Le Marche is a sleepy coastal region in Northern Italy full of picture-perfect rust-colored towns perched atop green hills or settled beside the turquoise Adriatic Sea. I spent 10 days in June wandering through cobblestone alleys and eating unprecedented proportions of gelato with my aunts and my grandmother.
I arrived late Saturday night by bus to a hostel near Termini Stazione. Due to a combination of jetlag and excitement, I couldn't sleep past 5:00AM, so I got dressed and took my camera on a stroll through the city as it started to come to life for the day. I walked through the Piazza della Republica, with its whistling fountain and ancient bathhouse / church of Santa Maria. I passed the theatre and walked through winding streets to the beautiful Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. 20 or so people, including a pair of nuns, waited in the piazza for the doors to open prior to the first mass of the day. The early morning sun lit the top of the church a golden hue. The day felt more silent than a large city is capable of being. I walked on to a small park named for Emmanuel Vittore and watched a flower vendor open his tented stall. I had breakfast at a café / bar facing Termini Stazione, listening to the array of languages passing by as I sipped my café latte.
The train pulled into the station and I immediately spotted 4 smiling faces waiting on the platform. We caught up as we lunched in a remarkable basement dining room of the Trattoria Marchegiano, with heavy brick vaulted ceilings and some delicious local sparkling wine. We ordered so much cheese and charcuterie that by the time our pasta pomodoro arrived, I could only manage to eat half. Tragic! We spent the afternoon in the Fabriano paper museum learning about the ancient local craft of paper making, departing with beautiful handmade cards and watermarked bookmarks in our pockets.
GROTTE DI FRASASSI
The 3rd largest cave system in the world lies beneath unassuming hills just inland from Ancona. I entered the underground passageway without much expectation, but I was blown away by the cave's size and beauty. It truly is a spectacle of nature. Everything takes on a ghostly quality due to the white color of the calcium deposits, which make up the stalactites and stalagmites, some of which are 10 or 12 meters tall. It's easy to lose a sense of scale underground because of the lack of familiar comparisons such as trees or grass. A formation ahead that appeared to be 5 or 6 feet tall turned out to actually rise 10 feet from the ground. The height of the first main chamber towered 300 feet above our heads. When we encountered underground ponds, the surface was so uninterrupted by wind that it looked like a true mirror. The silent 2km walk through the caverns felt otherworldly and unfamiliar; totally removed from the loud and sunny Italy just above our heads.
Loreto from a distance is stunning. A church tower, dome, and fortress wall sit atop a hill overlooking the sea and surrounding fields. Approaching from below, they resemble tiny toy buildings in a muted red hue. Loreto's main attraction is the house of the Madonna, the shabby brick dwelling where the Annunciation occurred and where Jesus lived with Mary & Joseph.
The house was dismantled in Nazareth in the 13th century and rebuilt in Loreto, where pilgrims started to journey to pay tribute. A church was build around the house, and fortress walls around the church, as the pilgrimage drew more travelers. Today it is the 2nd most visited Catholic shrine in Europe, after the grotto of Lourdes. Two parallel grooves in the marble floor around the Santa Casa have been worn by the knees of thousands of pilgrims each year. The art throughout the church is spectacular — it reflects the sacredness of the site.
Winding back and forth across a river and into a low valley brought us to the old town of Ascoli Piceno, a city described by one of our guide books as Creme Bruleé because of the architecture's travertine stones and burnt brown roofs. We started with a tour of the centro aboard a funny open-air train car, headphones playing us a poorly-translated history of the landmarks. We probably spent more time giggling about being bumped through town on a ridiculous fake train than actually listening, but we returned on foot to our favorite sites to get a better sense of the place.
The main Piazza gleamed from the early afternoon shower below a gothic cathedral in pristine white stone. Sitting along a low wall surveying the piazza and puffing on cigars were as many as 20 Italian grandfathers, chatting to one another and watching the day go by. It was a very Italiano scene.
On our way north, we stopped in an adorably picturesque seaside resort town called Grottamare. A wide pedestrian strand ran alongside the beach, and families strolled with children on bikes and rollerskates. Gorgeous old palm trees stood sentry beside the shore — a rare sight in Europe — and collapsed rental umbrellas formed colorful geometric grids in the sand.
As the final golden daylight illuminated the Adriatic before us, we sipped cold white wine and ate thin prosciutto pizza from a seaside ristorante. It was a beautiful night in a small town full of orange trees and orange houses, a Le Marche treasure on the ocean.
After a leisurely morning strolling the beach out in front of our villa (and a refreshing dip in the sea) we drove into the nearby port town of Ancona. In the heat of the afternoon on a cloudless day, the sun beat down unrelentlessly, warming the red brick of every surface in town. Starting in the centro, we meandered up curving staircases with ever more stunning views of the hillside houses and the shipping port below, where enormous 7-floor ferries waited to cross to Croatia.
