We’ve explored the northern region of Le Marche for six days and we’ve barely scratched the surface. There is plenty to see and do in this unspoiled region of Italy.
Most of the interior region is hilly and mountainous, which makes it almost mandatory to have a car if you want to explore the area. Only the section along the Adriatic coast has train transportation. If you really don’t want to drive, it would be a good idea to stay in a larger town, such as Urbino or Ascoli Piceno and use the bus.
We were lucky we found Bonclerici House in Cagli, where our host, Simone, had gathered together an amazing itinerary for his guests. His detailed information made it easy to explore the neighboring towns and places of interest. Although many towns have a Tourist Information office, it’s not always easy to find one that’s open, especially if it isn’t the middle of the tourist season. Also, in Le Marche, most offices (and museums, too) close for the lunch “hour” of 12:00- 3:00, and they are often closed on Sundays.
Cagli was a short drive to plenty of historic hill towns and interesting sights. One day, we explored the Frontone Castle high above the small town. Although is was fairly empty, the views were worth the small entrance fee. Afterwards, we had a wonderful lunch at the nearby Taverna della Rocca, where two women kept the wood fires burning as they grilled sausages, pork and beef for the lunch crowd. The fresh pastas were also made in-house.
We drove along a scenic two-lane highway for twenty minutes to find the Hermitage of Fonte Avellana, which is an impressive structure with a beautiful stone church and the hermitage. The short tour was conducted in English, and we were able to learn about the history of the area and see the beautiful scriptorium, the room where the monks spent hours creating illuminated manuscripts. There aren’t very many true, scriptoriums, where all of the monks worked in one room. Even today you can appreciate how this one was designed so that the windows were positioned perfectly to provide the right amount of light for the monks to work all day.
On another day we visited the nearby town of Pergola, which is proud of its amazing gilt bronzes. The only surviving Roman gilt bronze equestrian group in the world consists of two horsemen and two women. The bronze fragments were accidentally discovered in 1946, not far from Pergola. The 318 fragments were carefully reconstructed over a period of 39 years to recreate the stunning group. They are now kept in a temperature controlled room in the town museum.
One of the natural wonders of the Le Marche region is the Grotte di Frasassi, a group of caves with some of the most beautiful stalactites and stalagmites in the world. The caves were discovered in 1971 by a group of speleologists from Ancona. Fortunately, the wind was blowing that day and the group noticed the air coming out of an opening. When they dropped some rocks to measure how deep the caves were, they realized that they had made an amazing discovery.
The guided tours are conducted in several languages and there’s a choice of a two or three hour tour. We took the two hour tour, which seemed like the perfect amount of time to be inside the caves. The lighting gives a dramatic background to highlight the special beauty of the bright mineral deposits. Besides the tall, thin stalagmites and stalactites, there are many “ribbons”, which are delicate white shapes that resemble thin, folded fabric. The caves are not far from the town of Genga, right off of highway SS76.
If you enjoy Italian ceramics, Fratte Rosa is an interesting town to visit to see a traditional style of pottery. If you go on the weekend, several studios are open to the public. We went during a weekday, and arrived just after lunchtime, so the area was pretty quiet. But it was a lovely walk up into the old medieval town with tiny lanes and fantastic views of the valley below.
We stopped at a bar for our afternoon macchiato and asked the lady about the ceramic shops (my Italian came in handy). She made a few calls and we were able to see the shop of the Gaudenzi family. The traditional pottery is functional, with lots of big casserole dishes we could not fit in our suitcases, so were glad to see that younger generation was trying some newer designs. We ended up finding some beautiful bowls, perfect for gelato when we get home.
Just outside of Fratte Rosa, we found the Terracruda Winery, where we stopped to purchase a few bottles of the tasty Bianchello white wine of the area. Although I was the only person to sample the wine, Lucca provided a generous tasting, complete with delicious breads and cheeses. This boutique winery is a perfect stop on your way home from a day in the countryside.
The major town in our area is Urbino, a UNESCO World Heritage site with wonderful Renaissance architecture. The impressive Palazzo Ducale is the first building you see as you approach the walled city. Thanks to the patronage of Duke Federico da Montefeltro during the fifteenth century, Urbino is a beautiful city, rich in architecture and art. The Palazzo houses the Marche National Gallery, which has an impressive collection of Renaissance art. The palace has several frescoes and shows off the workmanship of many artisans, especially those who created the doors with inlaid wood.
Urbino is also the home of Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino), one of the three most famous painters of the High Renaissance era. His father, Giovanni Santi, an accomplished artist, himself, was the court painter for Duke Federico. One room in the Palazzo is dedicated to Santi’s work. Currently, there is only one painting by Raphael being displayed because the other one is being restored in Florence.
We enjoyed our visit to Raphael’s home, a much smaller museum with several good examples of his artwork and some of his father’s paintings as well. It was easy to imagine how a typical Renaissance family lived by visiting the home. However, Raphael’s mother died when he was eight and his father died three years later. So, the Sanzio family only lived there for a short time.
Urbino is a fun town for wandering the streets and sampling the typical dishes of Le Marche. Because it’s a university town, there is plenty of tasty street food and gelato. There are also a variety of fine restaurants and bars on the piazzas and hidden on the back streets. We found a quiet terrace at Tre Piante, just off of Via Budassi.
Each day we were always happy to return to our small quintessential Italian town with its pleasant piazza and cobblestone lanes. We could relax in our quiet garden or head to Piazza Matteotti to watch the locals meet and greet. There are many towns like this in Le Marche, a great place to enjoy la dolce vita.