Try: Colli di Luni vermentino (white), Vermentino Nero (red—and rare)

Lusuolo and the Italian Diaspora originally appeared on JustGoItaly.com May 16, 2015, © James Martin.

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An unassuming red brick building marks the entrance to a very special underground place in Italy, the second century AD Mithraeum, or, as the Italians say, Mitreo. If you are a fan of going underground to strange places, the Mithraeum of Capua is a great place to start.

The cult of Mithras started gaining religious ground in Persia around the 14th century BC. The cult spread to Greece, then Rome. By the first century AD the religion became a Very Big Deal, popular with the poor and the Roman Military.

Mitraeums are usually underground, like caves. Many Christian churches were built over them. The religions share an important date with Christianity, December 25.

Despite the cave-like, underground setting, the mithraeum here has evidence of blue paint and stars on the top of the vaults. It’s likely ritual feasts were held here.

Here’s a description you’ll find on the wall as you enter:

“The Mitreo, discovered by chance in 1922, is a hypogean sacellum dedicated to the cult of Mithra, an ancient godhead of Iranian origin. The Mitreo of Capua is one of the rare examples having painted walls. On the wall opposite the entrance, the God is represented in the act of killing the bull and the different human beings arise from the parts of this animal. The workshop of Mitra was partiularly widespread among the popular classes as they were attracted by the promise of a better afterlife.”

Altough the story originates in Persia, the Romans made it their own by adding the bull. Yes, the Story of Mithras and the Bull is a distinctly Roman addition, in which a young Mithras kills the sacred bull exactly thusly:

Mythras and the Bull: Capua Mithraeum

The bull story does not appear in Persian accounts.

In any case, the Mithraeum of Capua is one of the few frescoed examples we have.

Here’s what you see when you enter and turn to the left:

capua mithraeumMithraeum Fresco: Santa Maria Capua Vetere

Embedded into the wall is a marble sculpture depicting a couple of mythical folks you might know:

eros and psyche pictureEros and Psyche

Oddly, the Mithraeum of Capua isn’t in the city of Capua which you find on your map. It’s really in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, old Capua, a medieval town which also includes Italy’s second largest amphitheater and a gladiator museum. Let’s look at the map:

Map

Rating:
Unique: The Frescos in the Mithraeum
Don’t miss: The Amphitheater and Gladiator Museum
When to Go: Spring or Fall. Summers are hot. Naples climate charts and information
Region: Campania Map
Days: 1-2
: Train station: Yes. To get there, a bus or train from Naples will take about 23 minutes. Route
How to gain entrance: Ask at the museum, and they will send someone to open the door to the Mithraeum. If you see the door open, you can just go in. That’s the advantage of staying at the hotel we recommend below, you can easily see when it’s open.
Parking: Relatively easy
Recommended Hotel: B&B Vico Mitreo 2 The Mitreo is just across the street.
Local Wines: Falanghina (white), Aglianico (red)

Underground in Campania: Mithraeum of Capua originally appeared on JustGoItaly.com Apr 18, 2015, © James Martin.

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