Undiscovered Italy - Le Marche
21 December 2015
Having been to Le Marche as a child, on a beach holiday full of thrilling experiences like ice cream that comes in more than 3 flavours, glass bottomed boats and spaghetti for your first course; I recently had the opportunity to experience the region as a grown-up. I still love the gelato, the pasta and the boat trips, but as an adult, I can appreciate even more wonders; resplendent art cities and medieval streetscapes, glorious countryside and tiny hilltop villages, fine shopping and incomparable coffee.
Le Marche, situated in central Italy between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine Mountains, may be regarded as Tuscany’s little sister, but for me, the region has a charm all of its own. Staying in Pesaro, a super-relaxing seaside place, you’re surrounded by natural beauty but close enough to cultural sites for a day or half day’s outing. The fact that Le Marche is relatively undiscovered also means you don’t have to fight for space when sightseeing - always a bonus!
After settling in at my hotel by the sea and having checked out the promenade and town centre, armed with sturdy shoes for cobbled, hilly streets (as well as new sunglasses for posing in pavement cafés), I set off for Urbino, home place of the painter, Raphael. This pristine renaissance town sits atop a steep hill, less than an hour’s drive from the sandy beaches of Pesaro. I can’t help wondering if the students who attend Urbino’s renowned university are aware of how privileged they are to be part of this timeless beauty and atmosphere. First, I visit the remarkable Palazzo Ducale, to marvel at works by Raphael, Uccello and Piero della Francesca, in one of Italy’s finest art collections. The next stop is the Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista, to see a small church decorated floor to ceiling with frescoes by Jacopo and Lorenzo Salimbeni. Then, taking a breather, I sit in a shady piazza, drink an iced coffee and gaze at the carpet of graduated green fields, spread out below the town and stretching down to the sea. Boosted by culture and caffeine, I head back to Pesaro for lunch by the beach, followed by a snooze under a sun umbrella.
Pesaro is one of the few towns on this part of Italy’s Adriatic Coast which can boast a historic centre just minutes’ walk from its seafront. On market day you can join a lively throng of locals shopping for clothing, kitchenware, fruits and vegetables. You might visit one of the town’s traditional grocery shops and be served by a white-coated assistant who will ask whether you want your Parmigiano aged 12, 24 or 36 months? In the main square, Piazza del Popolo, you may be lucky enough some evening to take in a music performance or festival honouring the town’s famous son, Gioachino Rossini, or just sit in a café, to soak up the atmosphere and admire the fountains with their depictions of tritons and seahorses.
I would allow at least one full beach day in a week in Pesaro. Rent a ‘lettino’ from the beach attendant, stretch out with your book or iPod and soak up the unique Adriatic atmosphere. Your well-tended beach establishment will have all mod cons; loos, showers, coffee, cold drinks, gelato (essential) and snacks. No need to leave all day, although if you do go to one of the nearby restaurants for a 3-course lunch, Italian style, remember the golden rule – no swimming for at least 3 hours!
Now in chilled-out mode, next on my sightseeing list is Gradara. This medieval jewel, 142 metres above sea level, is said to be the setting of the tragic love story of Paolo and Francesca, immortalised by Dante in his Divine Comedy. You can explore the 14th-century walls which enclose the town and be transported back in time, while admiring the amazing views from the imposing fortress.
Italy never ceases to amaze with its diverse cuisine. What is the staple diet in Le Marche would be barely known in other regions; it’s as if each of the 20 regions is a foreign country when it comes to food. Marche specialities that I enjoyed were stuffed green olives; delicious mouthfuls filled with meat or cheese, breadcrumbed and fried – perfect with an aperitif. Seafood dishes abound along the coast; try a fritto misto di pesce – a pile of light, crispy seafood and shellfish, ingeniously tangled with strips of equally crispy courgette. Game is popular in season, with stuffed, rolled rabbit a favourite. Every Italian region has its own pasta shapes and recipes. Marche’s version of lasagne is called vincisgrassi - it’s a ‘special occasion’ dish, made with fresh pasta sheets layered with veal ragu, chicken liver or lamb sweetbreads, truffles or wild mushrooms, and béchamel sauce (absolutely no swimming after this one!)
Le Marche has so much to offer. My advice is to get there soon and make the most of the tranquillity, charm and unspoiled beauty that makes it such a special place... before the rest of the world gets there!;
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