In the Middle Ages, a march meant a border province of the Holy Roman Empire, usually an unsettled frontier held by one of the Emperor's fighting barons (called marchesati). Today, The Marches (Marche) refers to a region in Italy that combines three of those early frontiers: Marca di Fano, Marca di Camerino, and Marca di Ancona.
With its origins as a frontier, Marche offers few large cities, but instead it has an enchanting rural patchwork of old towns, hill country, sandy beaches, historic locales, and lovely landscapes. Here you find the birthplace of It's greatest Romantic poet and one of the most important shrines to the Virgin Mary. You'll discover the Renaissance art towns of Urbino and Ascoli Piceno, and scores of fine old rosy-brick villas in the valleys that lead up to the impressive snowy peaks of the Sibilline Mountains, one of the highest sections of the Apennines Mountains.
The highlights of Marche include the palm-lined boardwalk of San Benedetto del Tronto, the untainted windy streets of Ascoli Piceno, and the hidden beauty of Ancona; in addition, Raphael and Donato Bramante, geniuses of the Renaissance, left their legacy in Urbino. In fact, the legacies of Marche's earliest inhabitants are visible throughout the region, with artifacts and ruins from the Gauls, Picenes, and Romans scattered around the foothills of the Apennines.
Tucked away in a corner between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine mountains, Marche forms the eastern seaboard of central Italy with the regions of Emilia-Romagna to the north and Abruzzo to the south. Wherever you may find yourself in Marche, the Apennines Mountains are never very far away. They form a natural boundary with Umbria and Tuscany to the west and offer some of its finest scenery, as well as providing a home for some of its most fascinating wildlife.
Sleepy Marche is waking up. Today, probably as many people come to Marche for its beaches and towns as for its hilly, unspoiled interior. Especially beautiful are the snowcapped peaks of the Monti Sibillini, situated in magnificent walking and skiing country. Famous for one of the most dramatic coastlines in the entire country, from steep cliffs that stand almost perpendicular to the sea, to wide spacious beaches, Marche represent a new frontier: emerald landscapes and hill towns, new culinary discoveries, surprises from the Renaissance, and fewer tourists to share them with.
Italy has produced some of the greatest art in the Western world, and Marche has these artistic treasures in abundance. From world-renowned works by artists such as Piero della Francesca to the lesser-known paintings of artists such as Lorenzo Lotto, the artistic explosion of the Renaissance left many a mark on the region.
Instead of viewing the art in sterile museum corridors, in Marche, you may view many of the noble works in the churches and villas for which they were first created. For example, many paintings by Carlo Crivelli are scattered throughout small parish churches in the southern stretches of the region. The region was also the birthplace of many Renaissance artists, the greatest being Raphael, born in Urbino in 1483.
In addition to great artists, Marche fostered many renowned architects, such as Bramante and Gentile da Fabriano. You will find here some of central Italy's finest architectural monuments. Perhaps the greatest of them all is Urbino's Ducal Palace, the model of the Renaissance princely palace.
Even before the Renaissance, builders created splendid monuments in Marche. The greatest of these were the Romanesque churches built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Of the many to be found today, the most outstanding include Ancona's Cathedral of San Ciriaco, the "double-decker" church of Santa Maria a Pie' di Chienti near Macerata, and the beautiful church of Santa Maria on the beach at Portonovo on the Conero Peninsula.
The region also boasts a rich musical heritage and was the birthplace of the Baroque composers Pergolesi and Gaspare Spontini, as well as the great operatic composer Rossini. The annual Rossini Opera Festival in the composer's hometown of Pesaro celebrates his work by performing world-class productions from his extensive repertoire. Other musical highlights in the area include the annual open air opera season in the massive arena known as the Sferisterio in Macerata, second only to Verona in its summer open-air opera calendar.
Knowledge of the early inhabitants of Marche draws mostly from the writings of later Roman historians, who already had limited information for their research. As a result, the character of the ancient indigenous peoples is somewhat hazy.
Prior to the 4th century BC, the first people to inhabit the region in any numbers were the Piceni, a warlike tribe that had the totem of picus (woodpecker), which was also the sacred bird of the war god Mars. The Piceni lived on the eastern seaboard of Marche, and their name survives in their old capital, Ascoli Piceno. In addition, the Umbri tribes, who also dwelt in the neighboring region of Umbria, made some mountainous parts of Marche their home. Both tribes have left us few relics of their passage.
