The Magic of the Marche
By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author
I recently traveled to the Marche region of Italy that borders the blue Adriatic Sea, and to my surprise, found the rolling hills there alive with Borghi—lots of them.
I was told there were as many as 23 certified Borghi in these parts, and that more may be coming later. And from the window of my tour bus, it sure looked like the Borghi had planted themselves on every other hilltop in the east-central portion of Italy.
No, Borghi are not wild animals that live in the many wooded hills there, nor are they a type of invasive plant. A Borgo (singular of Borghi) is a commune that is fortified, usually with steep, foreboding walls, was once ruled by a king, prince or nobleman, and has 5,000 or fewer residents.
In my weeks’ travel in the Marche, I saw dozens of them, and they are quite spectacular. At night the Borghi appear like beacons on the hilltops that can seen from many miles away, and they are a special attraction of this ancient, quiet region.
The defensive brick and stone walls protecting the towns and realms of the Marche were a necessity over the centuries because you never knew who might be coming to burn down your village. The Romans invaded the region early in the 3rd century BC, and dominated the area for almost 700 years. At the fall of the Roman Empire, the Marche was sacked by the Goths, Vandals, Ostrogoths and, finally, the Lombards. You needed a giant wall of protection back then, and a Borgo was the answer.
Torre di Palme
FORTIFIED BORGHI DOT THE HILLTOPS
Today, these fortified villages, still standing after centuries, are an attraction, but surprisingly aren’t well known outside of the region. It seems this part of Italy has been largely overlooked, but the Borghi Italia Tour Network (www.bitn.it) is trying to change that by offering a wide range of tourist services. From the air the Marche is dotted with numerous steep, narrow roads that weave up and over the rolling hills, and these are intertwined with vineyards, olive groves, fields of vegetables, fruit trees, quaint, small hamlets—and the enduring, picturesque mostly sandstone-colored Borghi from the Middle Ages.
Quiet and laid-back Marche, on the other hand, is well-known for its luxurious Italian footwear— $500 to $1,000 Prada shoes are made here—and some of the finest olive oil in the world is produced on the hillsides. While one part of this region has its foot in the venerable past, some parts are stylish and lead the way in fashion, clothing, gastronomy and art. Factory outlets here offer such famous Italian brands as Tod’s, Loriblu, Valentino, Versace and Armani.
Yet besides its glitz in the fashion world, the Marche is also much more than its 500-year-old fortified towns. It’s a complex web of peoples, old, lingering customs and traditions, and world class gastronomy that have formed over the centuries to bring meaning to life for the people of this quaint region.
Most towns in the Marche are richly endowed with historical pasts that are shown in the people’s culture and traditions. Flashy flag ceremonies, complete with snare and bass drums, and brass musical instruments, are routinely showcased in town squares on special occasions.
In Ancona, the capital of the Marche region, the historical flag is a bright red with a yellow “Swiss” cross over the red field. The classy coat of arms depicts a crown, underneath which is a man in body armor and a sword.
For hundreds of years, long-standing traditions of the region have grown and flourished. And it’s not necessarily unusual for the mayor to show up in the town square to welcome guests to his or her city, accompanied by lots of citizens throwing flags and a loud contingent of drummers. It’s what they do here to showcase their towns, their heritage and their life.
LAND OF VARIATIONS
The Marche is a land of many contrasts. “I remember when I was a kid growing up here,” says tour guide Dr. Marco Rotunno. “I played in the snow in the Monti Sibillini Mountains in the morning, then my family would drive us to the Adriatic Sea for swimming in the afternoon.”
The Sibillini Mountains, some rising to over 8,000 feet, present a breathtaking backdrop to sections of the Marche that abut the Adriatic with its white pebble beaches. Although hotels and resorts line the Italian coast, most tourists are likely to pass this region by. But that’s why you should consider this area, while it’s still “hidden.”
Besides the exceptional scenery, remarkable wines, the very healthy extra-virgin olive oil—and the Borghi—this area is known as the hub of the Mediterranean diet, eating habits and lifestyle, which is sanctioned by UNESCO as a cultural intangible. And it’s true: you’ll find a number of centenarians walking around the Marche, while the region’s men, on average, can expect to live to 78, and women to 84.
