Making Tracks in Le Marche

(Originally published in the Los Angeles Times, November 12, 2000)

The early morning mist lifting up from the valleys reveals rivers and hills, well-ordered farms, orchards and vineyards, a patchwork landscape of alternating green and beige squares dotted with hilltop castles and walled towns. It is like a curtain rising on a play: Le Marche, the Unknown Italy.

If "unknown" is too strong a word, it is probably correct to say that of all the regions of Italy, Le Marche--in English, the Marches--is the least known abroad and the least traveled. While villa-renting-and-buying foreigners are transforming the towns and countryside of Tuscany and Umbria and even venturing into the southern areas of Puglia and Calabria, Le Marche remains relatively undiscovered. Its very name means "boundary lands," a reference to its historic isolation between the east side of the Apennine mountain range and the Adriatic Sea.

In this unlikely land, the Renaissance bloomed, and the towns that sprang up in that relatively prosperous era stand untouched--so far--by gentrification. This is Le Marche's big draw today--authenticity. And accessibility. The motor age has put Le Marche within two or three hours' drive from Rome.

My husband, Franco, and I were on our third visit to the region last March, this time with my son, Sean, and his wife, Hannah. Franco and I were in the middle of a long sojourn in Rome, and we had yet to see Le Marche in spring.

We drove north and east from Rome, through the Abruzzi region and across the Apennines, to the town of Ascoli Piceno. The calendar said March, but flowers and fruit trees were blossoming, even in the mountains. It was late afternoon, and after checking into our hotel, we just had time to take a walk around Piazza del Popolo, a jewel of a square.

I know I will have to restrain myself from using the word "jewel" in describing the towns of Le Marche, but in this case it is appropriate. All around the square, on posts and strung across it, were tall lanterns resembling chandeliers, the remnants of Carnevale, or Mardi Gras, festivities the night before. Now it was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and the decorations were about to come down, but their lacy forms glimmered in the approaching dusk.

The square is lined on two sides by arcades sheltering shops and cafes. It was teatime, so we stopped in at Caffe Meletti, an Ascoli landmark known for its production of anisette liqueur. The cafe has been restored to its original Art Nouveau style so that as we sat at our window seats, surrounded by the highly polished wood paneling, we felt as if we were in the Gilded Age, waiting perhaps for Caruso and Puccini to drop by.

The square is dominated by the 13th century Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo and the church of San Francesco.

Inside the church the next day, we were stopped short by a stained-glass window unlike any we had seen in Italian churches. Among all the traditional windows depicting scenes with religious figures was one showing a group of pale, emaciated people wearing the Star of David on their clothes, lorded over by a large man in a fascist uniform. We sought out a priest for an explanation. This window, he said, commemorated the death in Auschwitz of a modern saint, the Polish martyr Maximilian Kolbe, canonized in 1982.

When we expressed surprise at this contemporary theme, the priest directed us to the crypt in the Duomo (cathedral). There we found a series of windows depicting moments from World War II, including battle scenes that showed American soldiers, the fighting and death of partisans, the cruelty of the fascists.

It seemed almost incongruous to find upstairs a traditional 12th century sanctuary. Its most prominent feature is a beautiful polyptych by Carlo Crivelli (1430-94) above the altar, widely held to be the Venetian painter's finest work.

We topped off our day of sightseeing with a wonderful dinner at Mastro Ciliegia, named for a character in Carlo Collodi's "Pinocchio." For Franco, it was the place to sample the Ascoli specialty vincisgrassi, a lasagna-like dish of pasta with chicken livers and sweetbreads draped in bechamel sauce. It was served with local olives and assorted deep-fried vegetables. The wine, a smooth Rosso Piceno, was local too.

The next day, for a change of pace and scene, we drove east to the sea and the town of San Benedetto del Tronto, the largest Italian fishing port on the Adriatic. We strolled the white sands in our bare feet and tested the not-too-cold water, happy to have the beach to ourselves except for a few year-rounders walking their dogs. From the endless line of shuttered cafes, cabanas and changing cabins as far as the eye can see, we could imagine how crowded it must be in summer.

A state road borders the sea, running parallel to the slightly inland autostrada; we took the autostrada because the coastal scenery is, well, not beautiful. The road, which follows the railroad tracks, is congested, full of trucks, lots of traffic lights, car dealerships and, believe it or not, fast food places. (Many of these little towns even have a McDonald's!)

