Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Norcia and Ascoli Piceno

We have been on a driving tour of central and southern Italy, accompanied by our friends, the Brents.  Here is a picture of them, aren't they cute?

We had planned to go to Cortina, but the weather did not cooperate with us.  It was cold and rainy and so instead we decided to head toward the sea and then south.

Our first stop was Norcia, for lunch of course.  We ate at one of the best restaurants ever.  I know I keep telling you this, but this one was really spectacular.  First I need to say a few things about Norcia.  It is in Umbria, our province, in the southeastern part.  It is known for the scenery and hiking, but most of all it is known for its pork products.  In fact, the word "norcineria" in Italian is used for products made from pork.  There are huge ham hocks hanging in the stores, sausages arranged in artful pyramids, and salami hanging everywhere.  The people in the town seem happy to have the tourists.  Many Italians go to Norcia for truffles (the mushrooms not chocolate).

We stopped to eat at the Palazzo Seneca.  It is a Relais and Chateux, and the restaurant is called Vespasia.  The building is from the 15th century and has been painstakingly restored. We were greeted by a very sweet young girl, who wanted to show us the hotel and tell us of its history.  Her English was excellent and she was very knowledgeable about the building and the surroundings.

We told her we had just come to eat, not to stay.  We were escorted into a perfectly appointed dining room.  Each table had 4 large leather arm chairs instead of the usual uncomfortable straight back chairs that are usually found in Italy.  One look at the chairs, and I knew we would be here for a while.

This was our first course

So going from left to right, there is a ricotta pie, whose crust was so delicious we were shocked.  At first we were all just eating the inside cheese, then someone had the bright idea it should be eaten together with the crust it came in, delicious.  Just below the ricotta pie is a hard cheese and a type of marmelade made to be eaten together, then prosciutto and different types of salami.  Unfortunately, this is it as far as pictures, just trust me the rest of the meal was equal to the first. We were the only people having lunch and we all wondered how in the world a restaurant like that could stay in business.  If you ever go to Norcia, you must be self indulgent and eat here.

After lunch, we walked around trying to digest all of that pork product.  I was groaning for the rest of the trip and swore to go on a chicken broth and lettuce diet, a promise I soon forgot at the next meal.  How the Italians can eat these meals, stay thin, and not get sick is a true mystery of metabolism.

Anyway, we left Norcia and drove on to Ascoli Piceno.  First a word about the Stoic One's driving.  Any complaints I have ever made about how he drives is hereby rescinded for now and eternity.  He kept us from having head on collisions at least twice on the windy road through the mountains.  The Italians turn into maniacs behind the wheel.  They are impatient and foolhardy when it comes to passing. They seem to have an irrational belief in their driving skills.  The 3 passengers were terrified.  The Stoic One remained calm, hugged the ditch and we were all saved from death by Italian drivers.  It was with great relief that we arrived in Ascoli Piceno safe and sound.

The town, hereby referred to as A.P. is the province of Le Marche!  Donna, take note.  I have been wanting to go to Le Marche for about 10 years, but we have never gotten there til now.  It is the province that is due east of Umbria.  Its history goes back to pre-Roman times.  AP was located on a major road that transferred salt from the sea to the other parts of Italy.  Salt back then was like oil to us now.  A big commodity.  AP became part of the Roman Empire, rebelled against Rome, became part of the Roman Empire again.  After Rome fell, AP was ravvaged by the Ostrogoths, the Lombards, the Franks, and then became a free municipality.  I guess they couldn't stand the peaceful times and so had major internal strife that led to more ravaging.  Finally in 1860 it became part of the United Kingdom of Italy.  Except for ravaging tourists, it has been more or less peaceful since then. Meeting the people today, you wouldn't guess they have had such a warlike history.

The city is beautiful, built of travertine marble that is taken from the nearby hills.  Its central Renaissance Square, the Piazza del Popolo is one of the most beautiful squares in Italy.

This is one of the local girls.  She doesn't look war like but she does look dangerous!

In case you think all we do is eat and look at pretty girls, we do go to a museum now and then.  AP has a ceramics museum, which I thought would be interesting.

Here are a few of the things that were in the museum.

As we walked through town, we saw a woman doing her laundry at the old Roman laundry place.  This laundry spot is all marble, running water, and a place to scrub the clothes.  There is also a place to step up if you are short, so you won't hurt your back.  Did I mention these Romans were clever people? Anyway here is laundry Roman style all made of marble, still holding up 2000 years later.

One final thing to say about Ascoli Piceno, it has the BEST shopping I have found any where in Italy. Why this is, I haven't a clue, but the items in the store are exquisite, priced well and beautifully displayed.  The sales people are also anxious to help and will walk with you to another store if they don't have what you are looking for.

For those people out there who love rural Italy, this town is a must see.  Charming!

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