From mountains to the sea

It may be non-touristy and rural but Marche, in Italy, has much to offer says Michael Fewer, who joins a town parade


The predominantly rural Marche region of Italy (pronounced “le markay”) is bounded by the Adriatic to the east and the Appenines mountains to the west. Two things make it particularly interesting as a holiday destination: it is not at all touristy, so prices are very reasonable, and there is no queuing or crowds.

And it has long been called “Italy-in-one” where you can have the entire Italian experience, all that makes Italian culture and history great, in one compact area (north to south it stretches 180km and has a population of 1.5 million).

Marche has Italy’s highest density of art galleries, museums, theatres and libraries, and is particularly rich in historical monuments.

I know the south of the region quite well, so on my last visit I decided to concentrate on the northern towns of Fabriano, Jesi, Urbania and Sassoferrato and the area around them.

The Marche landscape of verdant hills, a flowing and colourful patchwork of fields of grape vines, olives and wheat, is scattered with frequent villages and small towns, many of them still cosseted in medieval walls. Each one is a tiny lived-in museum of architecture and art, proudly boasting its very particular local traditional culinary specialities such as cheeses, pastas and fruits. The streets are a joy to stroll, a magical layering of many architectural styles all delightfully co-existing, used and lived-in as they have been for centuries.

Far from Italy’s costly, crowded honeypots, this is a region of quieter unspoiled places, and the pace of life is slower.

The towns are small, and the trees and fields of the countryside are never fully out of sight, which ensures the towns people are always close to the life-giving rhythms of nature.

One traveller wrote of the Marche region: “It’s here that we can find again those sounds, scents and perspectives of a past, that have been clouded in our memory. Mostly, it’s in these villages . . . we find ourselves again.”

I found that the people were full of artless friendliness and warmth. But for the language and aromas of exotic foods in the air, you could easily imagine yourself to be in rural Tipperary or Monaghan. The sense of community in the many small towns is all the time apparent, from the mix of generations enthusiastically attending local processions and parades to the jovial morning gatherings of people in the town squares.

Urbania, nestling in a loop of the Metauro river and not far from the better-known Urbino, is one of these towns that will well reward a visit.

In the 16th century some of the finest majolica (ceramics) of the Renaissance was produced here, and in recent decades young ceramic artists, assisted by the mayor and council, have been developing new 21st century technologies and producing ceramics in fabulous new forms, colours and designs.

You can watch the artists at work, and even get involved – the town has ceramic workshops for all ages.

The summer palace of the Duke of Urbino houses a great museum and historic library, and it’s worth trying to have your visit coincide with a performance in the tiny 19th century Bramante theatre. There are 70 such local theatres in the Marche region, almost one for every town.

Don’t miss the Urbania cuisine – coradella of lamb is to be recommended, and passatelli soup and do sample, for desert, the traditional cake called bostrengo.

The town of Jesi, a treasure house of architecture and art, retains its tall medieval walls.

The main corso, where the townsfolk promenade, stretches almost the length of the town, and just off it are a series of galleries and museums including the glorious baroque Palazzo Pianetti and the Pinacoteca Civica, which has a collection of works by the Renaissance painter Lorenzo Lotto, who lived for a while in the town.

Just 40km south east is the medieval town of Fabriano, which owed its great prosperity in medieval times to its pioneering work in paper manufacturing: it may be hard to believe, but the extensive museum of paper-making, with live demonstrations of rags being turned into fine water-marked paper, is fascinating.

The town’s rich heritage includes the 13th century Palazzo del Podesta, one of the oldest examples of medieval civic architecture in le Marche.

We found ourselves in Sassoferrato, another of the Marche’s ancient towns, on Liberation Day, when Italians celebrate liberation from Mussolini and his Nazi allies and remember their war dead. It was a warm, sunny morning and we were invited by the friendly locals to join in their parade. Feeling honoured to be asked, we formed up behind the brass band with the townsfolk, the chief of police, the head of the fire brigade, boys in their late teens carrying colourful banners and nuns in navy capes, white veils and gloves. Two young men proudly bore the red, green and white flag of the partisans who had helped rid the country of its Fascist oppressors in the latter days of the second World War.

Then, with the band striking up a martial air, the procession moved off and made its way out of the square and down winding passages between ancient buildings towards the park and war memorial.

There we had the additional honour of being introduced to one of the town’s two surviving partisans, a woman of 87 years. It was hard to imagine this little, bespectacled, elderly lady in a brown coat, simple hat and sensible shoes as a 17-year-old fighting the Nazis. She is, however, one of the last survivors of a significant secret army that has been much-neglected by history. For us it was a very special day.

Not far from Sassoferrato are the Frasassi Caves, only discovered in 1971, and the most spectacular subterranean cave system I have ever seen.

No assembly of superlatives could begin to give an idea of the composition of gleaming crystalline stalactites and stalagmites, lakes and sink-holes. The largest cavern is sufficient to accommodate the cathedral of Milan.

For more outdoor activities, the Marche has two national parks, four regional parks and, of course, the Appenines, a mountain range that extends 1,200km along the entire length of Italy.

In Marche it is criss-crossed by well-marked trails and, for those who like to climb, there are plenty of exciting deep gorges, high ridges and summits over 1,500m that are easily accessible to the average Irish hill walker.

In early summer wild flowers, filling the air with a narcotic perfume, are simply stunning in their variety and plenitude. Apart from the usual European fauna, golden eagles can be spotted in the highlands, and in the woods it is possible to see pine martens and boars.

The jewel of that Adriatic coast has to be the Conero region, where thickly wooded Monte Conero pushes out its high white cliffs to interrupt the otherwise flat coastline, creating scenic coves of white sands and crystal clear, turquoise waters. It is not surprising that Conero’s beaches have been continuously awarded the European Blue Flag since 1984.

From the main square in Sirolo you can see the coast of Croatia on clear days. The people in La Marche boast that you can ski in the mountains in the morning and swim in the sea in the afternoon: the highest of the Marche peaks, 2,476m Monte Vettore, is only 50km from the coast.

Some of the best restaurants in the region are scattered along the shore at Conero, so such a day could be rounded off with dinner of Adriatic seafood and spectacular sea views.

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