When I first visited the Marche a dozen years ago, folk who knew about such things tapped their noses and confidently predicted that it was to be Italy’s ‘next big thing’. The British would tire of Tuscany and Umbria, they said, and would head in Boden-clad hordes further east. They said exactly the same thing when I returned five years later and yet again more recently.
The invasion has yet to happen. Few of the top travel companies push or promote the Marche and the Brits have stayed wedded to Chiantishire. I really can’t understand why.
After all, the Marche has everything that Tuscany and Umbria have. There are handsome medieval walled towns and enchanting hilltop villages complete with — so the Marchigiani like to boast — 500 squares, 106 castles, 37 fortresses and 15 strongholds; there are the remarkable Frasassi caves; there are the rugged Apennines on one side, with the cobalt-blue Adriatic on the other; there are secluded sandy beaches and the myriad islands of Croatia are only a few hours’ sail away; there is great food and great wine. I mean, what’s not to like?
The Dutch, Germans and Belgians have cottoned onto the region’s joys and although they don’t venture much inland they crowd the beaches in high summer. Perhaps that’s why the British have stayed largely away.
The small town of Offida, set high on a ridge between the rivers of Tesino and Tronto, is my particular favourite. It was here that a group of mischievous local winemakers got me completely pie-eyed on my first visit and had me staggering round the Piazza del Popolo trying to count its sides (I was expecting four, and couldn’t understand why there were only three, so kept re-counting). The town also boasts the striking 700-year-old brick church of Santa Maria della Rocca which is well worth a stare.
The most beautiful of all squares (complete with the regulation four sides) is the colonnaded one of Ascoli Piceno, with its brightly polished marble floor. It’s a stunning sight and surely one of the finest in all Italy.
The Marchigiani love their grub and local dishes include brodetto, a rich, tomatoey fish soup; porchetta (roast pork stuffed with onions, herbs, garlic and wild fennel) and vincisgrassi, similar to lasagne but with dried and fresh mushrooms and strips of Parma ham instead of beef ragú. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the ridiculously moreish olives all’ascolana – bread-crumbed olives stuffed with beef, chicken and pork and deep fried — than which there’s no finer appetiser.
As for the vino, there are crisp, refreshing Verdicchio and Falerio whites and rich, robust Montepulciano-based Rosso Conero and Sangiovese-based Rosso Piceno reds. Producers to look out for include Colle Stefano, Aurora, Cìu Cìu, De Angelis, Velenosi, Villa Pigna and, my favourite, Le Terrazze.
You’ll find some of these in the UK, although I strongly advise taking the next Ryanair flight to Ancona and drinking them there.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 February 2014