(clockwise) Amandola; Historic relics at Amandola; Ascoli Piceno
The secret to their longevity may be the unhurried, relaxed country lifestyle, with much of the land given over to farming. You won’t find many Marchigiani looking at their watches; you might call it a steady refusal of the locals to live a regimented life. Conversations between residents are relaxed and friendly.
‘IT’S THE FISH AND GOOD FOOD’
“It’s all the fresh air and good food,” says one elderly resident. And fish is abundant, with the Adriatic close by.
At Servigliano, a small town of a couple of thousand souls, young residents sometimes turn their town square, the beautiful gated Castel Clementino built between 1773 and 1779, into a colorful folkloristic show with flag wavers and musicians, re-creating a 15th century knight’s joust. Or during the day, you can study the architectural splendors of the Holy Spirit Gate or the Town Hall (with a beautiful theater inside) or the Collegiate Church of St. Mark, a nave church with lateral chapels and a 1779 Alessandro Ricci altar painting.
Folkloristic show at Servigliano; Flag performance at Corinaldo
In beguiling Offida, with its medieval church Santa Maria della Rocca sitting on a rocky spur at the edge of town, you’ll find the ancient art of Bobbin lace still flourishing, as it has been since the 1400s. The triangular historic center is pleasant to explore, with the town’s easy-to-walk streets and alleyways, beautiful buildings, and quaint atmosphere adding to its old world charm.
(clockwise) Basketweaving is an age-old art in the Marche; Butcher shop in Montemonaco; Caves at Genga; Lace-making
The Grotto di Frassassi near Genga, discovered as recently as 1971, is a complex of caves, presenting one of the most grandiose and fascinating subterranean passageways anywhere. A surreal landscape unfolds underground here, and the temperature remains at a constant 52 degrees: a “must-see” if in the area.
But there’s so much more in the Marche in towns such as Ascoli Piceno, Urbino, Loreto, Montefortino, Treia, Torre di Palme, Macerata, Moresco, Mondavio, Montefabbri, Corinaldo, Montegranaro, and other picturesque villages, all waiting for discovery…
Olives, meats, cheeses, and wine are specialties in Moresco.
IF YOU GO…
For more information on this region, start by going to www.bitn.it. There you will find information on hotels, castles, historical properties, things to do, tours, handcrafts, shopping, local gastronomy, wines, sports and adventure, spas, nature, art and culture. Their email address is email@example.com.
Additional information in English is available from www.italia.it/en/home/html.
To contact Officina del Sole srl s.u. for lodging in Montegiorgio, go to www.officinadelsole.it.
(clockwise) Santa Maria della Rocca; Montefabbri at dusk; Ancient etchings in the church
WHEN IN LE MARCHE, DON’T MISS…
- The Sibillini Mountains and Monte Sibillini National Park.
- The tiny village of Torre di Palme, which boasts five churches and a beautiful view of the Adriatic.
- The shoe manufacturing district of Montegranaro (think Prada).
- The open air stadium at Macerata and the carriage museum in the civic museum.
- In Ascoli Piceno, walk around the “town of house towers” and see the old sayings above the building doors. Some are quite remarkable.
- Note the three historic city gates at the Neoclassicical borgo of Servigliano and its characteristic plaza in the center.
- See the heptagonal (seven-sided) tower in Moresco and visit some of its expert craftsmen who handcraft shoes, hats and pottery.
- Visit the small, quaint butcher shop in Montemonaco in the Sibillini Mountains: it’s a feast for the eyes.
- At Genga, don’t miss the impressive caves of Frasassi; they are spectacular. Allow about two hours.
- In Loreto, take time to tour the Holy House of Loreto, one of the most important pilgrimage stops in Italy.
- At Urbino, a UNESCO site, you can see some of the greatest expressions of Renaissance architecture. This is a “must-see” place.
- At dusk, visit the tiny hill-top town of Montefabbri for an excellent view over the countryside.
- Corinaldo presents one of the best preserved fortified Medieval and Renaissance borghi.
- See important 15th century art in Gradara and its Renaissance fortress.
(clockwise) Holy House of Loreto from the 16th century; Villa Spada in Treia; Rooftops
Be sure to taste the many varieties of delicious meats, cheeses, and pastas of Le Marche, along with the breads and wines, and the superb extra virgin olive oil. The people here have been perfecting foods for centuries. Hide your watch when you go – you want to relax and enjoy the slower pace of life here, just like the locals do.