Le Marche shares a border with five of Italy’s better known regions: Emilia Romagna (Bologna), Lazio (Rome), Tuscany (Florence), Umbria (Orvieto), and Abruzzo (best known for the wine grape Montepulciano d’Abruzzo). Even among Italians, the region’s reputation is eclipsed by its neighbors. While traveling to Bologna, sharing stories of a fantastic visit to Le Marche, I was often asked quizzically, “why would you go there?”
Before taking a week-long tour to Le Marche sponsored by the Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut, I might have asked the same question. My pre-visit answer was that I had never been there. It was simply a new adventure to an unknown area of my favorite country.
But now I know exactly why. I learned many reasons to visit and love Le Marche. I am happy to illuminate them, starting with the region’s magnificent position along Italy’s east coast between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine Mountains. On a clear day, you can see Croatia!
For history buffs, Le Marche offers layer upon layer of art and architecture in fortified towns stretching from Roman to Medieval to Renaissance to “modern” times (from the 18th century). Many well-preserved buildings date back to 1100. For botanists and gardeners, there is a fascinating mix of tropical trees and bamboo growing side-by-side with pines, cedars, oaks, and poplars. National parks and historic villas with manicured gardens provide oases for the soul. For hikers, choose gentle walks in the rolling hills or more advanced treks into the mountains. Religious interests? You will never run out of churches to visit.
I’m getting to the food and wine…
October is the best time to visit Italy because it’s truffle season! While Italy’s Piedmont region is known for white truffles, Acqualagna is the truffle epicenter of Le Marche. Nine varieties of truffles are hunted there. Book a truffle hunt with one of the region’s premier cacciatore di tartufi, Giorgio Remedia. One of his eight highly trained dogs will show the way. If a hunt is not possible, make time to shop for endless possibilities of truffled items and dine at Osteria Braceria Plinc, both owned by the Marini family’s Acqualagna Truffle Company.
Tagliatelle con tartufo (pasta) is a signature dish throughout Le Marche. Another specialty is stuffed olives from the Ascoli-Piceno area, a treat dating back to the 1600s. Green olives—typically called tenera ascolana, picena or olivo ascolane—are filled with a mixture of meat and bread, then deep fried and served piping hot as an appetizer. Le Marche’s version of lasagne is called vincisgrassi—similar, but a bit drier. Piadine (Italian sandwiches on bread resembling pita) are ubiquitous, but in Urbino the bread is lighter and called crescia. And of course, because of proximity to the sea, there are many regional fish and seafood dishes.
Like the region as a whole, the wines of Le Marche are not well known. In part that is because production is comparatively low and exports are limited. Le Marche has 20 top-level DOC/G wine zones.
Three wine zones are exemplars of the red grapes grown in Le Marche.
- Rosso Piceno DOC is based on Sangiovese, the grape best known for the triumvirate of Tuscan wines (Chianti, Brunello, and Vino Nobile).
- Conero DOCG is based on Montepulciano, the main grape of neighboring Abruzzo.
- Vernaccia di Serrapetrona DOCG is perhaps the most unusual of the three. Serrapetrona is the only place this grape is grown and made into sparkling wine. Still wines are categorized as DOC. A more familiar “cousin”—Vernaccia di San Gimignano in Tuscany—is a white grape.
The white Verdicchio grape has put Le Marche on the quality wine map. Back when bottles of Chianti were just a straw-covered amusement, Verdicchio was a cheap table wine sold in kitschy green amphora-shaped bottles. Today the region called Castelli dei Jesi is a prestigious DOC, joined by the smaller area of Matelica DOC. (The riserva wines from both areas are classified as DOCG.)
Highlights of Major Cities
Ancona is the capital city of Le Marche. Bordering the Adriatic Ocean, the ancient seaport city of over 100,000 people draws thousands of tourists during summer months to its famous white beaches at the base of Monte Conero. Two of the most famous beaches are Portonovo and Spiaggia Del Passeto. In addition to shopping, eating, and taking walks along the harbor to admire the city’s architectural history, be sure to see the Cathedral of San Ciriaco, the Piazza del Plebiscito, two parks (Parco del Cardeto and Parco Pubblico Cittadella), and a Roman amphitheatre. To extend your adventure, you can either fly or take an 11-hour ferry ride to Split in Croatia!
