People from the often overlooked Italian region of Le Marche are referred to as Marchigiani. And according to the Marchigiani, it is their region that encapsulates all that’s best of bell’Italia. We all know that every city, town and hilltop village throughout the country famously has its pride, the one thing that can be found there and only there. And it is often true: One village may have pioneered a particular curl of pasta, another is home to a Renaissance masterpiece or a style of exquisite ceramics and yet another a special grape varietal or the origin of the tiniest purple legume. Italy is a country of truly embarrassing riches and all Italians take pride in their corner of it.
Yet objectively of the Italians, the Marchigiani, known for their uncharacteristic humility, might indeed be on to something. Their region, located to the east of Tuscany between the Apennine mountains and the Adriatic, does indeed encapsulate so much of what we want when we travel to Italy. And so it is a puzzle that this package of picturesque towns, natural scenery, extraordinary wine and rich food culture remains so far off the tourist radar. A traveler in this region has the opportunity to meander from little-known town to local trattoria instead of sticking to a well-trodden path, an experience in Italy that has become all too rare. We predict Le Marche will become “the next…” depending on whether you are looking at it through the lens of wine and food, beaches, culture hunting or mountain climbing. A testament in itself.
The Other Truffle Town
While Alba in Piedmont is Italy’s spiritual truffle capital, in fact two-thirds of the country’s black and white gold comes from the area surrounding the northern Marche town of Acqualagna. Here, in view of the mountains, local hunters dig for different varietals of the black truffle year-round, while the prized white truffle can only be found in the ground and on menus in autumn.
Every October and November, professionals and enthusiasts flock to Acqualanga for the National White Truffle Fair. The small town becomes an ode to this earthen miracle, with temporary shopfronts, stalls, and restaurants filling the air with an indelible aroma. Acqualagna Tartufi sells fresh truffles in autumn (for ideas, see here).
In an elegant upstairs dining room in the middle of town, L’Osteria Braceria serves both black and white truffles shaved over ribbons of tagliolini or perhaps carne crudo (think Italian steak tartare) for the game.
If you wish to search for your own, ask at the local bar to help you track down a truffle hunter; the Marchigiani are proud to show off their region to the traveler who makes it there so they may even divulge their favorite grove for hunting the prized tubers.
The greatest pleasure in ambling through the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Urbino is simply being there: walking the hilly streets and laneways, stopping in at unique storefronts and artists’ workshops.
One of the cultural capitals of the Marche, Urbino is the birthplace of the artist Raphael. In addition to housing one of Europe’s oldest universities, it also boasts one of Italy’s most beautiful Renaissance palaces, the Palazzo Ducale, an architectural marvel with fairytale spires and a grand symmetrical courtyard that ushers you into the Marche National Gallery. There, you’ll find one of the most important collections of Renaissance paintings in the world.
Make your way up to the Albornoz Fortress for more architectural pleasures and incredible views of Urbino. You can toast with a BYO aperitivo in the well-kept surrounding parklands.
Drive through the undulating countryside until you reach the sparkling coastline of the Riviera del Conero, set within the Conero Natural Park. Here you’ll find the best of the Marche’s beaches, with white cliffs offsetting a mix of wild, hike-till-you-find-them and striped-sunbed-lined beaches with the clearest water in the region.
While these pebbled beaches are at their best in August, filled with locals and modest Italian holidaymakers, the area still has a lot to offer as the weather starts to cool in late September.
Conquer the park’s 18 marked trails on foot, horseback, or mountain bike; many will take you along the cliffs looking over the beaches. Or go inland a little to Monte Conero, where small wineries produce the Rosso Conero DOC. The unique microclimate where mountains meet sea gives the Montepulciano grapes a unique flavor, and the wineries are so close together that some bike or hike between them.
Ristorante Da Emilia, housed in what looks like a fisherman’s shack on Portonovo Beach, opened in 1950. Since then, it’s been passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter’s hands. Sample Emilia’s original recipe for spaghetti con i moscioli, spaghetti with a rich red sauce with wild-harvested mussels. The mussels are prised by hand every morning from the rocks off the Conero coast, an endangered Slow Food Presidium product.
