So, if the likes of Rome and Florence, awash with jaw-dropping architectural and artistic treasures, are akin to a swanky antiques shop, then I would say that Ancona is probably more akin to a collectables emporium. The antiques shop is filled with artfully displayed period furniture, glass-fronted cabinets full of delicate porcelain and crystal, and artworks with ostentatious gilt frames hang from the tastefully painted walls. Every which way you look, your eye falls upon one period gem after another, but after a while your eyes glaze over and you succumb to antiquity overload. The collectables emporium, by contrast, is probably crammed to the roof with every conceivable variety of knick-knack and bric-a-brac with little thought for logic or aesthetics. Stacks of second-hand books lean lazily on dusty shelves, floral table lamps with wonky shades prop up one-eyed dolls, and you have to negotiate a forest of mis-matched dining chairs to reach that interesting-looking glassware in the corner. And yet, for all its clutter, the place somehow draws you in; there is a warmth to all the jumble, a human story behind every battered piece, and you soon find yourself happily poking around among the chaos. Then suddenly you stumble across a real treasure, and it stops you in your tracks. And in that instant, as you turn your precious find in your dusty hands, you just know there must be more. And you are hooked…
So here, then, are our best finds so far in Ancona’s Emporium of Collectables:
- The Romanesque Cathedral of San Ciriaco is built from white stone quarried from nearby Monte Conero and named after Ancona’s patron saint. With sweeping views over the bay, it stands on the site of the city’s ancient Greek acropolis atop Monte Guasco, and dates back to the 10th century, although it was changed and added to numerous times throughout the Middle Ages. In more recent times, it was bombed in World War I, then rebuilt and rededicated, only to be bombed again in World War II. It was rebuilt and rededicated again in the 1950s, but the earthquakes of 1972 caused yet more damage. And even today, huge timber buttresses support one transept that was damaged in the earthquakes of 2016.
- Across the bay on the summit of Monte Astagno stands The Citadel. This mighty fortress was commissioned by Pope Clement VII as a display of papal wealth and power. Designed by Antonio da Sangallo younger, who Clement VII commissioned to build similar fortresses in Perugia and Florence, it was completed in 1538 and includes five imposing bastions. It played a crucial role in the defence of the city in succeeding centuries, but fell into disrepair following the earthquake of 1972. It has since undergone substantial restoration work and is once again one of the city’s most significant monuments.
- Down in the harbour, meanwhile, nestles another papal commission – Clement XII this time. Here you find the striking, pentagonal Lazzaretto, which is also known as the Mole Vanvitelliana. Built in the 18th century on an artificial island, it was originally a quarantine station and leprosarium for the city and as such had no physical link to the quay, but was later connected by three bridges. In the 19th century it became a military fort, and is now home to the ground-breaking Tactile Museum that seeks to promote a multi-sensory enjoyment of art.
- Further round the harbour, stands in splendid isolation on the edge of the north quay one of the city’s oldest and most iconic monuments. The Roman Senate ordered the construction of the triumphal in AD115 Trajan Arch, which is built from Turkish marble and stands over eighteen metres high. It was conceived as a gesture of gratitude to Emperor Trajan who substantially expanded both the city and the port at his own expense. These improvements subsequently assisted him in his defeat of the Dacians across the Adriatic, thereby expanding the Roman Empire to its furthest extent.
- At the base of the steep, pine-clad cliffs on the eastern flank of the promontory of Monte Guasco lies Ancona’s only town beach, Il Passetto. Although seemingly well-hidden and accessed via several flights of narrow stone steps, this narrow strip of shingle that plunges straight into the sparkling sapphire sea is hugely popular with the Anconetani. Apart from its restaurants serving the local speciality, brodetto all’anconetana (a mixed fish stew) it is best known for the small grottoes carved into the cliff-face in which previous generations of fishermen stored their boats. Now used as beach huts, they are jealously guarded by their owners who hand them down from one generation to the next.
- Away from the waterfront in the heart of what remains of medieval Ancona is the Piazza del Plebiscito, complete with its 13th century city gate, the Arco di Garola. Made up of a pleasing mix of different 15th century palazzi, this grand square is dominated by the baroque church of San Domenico, and is filled with cafés and restaurants whose terraces spill across its cobbled pavements. In the maze of narrow streets that surround the piazza are lots of tiny artisan jewellery workshops, each with just a couple of craftsmen or women hunched over their work-worn benches.
- Running inland from the waterfront are Ancona’s main shopping streets, the elegant Corso Giuseppe Mazzini and parallel to it, the equally elegant Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi. Just off the former, hiding down an unpromising-looking side street is the once-lovely fin de siècle covered market, the paint now peeling from its delicate cast and wrought iron, but the stone fronted stalls down one side, still filled with today’s catch and those down the other filled with today’s crop from the family orto (market garden). Towards the waterfront end of the latter you will find one of the city’s most famous bars, the tiny Bar Torino. Barely any bigger than the average sitting room, it retains its stylish 1960s décor and has been in the same family for several generations. It is famous for its vast range of cocktails and down the years it has attracted many a celebrity whose signed photos now proudly hang behind the bar.
And we can’t help thinking we are still just scratching the surface…