Considered one of Le Marche’s loveliest and most sophisticated towns — “the Milan of Le Marche” — Jesi has a regal past. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Swabia was born there in 1194, but quite by accident. His mother (Constance, queen of Sicily) was passing through when she gave birth. Jesi propered during the Renaissance, so there are many elegant palaces and civic buildings to view and visit. For white wine lovers, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC is a required destination. Two of the best wineries are Tenuta di Tavignano and Umani Ronchi.
Agricola Piandelmedico is a caseificio (farm specializing in milk products) situated just outside the town of Jesi. Here you can taste and purchase over 30 different styles of cheese — and meet the animals too! — as well as purchase a wide selection of prepared and artisanal food products. The Trionfi Honorati family founded the farm in 1939. Today, the founder’s grandchildren Giulia and Antonio manage the farm and cheese production. In 2018 Giulia and her husband Christopher expanded the farm to include agricultural education and the retail shop.
Highlights of Smaller Towns
Pesaro is both a city and a commune perhaps best known as the birthplace of composer Gioachino Rossini, though views of the Adriatic are reason enough to visit. The town of Urbino, dubbed the Florence of Le Marche, lies within the commune of Pesaro. Its historic center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. In addition to Pesaro’s many tributes to Rossini, the “City of Music” offers several must-see historical attractions, including Villa Imperiale in the Colle San Bartolo National Park, the neighboring gardens of Villa Caprile (which is now a school but offers tours), and Piazza del Popolo in the historic center. In Urbino, a third must-see cultural opportunity is the 15th century Renaissance Ducal Palace that today houses the province’s National Gallery collections.
Ascoli-Piceno is in the southern part of Le Marche, bordering Abruzzo, at the end of a beautiful drive along the Adriatic. It is also near the Sibillini Mountains, which are part of the Apennines and a national park. Ascoli-Piceno is known for travertine marble, fabrics (particularly silk), and ceramics production. A fun stop along the walk among the piazzas is Meletti Caffe for a corretto appertivo—a shot of espresso with anisette liqueur.
Nearby Grottamarre is home to Villa Sgariglia, built in the late 1700s. Our host, Marchese Fabio Bogo, lives on the property and personally provided a tour of the villa and elaborate gardens organized like a “green theater” on multiple terraces. It is one of few remaining examples of 18th century Marche architecture.
Fabriano (Commune Genga). In 1971, two twenty-something guys noticed a small opening in the limestone rock along their hiking route. With reinforcements, including some serious blasting, they uncovered a grotto (cave) that is estimated to be 1.4 million years old. Grotte di Frasassi (“between the rocks”) maintains a consistent temperature of 14 degrees Celsius and 98% humidity. All tours must be led by a trained guide. Passage is tricky with lots of steps, but pathways and handrails are very well constructed.
Museo della Carta e della Fligrana is a museum in Fabriano dedicated to the histories of making paper by hand and creation of watermarks since the 12th century. The museum offers a guided tour that includes a demonstration of the processes for making both paper and watermarks.
Fiastra (near Macerata). The Chiaravalle Abbey was founded in 1142 by 12 Cistercian monks who were dispatched by the “mother house” in Milan to create a new monastery. In its heyday, there were about 100 monks living on the Abbey’s second floor facing east (toward Jerusalem) to welcome the day. During the day, the monks worked on the ground floor writing out manuscripts by hand. Underneath the center cloister, the monks built a labyrinthine wine cellar where they stored their home-made vino cotto. It is strong, semi-sweet wine made from must heated in a copper vessel until it is reduced to half its original volume, then fermented and aged for many years. Unique to Le Marche, it cannot be sold as wine, and only a few places sell it commercially.