Donald Strachan's verdict on the cultural highlights of Le Marche
Festivals. From themed food gatherings to small-town sagre, there's always something going on in Le Marche. Key dates in the musical diary include the Macerata Opera Festival (July and August) and Pesaro's Rossini Festival (August). There's a handy calendar of major events at the official tourism site for the region.
Small town life. A holiday is not just about the blockbusters and bucket-list sights. Le Marche has an abundance of towns where it is a pleasure just to be, not necessarily to see. Hilltop Jesi was fortified in the 15th century, and has a lively arts scene centred around its Teatro Pergolesi. Macerata has one of the region's liveliest weekly markets (on Wednesdays).
Lorenzo Lotto. In the first half of the 16th century, Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto was a bit of an eccentric on the northern Italian painting scene. Much of his best work was done for patrons in Le Marche, and most it is still in the region's small towns. Lotto is one of those painters that rewards a closer look: the more you stare, the more you see. Follow the backroads of the Lotto trail to Jesi's picture gallery; the little church of Santa Maria in Telusiano, in Monte San Giusto; and the Santuario della Santa Casa di Loreto, one of Europe's most important sites of Catholic pilgrimage. Lotto died in Loreto in 1556.
From left to right, the band of regions crossing central Italy begins in Tuscany—which hardly needs an introduction. Landlocked Umbria, “Italy's Green Heart”, is sprinkled with forests and olive groves and art towns that have been destinations for tourism and pilgrimage for centuries.
Then comes the other one.
Le Marche—“the Marches”—is the least visited of the three, by foreigners at least. But it has a quiet, authentic charm that still seems strangely untouched by mass tourism.
The region has a special place in the cultural history of Italy, too. Great Italian Romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi was born in Recanati in 1798. Bramante, architect of St. Peter's in Rome, came from a village near Urbino. Painters Gentile da Fabriano and Raphael (also from Urbino) were both marchigiani. And an artist from a different era, Argentine footballer Lionel Messi, traces his own family roots to Le Marche (also Recanati).
Donald's picks of places to visit in Le Marche
Gloriously remote now, Urbino was one of Italy's major cultural centres during the Renaissance. The Montefeltro family called the shots around here from the 13th century, reaching the peak of their power and fame in the late 1400s under Duke Federico. The fairytale Palazzo Ducale was built for him. No less an artist than Piero della Francesca was hired to paint the duke and duchess—side-by-side portraits hang in Florence's Uffizi Gallery—and Piero's enigmatic Flagellation of Christ now forms part of Le Marche's best painting collection, in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche. In 1416, the Salimbeni brothers—from San Severino Marche, 60 miles south-east of Urbino—painted the frescoes of the tiny Oratorio di San Giovanni, in the town's narrow backstreets.
Pesaro is one of several family-friendly beach resorts along an Adriatic coastline that stretches for 110 miles. The “resort” has a long history, however. First as a Byzantine port: intricate mosaics are on show below floor level in the Duomo. Later Pesaro was a fortified stronghold of two of Italy's most powerful noble families, the Milanese Sforzas and the Della Rovere, whose two popes include one who commissioned Michelangelo to decorate the Sistine Chapel. Pesaro's painting collection is now in the Musei Civici, with works by Bellini, Guido Reni, Lorenzo Monaco, and Marco Zoppo. Opera fans can tour the birthplace of bel canto composer Gioachino Bellini.
The southern Marche's architectural set-piece is a handsome (and mercifully flat) town whose piazzas and palaces are hewn almost exclusively from travertine, a honey-coloured limestone. At sunrise and sunset, the whole town emits a warm glow. Locals have a cultural history all of their own: until the Romans invaded in AD 89, this was the capital of the Piceni civlization (remains of both conqueror and conquered survive in the Museo Archeologico Statale). Ascoli Piceno was also home-base of Venetian Gothic painter Carlo Crivelli (1430–78). Crivelli panels hang in the cathedral, Museo Diocesano, and Pinacoteca. Ascoli's own street food is olive all'ascolana, green olives stuffed with meat and breadcrumbs, deep fried and served in a bag.
There's a gritty side to Le Marche's port city, certainly: you probably don't want to pick a base in the sprawling outskirts. But Ancona makes a perfect daytrip. The city was founded as an outpost of Greek Syracuse in the 4th century BC, and signs of a distinguished past peek through gaps in the urban fabric, particularly in the old city that climbs above the port (where an arch erected by Roman Emperor Trajan still stands). The city Pinacoteca (picture gallery) has a collection that includes a Titian, as well as more Crivelli and Lorenzo Lotto. At the hill's summit—with the best view over the Adriatic—is the 11th-century Cathedral of St. Cyriacus, built over (and using stones from) a Roman Temple of Venus. Ancona is also the home of brodettto all'anconetana, a regional spicy seafood soup traditionally made on deck from unsellable bits of catch. The dish is a little more refined these days.