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DESTINATION: ITALY

Making Tracks in Le Marche

Living like bluebloods on a budget in 'undiscovered' Renaissance towns uphill from the Adriatic coast

November 12, 2000|GWEN ROMAGNOLI | Gwen O'Sullivan Romagnoli is a writer in Watertown, Mass

URBINO, Italy — The early morning mist lifting up from the valleys reveals rivers and hills, well-ordered farms, orchards and vineyards, a patchwork landscape of alternating green and beige squares dotted with hilltop castles and walled towns. It is like a curtain rising on a play: Le Marche, the Unknown Italy.

If "unknown" is too strong a word, it is probably correct to say that of all the regions of Italy, Le Marche--in English, the Marches--is the least known abroad and the least traveled. While villa-renting-and-buying foreigners are transforming the towns and countryside of Tuscany and Umbria and even venturing into the southern areas of Puglia and Calabria, Le Marche remains relatively undiscovered. Its very name means "boundary lands," a reference to its historic isolation between the east side of the Apennine mountain range and the Adriatic Sea.

In this unlikely land, the Renaissance bloomed, and the towns that sprang up in that relatively prosperous era stand untouched--so far--by gentrification. This is Le Marche's big draw today--authenticity. And accessibility. The motor age has put Le Marche within two or three hours' drive from Rome.

My husband, Franco, and I were on our third visit to the region last March, this time with my son, Sean, and his wife, Hannah. Franco and I were in the middle of a long sojourn in Rome, and we had yet to see Le Marche in spring.

We drove north and east from Rome, through the Abruzzi region and across the Apennines, to the town of Ascoli Piceno. The calendar said March, but flowers and fruit trees were blossoming, even in the mountains. It was late afternoon, and after checking into our hotel, we just had time to take a walk around Piazza del Popolo, a jewel of a square.

I know I will have to restrain myself from using the word "jewel" in describing the towns of Le Marche, but in this case it is appropriate. All around the square, on posts and strung across it, were tall lanterns resembling chandeliers, the remnants of Carnevale, or Mardi Gras, festivities the night before. Now it was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and the decorations were about to come down, but their lacy forms glimmered in the approaching dusk.

The square is lined on two sides by arcades sheltering shops and cafes. It was teatime, so we stopped in at Caffe Meletti, an Ascoli landmark known for its production of anisette liqueur. The cafe has been restored to its original Art Nouveau style so that as we sat at our window seats, surrounded by the highly polished wood paneling, we felt as if we were in the Gilded Age, waiting perhaps for Caruso and Puccini to drop by.

The square is dominated by the 13th century Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo and the church of San Francesco.

Inside the church the next day, we were stopped short by a stained-glass window unlike any we had seen in Italian churches. Among all the traditional windows depicting scenes with religious figures was one showing a group of pale, emaciated people wearing the Star of David on their clothes, lorded over by a large man in a fascist uniform. We sought out a priest for an explanation. This window, he said, commemorated the death in Auschwitz of a modern saint, the Polish martyr Maximilian Kolbe, canonized in 1982.

When we expressed surprise at this contemporary theme, the priest directed us to the crypt in the Duomo (cathedral). There we found a series of windows depicting moments from World War II, including battle scenes that showed American soldiers, the fighting and death of partisans, the cruelty of the fascists.

It seemed almost incongruous to find upstairs a traditional 12th century sanctuary. Its most prominent feature is a beautiful polyptych by Carlo Crivelli (1430-94) above the altar, widely held to be the Venetian painter's finest work.

We topped off our day of sightseeing with a wonderful dinner at Mastro Ciliegia, named for a character in Carlo Collodi's "Pinocchio." For Franco, it was the place to sample the Ascoli specialty vincisgrassi, a lasagna-like dish of pasta with chicken livers and sweetbreads draped in bechamel sauce. It was served with local olives and assorted deep-fried vegetables. The wine, a smooth Rosso Piceno, was local too.

The next day, for a change of pace and scene, we drove east to the sea and the town of San Benedetto del Tronto, the largest Italian fishing port on the Adriatic. We strolled the white sands in our bare feet and tested the not-too-cold water, happy to have the beach to ourselves except for a few year-rounders walking their dogs. From the endless line of shuttered cafes, cabanas and changing cabins as far as the eye can see, we could imagine how crowded it must be in summer.

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