A trip through Le Marche told by the New York Times
Our itinerary is purposefully loose, guided only by two pledges. The first: Stay away from Le Marche’s 110 miles of coastline. Though the seaside towns of Pesaro in the north and San Benedetto del Tronto in the south are said to hold charm, much of the coast has been developed in recent decades and is unappealing, and crowded in midsummer to boot. Seekers of a Tuscany-like experience will find the region’s charm rises in almost inverse proportion to the distance from salt water.
The second rule: Stay off the nation’s freeways when possible and stick to the curvy side roads. Unknown Italy isn’t found between toll booths.
Given these self-imposed mandates, the sight of tourist buses idling in the parking lots at Urbino isn’t comforting. But then, Urbino is the region’s best-known city, and certainly its classiest, so one does have to acquiesce to sharing the streets with a certain amount of company.
In the 15th century, the enlightened Duke Federico of Montefeltro, made wealthy by years of savvy mercenary work, refashioned this windy hilltop into an early model of the quintessential Renaissance town. His palace would set the bar for future Renaissance palazzi – modest on the outside, elegant but human-sized on the inside. The duke filled his court with some of the best painters and thinkers of his day, including the father of the painter Raphael.
His son walked the same steep cobbled streets that we walk, past buildings of flesh-colored brick and terra cotta roofs. We wander through the palace, which holds the region’s finest art museum, including works like Raphael’s “The Mute.” Outside, the cafe tables of the Piazza della Repubblica are filled with students from the university.
After dark, the crooked streets empty and we stroll alone down 500-year-old lanes where orange lamps throw light across the orange brick. Some are so narrow I can reach out and touch both walls. The shadows become characters.
The duke’s reign was a time of great security and benevolence, but at night it’s hard to walk through this Shakespearean set of a town and not feel that you are about to witness the small beginning of some great drama: a purloined letter, a scuffle between feuding clans. In front of the palazzo, a clot of college boys talks and jokes. I half expect to hear names like Mercutio or Benvolio.
Blame dinner for these off-the-leash imaginings. I hadn’t expected from Le Marche such a distinct and proud regional cuisine, or such wheelbarrow-loads of it. There are, of course, the Italian staples like cheese – a sharp formaggio di fossa that the locals wall up in limestone holes to age, and the casciotta d’Urbino so craved by Michelangelo that he bought up farms to ensure himself an unbroken supply of the stuff, according to my Touring Club of Italy guide to the region.
Away from the coast, where seafood prevails, of course, this region’s cuisine is staggeringly meat-based. Lamb, rabbit, swine – the Marchigiani eat more flesh per capita than any of their countrymen, according to the region’s tourist office. Pigs are the star of the country kitchen, though. There is pancetta and prosciutto, and several dishes made from porcine parts best left unmentioned. And every overflowing plate of antipasti arrives with a soft salami that’s as spreadable as warmed butter and that has forever turned me against those rock-hard cylinders sold in American supermarkets.
One day at noon, we stop at a table in the square where a man in a suitably filthy apron stands before his truck and shaves a pile of his home-smoked pork onto waxed paper with a knife. We buy rolls and mineral water at one shop, cheese at another, then walk to where the Albornoz Fort sits like an old brick crown atop Urbino. We sit in the grass and eat with Raphael in mind, sharing his view of the pink roofs and green hills.
From Urbino, we spend several days driving a rough circle through the agricultural center of Le Marche – often in second gear, on roads that at times seemed too pinched to accommodate even a center line. We pass green fields of durum soon to turn golden, for this is Italy’s macaroni bowl, home to much grain production. These hills have been cultivated hard for millenniums, and sometimes power lines and roads zipper across them. But nonetheless there is a gentleness to the landscape, and a tranquillity in the pattern of rectangles and squares.
Every six or eight miles, the fields crest and another impossibly picturesque medieval hill town appears in a shaft of Annunciation light, its brick ramparts now only under siege by olive trees, its palisades now only defended by dandelions: Serra de’ Conti. Cupramontana. Staffolo. Ostra.
Wandering through these towns, barely mentioned in any guidebook, becomes a highlight of the trip, with the midmorning torpor of their tidy town squares, the proud butcher shops hung with homemade salami, the deliciously crooked little streets that lead nowhere that we’re headed – and so we take them. In every town, matrons in headscarves and support hose and cardigans waddle up the cobbles with grocery bags, as if they’re leaving central casting instead of the negozio di alimentari. Surprised by visitors, they return our smiles with smiles, and a “Salve!” …. read more