Thursday, November 3, 2011


Wow.  It’s hard to find another word to describe Fabriano.  Yesterday was our third visit to this little town tucked away in an obscure corner of our next door neighbor province Le Marche.  Fabriano definitely has it goin’ on.

Our first visit to Fabriano was pretty much by chance.  We were spending a few days driving down the Adriatic, hoping to discover what Le Marche was all about before heading to Abruzzo, Marche’s southern neighbor.  Not know what to do or where to stay, I posted an inquiry on the Slow Travel website, an online community of travel aficionados, for advice.  A couple of responses recommended that we visit Fabriano and its Museo della Carta e del Filigrano, the Museum of Paper and Filigree.  I must admit that it sounded as boring as watching paint dry.  But as I wrote the next day, our first visit to Fabriano was a “wow” moment.  Don’t take my word for it, check it out  yourself-

 So yesterday we packed up the car for the not so short drive from Cannara in Umbria to Fabriano in Le Marche, to show off to our Food & Wine II guests this town that was built around the making of paper.  Along the way we discovered that Fabriano has so much more.  Wow!

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The drive to Fabriano is, to put it lightly, not my favorite.  Mapquest and Google Maps show a route from Cannara through Spello and then along a decent highway that passes through Nocera Umbra before connecting with the highway that connects Fabriano to Ancona and the sea.  We did not take that route. 

Instead, we drove up past Assisi, toward Perugia and then followed the signs toward Ancona.  For a stretch of about 25 minutes, the road curves back and forth with such regularity and violence that the passengers in our packed mini were grateful for the ceiling handles to hold on to.  At one point, one of the lanes has crumbled away and fallen into a chasm several hundred feet below, so the Italian highway authority addressed the situation by closing the lane and putting in a traffic light.  All along this miserable stretch of road are signs of a massive construction project, in which a major autostrada is being built from Ancona clear across the peninsula to the other coast.  Given Italian efficiencies, it will probably be ready for traffic about the time the Republican party agrees that global warming is manmade.  They say that if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door.  Fabriano has built several great mousetraps, but that path is taking a little longer than expected.

All grumbling by the driver aside, the drive to Fabriano, while for a stretch somewhat arduous, is in reality quite beautiful, as you cross from the plains and mountains of Umbria to a much craggier, more jagged landscape of the area surrounding the Umbria-Marche border.  On a clear sunny fall day, such as ours, the effect is stunning.

We arrived in Fabriano exactly on time for our 11:00 appointment, a minor miracle for our F&W excursions.  And as we entered the Museum della Carta we were met by Giorgio, the museum’s director and our guide and host for the day.  It was to be the beginning of a daylong adventure in Le Marche.

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We have written previously about the Museum of Paper.  I can say without reservation that it is the most interesting museum I have ever visited.  So as not to repeat myself (as I am told concision is not my strongest attribute) I won’t describe the museum again.  (Instead click on the link above if you want to find out more.)  I will say only that there are few museums that will take you on a two hour guided tour not just describing the art of papermaking, but describing it in the context of its ancient roots and conveying its importance and centrality to the town and its people.  And no museums give you the opportunity to actually experience the art of papermaking using working tools and machines from the middle ages onward.  To visit the Museum of Paper is to actually step back in time and it is literally impossible to visit the museum and leave without a deep understanding and an even deeper appreciation for the role paper has played in our history.

After our museum visit, the third visit for Suzy and me but one that was as fresh as the first time we stepped inside, Giorgio escorted us down the street to another ex-monastery which is in the process of being converted to another Fabriano civic museum.  This one will be a museum of printing and Giorgio was treating our group to a sneak preview of the yet unopened museum.

When it opens, the museum of printing will be the perfect companion piece to the Museum of Paper.  Here, Giorgio showed us room after room of machine designed to spread the written word on paper that was manufactured in Fabriano.  The little municipality has used its limited funds and abundance of creativity and passion to track down and acquire an impressive collection of printing equipment, including a number of original pieces that were the first in their category in Italy.  Each machine has been repaired and restored so that they work as they did hundreds of years ago, gears turning, trays moving, paper delivered along a printing path and embossed with the original.  Like the Museum of Paper, this will be a hands on museum and groups and individuals will be able to make extended visits to use the machinery for its original purpose, turning out complete bound books on Fabriano paper over the course of five days.  It will, I think, prove to be a formidable learning resource and one that helps preserve and broadcast the importance of paper and the written word to the life and history of Fabriano.