In the 4th century BC, exiles from Magna Graecia colonized much of the region. The most notable city they founded was Ancona, and it was the northernmost point of Greek influence on the Italian peninsula. During the early Middle Ages, the region marked the edge of the Holy Roman Empire.
In the Dark Ages between the 5th and 10th-century, following the collapse of Rome, the people of Marche were too busy defending against foreign invaders to bother much with the finer points of art or architecture. The few churches and monasteries that remain from this period tend to be in the oriental Byzantine style with eclectic touches from more barbarian cultures.
The region's historical peak was achieved in the 15th-century under Federico da Montefeltro, whose court at Urbino became one of Europe's leading cultural centers. Much of Urbino's former grandeur survives, as evidenced in Federico's magnificent Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, now home to a regional art collection.
Marche is Italy's secret culinary region.
Regional cuisine consists of truffles and robust cheeses of the mountains, tender hams and salame, and brodetto (fish soup) made in several versions throughout the coastal area. The olives, treasured worldwide for their oil, are valued in Marche for more than just oil; the quality of the olives can sometimes define the quality of the table, and olive ascolane (olives stuffed with meat and herbs) is a favored dish. Pasta triumphs in Marche, with tagliatelle and maccheroni destined to be filled with exquisite flavors.
The marchigiani (people of Marche) make use of fresh, top quality ingredients gathered from the wild: funghi (mushrooms), wild game, nuts, field herbs, and the Marche's greatest culinary treasure, the truffle. Cooking in Marche is deeply rooted in peasant tradition and even the smartest restaurants seek to produce food just like nonna (grandmother) used to make.
With some of the most pristine coastline of the Adriatic Sea, Marche offers up an enormous range of crustaceans, mollusks, and seafood. When visiting the coast, particularly around Ancona, you must try brodetto; this area specialty is fish stew made with thirteen species of fish, no more, no less. Or sample the thin spaghetti dressed with vongole (baby clams) or spaghetti allo scoglio ("on the rocks") with seafood.
In the northern portion of Marche, you can find piadina, a flat, unleavened bread often served with cold meats at roadside snack bars. The pecorino cheese (made from sheep's milk) is excellent. Or try formaggio di fossa, pungent cheese aged by being walled up in limestone caves.
The marchigiani eat more meat than other Italians. One local specialty and favorite is wild boar; other types of game, such as venison, hare, and wildfowl, are quite popular too. You will find prosciutto, salame, and ciauscolo maturing in the cellars next to the wine. In many rural areas, going out to a restaurant is basically an excuse to fuel up on enormous platters of grigliata mista di carne (platters of chargrilled meats). For an antipasto, mountain-cured ham and lonza (raw salted fillet of pork) reign supreme. If you find it, also try ciauscolo (a soft, cured pork salame).
Much of Marche, about two-thirds, is occupied by the Apennine Mountains and the rest is mainly hillsides, ideal for grapevines. Marche has 11 DOC zones and one IGT designation.
For years the wines of Marche were not well known beyond the region's borders. Previously, the dry, white Verdicchio has been the best-known wine from the area.
But now, Marche is a hotbed of rapidly improving and sought after wines. Its most famous wine is the white varietal wine, Verdicchio. The region's two most renowned reds are Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno.
Marche has two DOC Verdicchio wines: Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica. Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is the important DOC wine in Marche in terms of production. The Verdicchio di Matelica production is only one-tenth that of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. Located in an isolated valley in the foothills of the Apennines in western Marche, the Matelica wine zone produces a different style of Verdicchio that is fresh, delicate, and aromatic in its youth.
Rosso Conero is the premium red wine of Marche, made only in a limited area, the hillsides of Monte Conero, a beautiful area that provides a striking backdrop to the seaport of Ancona. Rosso Conero derives at least 85 percent from the Montepulciano grape.
Rosso Piceno, Marche's other important red, has a much larger production than Rosso Conero, and is, in fact, Marche's largest volume red wine (second only to Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi). Rosso Piceno is at least 60 percent Sangiovese, with up to 40 percent Montepulciano, and up to 15 percent of two white varieties, Trebbiano and Passerina.
Every trip to Italy is an endless journey into culture and beauty. No other country in the world can boast the cultural and artistic treasures of Italy. More than half's historical and artistic heritage is found in Italy. Evidence can be seen in every village. There are so many art treasures of such quality, spread across the country that Italy can rightly be considered an "open air" art gallery.
