With unerring lack of timing we arrived in Fermo just as everything started to shut.
We did manage to slide into the tourist office before the key was turned and ascertained that 3.30pm was re-opening time. Just 3 hours to wait then! Fortunately the winter sun was high in a blue sky, a food market was in evidence and stone benches leaned against the Piazza del Popolo's colonnaded sides.
Food from across Italy was on offer - award winning salami, oranges from Sicily, cheeses from Sardinia, olives from all over and fresh from the fryer a local food, olive and meat fried balls. I did not stop with the local delicacy but tried the mozzarella and cremini (cream) versions as well. A tad pricey at 5 euros a pop but very tasty, though you need a sweet tooth for the cream version.
In between olives and fried balls we slowly roamed the streets of Fermo. Situated on the top of a hill the old town of Fermo is similar to many of the hill-top towns of central Italy. Within the town's walls are narrow winding streets that open up into pretty piazzas. Dark doorways lead into atmospheric churches, a glance up and you see pretty balconies and weathered statues whilst a peek down an alleyway can award the viewer with a pleasing view across the countryside - and so we passed some of the time.
The stallholders congregated on the sunny side of the square as trade slowed to a barely perceptible pulse and regaled each other with tales of mad cousins, aging grandmothers and alcohol-induced happenings. We watched the street cleaner armed with his broom and spade carefully sweep up invisible detritus as the hands of the clock slowly turned.
At 3.30 we were at the Tourist Information office's door filled with pent up enthusiasm. 3 part tickets purchased - Roman Cisterns, Pinacoteca and the Villa Vitali - we hastened next door for a 25 minute dash around the Palazzo dei Priori. This was not enough time to do the palace justice as it houses not only the Archaeology Museum on the first floor but the Pinacoteca and the Sala de Mappamondo upstairs (the police station is housed in the ground floor).
We skipped through the archaeological artefacts as our preference lay in the art upstairs. It is an impressive display considering we had already been spoiled by the Pinacoteca in Ascoli Piceno. The minatures telling the life-story of Saint Lucy are exquisite but when we walked into one of the rooms there was one picture that was head and shoulders above the rest, and we thought that before we realised it was a Rubens; but for me the best was yet to come...
When the attendant unlocked the heavy dark doors I was not ready for the assault on my senses - tears pricked my eyes. The scent of aging manuscripts and books filled my nostrils and I looked around a room that was filled from floor to ceiling with books. To one side stood a large globe made in 1713 by the Abbot Amanzio Moroncelli from strips of paper - a similar one stands in the Vatican and has been somewhat botched by previous years' attempts at restoration. I could quite happily have sat in the middle of the small roped area that we were confined to and inhaled the scent of centuries of writing for the remainder of the day. My enthusiasm must have been noticed by the attendant as she smiled for the first time as I gabbled away questions that Stefano translated into sensible Italian. I would have given anything to hold one of the manuscripts in my hands but instead made do with the digitalised copies that can be viewed on a large screen outside the room. As we looked at the rich colours and ornate decorations of an 11th century prayerbook we were called away to our next appointment.
Along with a young couple we were off to see the cisterns that had supplied Fermo's fountains and drinking water from nearby hill springs. At the end of a dead-end alley a large metal door was unlocked and we descended under the town via a set of medieval stairs - all very cloak and dagger! The cisterns which are for all intents and purposes a practical construction are beautiful in their way. Thirty connecting chambers laid out in three rows the perspective along the central row is picturesque. The guide provided us with an excellent potted history of the cisterns - how the Romans had used them, how the monks re-discovered them and used them as for wine production and storage, and how in the late 19th century until 1980 the cisterns were used once again to supply the city's fountains (though not as effectively as the Romans had!).
Twilight was falling as we made our way to the Teatro dell'Aquila but due to an evening performance we were not allowed even to poke our heads into the 200 year old plus theatre, with its plush red seats that rise in 124 boxes across five levels. We carried on up the Via Mazzini towards the cathedral which is the pinnacle of the city and the most prominent building as you approach Fermo. Located in the Piazzale at the top of Girifalco Hill the Cathedral is dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. The views from the piazzale are breathtaking from the Sibylline Hills to the Adriatic. As the light ebbed away we entered the building built on the site of previous religious temples. In the atrium are the remains of the 14th century frescoes which looked to have been rediscovered (tell-tale marks that I have seen on other frescoes that have been covered with plaster give the game away). As with the crypt at Ascoli Piceno I found that area of worship more atmospheric and attractive with its warm and multi-coloured marble columns.
Back outside the sun had gone and the cathedral was lit up, softening its harsh lines. As I staggered (bad back and heel injury combination) back down the hill to the Piazza de Popolo the sound of Italians drifted up towards us. The town had come alive. Bars were filling up with gentlemen waiting for their aperitivos and the stall holders were busy handing out tasty morsels to the women of the town who eyed up the produce. This was the Italy I like, the air full of laughter, raised voices (arguing or talking it is often hard to discern), the smell of food and a feeling of energy.
I visited Fermo on the 10th November 2012.
Tourist Office: (+39) 0734 228738
Museum Sistem: (+39) 0734 217410