Wedged between the verdant Apennines and a turquoise Adriatic, Le Marche is a varied region, and one you could enjoy weeks of slow travel exploring. Sparsely populated inland areas are unspoilt and untouristed, particularly in the southwest, where stone hill-villages make atmospheric bases for hikes into the spectacular Monti Sibillini range. Ancona, the region’s capital, is a gritty but engaging port town which gives way heading southwards to the dramatic Conero Riviera, with its natural white-pebble beaches backed by milky Dover-esque cliffs. In contrast north and south of the Ancona area the coastline is hemmed with boxy new-build resorts and mechanically pruned beaches of coarse sand.
Of Le Marche’s old-fashioned and slightly forgotten seaside resorts, Pesaro is the largest, with a Renaissance centre maintaining its dignity behind the package-tour seafront, while lesser-known Fano a short distance away to the south offers a similar experience. Away from the scorching seaside fun, most appealing – and best known – of Le Marche’s sights are the small hilltop town of Urbino, with its spectacular Renaissance palace, and the dramatic fortress of San Leo, just across the border from San Marino. Further south, architecturally fascinating Macerata is a sleepy university town surrounded by photogenic countryside, and, right on the regional border, the engaging town of Ascoli Piceno is a worthy stop-off on the way into Abruzzo. Loreto just south of Ancona is one of Italy’s top pilgrimage sites, the basilica providing shelter for what Catholics claim is Jesus’ childhood house, air freighted to Le Marche by a posse of angels.
Le Marche is very much a rural region, its food a mixture of seafood from the long coastline and country cooking from the interior, based on locally grown produce – tomatoes and fennel – and funghi, game, nuts and herbs gathered from the wild. The most distinctive dish, often served at summer festas, is Ascoli olives – a sweet-and-sour mix of olives stuffed with meat and then deep-fried. There's also a black version that contains truffles. Rabbit and lamb are popular, as is pappardelle alla papera, wide, flat pasta with duck sauce, and, as in many other regions, truffles are considered a delicacy. Unfamiliar items on the antipasti menu include lonza (salt-cured pork) and ciauscolo (a pork-based spread). Meat grilled alla brace (over wood embers) is ubiquitous, and you may even come across porchetta, whole roast suckling pig, both in its original large-scale form and in a fast-food version used to fill crisp bread rolls. Don’t confuse it with coniglio in porchetta though – this is rabbit cooked with fennel. Baked, stuffed dishes such as vincisgrassi, a rich layered dish of pasta, minced meat, mushrooms, giblets, brain, bechamel and truffles, are found everywhere. A typical seafood dish from Ancona is zuppa di pesce, a fish soup flavoured with saffron, though you’ll find excellent fish broths – known simply as brodetto – all along the coast. Puddings include cicercchiata, balls of pasta fried and covered in honey, and frappe, fried leaves of filo-like pastry dusted with icing sugar.
Although it produces many drinkable wines, the region is best known for Verdicchio, a greeny-gold white, excellent with fish, which is instantly recognizable from its amphora-shaped bottle. This is in fact a hangover from a 1950s marketing ploy inspired by the ancient Greek custom of shipping wine from Ancona in clay amphorae, and, reputedly, by the shape of the actress Gina Lollobrigida. Today, however, many producers sell their best Verdicchio in standard bottles – the one to look out for is Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. Lesser-known reds include one of Italy’s finest, Rosso Conero, a light wine based on the Montepulciano grape and full of fruit; more common is Rosso Piceno, based on the Sangiovese grape.
The vast majority of tourists come to Pesaro, an agreeably tranquil backwater, much of which dates from the 1920s and 1930s, for a lazy bake on the long stretch of sandy beach and little else. Though popular with Brits and Germans on cheap package holidays and Italian families on annual getaways, this sometimes overlooked resort has gone slightly more upmarket in recent years with the bog-standard seasonal three-star hotels up against stiff competition from some world-class luxury establishments. Away from the bronzing masses, Pesaro’s old town has an enjoyably off-the-beaten-track feel and makes for half a day’s exploration. With regular transport connections to lesser-known towns like Gradara and Fano, it also makes a feasible base from which to explore northern Le Marche.
