The Frasassi Caves are some of the most dramatic caves you are ever likely to see and an ideal jaunt for a rainy day.
From Fano take the motorway (green signs) to Ancona, get out at the Ancona Nord exit and take the direction to Jesi, a splendid old town belt of massive 14thC walls (above), built on Roman foundations, strengthened with buttresses and impregnable towers, and topped by houses. The main streets of the walled historic centre run along a narrow ridge. Piazza Federico II lies at the north-eastern end of the town where the Roman forum of Aesis once lay. Its name recalls the birth here of the fabled Medieval Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II in a tent on 26 December 1194. Frederick, known as Stupor Mundi for his stirring deeds, endeared himself even more to the city when he later called it his special city, its very name seeming to recall that of Jesus.The 18thC face of the Duomo, the robust caryatids on the palace to the left of the church and the obelisk in the centre give the square a decidedly Late Baroque tone.A few steps down Via Pergolesi and you will be in Piazza Colocci and in front of Jesi’s most handsome building, Palazzo della Signoria. Vist the City Art Gallery(Pinacoteca Comunale), where is kept a small group of some of Lorenzo Lotto’s finest works – The Judgement of Santa Lucia, a Visitation, an Annunciation and a restless Deposition.
Then head south-west to the small medieval hill town of Staffolo. This sturdy fortified medieval town stands among olive groves and vineyards and commands fine views out over the hills and mountains of the central Marche. Large stretches of the intact walls now have houses built on top – a miniature version of the great walls of Jesi.
From here drive through the typical gently rolling Marche landscape amidst the Verdicchio vineyards to Cupramontana, one of the most important centres for wine production and a good place to stock up with a few bottles. During the second week of August the town gives itself over to the Festa del Verdicchio, a colourful festival dedicated to the local incarnation of Bacchus.
Make a short detour to Maiolati Spontini. This small aristocratic village was the home of the composer Gasparo Spontini (1774-1851). He is buried in the church of San Giovanni, under an august neo-classical monument carved by the great Canova. The small Spontini museum, opposite the church in the house where he died, contains a collection of his manuscripts and possessions. The village also boasts balcony views over the valley below.
Back on the main road west follow the many signs for the Grotte di Frasassi to visit the Frasassi Caves, amongst Europe’s most spectacular caves. Some 13 km of limestone caverns have so far been explored and it is reckoned that they may run for up to 35 km. Only one and a half km of this crystalline wonderland is open to the general public. Equipped with walkways and theatrical lighting, it includes the awesome Grotta Grande del Vento, Europe’s largest single cavern, so vast that Milan Cathedral would fit comfortably inside, and some of the most extravagantly fanciful stalagmites and stalactites you are ever likely to see. Even claustrophobics shouldn’t find it too challenging.
Leaving the dramatic Frasassi Gorge, take the back road to the thriving town of Fabriano, journey’s end. Even back in the 14thC, Fabriano’s paper mills were producing a million sheets of paper a year and it was here that watermarked paper was invented. Its paper is still used the world over for banknotes and quality art paper.
So proud is the town of its traditional industry that it has dedicated an interesting modern museum to it – you’ll find the Museo della Carta in the former monastery of San Domenico. You can also buy Fabriano paper here.