The Grand Tour of Italy is what most people aim for, and they end up visiting major cities, archeological sites and museums, and often miss out on scores of much more – authentic places, that have the added dimension of not being crowd-packed with visitors. You find villages perched on hills, ruins, history and art just about anywhere in the peninsula, so choices are unlimited.
I’m partial to two undervalued regions, and the Marche region is one of them. It’s relaxingly provincial, with mountains and lush rolling hills, and every possible square foot given up to agriculture, from fields of wheat to vineyards and olive and fruit groves by way of vegetable gardens.
The Marchigiani, whose forbears were part of the Papal States, are a generally god-fearing, hardworking, thrifty lot, and they’re pleasantly soft-spoken. Until recently, the region was dotted with little family industries, but globalization wiped out all but the most adaptable shoe and furniture manufacturers. The locals tend to stay put, though there are spectacular exceptions.
The region boasts two main opera festivals, the one in Macerata is the lesser known, though its venue is more attractive than that of the Pesaro Rossini festival. It takes place in the Sferistero, an open-air theater shaped like a circle segment, with original Neo-Classical 19th century architecture. The acoustics are good, far better than in the more famous Arena of Verona. When we went on a warm summer night, the crowds had come from far – our jet-lagged loggia neighbours had arrived from Australia- though a large percentage was Italian. The cast wasn’t top rate, but the silver moon and star-studded sky reflecting the theater’s lights made the whole experience enchanting.
On non-festival days, Macerata is a laid-back and friendly burg, with overall good quality of life, and art and theatre thrown in.
It’s also sometimes unexpectedly open to influences from abroad, in the tradition of home-grown Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci who went to China in the late 16th century, learned Chinese in Macau and produced new innovative maps and dictionaries. He eventually obtained the Emperor’s patronage and is meant to have been the first foreigner to be allowed free access into the Forbidden City.
The local Macerata cuisine is hearty and meat-based, but slow-food veggie organic restaurants are also popping up. We also found a corner of Argentina and delicious empanadas and alfajores in the nostalgically named “Volveré” eatery run by return-migrant Juan. Also a well-stocked tea specialist in the main square.
The Marche region’s seaside towns all seem less pretentious than those on the Tyrrhenian coast. They look eastward and don’t offer photography award sunsets over the sea, nor island-dotted coastlines like the ones on the other side of the Adriatic. Its resorts are more family-oriented. Yet on a clear day, the pale greenish-aqua transparency of its waters rivals all and any of the tropical beaches in the world.
Another gem was the town of Ascoli Piceno, home to the famous “olive ascolane”, delicious meat-stuffed olives fried in a light batter. If you like striking surprises, try an evening walk up to Piazza del Popolo, and you’ll enter an unexpectedly beautiful square, in my opinion one of Italy’s top twenty. It’s not monumental, but makes up for it by the variety and elegance of its buildings. The olives out of a paper cone, together with a glass of beer taste divine in one of the cafés around the piazza.
It takes more planning and organizing to reach these off-the-radar places, but both trains and public coach lines can get you anywhere if you don’t want to rent a car.