Italy's Heartland: Feeling Protected and Happy in the Storybook Hills of the Marches

by Corby Kummer

THE LANDSCAPT: of the Marches, a region of Italy east of Tuscany and south of Venice, is the warmest I know. For miles, roads wind up and down gentle hills blanketed with fields of wheat, corn, and sunflowers, which are interrupted by great stands of oak, so prized that the law protects them. Around nearly every bend is a fortified hill town whose sinuous, crenelated walls grow as if organically from the hillside. Everything— walls, roads, churches, houses, town halls, theaters, and the many fortresses, which despite their original purpose seem designed for a child’s pleasure— is of the local brick, whose color ranges from wheat to honey to dusty pink. The vaunted landscape of Tuscany, with its dun-colored castles jutting from spiky hills and its rows of cypresses like exclamation points, seems frenetic by comparison. The Marches enfold you.

If you don’t know the Marches, you’re not alone. Most Italians don’t either. My food-aware friends had heard that the pasta there was the best in Italy, and that the olive oil, prosciutto, and sausage competed for the same title; they heard right. The region’s wines are well known even if their source isn’t—especially verdicchio, the lightly astringent white wine that was long a watery cliché in checkered-tablecloth restaurants but that has recently been greatly improved by forward-thinking winemakers.

The culturally aware know that a pilgrimage is mandatory to the ducal palace of Urbino, whose court life, the subject of Castiglione’s The Courtier, was one of the pinnacles of Renaissance civilization. Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation, a disturbing, transfixing picture that hangs in the palace, is often the climax of a Piero trail that begins in Tuscany and continues across the Apennines to Urbino. There the trail usually ends, although lovers of the Renaissance keep going south, pursuing the work of Lorenzo Lotto and Carlo and Vittore Crivelli, painters who long worked in the Marches; this tour finishes at Ascoli Piceno, one of the bestpreserved Renaissance city centers in Italy. Ascoli Piceno, on the region’s southern border, is a four-hour drive from Rome, and Urbino is four hours from Florence or anyplace else you’re likely to be. You have to plan to go.

If Italians do, it is for a holiday along the Adriatic, usually as part of a package tour. That is not the way to see the Marches. Boxy hotels crowd the resort towns, and the coast is lined by railroad tracks built at the turn of the century— you must cross them to get to the beach. If you know the right stretches, you can spend a very pleasant few days by the sea. But it seems silly to lie in the sun for long when just a few miles inland is that landscape.

The Marchigiani, as the region’s inhabitants are called, don’t mind being forgotten, and even prefer their relative isolation. Their motto has long been “Non fare il passo più lungo della gamba,” or “Don’t take a step longer than your leg.” Today light industry, carefully started out of agricultural profits and expanded one small step at a time, flourishes throughout the region, and famous clothing designers in the big cities rely on the standards of craftsmanship upheld in the Marches. Successful small industrialists typically see to it, however, that at least one member of every generation keeps farming.

This trust in the land—the Marches have been a breadbasket since Roman times—helps explain the people’s devotion to the region and their steady, open character. If you have to stop for directions, and you will, the person you ask will lean right into your car window for a chat. Don’t worry if you don’t speak Italian; sign language and a few words will get you far. Do learn the phrase “deve fare il giro,” meaning “you have to go around.” Those lovely walled towns have just one entrance, and you usually ask just after passing it.

THE BEST way to see the region is to stay in its heart, the provincial center of Jesi, where you are in the thick of castles and rolling hills. The most inviting towns and cities are rarely much farther than an hour’s drive from Jesi, which, Jonathan Keates says in Italian Journeys, a beautifully if showily written book published last year in England, “distills the Italian hill-town to its quintessence without whimsy or pretence for the benefit of tourists.”

Jesi and its surrounding hill towns run along the Esino valley, one of four horizontal bands into which the Marches are divided, roughly corresponding to the region’s four provinces. The name of the region was first used in the tenth century, by Frankish rulers who had invaded from the north; marche is a word of Germanic origin that means “borderland" (Italians pronounce it mar-kay). Even after the Franks ceded the region to the popes, border disputes were a way of life, and most villages and cities were fortified. The Marches largely remained papal states until the unification of Italy, in the 1860s; during the Renaissance several powerful warrior families, sometimes allied with the popes and sometimes not, ruled the region and built many of its grandest monuments. The warlords were great patrons, too, and the greatest was Duke Federico da Montefeltro, who created the court of Urbino.

The defining genius of the Marches was Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1502), a Sienese military architect who came to Urbino and worked all through the Marches. Francesco di Giorgio’s designs contain virtually no right angles and are of fanciful shapes: the site dictated the form, and so no wall, no tower, is like any other. One fort, at Sassocorvaro, is shaped like a tortoise. The octagonal fortress at Mondavio is now an entertaining museum with hokey wax figures; the guides, most of them teenage boys, delight in pointing out secret entrances, dungeons, hidden lookouts, how the curve of the walls repelled cannonballs, the advanced ventilation system, and a deceptive wall through which soldiers could break to escape if the fortress was invaded.

