Fabriano: the medieval Italian town where paper is still created by hand

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The fascinating town of Fabriano is off the beaten track in the rarely explored region of La Marche, Italy. If you love handmade paper (remember? We used to use paper to communicate with each other in the past) then you’ll love this town, famous for its paper production and for inventing the watermark in the late 1200s.

Nestled between two Apennine mountain ranges and not far from the Adriatic Sea, Fabriano is easily accessible by direct train from Rome or by car in around 2.5 hours.

In 2013, Fabriano became one of UNESCO’s Creative Cities, in the category of Crafts and Folk Arts, due to its long-standing production of handmade paper.

For speleologists or anyone captivated by the beauty of caves, the nearby Grotte di Frasassi promises a unique opportunity to visit one of the most pristine caves in Europe, discovered in 1971 and opened to the public less than 50 years ago. year.

The name and the seal of the city come from the Latin word Faber, meaning “blacksmith”. A legend from the 14th century tells the story of a blacksmith who worked for two feuding nobles (who also happened to be brothers) and succeeded in enticing them to come together and make peace. While most Italian towns have a lion, eagle or other towering symbols on their official seals, Fabriano has a peace-loving blacksmith!

Fabriano’s seal displayed on a typical brick wall in the city

Katherine Lombard

Besides the Paper and Watermark Museum and the Grotte di Frasassi, there is much to enjoy in this medieval town – 14th century frescoes by Allegretto Nuzi, beautiful town squares with plenty of cafes to enjoy a glass of wine and people watch, and the city of many art museums and churches. But what I love most about Fabriano are its human dimensions and captivating brick architecture (with barely a stone in sight).

Here’s everything you need to know about three special places Fabriano has to offer even the most seasoned traveler.

Exterior of the Paper and Watermark Museum in Fabriano, Italy.

Exterior of the Paper and Watermark Museum

Katherine Lombard

Learn about the history of papermaking at the Paper and Watermark Museum

By the 1300s, Fabriano was producing over a million sheets of paper a year. Today, the city continues to produce paper, including paper used for some of the banknotes you may have stuffed in your pocket! Watermarks were also invented here and date back to the 12th century, when Fabriano craftsmen used to countersign their work. Watermarks are an image or pattern on the paper that appears when viewed by transmitted light. They are still used today on postage stamps, currency, and other government documents to discourage counterfeiting.

Housed in the former Dominican Convent, the Paper and Watermark Museum traces 700 years of papermaking tradition, including all the technological advances over time. My favorite is its reconstructed 13th century paper mill where you can see the whole process of making paper by hand – from the selection of rags for the raw material to the hammer mills that grind the fabric into paper fibers to the process of filtration – and finally, each page being sized and smoothed into a finished product.

Interior of the Paper and Watermark Museum in Fabriano, Italy.

Interior of the Paper and Watermark Museum

Katherine Lombard

The museum is open every day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., except Mondays and public holidays. Tickets cost around €7 (with discounts for those 65 and over, and children 6 and under are free). Reservations are required – book them here.

Depending on your interest in paper, the tour lasts 1-2 hours and consists of a video presentation and live demonstration of the 13th century paper mill by the museum’s master papermakers. The shop also offers beautiful paper products, including works of art.

For more information, head to the Paper and Watermark Museum website, where you can also watch two great videos about the museum.

Frasassi Caves in Fabriano, Italy.
Frasassi Caves

Discover a wonder of the underground world at the Grotte Di Frasassi

From Fabriano you can reach the marvelous caves of Grotte di Frassasi in about 20 minutes by car or by train. You take a short bus ride from the ticket office to the entrance of the cave, where you will be guided (in English) through the magical sights of this cave.

The tour lasts just over an hour and remember to bring a light sweater, as underground temperatures are steady at 57 degrees even on the hottest summer afternoon.

I have visited this enchanting place at least three times alongside visitors from all over the world. Entering the first cave never fails to make an impression. When you first enter the dimly lit cave called Abyss Ancona, you have no idea how big the space is until the guide turns on a light on its ceiling. Suddenly you are overwhelmed by its height (200 meters) and the beauty that surrounds you, making you feel like you have entered an underground cathedral.

Stalagmites and stalactites at the Grotte di Frasassi in Fabriano, Italy.

Stalagmites and stalactites at the Grotte de Frasassi

Katherine Lombard

For the more adventurous (and not claustrophobic!), you can book a 2 or 3 hour caving tour which includes all the necessary equipment: a helmet with a light, ropes and boots to conquer slippery terrain, narrow passages and long downhill slides. But be prepared to get muddy and walk on your hands and knees during the 100m tour!

Opening hours vary according to the season. Admission is around €18 for adults, with a discount for children. The entrance ticket can be purchased online and on site at the ticket office in the La Cuna car park (parking is free). Numerous kiosks surround the ticket office and offer delicious sandwiches made with local meats and cheeses, as well as desserts and drinks.

Facade of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Venantius in Fabriano, Italy.

Facade of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Venantius

Alexander Reuter / Shutterstock.com

Our surprise visit to the Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Venantius

Back in Fabriano, you can easily spend an hour browsing the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Venantius and enjoying its beautiful architectural structures, works of art and tranquility. First built in the 1200s, the church was extended in the 13th century and its Gothic style is evident in its polygonal-shaped apse and magnificent cloister. In the Chapel of St. Lawrence, important frescoes by the 14th century painter Allegretto Nuzi are preserved. Documents attest to his presence in Florence in 1346, where he would have encountered works by Giotto and his disciples.

One day, while visiting Fabriano, my husband and I met a man called Giorgio who was the self-proclaimed guardian and guide of the cathedral. We started talking (a bonus when speaking the native language), and he happily showed us around the cathedral, especially the frescoes recently discovered and restored by Nuzi.

But the surprise came at the end, when he mysteriously announced that he was going to show us something very special that he had recently discovered on his own! We entered the dimly lit chapel of Saint Barbara, where he pointed out a small hole in a panel in the front of the altar. Everyone thought the altar was made of marble, but Giorgio discovered that it was actually made of wood and that the hole was for a key. Once church officials found a key that could open the altar, they discovered a life-size beeswax statue of Saint Barbara, beautifully adorned in an 18th-century outfit and reclining peacefully with praying hands holding a rosary. It had been forgotten and hidden for all these decades! Giorgio opened the altar for us to see this wax statue. Of course, we politely expressed our wonder, addressed a quick prayer to the saint, and thanked Giorgio for his generosity and his time.

The cathedral is open daily in the morning and afternoon. Free entry.

Author in the streets of Fabriano, Italy.

The author wandering the delightful streets of Fabriano

Kees of Biesen

Find the real Italy in Fabriano

Ultimately, you can’t go wrong spending a day in Fabriano. I’ve been there dozens of times and find it a great place to stroll, marvel, enjoy the Wednesday and Saturday morning markets, and indulge in some organic gelato. It is a special city where you can relax and feel like in the real Italy where Italians work, play and live their daily life.

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