Ascoli Piceno: Old Marble Giants

To get to Ascoli Piceno, you have to really, really want to see Ascoli Piceno. By public transport it’s an awfully long trek from any airports, and it’s in a fairly secluded spot within Italy that entails a significant detour from any of the well-worn routes. Yet its history is very old and very proud; Roman Asculum was the capital of Picenum (after the Piceni, contemporaries to the Etruscans and Sabines whose town is much older than Rome). Emperor Augustus boasted that he found a city of brick and left a city of marble, and quite a lot of the marble came from around here; so much of Ascoli’s city centre still consists of this luminous, ethereal white stone and at night-time the effect is dramatic. Perhaps because it was a sleepy outpost of the undynamic papacy for so long, its links to the classical world are as palpable as anywhere in Italy. Wander the oldest quarter and you will find streets named after Apollo and Pompeii, while the streets themselves do not follow the medieval norm of snaking, twisting alleys; the town has never deviated from the grid street pattern laid out by SPQR. Today Ascoli Piceno is a low-key, provincial town with a fairly small centre, but one that had fascinated this Italoholic for long enough that I was finally roused into making the journey and seeing for myself. I am happy to report that the effort was well rewarded.

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Pt. III: The Stones of Paris

Sometimes you don’t realise the value of a place until it comes under threat. Paris is handy for Londoners and I’ve nipped over on the train a few times, but never thought of it as one of the places closest to my heart. I may have considered it a little too like London; important as the former capital of a huge empire but expensive, crowded, and rushed in a way that leaves its inhabitants irritable, and such a magnet for mass tourism that Venice seems unspoilt by comparison. The other main Eurostar option is Brussels, a rather strange city and gateway to the lovely old towns of Flanders, and I got to thinking of myself as more of a Belgian type. Then came November 13th, when men from the ghettoes of Brussels rained down terror upon Paris, presumably chosen because the republic is secular, so many of its great men were at odds with monotheism, and the Parisians were only ones to put their money where their mouths were and print Mohammed cartoons. Suddenly Paris was a symbol of free speech and European civilisation. I turned up at work the next morning and in hurt, fury, and an impotent wish to show love to our French regulars, I printed out a huge French flag and made a display of Voltaire, Flaubert, Zola, Queneau, Houellebecq et leurs amis. Aux armes, citoyens!

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