Driving to the towns where you can view work by Francesco di Giorgio and his followers (you will become surprisingly attentive to crenelated walls) is as worthwhile as strolling through them, especially the approach to Cingoli, called “the balcony of the Marches” for its commanding site. Once you are inside their walls, wholesome towns like Corinaldo, Treia, and Staffolo make you feel embraced. The most lost in time is Loretello, a miniature fortified town with a tiny tower, perfectly scaled-down walls, and just a handful of houses.

Twice I happened on local festivals where I was simply given plates of food—once near Serra de’ Conti (more great walls), where I had crescia, a rich flatbread cooked on a griddle, with sweet, home-cured prosciutto, a regional specialty, and once near Matelica, where a winemaking cooperative handed out plates of fresh fried fish. Even if you’re not given something to eat, you’ll see vignettes of everyday life—for example, men in a barber shop in Pergola being shaved and trading gossip behind one of the region’s many art-nouveau storefronts, the door wide open.

The hotel most convenient to these towns, the Federico II, just outside Jesi, isn’t the kind I usually seek—it is a new, lavish, high-rise businessmen’s hotel—but it has attentive, efficient service and a big indoor pool, and is very close to the highway. Phis last is important, because the many hills mean that driving times can be longer than they look on the map.

San Lorenzo in Campo, in the valley near Loretello, must be visited for II Giardino, one of the best restaurants in Italy. Massimo Biagiali, the cheerfully arrogant owner, who bears a resemblance to Alain Delon, stocks the region’s notable olive oils and wines. You can try the oils of Fattoria Petrini, among the smoothest and most flavorful in the country (San Vito, a cru made of the olives of just one hillside, is available from Dean & Deluca, at 800221-7714), poured on a nutty wholewheat bread made in the village. You can order a course around the winemaker Giorgio Brunori’s San Nicolò, a verdicchio in a class above all others, of very limited production (Brunori sells it at his wine shop in Jesi, which has a wide selection of the region’s wines). Biagiali’s mother, Efresina Rosichini, makes the unbelievably light pasta, and puts sheets of it in, for example, a lasagne with pureed local greens and béchamel sauce, and she makes exceptional ice creams, especially an intensely flavored hazelnut I still dream of. IIl Giardino is also a hotel, which is not on a par with the restaurant: the twenty rooms are good value but small and plain.

From Jesi it is an easy drive up the coast to Pesaro, the region’s most worldly city which provides a colpo di mondanità—a “shot of sophistication.” Pesaro has the feel of an elegant northern city like Parma or Bologna. Because it is also a resort, it offers two equally diverting passeggiate, the strolls that Italians take en masse before and after dinner: through the Renaissance center, with the most fashionable shopping in the region; and along the Adriatic, where you can see villas in the art-nouveau style, called “Liberty” in Italy. One, the Villetta Ruggeri, is an extravaganza of wild ornament, with terra-cotta lobsters holding up the cornice. The Museo Civico, in the center, has a celebrated altarpiece by the Venetian Giovanni Bellini and an extensive collection of the hand-painted maiolica made around Urbino in the late Renaissance, whose blue-and-yellow decoration is much in favor now.

Music is a central part of life in the Marches. Gioacchino Rossini, the composer, was born in Pesaro, and the annual Rossini festival takes place there, this year from July 31 to August 18. In celebration of the bicentennial of Rossini’s birth, a series of exhibitions in and around Pesaro will continue through the fall. Nearly every town has its own opera house. In the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century families built them cooperatively, each paying for its own box. These theaters turn up in the most unlikely places: in beach towns, in the fortress at Sassocorvaro, and in the tiny hill towns near Jesi. Jesi itself has the grandest, the Teatro Pergolesi (its namesake, the composer, was born in Jesi), which is often used and is open for tours. The biggest is the Sferisterio, an enormous semi-oval coliseum built in the 1820s in Macerata, an animated university hill town south of Jesi, which stages an opera festival each July.

Many of the famous musicians who come to Pesaro’s Rossini festival stay at Villa Serena, in the hills on the outskirts of town. The Villa Serena, converted to an inn in the fifties, is more like a true aristocratic house than are carefully and recently restored villas, because it is haphazard. There are valuable chandeliers, maiolica plates on the walls, and good sixteenth-century furniture alongside tag-sale dressers, 1940s nightstands, and cheap pressed-glass vases; the plumbing in the large bathrooms might be from any decade in this century; everything, old and new, is worn and frequently dusty. The gardens are large, formal, and unkempt, with walls and gates leading to secret-garden-like beds for vegetables and flowers. The Villa Serena reminded me of the romantic, secluded small hotel of the Rodgers and Hart song (there’s even a wishing well), where “Perhaps you’d like to play the organ/ They tune it ev’ry other fall.”

