The fascinating city of Fabriano is off the tourist trail in the rarely explored region of La Marche, Italy. If you love handmade paper (Remember? We once used paper to communicate with each other), then you will love this city, famous for its production of paper and for inventing the watermark in the late 1200s.
Tucked between two Apennine Mountain chains and not far from the Adriatic Sea, Fabriano is easily reached by direct train from Rome or by car in about 2.5 hours.
In 2013, Fabriano became one of UNESCO’s Creative Cities, under the category of Crafts and Folk Arts, because of its longtime 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, having only been discovered in 1971 and opened to the public less than 50 years ago.
The town’s name and seal allegedly come from the Latin word faber, meaning “blacksmith.” A 14th-century legend tells of a blacksmith who worked for two feuding noblemen (who also happened to be brothers) and managed to trick them into coming together and making peace. While most Italian towns have a lion, eagle, or other imposing symbols on their official seals, Fabriano has a peace-loving blacksmith!
Besides the Paper and Watermark Museum and the Grotte di Frasassi, there’s plenty to enjoy in this medieval city — 14th-century frescoes by Allegretto Nuzi, beautiful town piazzas with plenty of cafes to enjoy a glass of wine and people-watching, and the city’s many art museums and churches. But what I love best about Fabriano is its human dimensions and captivating brick architecture (with hardly a stone in sight).
Here’s all you need to know about three special places Fabriano has to offer for even the most seasoned traveler.
Discover The History Of Papermaking At The Paper And Watermark Museum
By the 1300s, Fabriano was producing more than a million sheets of paper per year. Today the town continues to produce paper, including paper used for some of the bank notes you might have stuffed in your pocket! Watermarks were also invented here and date back to the 12th century, when the craftsmen of Fabriano were in the habit of countersigning their work. Watermarks are an image or pattern in 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 Convent of the Dominicans, the Paper and Watermark Museum covers 700 years of the tradition of paper making, including all the technological advances over time. My favorite is its reconstructed 13th-century paper mill where you can see the entire process of making paper by hand — from the selection of rags for the raw material to the hammer mills that grind the cloth into paper fibers to the filtration process — and finally, each page being sized and smoothed into a finish product.
The museum is open every day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., except on Mondays and holidays. Tickets are around €7 (with discounts for those 65+, and children 6 and younger are free). Reservations are mandatory — book them here.
Depending on your interest in paper, the visit takes 1–2 hours and consists of a video presentation and a live demonstration of the 13th-century paper mill by the museum’s master papermakers. The shop also offers beautiful paper products, including artwork.
Experience An Underworld Marvel At The Grotte Di Frasassi
From Fabriano, you can reach the wonderful caves of Grotte di Frassasi in about 20 minutes by either car or train. You take a short bus ride from the ticket office to the cave entrance, where you will be guided (in English) through the magical sights within this cave.
The tour takes a little more than an hour, and you want to remember to bring a light sweater, as the temperatures underground are a steady 57 degrees even on the hottest summer afternoon.
I’ve visited this enchanting place at least three different times alongside visitors from around the world. Entering the first cave never fails to make a strong impression. When you first walk into the dimly lit grotto called Abyss Ancona, you have no idea how large the space is until the tour guide shines a light on its ceiling. Suddenly you are overwhelmed by its height (650 feet) and the beauty surrounding you, making you feel like you have entered an underground cathedral.
For those more adventurous (and not claustrophobic!), you can book a 2- or 3-hour speleological visit that comes with all the necessary equipment: a helmet with a light, ropes, and boots to conquer slippery ground, narrow passages, and long slides downhill. But be ready to get muddy and to walk on your hands and knees for 100 meters of the visit!
Opening times vary depending on the season. The entry fee is around €18 for adults, with a discount for children. The entrance ticket can be purchased both online and on site at the ticket office in the La Cuna parking area (parking is free). Many kiosks surround the ticket office and offer delicious sandwiches made with local meats and cheeses, along with desserts and beverages.
Our Surprise Tour At The Cathedral Basilica Of St. Venantius
Back in Fabriano, you can easily spend an hour roaming the Cathedral Basilica of St. Venantius and enjoying its fine architectural structures, works of art, and tranquility. First built in the 1200s, the church was widened during the 13th century, and its Gothic style is evident in its polygonal-shaped apse and beautiful cloister. In the chapel of St. Lawrence, important frescos by the 14th-century painter Allegretto Nuzi are preserved. Documents verify his presence in Florence in 1346, where he would have encountered works by Giotto and his followers.
One day while visiting Fabriano, my husband and I met a man called Giorgio who was the self-appointed caretaker and guide of the cathedral. We got to talking (an advantage when you speak the native language), and he happily showed us around the cathedral, especially the newly discovered and restored frescos 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 all by himself! We entered the dimly lit chapel of Saint Barbara, where he pointed out to us a little hole in a panel in the front of the altar. Everyone had thought the altar was marble, but Giorgio discovered that it was actually wood, and the hole was meant for a key. Once the church officials found a key that could open the altar, they discovered a life-sized beeswax statue of Saint Barbara, beautifully adorned in 18th-century garb and peacefully lying down with prayerful hands holding a rosary. She had been forgotten and hidden away all these decades! Giorgio opened the altar for us to view this wax statue. Of course, we politely expressed our wonder, said a quick prayer to the saint, and thanked Giorgio for his generosity and time.
The cathedral is open every day in the morning and afternoon. Admission is free.
Find The Real Italy In Fabriano
In the end, you can’t go wrong spending a day in Fabriano. I’ve been there dozens of times and find it a great place to just wander around, marvel, enjoy the Wednesday and Saturday morning markets, and indulge in a biological gelato. It’s a special town where you can relax and feel like you are in the real Italy where Italians work, play, and go about their daily lives.