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After getting a glimpse of the soon to open printing museum we were treated to a truly special treat.  On the top floor of the ex-monastery that houses the print museum another collection is being prepared for opening, a museum of the history of the piano that will feature dozen and a half original instruments dating from the 1700s onwards, each completely restored and refurbished to its original state.  As we arrived at the top floor of the museum,where the collection is being housed, we were greeted by Claudio, whose passion and private collection are fueling this dream of a piano museum in Fabriano.  He greeted us with welcoming eyes, a friendly smile and a shock of white hair that looked slightly Beethoven-esque.  And then he took us from room to room in this museum that is under construction, each room housing one or two instruments from the principal schools of piano making – Vienna, London, Paris and Germany.   Each room represented a unique era in piano making and a unique period in classical music.  And this all became clear when he sat at each and played a representative piece that the particular instrument would have played when it was built.  And this is the secret of the piano museum, how it will distinguish itself from other museums of musical instruments when it is opened.  Museum goers will be escorted by docents who will actually play the instrument as it was meant to be played.  So instead of simply looking at period pieces, one will get to experience what these instruments meant and how they differed from one another not just in design, but in sound.  Just as with the Museum of Paper and the print museum, history will be brought to life and experienced, rather than simply studied.  It seems to be the approach in Fabriano.  It is what we find so fascinating about visiting this town.

Along the way our host, his excitement palpable and just barely restrained, played for us.  A sonata by Clementi on a piano built by Clementi.  Mozart’s Turkish March played on a period piano that included foot pedals that conjured up a percussion section of bells and drumbeats, which were written into the original composition but which have disappeared as the instrument evolved (or rather devolved) to not include percussion capability, and finally a piece by Debussy on a German Bosendorfer piano. 

We cannot wait for the museum to open.  In the meantime, check out their YouTube preview -

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As interesting, thought provoking and eye opening as our three museum visits were, a day in Italy is not complete without completely overeating.  And it was for the next three hours that Giorgio introduced us to the cuisine of Le Marche and the overeating ensued.

On the outskirts of Fabriano, perched on tall bump of a hill is a hotel-restaurant that formerly served as the home of the noble Marchese del Grillo.  I can’t say that I had ever heard of the Marchese before yesterday, even though there is a well known Italian movie about his life.  But despite getting a tour of the nobleman’s apartments our purpose was not to learn more history.  It was to eat.

And eat we did, enjoying the company of our new friend and host Giorgio, learning about the cuisine of Le Marche and, as we had all morning long, experiencing first hand, rather than simply observing or studying, the flavors and ingredients that make this cuisine unique to this part of Italy. 

We started with a plate of sliced meats, affettati misti, that was similar to its Umbrian cousin, but with some interesting (and tasty) difference.  Here we enjoyed lonza, capocollo and prosciutto, but also a salame marchigiana, salame from Le Marche made from a leaner cuts of pork and then stuffed with chunks of fat to soften and flavor it.  Coppa, the fall-winter head cheese that we enjoy in Umbria was also on the menu, but without orange bits as we are used to.  A rich pork liver sausage rounded out the meat plate alongside a dollop of ricotta.  Then it was on to cheese, where we enjoyed a local specialty and a Slow Food Presidia food, pecorino di fossa, sheep’s milk cheese that is aged underground wrapped in leaves.  It was served with honey.

The hotel’s owner, a noble family with land holdings in Fabriano and in Abruzzo, produced the wine and olive oil for the meal.  The oil, an olio novella, or newly pressed oil, was still on the tree a week ago.  At lunch we tasted it with bread, spooned it directly into our mouths and topped a bowl of soup made from locally grown chick peas that warmed and filled.  Not to mention the toasted bread bruschetta that followed.  Finally, a plate of mixed grilled meats – Marchigiana beef, similar to and every bit as flavorful as its better known Chianina cousin, a slice of roast pork, local lamb served scottadita on the chop and begging to be picked up and chewed (a wish with which we complied) and a delicious grilled quail. 

Lunch, and our introduction to Marchigiana cuisine would have been complete but the hotel’s management and Giorgio insisted we try the desserts.  Plural.  And numerous.  A plate with three “tastes” – a three chocolate dome, grape crostata and a dollop of strawberry mousse.  And to clear the palatte a small square dish divided into four smaller compartments with four different cookies in various stages of chocolate, covered or filled with pistachio.

Three hours after arriving at the Marchese del Grillo we waddled out, desparately in need of a nap rather than a windy drive back to Umbria, our minds and bodies filled to overflowing.  This is what we call a successful day in Italy.

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Before saying our goodbyes to our new friend we had one final stop to make, another museum.  This was a quick stop and in some ways an afterthought (although it was part of the day’s itinerary), a museum of working bicycles.  This small private collection boasts nearly 50 bicycles from the turn of the century that were used by various tradesmen and others with a need for a special use bicycle.  For the next half hour we marveled at how so much “stuff” could be loaded into special boxes and cabinets and transported by bicycle by tradesmen such as bakers (with an onboard oven), doctors (with medical kit), cobblers (with leather material, tools and forms), firemen (complete with hose and nozzle), granita vendors (with a can of ice, graters and flavorings).  The bicycle museum was a testament to an age not so long ago, but one that is now far away.

And as Fabriano faded into our rearview mirror, itself becoming farther and farther away, we all agreed that despite the effort required to “get there from here” it was a trip that we will be making many times in the future.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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