At the pinnacle of the hill we found an old white Greek-looking church facing into the wind, and wandered through the cool crypt dug into the hill. To top off a day walking under a baking sun, we found some very tasty whipped-cream-topped gelato at a place called Rosa on the main shopping avenue. The drive home, winding through fields and wildflowers, timed perfectly with a pastel sunset, lighting the scene rose and lavender.
We set off early for a full day of exploring Urbino, a regional city rich with art and history, and and arrived in a parking lot just outside the ancient town wall. The enormous Palazzo Ducale towered above us. It was easy to see how Urbino could have been intimidating to approaching enemies throughout history. The centro buzzed with activity — from university students on their way to class to fellow tourists photographing the birthplace of Rafaelle. Our first stop was the Orto (Botanical Gardens) especially for the expert gardeners in our group. The flower beds and herbal pots were curiously organized according to the section of the human anatomy they were known to correlate to, such as cardiovascular strength or reproductive health. It felt like a peaceful, green, shady haven in the midst of a bustling metropolis.
Grandma's Italian friend had given us a ristorante recommendation, where we ordered the special Piato del Giorno and Antipasti: prosciutto-wrapped melons, tomato bruschetta, "priest-strangler" pasta, and risotto pomodoro. 5 stars for Taverna della Artista. After lunch we returned to the towering Palazzo Ducale, which is now the Museo Regionale delle Marches. The rooms of the Duke's grand palace went on and on and on, each one grander than the last. The art that filled them ranged from wall-sized tapestries to inlaid wooden doors to gold leaf religious paintings. It really was staggering, both in scale and in decorative detail. On our way out of town (post-afternoon-gelato of course), we stopped at a grassy flat overlook for a scenic view of the walled city in its entirety. A dark storm cloud loomed over our view, which only seemed to make the warm red buildings stand out even more grandly. The photos couldn't capture the impressive presence of Urbino.
Although it began a gloomy day, the rain held off and we were able to enjoy a dry and (later) sunny day in the seaside town north of Ancona called Senigallia. We arrived in the old town just in time to see the vendors packing up their goods from the weekly Thursday morning market. They lined the street that ran alongside a wide river, turned a murky brown from the previous night's rain. We wandered narrow uneven streets and came across a church and a smallish town square. An eclectic little vegan / vegetarian restaurant caught Mary Lou's eye, and we were pleasantly surprised when our creative-sounding dishes arrived in a lovely presentation. We strolled past a crumbling fort and underneath the train station to find the picturesque velvet beach we'd read about.
Shedding our shoes, Regula and I found teeny clam shells at the high water line and felt the ultra-fine powdery sand between our toes. The 5 of us sat in a beach café right on the sand and drank coffee-milkshake drinks called Sorbeto — an instant hit with the whole group — while reminiscing about past European adventures.
We decided it would be a waste not to spend any time at our gorgeous practically private white rock beach, so we spent Friday under the sun at our villa. Annie, Regula and I swam out to a perch on a rock 20 meters from shore, and even Mary Lou and Barbara got in up to at least their knees. The blue-green Adriatic was cool, buoyant, and refreshing. It was difficult to drag myself out of the water at the end of the day! The entire beach was made up of sparkling white smooth rocks that shone brilliantly under the hot sun. An Italian paradise.
We walked to one of the beach bars for a pre-dinner Negroni, something grandma had been wanting to do since her arrival in Italy. Sitting peacefully under an umbrella we watched swimmers offshore and witnessed the transition to twilight. Dinner at the local Trattoria consisted of thin-crust pizza, seafood risotto, gnocci pomodoro, and semi-freddo cioccolate. The sun, sea, cuisine, and company made for a delightful final night in our Portonovo villa.
After a tranquil morning train ride, we arrived in the city of Perugia to drumlines and streets full of people dressed in Medieval costumes. As it turns out we had perfectly timed our visit to a festival weekend, complete with reenactments of tradesmen and craftsmen in booths set up throughout the streets. We stayed in a really sweet little bed & breakfast in an ivy-covered apartment building just off the Piazza di Italia.
One of the funny things about Perugia is the ancient underground tunnels that have been turned into a 5-story descending escalator through the heart of the city. It was a drastic juxtaposition of modern day technology amidst crumbling centuries-old brick.
We had a phenomenal dinner at Ristorante di Sol perched on the hill and overlooking the nearby towns like Assisi and Spello. We had delicious wine, prosciutto pasta, and incredible views. This was my last night with everyone, so it was a great meal enjoying each other's company in some gorgeous surroundings.
The next day we took a quick trip to a nearby town called Spello, situated on a hill near the tourist magnet of Assisi. It was possibly the most charming place we'd seen so far. In front of every single home and storefront were piles and piles of bright blooming flowers. The effect was a town completely perfumed with a delicious floral scent.
From vantage points overlooking nearby towns and mountains we watched dark thunderstorms pass by, but miraculously avoid us. We finished the afternoon sitting in the town square tasting high quality local olive oil and craft beer. It was a charmed day in a town that felt like it bloomed just for us, totally off the tourist path.