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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
This town was a surprisingly interesting find. I loved the “streets” section of this post.
Surprisingly interesting to me too!
Thank you for showing me more of Ancona,so far I’d only thought of it as a port city connected by ferry to Croatia
We could see the ferries from that spot in front of the cathedral 😀
Not a place we’ve visited, yet it has that quintessential look an Italian city. I’m beginning to think I need to stop reading everyone’s blog simply to keep our wishilst to a manageable size!
I have exactly the same problem!
Thanks for my Virtual Wander, Sarah!
Thank you for joining me 😀
The Marches is one of my favourite regions in Italy. I spent a month there in 2007 and visited lots of places, Ancona among them. Ascoli Piceno is super too, as is Urbino. We spent a week in a tiny town called Montefortino – lovely people, great food, fabulous wine – and went walking in the Sibillini Mountains. Bliss! Thank you for bringing back memories.
I agree – a beautiful and underrated region. We stayed a few nights in Corinaldo, a lovely old town.
A real taste of Italy here – thanks!
Just about anywhere in Italy is lovely, in my experience 😃
Can’t disagree with that!
the eternal traveller
What a great place to stop a while. Plenty to see and do!
Thanks for stopping by 😃
Fabulous Sarah except for the urge to travel when I can’t. I enjoyed my walk about with you thanks 🙂 🙂
I know that feeling from reading so many great blog posts over the past two years! Thankfully we are now able to start travelling again, in the ‘new normal’ fashion 😀
Thanks for showing me another Italian city that I haven’t seen yet. Going to Slovenian, we once made a mistake on the highway and turned for Ancona. 😀 We were almost in San Marino when we realised that we needed to go back. One photo stands out in my opinion, the one of the lift. Magnificent!
I was a bit surprised you hadn’t visited Bologna but I’m much less so that you haven’t been here. It’s not an obvious destination!
Oh, dear! I need a revisit! But then, there are so many places in Italy that I could say that about. We were on a coach tour and it was but a brief stop on the itinerary so we saw only a fraction of this. The cathedral is a beauty, isn’t it? Thank you for taking your illicit photos and sharing them with me. I promise not to tell.
Thanks Jo 😊 It’s good to know that coach tours bother to stop here at all really, so I’m glad you got to see just a little bit. To be honest we only had one afternoon and evening, not long enough really!
Not a place I would have thought of – looks lovely….
We only thought of it because of my train to Milan, but we were glad that we had!
Ancona is definitely a photographer’s dream! Your walk through the old streets delivered stunning pictures … and what a view from the cathedral!
Thank you – yes, that was quite a view, the photo really doesn’t do it justice!
I see I shall have to add Ancona to my list of Italian towns to fit into my schedule when next I go to Italy. It looks very interesting and you’ve uncovered more than I would have imagined. But then, you always do. You have a knack of digging out the unusual.
I take no credit for any digging out on this occasion Mari – my friend Ingrid had done her homework and knew the best streets to follow to get to the cathedral 😀 I wouldn’t necessarily suggest making a special journey here, but its airport is handy for Marche or Umbria and the town would make a great first or last stop on a tour of the region.
The Old Town looks great but mostly I love that entrance to the Cathedral with the recessed arches. Maggie
Thanks Maggie – that whole porch is rather special with so many little carvings to explore. Glad you liked it!
Ancona is not a place I would have ever thought of visiting before reading your article. There’s obviously so much to see and explore, like almost any Italian town is a museum al fresco. Beautiful photography as always, Sarah. You have a beautifully designed website, the header slide show is excellent!
Thank you Leighton – I’m glad you like the slide show, it’s a fairly recent tweak to the blog theme that I’ve been playing with 🙂 I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a special trip to Ancona but the whole Marche region is lovely and this would make a good starting off point as the airport is well served. I’d flown there several times before but never bothered to go into the city centre so was pleasantly surprised when I did!