Located on the Adriatic coast in the centre of Italy, Le Marche is one of Italy’s still-to-be-discovered regions. Its wonderful cuisine and wines, which display influences from mountain and sea and range from sophisticated flavours in the north to more robust tastes in the south, are a well kept and delicious secret.
The region’s history dates back to ancient times. Vitally strategic Roman roads passed through: Via Salaria, the salt road that ran from Rome to the Adriatic through Ascoli Piceno; Via Flaminia, which reached the sea at Fanum Fortunae (present-day Fano), and from there linked up with Via Emilia to the north.
Gastronomically there is splendid variety: hearty mountain stews contrast with fresh seaside dishes; the refined foods of northern Italy melding with the more robust and sometimes piccante flavours of the Mezzogiorno. Here coniglio – rabbit – is stuffed with fennel, garlic and chilli ‘in porchetta’, while mussels – moscioli in local dialect – are served over spaghetti. Vincisgrassi is the local baked pasta, a fulsome concoction made with lasagna, ragù, chicken livers, prosciutto, béchamel and sometimes black truffles from Acqualagna. These are foods to satisfy the appetites of hunters, country folk and fishermen. Yet, notwithstanding the simple pleasures of cibo della strada – street food – such as the fried olive ascolane or piadina hot off the griddle, Le Marche is also home to one of Italy’s greatest temples of gastronomy: at Ristorante Uliassi we’ll experience modern seaside dining at its most sophisticated.
Le Marche's cuisine is pleasurably washed down with some of Italy’s most undervalued wines. The Verdicchio grape, once used to produce indifferent wines bottled in the distinctive lollobrigida (the ‘sexy bottle’ was supposed to suggest a Greek amphora), has become one of Italy’s most characterful white grapes, producing wines of concentration and elegance. Little known Pecorino can be equally delightful. Red wines, notably Rosso Piceno and Rosso Conero, are simply outstanding.
The region has plenty to delight and much of great merit in terms of art and architecture. Two painters in particular are associated with the area, Carlo Crivelli and Lorenzo Lotto, and we see some of the best of the pictures by these wayward geniuses. The latter is subject of a major exhibition at London’s National Gallery from November 2018 to February 2019.
In 2018, this tour also includes three moderately strenuous walks: one on the crest of a mountain, with views inland to the Monti Sibillini and down over some of the prettiest beaches on the Adriatic; one in a charming nature reserve; and one is a (real, not simulated) truffle hunt. The rewards are more than worth the effort, not least in helping work up appetites to enjoy Le Marche’s outstanding cuisine.
Ascoli Piceno. Fly at c. 10.45am (British Airways) from London Heathrow to Rome Fiumicino. Drive to Ascoli Piceno, an exceptionally attractive little city, ringed by rivers and wooded hills, where the first three nights are spent.
Ascoli Piceno. Explore the centre of Ascoli, an unspoilt agglomeration of mediaeval, Renaissance and Baroque buildings around arcaded squares and narrow streets. The walk ends at a producer of the delicate olive ascolane: sweet and juicy green olives stuffed with aromatised meat and fried in breadcrumbs. Watch how they are made and taste them here. In the afternoon visit a family-run distillery of anisetta on the outskirts of the town. Evening aperitivo at the distillery’s town-centre seat, a historic café in Piazza del Popolo.
Piattoni, San Savino di Ripatransone. Visit the Borgo Storico Seghetti Panichi, a bioenergetic garden and park. Tour of the garden with the Principessa Giulia Panichi Pignatelli followed by a cooking demonstration and lunch in the restaurant. North-east of Ascoli lies the Piceno wine region, a landscape characterised by vineyards interspersed with olive groves and farms. Visit the Cocci Grifoni winery and vineyards, a historic estate whose owner's vision and tenacity facilitated the revival and success of Pecorino wine.
Monte S. Giusto, Castelfidardo, Recanati. At Monte San Giusto see the great Crucifixion by Lorenzo Lotto, described by Berenson as the finest of the 16th century. Continue to Portonovo, home to the pescatori dei moscioli (designated a Slow Food Presidio product). Meet the fishermen and taste the mussels over lunch. Drive to Garofoli, Le Marche’s oldest wine producer, for a tour and vertical tasting. Continue to Recanati, where the following two nights are spent.
Recanati, Tolentino, Colmurano. A charming town, Recanati spreads along the ridge of a neighbouring hill; four of Lotto’s paintings are in the museum, including the famous Annunciation. Now something of a backwater, the shrine of S. Nicola da Tolentino once made the town a major pilgrimage destination and the sumptuous church has fine mediaeval frescoes. Continue to an agriturismo for a visit to the orto (vegetable garden) a tasting of local beer, salami and cheese and a traditional Marchegiano lunch.
Loreto, Senigallia, Urbino. Spend the morning in Loreto, where some of the finest artists and architects of Renaissance Italy worked, including Bramante, Signorelli, Melozzo da Forli and Lotto. Continue to Senigallia for lunch at Uliassi, one of the best restaurants in Italy, with two Michelin stars. Continue to Urbino, Duke Federico da Montefeltro’s principal residence and one of Italy’s loveliest towns, where the following two nights are spent. See the exquisite Gothic frescoes in the Oratorio di S. Giovanni.
Acqualagna, Urbino. Some consider Acqualagna to be Italy’s truffle capital. There is a truffle hunt near here this morning, then a visit to a truffle processing plant. Sample the truffles over lunch in a nearby restaurant. Return to Urbino to visit the Palazzo Ducale, a masterpiece of architecture which evolved over 30 years as the perfect Renaissance secular environment.
Cartoceto. Visit Gastronomia Beltrami, a cheesemaker and vendor, and see the formaggio di fossa, Pecorino cheese aged in wells. Olive oil and cheese tasting before a light lunch. Continue to Bologna airport and fly to London Heathrow, arriving c. 8.15pm.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £3,270 or £3,080 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,590 or £3,400 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 321); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 6 lunches and 4 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Palazzo Guiderocchi, Ascoli Piceno: a converted Renaissance palace in the heart of the city, which retains many original features. Gallery Hotel, Recanati: a former private palazzo, the rooms are furnished and decorated in a contemporary style. Hotel San Domenico, Urbino: converted from a monastery building and the most centrally located hotel, opposite the Ducal Palace. Single rooms throughout are doubles for sole use.
There is a fair amount of walking involved. Participants need to be used to walking unaided on uneven terrain, and surefootedness is also essential for truffle hunting in the woods. The tour also involves walking in town centres, sometimes uphill and over unevenly paved ground. Some days involve a lot of driving through hilly terrain. Average distance by coach per day: 78 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.