Church roof and bell tower with the sea behind
Italy,  Monday walks

A walk around Ancona’s picturesque old town

My visit to Ancona was something of a happy accident. My friend and I were propelled here by convenience, but found an atmospheric old city worthy of a visit in its own right.

The reason for our stay was simply that I had to catch a train to Milan the following morning and wanted to be near the station. A budget hotel just across the road made a convenient base for an early start; but we made sure we arrived in good time the previous day so that we could explore the city.

The unprepossessing area round the station was left behind as we boarded a bus that took us to a very different part of town. We found wide avenues; grand squares with shady trees and statues of imposing figures; a promenade by the sea; and (best of all by far) a higgledy piggledy maze of streets in the old town. These led us up and up to the wonderfully located Duomo overlooking the ferry port. Glowing golden in the magical light of a late afternoon sun, it was a fitting place to end a lovely week exploring Italy’s beautiful Umbria and Marche regions.

For Jo’s Monday Walk this week let me take you along with us on our explorations of this surprisingly (to us) lovely city.

A bit of history

Ancona was built on two hills in the 4th century BC by Greek colonists from Syracuse. Later, the Romans made use of its sheltered anchorage and in 115 AD, under the Emperor Trajan, created the present harbour walls. A ceremonial marble arch named for Trajan still stands at the end of the docks to mark his achievement.

In the Middle Ages it was something of a battleground between German Emperors and the Venetian Republic. It was therefore never able to assert itself as the powerful maritime republic it might otherwise have become. More recently it has suffered significant bombing in the Second World War, and a major earthquake in 1972.

Despite all this, enough of the historical city remains; and its hilly setting around the busy harbour give it a special character and charm. This is a busy, working port and a lived-in city, and all the more appealing for that.


We started our explorations was in the neighbourhood known as Passetto. Here, high above the blue Adriatic, is the gleaming white Monumento ai Caduti, the Monument to the Fallen of the First World War. This was designed in the 1920s by Guido Cirilli. It takes the form of a circular temple with Doric columns surrounding a small altar. It is said that seen from the sea, the entire structure, including stairs, looks like an eagle in flight, with the stairs as its open wings and the monument itself as a crowned head. Of course we were on land so I can’t vouch for the truth of this!

Behind the monument a lift, or long flight of stairs, lead down to an esplanade along the water’s edge. Here people were sunbathing on any available patch of concrete or swimming in the inviting looking sea. We refrained from doing either of these but did stroll down the steps for a closer look, and then took the lift back up. I found this lift, with its clean 1930s lines and perfect symmetry, to be a great subject for photography. On its sea-facing side you’ll find the by-now familiar sight of padlocks fastened to the railing as love tokens.

But leaving the sea behind us, we jumped on a bus back to the Piazza Cavour, to start our exploration of the old town …

Exploring the old town

We got off the bus in the Piazza Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour. Here we paused for a drink in the little Caffe Cavour in its north east corner. We then walked up the steps on this corner and turned left on Via Giacomo Matteotti in the direction of the old town.

San Domenico

As we approached the stone arch on Via Giacomo Matteotti that would lead us into the old town, we saw on our left the wide space of the Piazza del Papa. This is named for the statue of Pope Clement XII that presides over it from the steps at one end.

Flight of steps leading up to a church
San Domenico and the Piazza del Papa
Marble statue of a pope
Statue of Pope Clement XII in the Piazza del Papa

At the top of these steps, behind the statue, is the Neoclassical Church of San Domenico. This church houses a treasure, a life-size painting of the Crucifixion by Titian. We found it just to the right of the main altar, and although it seemed dark, a nearby switch soon illuminated it. There was a photocopy of a newspaper article about it (in Italian, naturally) displayed nearby; but otherwise no fuss seemed to be made by the church about its very special possession.

Of course we couldn’t take pictures of the painting, but you can see it reproduced here.

Streets of the old town

Leaving San Domenico we passed through a stone arch and found ourselves in the narrower, more winding streets of the oldest part of Ancona. Here Via Giacomo Matteotti becomes Via Lazzaro Bernabei. It also becomes more interesting, with old doorways and little lanes leading off it. Soon we took a right fork and started to really climb upwards on Via Nicola Matas and beyond that on Via Ciriaco Pizzecolli.

Here the street became even more appealing, as it wound out of sight. Old houses, some almost palazzi, others more modest, lined our route; and various details such as old bits of carvings from earlier buildings caught our eyes – and our camera lenses. We passed the beautiful church of San Francisco (unfortunately closed) and the Palazzo degli Anziani.

The Cathedral of San Ciriaco

Changing its name en route to Via Gabrielle Ferretti, the street emerged eventually into a small piazza, the Piazza del Senato. From here the winding Via Giovanni XXIII needs several hairpin bends to arrive at its destination in front of the cathedral; but as we were on foot we were able to short-cut this by climbing some steps, the Scalone Nappi, up through the trees to the Duomo on top of the hill.

