Down the Adriatic coast from Emilia-Romagna, bordering Umbria to the west and Abruzzo to the south, is the region known as Le Marche. The name is the plural of la marca and translates into English as The Marches, in the sense of frontier lands - as in the Welsh Marches, on the border between England and Wales. In the Middle Ages, this part of Italy was divided into the Marches of Ancona, Camerino and Fermo. The feudal lords who ruled these areas had the title Marquis (Marchese in Italian).
Inland, this is a sparsely populated, mountainous region with dramatic landscapes, caves, gorges and torrents. The coastal plain is where most of the marchigiani live - and where most of the tourists visit. Although this is fertile ground, agriculture in Le Marche has declined over recent decades in favour of an economy built on small and medium-sized companies, often family-run, working in industries such as shoes and furniture.
What to see and do in Le Marche
Enjoy the mountains
Within the Apennines that run through Le Marche, you can find several regional parks and nature reserves as well as the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini. The latter is so wonderful for hikers that Englishwoman Gillian Price has written a book about how to get the most out of it: Italy's Sibillini National Park: Walking and Trekking Guide.
In the Gola della Rossa park, near Genga, the Grotte di Frasassi are well worth a visit. Take a jumper and follow the guided tour of this huge and extraordinary complex of caves. It's not cheap but it's certainly memorable.
The Conero Riviera is where the mountain meets the sea, the limestone peak of Monte Conero rising steeply from the waters of the Adriatic. This whole area is a regional nature park, with some rare flora and fauna, well signposted trails and stunning views.
Enjoy the sea
The beaches on the Conero coast are generally secluded and beautiful but, because you're up against the mountain, it's steep and you may have to scrabble a bit - or catch a bus - to get to them.
In the north of the region, there are good beaches at Pesaro (where the annual Rossini Opera Festival is held) and Fano. Further down, the ancient town of Senigallia offers the famous spiaggia di velluto (velvet beach).
San Benedetto del Tronto, in the south of Le Marche, has a wonderful stretch of sandy beach and marvellous, safe swimming. I had a holiday there once and remember the water being lovely.
Many of the beaches in Le Marche have paying sections, where you can hire a sunlounger and so on. If you don't want to do this, there is almost always a public part further down, where you can enjoy the sand and sea for free.
Explore the cities and towns
Particularly inland, the driving around this mountainous/hilly region of ancient towns with narrow roads is not easy and I would suggest that, where possible, you explore by public transport. When I was studying in Urbino, I covered a lot of ground by bus and never had any problems. Trains are also good in Italy (for more info, see Travelling around Italy).
The coastal towns mentioned above are nice to explore, before or after a stint on the beach.
Ancona, the region's capital, is a bustling port, with ferries sailing to and from Greece, Turkey and Croatia.
Ascoli Piceno is an atmospheric medieval town, surrounded on three sides by mountains. Its Piazza del Popolo is widely acknowledged to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing squares in Italy and there is much else besides to see and enjoy. Industrialisation has expanded the modern part of the town but the historic centre is where you'll find the beauty.
Urbino is a wonderful place, where I once spent a very happy summer as a student of Italian. This perfect Renaissance city is, in my opinion, an ideal mixture of ancient / cultural / peaceful and young / modern /
dynamic. It was the birthplace of the painter Raffaello Sanzio (known in English simply as Raphael) and home to the court whose virtues were extolled by Baldassare Castiglione in his turn-of-the-sixteenth-century Book of the Courtier (see below). This court was at the Palazzo Ducale of Federico da Montefeltro, which you can visit today.
Eating and drinking in Le Marche
With such a long coastline, you can expect lots of fish and seafood on the menu in Le Marche. Also popular is fish soup, brodetto / zuppa di pesce.
Inland, you'll find good meat, including pork, rabbit and chicken, and - highly prized and very expensive - truffles. The pasta is typically of the filled type, such as ravioli, cannelloni and lasagne, rather than loose pasta with sauce, though there is a lot of this too.
Le Marche wines
Recommended reading from Le Marche
Baldassare Castiglione is not particularly well known these days but his book Il Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) was hot reading for a couple of hundred years. It's about how to behave elegantly and effectively at court, in order to gain respect and further one's career - along the lines of Machiavelli's book Il Principe (The Prince). The court on which the book is based was in Urbino (see above).
For more information about Le Marche...
Buy a guide book for travelling around Le Marche.
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