We bumped into the Queen and Prince Philip last weekend. Well, two people – both men – dressed up as them, in any event. One in bald wig, cadaverous make-up and Union Jack waistcoat and clutching a vintage steering wheel. The other, who was a good 2m tall, in a matronly air force blue dress and jacket with matching hat and handbag. She also had a copy of the Italian version of Hello! magazine poking from her pocket, displaying a multi-page feature on Prince Philip’s recent road accident – which made the steering wheel fall into place.
It didn’t make much else fall into place, however. After a hectic few weeks of all work and no play we had decided to take Sunday off and spend it taking in the spring sunshine, and chose Ascoli Piceno as our destination. This handsome town of about fifty thousand inhabitants sits in Le Marche’s south-easternmost corner, a few kilometres north of the regional border with Abruzzo. Built from the local pale travertine stone, it lies in the crook of the River Tronto that flows down from the Sibillini Mountains to the Adriatic at nearby San Benedetto del Tronto, one of Le Marche’s swankier seaside resorts. The route winds lazily around the feet of the mountains whose forested lower slopes rise up to snow-capped peaks on one side, and passes through the pretty and bustling towns of San Ginesio, Sarnano and Amandola, all of which have a distinctly Alpine feel and all of which make some kind of claim to be the ‘gateway to the Sibillini’.
As ever in these parts, the road was almost empty, with road bikes and motorcycles easily outnumbering cars and we commented with smug sarcasm on the ‘dreadful traffic’. Which is why we were rather taken aback by the almost total gridlock we encountered on descending into Ascoli Piceno’s historical centre. Where had all these cars come from? What was going on? And why were there two giant white rabbits strolling along the street? As we inched forward, at a loss to understand why this normally tranquil town had turned into a traffic hell, two miniature cowboys, each clutching the hand of a full-size sheriff, strode past our stationary car. Followed by a family of clowns in identical pink curly wigs. Baffled, we continued our slow progress towards the centre, and sighted a few more clowns, several small Spidermen and a couple of oversize pixies with both pointy ears and pointy shoes. We were beginning to feel as if we had dropped down a rabbit hole into some weird parallel universe.
Along with every other driver in the town that day, we squeezed the car into a non-existent parking space and made our way through the crowds towards the Piazza del Popolo, the normally serene central square which is dominated by the 13th century Palazzo del Popolo on its western side, while the church of St Francis and the Loggia dei Mercanti, the 16th century wool merchants’ guildhall stand guard at the northern end. Today, however, these sites were merely a backdrop to the teeming melee that filled the square and overflowed along the medieval streets extending from each corner. By now we were feeling positively under-dressed in our all-too-normal jeans and sweaters, as by now everyone we came across was done up in some kind of fancy dress, from the shy-looking teenager in a minimal pair of cat’s ears with matching face paint to the pair of women in lavish Renaissance-style gowns trimmed with sequins, ostrich feathers and finished off with extravagant glitter-covered masks. At which point the penny finally dropped. It was carnival.
Carnival in Italy can start as much as two or three weeks before Martedì Grasso (ie Mardi Gras), and although Shrove Tuesday remains an important date in the religious calendar as a final indulgent fling prior to the abstinence and penitence of Lent, in Italy (as elsewhere) it has been adapted by the church to fit in with much older pagan rituals originating in Greece, ancient Rome and ancient Egypt to celebrate the end of winter and the arrival of spring. And as far as carnival in Ascoli Piceno is concerned, I can confirm that the emphasis is very much on the pagan rather than the pious. Indeed, some costumes we saw seemed to be actively mocking religious doctrine – if the paunchy and heavily made-up middle-aged men dressed as the Virgin Mary, complete with lustrous blonde locks and flashing halo were in any way representative.
Most towns celebrate carnival to some degree or another, and celebrations in towns such as Venice, Viareggio and Ivrea are known internationally. While Ascoli Piceno’s may lack the glamour and renown of its more famous counterparts, they are no less surreal or enthusiastic for that. As well as the almost obligatory fancy dress, street theatre features prominently, with citizens as both protagonists and spectators satirising and poking fun at important events and local personalities. While some tableaux toured round the squares and cafés of the historical centre, there were many more, with makeshift scenery and stages, in the Piazza del Popolo, above which swung huge fin de siècle chandeliers and whose polished travertine tiles were carpeted in coloured paper confetti and streamers. Sunday is one of the key dates in the town’s programme of events that include competitions for different themed groups, competitions for children and in the evening a succession of masquerade parties (veglioni). And then they do it all over again on Shrove Tuesday when all the competitions are judged and prizes awarded.
On the way there we had decided it would be rather nice to enjoy a lunchtime aperitivo at Caffé Meletti, the city’s best-known café that was founded in 1907 and sits at the southern corner of the Piazza del Popolo. With its pale pink exterior and Liberty style interior, it has a chic, refined air. Well, normally it does. But not during carnival, though. Today it was as crowded and rowdy as a city-centre pub on a Friday night and the white-tuxedo-ed waiters with their silver platters of aperitivi snacks and linen-draped trays of Prosecco had difficulty navigating their way through heaving throng of superheroes, drag queens and harlequins. Mr Blue-Shirt entered the fray at the bar while I nabbed the marble topped table that had just been vacated by the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter – obviously. Over the years Caffé Meletti has hosted a succession of luminaries including Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sarte, Simone de Beauvoir and Beniamin Gigli, who doubtless sipped the eponymous house anisetta (pastis) beneath its frescoes ceiling and crystal lanterns, or perhaps on its porticoed terrace overlooking the graceful square. So I suppose that on today of all days it should have come as no surprise that as we sipped our Aperol Spritz and picked at a plate of dainty titbits we should end up bumping into the Queen and Prince Philip…