The centre of town is the dignified Piazza del Popolo, in which the rituals of the pavement café scene are played out against the sharp lines of Fascist-period buildings and the Renaissance restraint of the Palazzo Ducale. All of the main attractions are within a five-minute walk of here. Although the town has a clutch of museums, the main attraction is undoubtedly its beach. A tree-lined grid of rather bland and boxy looking apartments marks the long sandy beachfront, enlivened here and there by some rather marvellous Art Nouveau villas, including one on Piazzale della Libertà whose eaves are supported by white plaster lobsters.
Fano is no longer quite the haven it was when Robert Browning washed up here in 1848, seeking respite from the heat and crowds of Florence. A large swathe of the seafront is dominated by an ugly industrial port, and although its pastel-pebbled beaches remain splendid, they now attract thousands of package tourists every year. Nevertheless, Fano is a pleasant enough place if a little humdrum, and comfortably combines its role as resort with that of small fishing port and minor historical town, the latter very much worth a half-day’s wander.
Fano’s Roman precursor, named Fanum Fortunae after its Temple of Fortune, lay at the eastern terminus of the Via Flaminia, which traversed the Apennines to Rome. The town is still built around a Roman crossroads plan: Via Arco di Augusto and Corso Matteotti follow the routes of the cardus and decumanus, and their junction is marked with a copy of a Roman milestone stating its distance from the capital (195.4 Roman miles).
With its white cliffs, blanched pebble beaches, thick protected forests and easy-going resorts, the Conero Riviera to the south of Ancona is the northern Adriatic’s most spectacular and enjoyable stretch of coastline. This tranquil holiday paradise is centred around Monte Conero, which plunges straight into the sea from an altitude of 572m. The area is easily accessible, with the seaside villages of Portonovo, Sirolo and Numana all linked by bus from Ancona. Sirolo and Numana are now as crowded in July and August as the rest of the Adriatic resorts, the main difference being that their cliff-backed beaches are more picturesque. The most stunning stretch of coast, a series of tiny coves at the base of Monte Conero between Portonovo and Sirolo, is best explored by boat – they leave from both bays. You can go just for the scenery or ask to be dropped off somewhere along the way and be picked up a few hours later.
This stretch of coast is the home of Rosso Conero wine, made from the same Montepulciano grape as Chianti, though less well known than its Tuscan counterpart and rarely found outside Italy. There’s a chance to sample it at the Rosso Conero festival at Camerano, 8km inland from Monte Conero, in the first week of September.
The vast majority of people who visit Loreto are pilgrims, over four million of whom arrive every year to pay their respects at what they believe is the House of the Virgin Mary where Jesus spent his childhood. The house, which made a miraculous journey from Nazareth to Italy, is contained within a huge hilltop basilica visible from miles around. However, away from the religious frenzy, the town, it must be said, has little to offer.
Loreto owes its existence to one of the Catholic Church’s more surreal legends. The story goes that in 1292, when the Muslims kicked the Crusaders out of Palestine, a posse of angels flew the house of Mary from Nazareth, the Santa Casa, to Dalmatia, and then, a few years later, whisked it across the Adriatic to Loreto. In the face of growing scepticism, the Vatican came up with the more plausible story that the Holy House was transported to Loreto on board a Crusader ship. Not surprisingly, though, this new theory doesn’t have the same hold on the Catholic imagination, and the Madonna of Loreto continues to be viewed as the patron saint of aviators: Lindbergh took an image of her on his landmark Atlantic flight in 1927, and a medallion inscribed with her image also accompanied the crew of Apollo 9. For centuries she was also credited with military victories – presumably she was thought to have power over projectiles.
During the Baroque period the Santa Casa was copied by pious architects across central Europe, most notably in Bohemia and Moravia where tens of replicas were built. The finest of these stands next to Prague Castle.