Each year is packed with special events, some linked to festivals of the Catholic Church, others to the changing seasons. Every little village in Italy has its own wonderful festivals. Many are associated with the harvest (especially wine) or to local products (polenta, prosciutto). The remainder tends to be historical re-enactments linked to jousting or to costumed cavalcades.
Art and culture, the pleasures of good food and music, traditional crafts and expressions of collective religion, folklore and contemporary art, opera and operetta, concert and theater seasons, in Italy the calendar of festivals and events is practically endless.
Wherever you may find yourself in Marche, the Apennine Mountains are never very far away. They form Marche's western border and offer some of its finest scenery as well as providing a home for some of Marche's most fascinating wildlife. Large areas have now been designated natural parks.
The Parco Naturale dei Monti Sibillini, in the southwest corner, is Marche's largest park, spreading over 25 miles of mountain peaks and continuing westwards into Umbria. The mountains take their name from a legend that one of the sibyls hid in a cave on Monte Sibilla known as Grotta delle Fate (Cave of the Furies) when she was chased out of the underworld.
Monte Vettore, at the center of the park, is the highest mountain in the region. The huge rocky walls and crags in its eastern side, with such eerie names as Pizzo del Diavolo's Beard and Inferna's Gorge, are every bit as dramatic as the landscape of the Dolomites.
The most unusual feature of the area, however, is the Piano Grande, a vast area of treeless plains to the west. In May and June, this huge, featureless plateau, is transformed into a carpet of wild flowers. You will find wild tulips and exotic alpine flowers such as carex buxbaumii.
The Torricchio Riserva Naturale, just north of the Monte Sibillini park, is a small World Wildlife Fund reserve covering around 800 acres. The Val di Tazza at its centre is a narrow gorge flanked by the wooded slopes of Monte Torricchio and Monte Fema. The area is particularly rich in flowers; animals include badgers, red squirrels, wildcats, and the occasional wolf.
Monte Conero, just south of Ancona provides the only really rugged coastline in Le Marche, rising spectacularly out of the sea. The park boasts over a thousand species of wild plants, as well as a rich bird life.
The Gola della Rossa-Frasassi regional park, in the area of Genga, is a series of towering limestone gorges which provide the rocky habitat for several golden eagles as well as peregrine falcons and eagle owls. The Frasassi caves, in the heart of the area, are the longest and among the most interesting in Italy; the central chamber of the caves is large enough to comfortably hold the whole Milan Cathedral.
Carnevale is one of Italy's liveliest, beginning on the Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday preceding Ash Wednesday.
A symbolic ox gets the worst of a mob of locals dressed in the traditional white tunic with red borders called a guazzaro as the end of carnival is celebrated.
Otherwise known as the "Fire Horse", this festival consists of a huge model horse going up in a spectacular combination of flames and fireworks.
The frogs don't actually race themselves but cling on for dear life as they ride in wheelbarrows being hurled through the streets.
This is an ancient display of devotion with pre-Christian roots that honors the gods of the land and harvest.
This is a recreation of a 15th-century competition between the four quarters of the town; the sport is almost a medieval basketball, with the participants trying to throw a leather ball into a well.
On the first Sunday of August, La Quintana is held. This event is based on a 14th-century festival, which took place in honor of Saint Emidio. It's the most authentic "medieval" goings-on in Marche and includes jousting's main square.
A jamboree in honor of Duke Federico, the Festa del Duca is a superb Medieval pageant in the historical heart of this perfect Renaissance town.
Participants compete in medieval games to win a golden goose in mid-August.
A Medieval chase in the square.
Kite-flying competition between different cities.
Rustic rhymes and songs to welcome spring
An open air season of modern music, dance, and opera with an impressive array of artists.
Ascoli Piceno, third weekend of each month, Cloister of S. Francesco Church, Via Trivio. Apart from the absolutely beautiful setting, this is a good place for bargains in ceramics.
Classical theatre productions staged in two of Marche's finest Roman amphitheatres
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Urbino, the birth place of Raphael is the best-known city of Marche. Dominated by the celebrated Ducal Palace, Urbino encompasses all that is classic Italy. The cultural beauty within the city walls is rivaled only by the magnificence of the region’s surrounding mountains and valleys.