In Verdicchio Country
The Castelli di Jesi, a network of 24 hilltop towns sprawled across rolling hills and countryside, are home to vineyards open for tastings of the wine made from the native Verdicchio grape, a green-tinged varietal known for its notes of citrus and almond. Look for the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOCs and DOCGs.
The Marotti family has farmed the same land since the mid-19th century. Since the early 90s, they’ve been putting their hectares to good use to make the unique local red wine, Lacrima di Morro D’Alba, as well as several good Verdicchios under their label, Campi Marotti. Winery visitors can stay amongst the vineyards in a converted water tank or in their nearby country house.
Villa Bucci is one of the most renowned Verdicchio producers in the Marche, having been based in the Ostra Vetere in the Castelli di Jesi since the 1700s. For the last two decades, their wines have been entirely organic and handmade.
The most innovative Verdicchio award goes to Pievalta, pioneers in biodynamic farming and organic winemaking in Maiolati Spontini. There, you’ll see grapevines alternating with rows of vegetables; the family believes that this farming method gives the wine more character.
Life in Miniature
The hilltop village of Fratte Rosa in northern Marche is the quintessential Italian small town, offering all you need in one tiny place. The clay-rich soil that makes up the surrounding hillside has been providing raw materials to its inhabitants for centuries. What they do with it makes for many inspiring visits.
Cantina Terracruda started planting the Bianchello, Sangiovese, and Pergola Aliatico grapes in 2000 and making their highly prized wine. Book a tasting, which is often hosted by the owners, the Avenanti family.
The Cianni family hunt and trade in black and white truffles found in the earth around the town in autumn and winter, opening their al fresco wine and truffle bar along the town’s walls in summer.
The fava bean of Fratte Rosa is another Slow Food Presidium project, and the Rosatelli family at Azienda Agricola I Lubachi has been working to preserve and sell the legume for years. Buy dried fava beans, fava bean pasta, or the favas preserved in olive oil and fennel here.
The richness of the area’s clay makes for uniquely robust terracotta. Since Roman times, “terracotta families” have been using the same traditional methods to craft, fire, and glaze their signature aubergine or reddish-brown pottery. Wind down a country road to find the Giombi family workshop; browse the ceramics or organize a lesson on the wheel, in Italian only. (Talk with your hands!)
The local family-run forno, or bakery, transforms its courtyard with a long communal dining table every Tuesday evening in summer. The town comes together to break bread and toast with local wine while the sounds of live music and church bells mix with the local dialect.
The Art of the Agriturismo
The hillsides surrounding the typical Marche town are dotted with agriturismi, farms turned hotel/restaurants serving zero-mile food, as mandated by Italian law.
One of the cult-favorite agriturismi amongst the locals is Slowcanda, nestled in an isolated position on a verdant mountaintop high above Piobicco. For 10 years, Betty and Lorenzo, formerly of Urbino, have lived here with their family, cooking hyper-local dishes — foraged in the mountains each morning — for guests arriving on foot, horse, bike, or by car. The owners refer to their place as a rifugio, a refuge, where weary travelers can also stay the night in rustic yet cosy rooms. With only one other inhabitant in the now almost-deserted town, you can hear and feel the depth of nature’s undisturbed silence.
Marche for Miles
The Marche’s crowning glory is its unending open vistas and skies, best appreciated from a mountaintop — from which there are plenty to choose. Drive an hour or so inland from the coast to find dramatic peaks with altitudes up to 2000 meters. Some allow you to cheat and drive right up to the top, while others demand more sweat and tears.
On the border of Marche and Umbria lies Monte Catria, known for its 18-meter-high iron cross perched on its highest peak. All paths lead you here, the cross before you making you feel like you’re on a pilgrimage — a very Italian take on hiking. The mountain’s steepness and varied terrain could certainly make you feel like you’ve been walking for weeks on end, but it’s worth it to be able to look out over what feels like the whole of the Marche.
The Pietralata and Paganuccio mountains tower above both sides of the Furlo Pass and the idyllic green-blue river running through it, hiking trails leading you from pass to peak of both. In the 1930s, Mussolini ordered his distinctive profile to be sculpted into the rockface of Pietralata. It was subsequently bombed in World War II, his nose blown clean off, but you can still walk across what’s left of his face on top of the mountain, with impressive views over the gorge below.