This sits proudly on its highest point, Colle Guasco. It is built in an attractive stone and looked especially good in the late afternoon sun. We spent quite some time here, soaking up the atmosphere, admiring the wonderful views of the port and town below us, and of course visiting the cathedral itself.

Cathedral and bell tower
Ancona’s cathedral with the campanile in front

There has been a place of worship on this site since the 3rd century BC when a temple, thought by archaeologists to have been dedicated to Aphrodite, was built here. One incarnation of Aphrodite is as Venus Euplea, protector of sailors; so this is a very appropriate dedication for a temple built in this spot. Later, in the sixth century AD, a Christian church was built here, dedicated to San Lorenzo, traces of which can still be seen in the crypt.

The present structure dates in part from the 11th century, with major additions in the 12th and early 13th. These returned the original basilica design into the form of a Greek cross. At the same time the cathedral was turned to face the port and town. It is hard now to imagine that it could face anywhere else. There have been various restorations over the succeeding centuries, to repair damage by war (both First and Second World Wars) and the 1972 earthquake. But the building retains its sense of history, compounded by the fact that you can easily see elements from the various periods.

The most striking part of the cathedral, after its wonderful location, is the ornate Gothic portal, ascribed to Giorgio da Como (1228). It is worth studying in some detail. A series of concentric arches, each recessed from the previous one, leads the eye in; and visually leads those entering the church too. They are supported by thin columns, mostly plain but a couple twisted. The outermost columns rest on two red marble lions. The same red marble, from Verona, is used to pick out other elements of the porch too; the whole is very harmonious. The first, widest, arch is decorated with figures of saints, the others with foliage.

Cathedral door with arched porch
The west front of the cathedral
Stone lion
Stone lion in the porch

Above the door itself is the figure of San Ciriaco himself, the patron saint, whose body lies in the crypt. But I was especially taken with the carvings on either side, inside the portal itself. These depict the symbols of the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. My photo below shows the first two of these, the angel for Matthew and winged lion for Mark. These are on the right of the door as you look at it and were beautifully lit by the low sun. The others (a winged ox for Luke and eagle for John) are on the left side and were in shadow; but if you were to visit in the morning I believe you would find them in the better light.

Worn carvings of an angel and lion
An angel for Matthew and winged lion for Mark

Above the cathedral rises its dome, one of the oldest in Italy. It was added to the structure in the 13th century, although the copper coating was only applied in the 16th. The campanile stands separately and was built, around the turn of the 13th/14th centuries, on the foundations of a military tower.

Cathedral with copper dome
Cathedral dome
Bell tower against a blue sky

Before going inside, turn and look at the view that San Ciriaco has. The town spreads below and to the left; in the immediate foreground is the bustling port; and to the right the deep blue of the Adriatic. Although we didn’t stay until sunset, this would be an amazing place to watch it dip down into the sea. And from the far side of the cathedral you can look down towards the church of San Gregorio Illuminatore, in my feature photo.

Panoramic view of a port
View from the cathedral (of necessity shot into the sun!)

The cathedral retains its sense of history, compounded by the fact that you can easily see elements from the various periods. This is especially true of the interior. While it isn’t ornate there is plenty to see. The wooden roof is of interest as it is shaped like an upturned boat, very appropriate for this sea-facing city. The layout is a cross shape, and there are chapels in each of the transepts. The one in the right transept is the Chapel of the Crucifix. The left-hand transept houses the Chapel of Our Lady; and on the afternoon of our visit a small wedding party was gathered there. An older couple were marrying, surrounded by family and friends. It was lovely to see the cathedral in use, while not impeding our explorations at all.

When the ceremony was over I entered for a closer look at the wonderful marble shrine by Luigi Vivantelli; he also designed the nearby Chiesa del Gesù and the monumental ceremonial arch, the Arco Clementino, now by the harbour.

In a case above this altar is a picture of Our Lady. It was donated to the cathedral in 1615 by a Venetian merchant of the city, as a thank you for saving his son from a shipwreck off the coast nearby. There is an interesting story attached to this painting, linked to Napoleon. It is said that when he and his troops invaded Italy and were in a position to ransack the cathedral, he witnessed a miracle as the Madonna blinked; consequently the cathedral and its treasures were spared. A more prosaic version of the same story attributes his actions to mere politics and a wish to avoid friction with local Catholics; but they took it as a sign that Heaven was watching over their city and have venerated the painting ever since.

I have to confess that only on leaving did I spot a small sign says that no photography is allowed! However I didn’t use flash for these pictures, and no one stopped me from taking them.

After our visit there we retraced our steps down to the Piazza del Papa. We continued to the Corso Guiseppe Mazzini where we found a nice place for dinner, the Bonta delle Marche. From there it was an easy stroll down to the Corso Stamira and our bus back to the hotel.

I visited Ancona in 2012 when both my camera and (I hope) my photography skills were less good than they are now!


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