Tuesday 1 March 2016

The Promised Land

The most striking thing about today was the realisation that I’m happier on the prow of a boat, rather than the stern. Standing watching the preparations for the ferry’s departure is far more interesting and exciting than watching the coloured lights of a town recede. This got me thinking about the constant momentum required to keep me engaged; if I only take one thing away from this trip, it is recognition that I need to keep moving forward, at times being rather careless of those around me. Time, tide, rainbows, and Clare wait for no one…

Reaching Ancona today was actually an emotional moment. Seeing the first motorway sign was an odd experience because the purpose of the journey through France and Italy was finally in sight. Ancona had became a real place, not just a name on a map.

People who know the place had warned me that it wasn’t a particularly pleasant city, so the plan had been to spend time in Perugia, en route. Naturally we didn’t get to that beautiful town, but headed straight from our Torri Contrarie in Castiglione de Lago to Ancona. I’m not quite sure why there was such an insistent need to be there, but, whatever the reason, I am glad we arrived in good time.

Having had a recent run of spectacular places – medieval town splendour, picturesque villages, a stunning lake – Ancona was precisely the reality check required. It is an ordinary working city with an endless suburb and a clean and tidy port; the outskirts are the same as anywhere else, and the historic bits are perched high up on a hill. We parked at the bottom, in what felt like the end of the universe. In a perverse way, I was determined to hate it on sight simply because of where we’d come from, and how beautiful the route had been.

As usual it had rained whilst we were driving, but the sun had been determined to shine through. As a result we had seen a rainbow over various parts of the landscape for most of the last part of the trip down into the city. These weren’t glimpse and miss it rainbows but proper triumphant Romanesque archways. The sky under the arch was a pale blue, which contrasted with the dark sky beyond. Truly a gateway to paradise and a promise of a new life.

The journey over here had been a triumph of road craft; the driver had once again enjoyed the twists and turns, even if not the road surface. We should have been used to that by now. As we had wound our way through more dramatic scenery, we had seen the new autostrada being built. Concrete struts, sections of random bridges, rough new tunnels being hewn out of the hillside, all being pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. The fact that Ancona is a reasonable sized port makes it incredible that this road east has taken so long to be upgraded.

We reached Ancona in relatively good time and stopped at Lidl Italia for water, snacks and wine for the evening. We were rather limited in our wine choice because we don’t have a corkscrew. Every damn time I travel in Europe, I end up buying a corkscrew, and mentally make a note to bring one next time. And every damn time I forget! So we’ve had to slum it this evening with a ginormous bottle of 3 Euro Montepulciano red. But it rather suits the Jadrolinija plastic cups. The contrast with yesterday evening could not be more marked; it’s utterly brilliant.

So we came up from the circle of Ancona carpark hell, and were immediately accosted by a beggar. We walked up the characterless straight street and into traffic v pedestrian chaos. We got lost. We needed the bathroom desperately. Wandering into a café, the barman was being monopolised by a local character who must have subsisted on Montepulciano red and cigarettes. She was clearly a lady with issues. Still, after an espresso and a trip to the very clean toilet, it was hard to stay cross with this oddly unloved town.

As we walked into the old part through an ancient stone gate, we followed the street round, and suddenly turning a corner, the vista opened up and the port fell away below us. There were three ships in the harbour; a Greek Minoan-lines, a small smart container ship from Naples, and a Jadrolinija tub. I think I knew which one we were going to be taking later on. After the rain earlier, the sky had mellowed to a grey/yellow and the mountains receded into the distance; the sea tried to maintain its earlier menace, but couldn’t help twinkling occasionally.

I’d been dashing backwards and forwards from the church to the vista. I’d climbed the rococo steps of the Il Gesu church, scaring a number of perching pigeons on the way up. If I had been housekeeper for the church, I’d have set a few of the Jesuits to work scrubbing the steps because they were disgracefully mucky. For such an incredible building, it too, felt uncared for.

Pointing up a steep alley way, there was a brown historic sign to the Roman amphitheatre. After the ones in Volterra and Acqui, I was ready for another. Was it a conscious decision by the ancient town planners to put theatres in such dramatic spots? This one was situated in a roll of the hill, once again looking out to sea. Some parts of it seem to be still in use, which is really quite something.

We carried on up the road towards the cathedral. This definitely had the best view in town, and the pink granite lions guarding the entrance look out towards the port. The beautifully carved marble doorway lead you to expect an ornate interior, but actually you are met with dark austerity. Still very beautiful, but utterly unexpected, especially after the cathedral in Acqui. I was happy to spend a while in here just enjoying the quiet.

Too soon it was time to head back to the carpark and down to the port. Strangely the walk back was far more pleasant than the walk up, and the town was coming to life, giving it an entirely different feel. In spite of the city’s dirty face, I was actually starting to like it. The well organised layout of the ferry terminal just added to the positive experience and, although not a first choice holiday destination, I will remember this rainbow city fondly as the proper start to my adventure.

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