A Return to Le Marche: Palaces, Painters and Pilgrims

The ducal palace in Urbino displays a detail by Raphael, a native son of the city.
The ducal palace in Urbino displays a detail by Raphael, a native son of the city.

A Return to Le Marche: Palaces, Painters and Pilgrims

By Kent E St John

A few months ago I took a step back in time and headed to the Region Marche in Italy. Years ago I spent time in Ascoli Piceno taking an Italian speaking course; I was a dismal failure but so enjoyed my time there. It was one of my first articles for GoNOMAD and I read it over before leaving in anticipation:

Ascoli’s ancient feel does not hold back its development or its desire to offer diversions to history. This morning begins under blue skies and bulbous white clouds at the Piazza del Popolo.

A steaming cup of cappuccino at the Lorenz Café is served with gratis sweets and cookies…true decadence and fortification for the day’s busy events.

I did return to Ascoli but this trip took me deeper into the Marche; its villages and sea coast unveiled more about its people. I happened to get invited on a Marche accreditation trip for travel agents given by the region. It also gave me insight as to how the Marche is presented to agents around the US.

My travel background was as a travel agent so it also gave me a chance to learn just what is presented, a look into the telling of the story. It is a region where English is seldom heard and I certainly have no discouraging words. How could you about one of Italy’s most diverse treasures?

All Aboard

It has been years since I’ve boarded a full bus for a trip, but the sunny blue skies and modern easy airport of Ancona /Falconara made it a breeze and soon we entered the town of Urbino, a UNESCO gem.

This 15th century city was at one time one of Europe’s most important cities and the home of one of Europe’s most illustrious courts headed by Duke Federico da Montefeltro and a gathering of the greatest painters, poets and scholars of that time.

His ducal palace still today anchors the city and is now filled with works by native son Raphael and clearly shows his development in early stages.

Street scene in Urbino
Street scene in Urbino.

To explore Urbino today takes stamina as its narrow streets wind up and down the hills, but the rewards are great visually and the feel of an old town palpable.

At night it is hard to feel like you live in these fast paced days; your pulse slows and steps shorten. In between twin humps of a hill is the Piazza della Republica; sitting at an outdoor café will certainly set the stage for a Marche mindset.

The mindset will come in handy at the nearby village of Urbania on the fast flowing Metauro River. The Castel Durante is huge and dates from the 13th century.

The name of the city was changed in 1636 when Pope Urban VIII took over the land and brought them into the Papal States.

It is however on the arcaded streets that life in a Marche village unfolds; ice cream shops and cafes are interspaced with shops carrying the local ceramic works.

If you’re in a macabre mood behind the altar of the Chiesetta dei Morti in Via Ugolina are a dozen leathery mummified corpses, one with multiple stab wounds… shades of Urbania CSI.

Deep Within

If the mummies didn’t chill you out the Grotte di Frasassi will, a guarantee. In one of the huge caverns alone the Cathedral of Milan would easily fit!

One of Le Marche’s most visited sites is also one of its newest, discovered in 1971 by the CAI Speleological Association of Ancona.

Inside the trails will take you through a kaleidoscope of stalagmites and stalactites amidst watery streams, an Alice in Wonderland feeling that will thrill. Only about 1/13th of the caverns have been explored and Frasassi is called by some the most beautiful cave in the world.

The Grotte di Frasassi in Genga
The Grotte di Frasassi in Genga

The area nearby also holds some historic and architectural gem villages such as Fabriano and Serra San Quirico.

“There are Places I’ll Remember

‘There are places I’ll remember” isn’t just some Beatles lyrics; some places deserve to be remembered. Palazzo Romani Adami in Fermo, Marche is one such place.

The Palm Sunday lunch there was fantastic and the Palazzo offers up some great lodging options. The place offers rooms and apartments in a stunning setting in the middle of an old hillside town.

The 18th century building has Roman roots and rooms are also available on a B&B basis. It is, however, the apartments that will astound, done up with such style. One could only dream about a few weeks in La Marche based at the Romani.

Okay. You can tell that I could stay for weeks and in the Marche this would be my base, especially since it sits in the middle of the amazing town of Fermo.

The Piazza del Popolo stands below the massive cathedral as do the municipal buildings, off spider lanes flanked by homes to the locals for centuries, all this and only ten miles from the Adriatic Sea.

The town square in Loretto.
The Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto. Photo by Kent St. John.

Another of the Marche’s treasures is the nearby town of Loreto, a spot that still attracts pilgrims today. The house of the Virgin Mary is said to be enshrined within the Sanctuario della Santa Casa — itself an amazing structure, done by Pope Julius I. The crowds, however, make Fermo a much better option for staying.

The Adriatic Sea

The Marche isn’t all hill towns and mountains; the Adriatic Sea insures that. Perhaps the best example of a Marche beach town is San Benedetto del Tronto, long name and lots to see and do.

San Benedetto’s roots as a small fishing village can be found around the old port and the fleet heads out daily to capture some of the tastiest fish in Italy. However that small village has spread out as the “Queen of the Riviera Delle Palme.”

Fantastic parks are a walker’s delight and south of the city are long white beaches with places to try the catch of the day. Afterward take a few steps and grab a beach chair until a café stop is due late afternoon.

Above the resort part of the city is the old center with its castle and old brick houses. Night time starts with the Marche version of fish stew known as brodetto. The real thing is made with 13 different species of fish, no more, no less.

The village of Recanati
The village of Recanati

Back Where I Started

It was evident from the large buildings outside of Ascoli Piceno that the little city where I took an Italian language course had grown in the last five years. Happily, though, the center and Piazza del Popolo maintained its medieval and gothic splendor, the travertine main square still sparkled.

The people come and go as if pulled by a tide. The center of the square is anchored with the Palazzo del Popolo, a 13th century building. Off at the end is the Gothic church of San Francesco.

The streets of Ascoli are perhaps one of Italy’s best provincial treasures and walking via Solderini and via di Solesta is pure Marche enjoyment. A seat along the Tronto River as it rushes past is a must.

All was going wonderfully on my return till my bed shook at 3 AM, a quake! The next morning I was relieved to fine that the centuries-old buildings had once again survived; fifty miles away it was a different story.

The Earth Shakes

It was a different story in the city L’Aquila, Abruzzo that night; destruction was deadly and complete. But in true Italian fashion relief for victims and outpouring of caring was on display.

As we checked into the hotel in the gorgeous hill town of Recanati, I thought about all the wonderful places visited in Marche and the many still yet to explore.

Religious relics in Loreto, Italy
Religious relics in Loreto, Italy. Photo by Kent St. John

From my window the large church at the other end of the town loomed in the sinking sun. Sheep grazed in the fields below and olive trees shimmered in the cool breeze. I sipped some smooth local red till the lights appeared in the surrounding hills.

It was time to go to a huge dinner with all the local Marche dishes I had grown so fond of during my trip. It was graduation and my certification waited. I could only wish that there was another certification level to get just so I could return — and soon.

Wanna Go?

I flew on Alitalia and had a great flight; the plane was on time, connections easy and service great. Especially pleasant was the food and wine choices.

Italian Tourism has an excellent website and the Marche can be explored and studied on their own site. Lodgings, restaurants and shops are all easily found. There is also a rundown of the cities and villages.

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Kent St John

Kent St John

Kent St. John was GoNOMAD's Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.