Our destination was Macerata, a medieval hill town that follows the trend of banning vehicles from its center. Finding a parking place just outside the old walls was a challenge despite the numerous garages. Finally, Sean got out of our car, lifted an iron bar blocking a parking space and replaced it after we squeezed in. (At times like these it is easy to see why Italians are snapping up the new, tiny Mercedes-Benz Smart car, which is no bigger than two armchairs joined together with four wheels.)

Perhaps the best known of Macerata's monuments is the spectacular Sferisterio, built as an elongated handball arena in the early 1800s, with elegant colonnaded stands and boxes in Palladian style. A century later it was discovered to have superb acoustics, and every summer it is a venue for opera and concerts.

After strolling the arcaded streets and window-shopping, we moved on a few miles west to the tiny hill town of Montecosaro. There our friends Luisa and Giovanni Bartolini own an exquisite little hotel and one of the best restaurants in all Italy (in the opinion of Franco, who is both Italian and the author of six cookbooks).

Giovanni is an inventive chef who serves extraordinary meals in the arched-ceiling basement of an 18th century abbey. Luisa is a licensed sommelier and oversees an extensive wine cellar in a lower-level grotto. Both the hotel and the restaurant are called La Luma, for the oil lamp that lights the way to the wine cellar.

A quick walk around the town's one tiny square and we were ready for Giovanni. He outdid himself with a multi-course meal featuring his versions of the specialties of Le Marche, starting with fricando di verdure in crema di melanzana (braised vegetables in creamed eggplant), zuppa di ceci e orzo (chickpea and orzo soup) and vincisgrassi; Giovanni's version of this glorified lasagna had giblets, sweetbreads, beef marrow, Parmesan, butter, milk and two wines, Verdicchio and Marsala--believe it or not, an incredibly light dish. Then there was agnello al forno (roast ribs of baby lamb) with spinach and roasted potatoes, and for dessert a souffle of melted chocolate with a plate of tiny pastries. Luckily, Montecosaro is a small town; we never would have made it back to our rooms if we had far to walk.

Back in the car the next day, we were surprised to find ourselves hungry for lunch. Ahead was Iesi, which from a distance looks like any other of Le Marche's walled towns on top of a hill. But as you get closer, you notice a difference: The old walls, instead of being forbidding and impregnable, greet you with colorful bits of laundry hung out to dry. Through the centuries, the walls have been built upon and modified into habitations, turning them into a living part of the town.

Iesi is the birthplace of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-36), a brilliant and innovative composer who died young. As befits a tragic genius of the Baroque age, his monument in the town square is over the top: A nude violin player and a nude muse, draped languorously across a catafalque, pay homage to the young master.

The town hosts a lyric opera festival every October. And 50 miles northeast in Pesaro a summer opera festival honors native son Gioacchino Rossini. (See Guidebook for information.)

Our two days of meandering put us in a mood of high anticipation for our last stop: Urbino, a feudal backwater transformed into Renaissance gem by the vision and intellect of one man, Duke Federico da Montefeltro (1422-82).

Federico, like other nobles of his day, celebrated himself with the construction of a grand palace. Unlike the others, he built his as part of a community, not as an isolated fortress. With its inspired balance between spaces, buildings and human activity, Urbino remains a model of urban planning.

Crowned by spires, towers and the Duomo, Urbino can be seen from quite a distance. We began to fear we might get there too late to obtain tickets to tour the ducal palace. Urbino was the birthplace of the master Raphael (1483-1520) and of Bramante (1444-1514), the designer of St. Peter's in Rome. Titian left his mark here, as did Piero della Francesca, Crivelli, Paolo Uccello, Sandro Botticelli and Luca Signorelli.

There was much to see, and we were taken aback to find that our visit to the palace would be limited. Because of budget constraints, there were not enough guards to cover the numerous rooms, so visitors were admitted every half-hour in groups accompanied by guides. Not guides knowledgeable about art, but security guards who basically followed us from room to room.

Urbino is a university city, and the piazzas and cafes were animated by young people. We set out on a walk to Raphael's birthplace and found ourselves on a long, long set of steep steps winding up past the stone houses of the town. Not much of Urbino is built on a flat surface; every street and alley is steeply inclined. At the top of the staircase-street was a grassy park filled with students engrossed in their books, lovers entwined on blankets, families picnicking and children at play. The view of the walled city was breathtaking.

As a parting celebration that evening, we had dinner at La Vecchia Fornarina, where a reproduction of Raphael's unashamedly topless beauty, "La Fornarina" (the baker's wife), draws admiring gazes, as the original has for 500 years.

Of course, what we really went for was to dine on more of Le Marche's luscious specialties. I want to go back for seconds. Of everything.