IF MARCHIGIANI want a day at the beach, they go to the one part of the coast not hemmed in by railroad tracks, and also the most dramatic—the Conero Riviera, named for the mountain that broods over the whole region. The beaches are of pebble, rather than the sand of the rest of the coast, and thick cypress groves go straight up the foothills of the Conero, making the area look like the French Riviera. The pretty towns of Numana and Sirolo, on hills above the beaches, have retained their character even while becoming resorts. The area is just an hour’s drive from Jesi, but if you prefer to stay at the beach you can go to the town of Portonovo for either of two good hotels: the Fortino Napoleonico, a nineteenth-century stone fort converted to a hotel, which has a private beach, or the Emilia, on the hill above the town, a modern hotel with tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a restaurant famous for its excellent fish.

To my mind, the best reason to visit the coast is to eat well and then head southward on the main highway for Ascoli Piceno. Whichever restaurants you try, you should search out an extraordinary red wine made a few miles from Portonovo: Cùmaro, which in 1988, three years after its first release, won a top prize in an important worldwide competition. Cùmaro is a Rosso Conero, made of montepulciano grapes grown by the winemaker Umani Ronchi in a seven-acre vineyard. It is as lush and powerful as any Bordeaux.

The best restaurant on the coast, the Villa Amalia, also has modern and pleasant rooms, although the town it’s in, Falconara Maritima—near Ancona, the region’s capital and principal port —has little to recommend it besides proximity to the airport. (Ancona itself was ruined by wartime bombing and careless rebuilding.) The owner, Lamberto Ridolfi, is dedicated to preserving the best of the region, and his mother, Amalia Ceccarelli, knows how to cook it (more Italian restaurants seem to be mom-and-son than mom-and-pop operations). Ridolfi always offers some kind of maccheroncini di Campofilone, a cult pasta that is still made by hand in Campofilone, a small town just in from the coast. The dough contains only eggs and flour—no water, salt, or oil—and the hand-cut angel-hair strands almost completely absorb whatever sauce they are paired with. I was served maccheroncini with a simple sauce of diced zucchini and orange zucchini blossoms, and the dish was exactly right.

Farther down the coast begins serious competition in making the region’s best brodetto, an aromatic fish stew served over toasted bread. Some cooks add hot pepper, vegetables, and vinegar; others use just tomatoes, garlic, oregano, and parsley; some insist on fish only, others add shellfish; all think theirs the only right recipe. With brodetto you drink verdicchio, preferably one of the superior versions made by Villa Bucci (which has helped lift the international image of verdicchio) or Umani Ronchi.

The region’s signature pasta dish is vincisgrassi, a lasagne whose odd name is usually said to derive from Prince Alfred Windisch-Graetz, the Austrian general who governed Ancona in the mid-nineteenth century. Luciano Scafà, the proprietor of the Ristorante Davide, in the fashionable resort of Porto San Giorgio, and an amateur historian, refutes this. He has found much earlier recipes for the same dish called princisgras, or “princely fat,” for its expensive richness (prosciutto, chopped meats, truffles). Today the main recipes vary according to whether they include or omit béchamel sauce with the longcooked meat ragu; béchamel, in the view of some, carries too much of a taint of Emilia-Romagna, an adjacent region that is famous for its lasagne. No matter. The homemade pasta in the Marches rivals and often betters that of its neighbor.

Ascoli Piceno, not far south of Porto San Giorgio, is one of the country’s great walking cities, dotted with the kind of square, blunt-topped towers familiar from the Tuscan town of San Gimignano, and its Piazza del Popolo, paved in travertine, is one of the great squares-cum-salons. On one side of the piazza rise the thin ribs of the octagonal Gothic apses of San Francesco, stark and beautiful, and on the others are handsome medieval and Renaissance façades. The back streets are an intact fabric of late medieval and Renaissance houses, still lived in and uninterrupted by shops.

Museums everywhere in the Marches are as interesting for their oddball contents as for their paintings. The museum at Cingoli, for instance, displays the spiked wooden cuffs and leather balls used for gioco del pallone, a Renaissance game (you hit back the ball with a cuff, worn on the left hand; the guide let me try one on) that local citizens re-create in costume on the last Sunday of June. In several crowded rooms of the Palazzo Colocci, a house museum hidden in the center of Jesi, you can examine a handwritten menu from a surprisingly lavish dinner in 1944 or an eighteenth-century candlelit clock. A museum at Castelfidardo is dedicated to the accordion, because the town was and remains a center of its manufacture. At Tolentino there is an “international" museum of caricature, in Cupramontona an international museum of wine labels, in Macerata a collection of crèches. My favorite Marches museum is in Fabriano, a town known for its sausage and salami and its paper factories. At the paper and watermark museum there you can watch workers make rag paper, fishing out from large copper-lined tubs metal screens supporting wet, thick sheets of paper with enchanting filigree watermarks. You can buy dried sheets and admire them in the light.

As elsewhere in Italy, my touchstones are Faith Heller Willinger’s Eating in Italy, which also lists hotels, museums, and sources of local crafts, and Burton Anderson’s Wine Atlas of Italy. Of the general guides, I found the Cadogan guide and The Real Guide the most useful, and the Hachette the most complete. All you really need, though, is a car and a map and a week.