War, earthquakes and that transient feel all large port cities possess conspire to make Ancona a less lovable city than others on the Adriatic coast. This busy ferry departure-point for Croatia, Albania, Greece and Turkey attracts an international fleet of fume-belching trucks that grumble through the port area night and day while lost arrivés clog up the station and insalubrious alleyways and derelict lots abound. But the centre does have a few historical saving graces embedded in its tangle of commercial buildings and the authorities are making an effort to improve the visitor experience. This may have attracted the handful of cruise ships that now call in here, discharging their crews and guests for a day’s wander through the tranquil old quarter and nineteenth-century shopping boulevards.
For many Ancona is a gateway to the Marche region thanks to Falconara airport, 10km away. There are also decent transport connections to much of Le Marche, though few would plump for the city as a base.
Some 32km up the Esino valley from Jesi, just after the Gola di Rossa, a road leads up from Genga train station to the Frasassi gorge, carved by the River Sentino, which was also responsible for creating the 18km of caves beneath it. The largest of the Grotte di Frasassi, or Frasassi caves, was discovered only in 1971, and just over a kilometre of its caverns and tunnels is now open to the public on tours that last seventy minutes – note that the average temperature inside is 14°C.
Inevitably, the most remarkable stalactite and stalagmite formations have been named: there’s a petrified Niagara Falls, a giant’s head with a wonderfully Roman profile, a cave whose floor is covered with candles complete with holders, and a set of organ pipes. The vast Cave of the Great Wind, at 240m high, is one of the biggest in Europe – large enough to contain Milan Cathedral – and over the years has been used for a series of experiments, ranging from sensory deprivation (as a possible treatment for drug addicts) to a subterranean version of Big Brother.