Boasting some of Italy’s most glorious countryside, Le Marche still has a sense of being relatively undiscovered. The Macerata opera festival, dramatic mountainous landscapes and long stretches of unspoilt beaches are all part of its charm and while the region is certainly less chockfull full of art treasures than Tuscany, the Renaissance towns of Urbino and Ascoli Piceno both have their fair share of riches.
Opera in Le Marche
For three weeks in July and August, Macerata hosts the international open-air Opera Festival at the 7,000-seater Arena Sferisterio, Italy’s best open-air venue after Verona. Originally built as a football stadium, the Opera Festival was established in 1914 and now attracts some of the world’s top musicians. Read more about opera breaks in Le Marche.
Towns and cities
The town of Urbino, now essentially a university town, offers an authentic slice of Italian life. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998, the city is best known for its links with the Duke Federico III da Montelfeltro who transformed it into an important Renaissance centre, attracting artists such as Raphael, Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello. The city’s principal sights include the imposing 15th century Ducal Palace while its main Piazza della Repubblica is the top spot for a coffee or aperitivo.
At the southern end of Le Marche, Ascoli Piceno is known equally for its olive all’ascolana (veal stuffed fried olives) and its vast travertine-paved Piazza del Popolo, one of Italy’s most magnificent open spaces. Sit and people-watch at the art nouveau Caffè Meletti in the corner of the square and visit the pretty arcaded cloisters behind the façade of the Palazzo del Popolo. Other sights include the town’s Duomo, the Cathedral of Sant’Emidio, on the Piazza Arringo, which is home to the magnificent polyptych altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli.
Lively and with a large student population, the busiest day of the week in the hilltop town of Macerata is Wednesday when its streets and squares are lined with market stalls. Architectural highlights include the Renaissance two-tiered arcades of the Loggia dei Mercanti on the Piazza della Libertà and a smattering of palaces along the Corso Matteotti.
Countryside and nature
Head inland away from the coast for some extraordinary views and country walks. The charming hilltop town of Amandola is the gateway to the eastern side of the Sibillini Mountains and a good starting point for many walks. Fuel up at the Gran Caffè Belli in Piazza Risorgimento before setting off on a selection of hikes through waterfalls and shaded beech woods to Hell’s Gorge. The walks around the medieval town of Sarnano offer spectacular mountains views.
Festivals in Le Marche
La Quintana is Le Marche’s biggest event, a jousting tournament that takes place in Ascoli Piceno’s main square on the first Sunday of August. Processions, pop-up eating spots and a lavish local display of 15th century costumes all play their part. Similar jousting events take place in August, usually around the time of Ferragosto, in the pretty hilltop town of San Ginesio and in Sarnano.
In Montalto delle Marche, the ‘Notte dei Folletti e delle Streghe’ celebrates a night of ‘witches and elves’ in mid-August. Children parade through the streets in fancy dress, scary figures peer out of the windows of shops and homes, and, at midnight, the whole town gathers to watch the ritual burning of the ‘witch’.
Beaches and lakes
With 180km of coastline, a hearty sprinkling of Blue Flag beaches and seveeral free public beaches, there is plenty of opportunity to spend lazy days at the sea. While the resorts of Pesaro, Senigallia and San Benedetto del Tronto tend to get busy, those around the Monte Conero nature reserve offer some of the best beaches, with rocky bays, white limestone cliffs and turquoise water. Somewhere in between the two, there are the smaller resorts family-friendly resorts such as Porto San Giorgio which has lido-style beaches, evening markets and a good selection of restaurants.
Lake Fiastra is a great alternative to the beach with lovely swimming facilities and canoe hire. There is a small beach and bar but your best bet is to pack a picnic.
Discovered only around 40 years ago the Grotte di Frassassi is the most extensive cave structure in Europe, a complex of spectacular underground spaces draped with weird and wonderful stalagmite and stalactite formations and one of the most extraordinary natural sights in Italy. Ignore the other tourists and cluster of slightly tacky bars and gift shops around the entrance – these are a must-see in Le Marche.