Capital of the province of Ascoli Piceno
Ascoli is the most important town in the south of the region. It lies at the confluence of two rivers, the Tronto and the smaller Castellano, and is bordered by two national parks. Its location is very significant as it lies not only on two rivers but on the ancient Via Salaria, or the Roman salt road that linked Latium with the salt producing areas on the Adriatic. However, the town has much more ancient origins. It was founded several centuries earlier by a branch of an Etruscan tribe called the Sabini. It remained proudly independent of Roman rule until eventually it fell, and was largely destroyed by Pompeius Strabo in 89 BC. It has had a colourful history, and during the Middle Ages was ravaged by the Ostragoths, and then ruled by the Franks. In 1189 it was declared a Free Republican Municipality, but internal strife prevailed right through until 1860 when it became a part of the Unified Kingdom of Italy.
It is quite a large and thriving town, but the picturesque old quarter, which stretches from the banks of the river Tronto to the main shopping street, Corso Mazzini, can easily be explored on foot.
The most striking aspect of this historically rich town is the stone from which it is built. This is unusual in the region, being the locally mined travertino, a porous, light-coloured stone that often has interesting patterns on the surface formed by ancient organisms living in the hot springs where it was formed.
The main square in the old town, the Piazza del Popolo, is commonly regarded as one of the most elegant in all Italy with its impressive 13th century ‘Palazzo del Popolo’, renaissance arcaded walkways and a splendid, if somewhat dour, Gothic church. The other main square, Piazza Arringo, is bordered by the Duomo or cathedral, adorned with an elaborate altar piece of the Madonna and saints, which is considered to be Carlo Crivelli’s finest work, and the Civic centre containing Ascoli’s main art gallery.
One of the many local events worth a visit is the festival of Saint Emidio (the protector of the city) on the first Sunday in August. More than 1500 local people dress in renaissance costumes and parade through the town, and this is followed by a kind of joust or tournament, called the Quintana.
Six knights on horseback, each representing a neighbourhood of the city, ride through a prepared course trying to hit an effigy of an Arab warrior! It is a very exciting spectacle.
It is also a great treat to swim with the locals in the smaller of the two rivers in the summer. There is a natural shallow pool, perfect for children, and waterfalls you can jump from into the clean, sparkling blue water. The town is also home to a very successful football team, Ascoli Picchio. This name refers to the Italian for a woodpecker (which also appears on the Ascoli flag) as this was the sacred bird for the original inhabitants, the Piceni.