The primitive stone House of the Virgin Mary (Santa Casa) with only three walls, sits within a grand and very far from humble basilica, featuring works by such Renaissance luminaries as Bramante, Antonio da Sangallo, Sansovino, Lotto and Luca Signorelli, many of which depict scenes from the life of Mary. Inside the house, pride of place is given to a copy of the famous Black Madonna of Loreto; the medieval original, once crazily attributed to St Luke, was destroyed in a fire in 1921. For the nonbeliever the religious fervour can come as a surprise, with some pilgrims pressing their cheeks against the blackened, crumbling brick walls mumbling tearful prayers, others circling the marble outer shell on their knees. Note that at peak times you may not be able to look around the Holy House as it normally closes from 12.30pm to 2.30pm while a service is conducted for visiting pilgrims.
Over the centuries, Loreto built up a covetable collection of treasures donated by wealthy believers. One of the most costly and idiosyncratic was a golden baby bequeathed by Louis XIII of France, weighing exactly the same as his long-awaited heir, the future Louis XIV. The basilica was ransacked in 1798 by Napoleonic troops, most of the plunder ending up on the shelves of the Louvre in Paris.
Following Napoleon’s demise, subsequent popes managed to retrieve many of the valuables, but the majority were stolen again in 1974 in what became known as the “holy theft of the century”.
A hilltop gem built entirely of a soft-coloured brick, the little-known provincial capital of Macerata is one of the region’s most attractive and historically well-endowed towns. The comparisons with Urbino are inevitable but what Macerata lacks in Renaissance splendour it more than makes up for with its livelier atmosphere, especially on market day (Wed) when the streets and squares are clogged with stalls and punters. Easy paced and with a large student population, it’s an ideal place to wind down in the evenings after exploring the province. For fans of opera and ballet, the annual Sferisterio Opera Festival from mid-July to mid-August, held in Italy’s best open-air venue outside Verona, is a must.
With a mountain lake reddened by the blood of the devil, a narrow pass known as the gorge of hell and a cave reputed to have been the lair of an enchantress, the Monti Sibillini are not only the most beautiful section of the Apennines, but they teem with ancient legends too. Wolves, chamois and brown bear all live in the national park and even if you don’t come across one of these, you may be lucky enough to see an equally rare golden eagle instead.
The best way to experience the park is by walking, cycling or horseriding, and if you’re up for a challenge there’s Il Grande Anello dei Sibillini (The Great Sibylline Ring), 120km of signposted footpaths that take nine days to walk, or four to five days to cover by mountain bike. Maps and accommodation details, including mountain refuges, are listed on www.sibillini.net. There are shorter trails too, through meadows filled with wild flowers, for which the most agreeable bases are the medieval hill-villages that crown the Sibillini foothills. Most villages are served by buses, but they’re generally few and far between and it’s definitely best to have your own transport.
To tackle the best of the Sibillini treks, drive or take a taxi 8km east from Montemonaco to the quiet village of Foce. The hike up to Lago di Pilato and Pizzo del Diavolo (Devil’s Peak) is fairly tough; allow a whole day, take the Kompass Monti Sibillini map (the ominously, and rather aptly numbered, sheet no. 666), which can be bought locally, and only attempt it in good conditions during the high summer months as the snow doesn’t melt until June. Here, guarding the entrance to Umbria, stands Monte Vettore (2476m), the highest of the Sibillini peaks.
If you’re going to attempt a climb up Monte Sibilla, the Rifugio Sibilla 1540 is the best base. It lies about 6km east of Montemonaco along the path that eventually leads to the cave of the sibyl Grotta della Sibilla. The Kompass map is essential here, too, as the path is only barely visible.
Located between the Monti Sibillini and the Adriatic, Ascoli Piceno is Le Marche’s greatest hidden gem and lies well off the tourist trail. This seems odd considering it has plenty of grand architecture and a lovely café-lined central square that’s among the most pleasant in the region. At Mardi Gras it hosts Le Marche’s most flamboyant carnival and in August its streets are given over to the Quintana, a medieval festival that incorporates a spectacular joust. If that wasn’t enough, Ascoli’s restaurants and food stalls are the proud purveyors of olive all’ascolana (deep-fried breadcrumb-crusted olives stuffed with veal), the closest Italy comes to the Scotch egg, but much tastier.
Ascoli has a compact centre, surrounded by largely intact walls. Piazza del Popolo is the place to get the feel of the town, while its small number of Roman remains and its churches and museums are scattered throughout the old centre.