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Exploring Italy’s Le Marche

Evening on the piazza at Pesaro.

Story and photos by Michael Kiefer

The region of Le Marche looks like archetypical Italy: rolling green hills dotted with vineyards and olive groves, hilltop medieval and Renaissance walled cities, mountains and beaches with rows of colorful umbrellas.

It’s located on the east coast of central Italy, in a line with Tuscany and Umbria, squeezed between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea.

On the hunt for truffles

But it’s also relatively virgin as a tourist destination, and affordable.  Borghi Italia Tourist Network, an organization dedicated to bringing visitors to Italy’s lesser-known cultural wonders, which they call I Borghi Piu Belli d’Italia  is offering  do-it-yourself package tours of the region, which include seven nights at two luxury agriturismo resorts, which are essentially hotels on working vineyards or farms, and seven gourmet meals (along with participation in a truffle hunt and a visit to an olive oil mill) starting at 800 Euros, which is about $910, or about $130 per day for room and board. Click here to contact them.

A barista in Pesaro

People think of Italy as an expensive once-in-a-lifetime trip. It’s not. As I write this, I’m two days away from an eight-day trip to Rome, Tuscany and Umbria.  I booked hotels that I know and like for four people over seven nights for a little less than $1,400, including breakfast.  That’s less than $50 per person per night. Contrast that with the $1,400 I spent recently for three nights in San Francisco, or $500 for a room in Midtown Manhattan.

I paid about $1,000 per air ticket for each, but if I weren’t catering to others’ needs, I could have done better. Over the last year, I’ve seen round-trip fares from the East Coast for as little as $500.

Cheeses aging in San Servigliano.

Sure, you could spend more on a guided tour. But I cringe when I see them in Rome or Florence, 20 or more adults wearing matching backpacks or shirts like school children on a field trip to the zoo, listening to a motor-mouth tour guide yap about the most beautiful this and the most important that. It’s not my idea of travel.

And not my idea of Italy, which I visit nearly every year.

Borghi Piu Belli means “most beautiful villages.”

Le Marche means “The Marches,” not in the sense of tromping, but rather as remote regions ruled by a marquis. Much of it is open countryside, criss-crossed by winding roads, and the more southern of the two dedicated resorts in the Borghi Belli package is 171 miles away from Rome; the other is 273 miles from Rome, not far from the region’s border with Umbria.

Urbino Resort Tenuta Santi Giacometti e Filippo.

You’ll need to rent a car with GPS, and you won’t regret it, because you will get a better feel of distances and of being in real Italy. (The tour operator can even set you up with a driver, but then we’re getting pricey.)

I have stayed at both resorts, and they are lovely. Officina del Sole Relais  is in the small town of Montegiorgio. It has sweeping views of the Adriatic off to the east. Urbino Resort Tenuta Santi Giacomo e Filippo is outside the quirky Medieval hill town of Urbino in the northernmost mountains of the region. At both resorts, you’ll stay in historic old buildings that have been modernized. Both have working vineyards and vintages (the latter bottles its own beers). Both are remote.

My only comment is that they cater to Italian tastes. Italians on holiday want to go out to the country for the peace and quiet. Americans in Europe want to be in quaint cities and towns and sit at sidewalk cafes on busy piazzas to watch a world exotic to them pass by.

Truffles over fettucine

But the meals included in the package force you to drive the region from one end to the other and visit Borghi Belli towns: Urbino, Gradara, Acqualagna, Servigliano, Macerata, Torre di Palme, Loreto. The local wines are light and refreshing —Pecorino and Passerina, whites that pair well with the seafood you’ll want in Pesaro and Porto San Giorgio; and a red Rosso Piceno, which comes from a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grape for local prosciutto and cheeses and everything else.

The cathedral of Loretto

There are some remarkable sights in Le Marche.The cathedral of Loreto, for example, contains the house of the Virgin Mary, which Crusaders disassembled in the Holy Land, ostensibly to protect it from non-Christians, and reconstructed it in Loreto.

Truffles on fried eggs

And if you’ve never witnessed a truffle hunt, even if it seems staged, it’s a delight to watch trained truffle-hunting dogs excitedly sniff out the ugly little delicacies and dig furiously until the dog handler steps in to extract the truffle at the last minute. The hunt on the tour takes place in Acqualagna; afterward you can eat pasta, gnocchi, even fried eggs liberally salted with shaved truffles.

I also recommend a day in Pesaro, a small seaside Renaissance city with a sophisticated promenade along the Adriatic.  The tour guides there will want to bore you with the house where the composer Giocchino Rossini was born. But I would instead opt for an umbrella on the beach if the weather is good, a panino and an Aperol spritz. Or a glass of wine on the central piazza at sunset to watch the evening parade of people.

I’ll let the photographs tell the rest of the story.

Michael Kiefer is an award-winning journalist with The Arizona Republic and The USA Today Network. He mostly covers crime and punishment, but he’s also reported extensively from Europe and North and South America and has written for dozens of magazines including Playboy, Esquire, Self and Outside, where he was an associate editor. He is the author of six books, including IntoUmbria,

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