Quite when Tuscany was “discovered” is hard to say – perhaps during the Grand Tours of the 18th century, perhaps by British buyers in Chianti in the Sixties – but ever since people have been looking for a region to take it place – the “next Tuscany”.
Neighbouring Umbria came first, the Abruzzo, east of Rome, will probably be next, but for now the Marche – or the Marches or Le Marche – midway down Italy’s eastern Adriatic coast, is Tuscany’s anointed successor.
No region, of course, should merely be the poorer relation of another; somewhere you visit if you can’t have the real thing. And the Marche is far from a simple substitute. Like anywhere in Italy it has a regional identity and regional treasures – food, art, wine, natural beauty – of its own.
And often – if you want to play at comparisons – in excess of Tuscany: more mountains, more pastoral scenery, more charming villages, more – far more – good beaches and far less light industry and, above all, far fewer people.
Here is a guide to the best of the region, from its towns and villages to its beaches, mountains and one-off highlights.
The towns and villages
Urbino is the Marche’s principal cultural attraction; not as rich in art as Florence or Siena – few places are – but a charming hill town that owes much of its importance to the rule of Duke Federico da Montefeltro in the 15th century, a former mercenary who presided over one of Europe’s foremost Renaissance courts.
It was also the birthplace of Raphael. Visit Federico’s magnificent Ducal Palace, home to a superb collection of paintings, and allow a morning to explore the streets and smaller churches and museums.
While here, stay at the four-star Bonconte (doubles from around £75), the best of the largely unexceptional in-town hotel options, or at Casale del Duca (doubles from around £100), a characterful historic property in the countryside a few miles to the north.
As ever in Italy, most large towns have something of interest – the Basilica of San Nicola in Tolentino, for example, or the main square in Fermo; even Ancona, once a dusty, workaday port has recently been brightened up. Macerata is known, among other things, for the Sferisterio, an extraordinary outdoor auditorium and the main setting for the town’s annual opera festival (July 19-August 21), one of Europe’s best.
For somewhere else to visit for more than a day trip, head to Ascoli Piceno, a former Roman town still enclosed within medieval walls and centred on Piazza del Popolo, one of the most beautiful squares in Italy. Have a drink or light meal in the square at the historic Caffè Melitti or head for Il Desco or the traditional Osteria Nonna Nino. Wherever you eat, be sure to sample the local olive ascolane (large, stuffed olives). The best central hotel options are Residenza 100 Torri (doubles from around £100) and Palazzo Guiderocchi (doubles from around £110).
Spend more than a few days in the region and you’ll come across innumerable charming villages – Corinaldo, Gradara, Mondavio, Mondolfo, Montelupone, Monteleone di Fermo and many more – but to narrow your search, head for San Leo, in the north of the region not far from the more famous (but tacky) San Marino.
Dante mentioned San Leo, describing its fortress as one of Italy’s finest, and if you see it today, perched on its extraordinary crag, you’ll understand why. Stay – and eat – at the homely Castello, off the little main square.
Like Tuscany or Umbria, the Marche is a predominantly rural area, so one of its beauties is that the scenery is reliably pretty and pastoral almost anywhere you go. For the most part it consists of high hills (generally higher and more rugged than Tuscany), with numerous parallel valleys running east from the higher slopes of the Apennines, Italy’s mountainous spine.
Inevitably, though, there are a series of standout landscapes. For mountains, close to the border with Umbria, head for the wild, high peaks of Monti Sibillini National Park, where there is superb hiking, especially on and around the highest point, Monte Vettore (8,123ft/2,476m). Ascoli Piceno (see above) is a good base in the south; or try the village of San Ginesio to the north, though the latter suffered damage – like much of the immediate surroundings – in the central Italian earthquakes of 2016.
Along the coast, two areas are worth special trips, both rocky, cliff-edged uplands that are strange, but beautiful anomalies on an otherwise flat coast of resorts, dunes and beaches.
In the north, between busy Pesaro and Cattolica, is Monte San Bartolo, a protected reserve with plenty of walking trails and unspoilt beaches. A scenic road shadows the coast, linking superb villages such as Casteldimezzo and Fiorenzuola di Focara, with a fine place to stay locally in the shape of the Castello di Granarola (doubles from £110).
Immediately south of Ancona, by contrast, is Monte Conero, another upland redoubt right by the sea, again protected by a natural reserve and again with hiking options galore and some of the best beaches (see below) in the region. It’s also known for its excellent food and red wines; see below.
Hiking is popular in the mountains and elsewhere, but so too, increasingly, is cycling. Serious bikers who want to tackle the favourite climb of the great Marco Pantani can ride “his” mountain, Monte Carpegna, nine miles south of San Leo.
The resorts and beaches
Italians like the Marche for its string of small, no-nonsense resorts, the sorts of places parents went to as children and take their children in turn: nothing fancy, modern hotels, good, inexpensive food, safe bathing and lots of sand.
Chief among these larger resorts are Gabicce Mare, Senigallia – known for its “velvet” sand – and San Benedetto del Tronto.
Equally, though, the region has lots of empty or less developed beaches, as well as two glorious stretches of protected coastline: the Conero and Monte San Bartolo (see above).
Some of the beaches rank among the best in Italy, notably the Spiaggia delle Due Sorelle, along with beaches on and around Sirolo (notably San Michele and Urbani) and elsewhere on near the Conero (Mezzavalle, Portonovo, Numana, Molo, Passetto).
Any region in Italy is going to have its fair share of cultural and other landmarks – glorious churches, ancient abbeys, perfect piazzas – that are worth a special journey.
Among the most popular sights in the region is the Grotte di Frassari, a remarkable cave system only discovered in 1971 and with over eight miles (13km) of galleries and tunnels.
Less well known are the five miles (8km) of natural and artificial caves and tunnels burrowed beneath the little village of Osimo, where the local tourist office offers guided tours around different parts of the labyrinth, which contain, among other things, ancient and medieval cave art and sculptures.
The Marche is a land of remote Romanesque churches and abbeys, many of which you’ll stumble across if your drive enough of the region. Three of the finest are Fonte Avellana, the Abbadia di Fiastra and San Vittore delle Chiuse near Genga.
Castelli di Jesi producers are among the best, especially if you go for the pricier riserva, along with the Matelica Riserva, known for its straw-yellow colour. Other standout options include Conero Riserva, a rich red; Vernaccia di Serrapetrona (a sparkling white in dry and sweet versions); and a trio of wines from Offrida – a red and two whites, Pecorino and Passerina.
Where to stay
Rome, around a three-hour drive from Ancona, may well be the best bet for those travelling from airports in the north of the UK.
You’ll need a hire car.
For visitor information (in English) visit the portal of the Regione Marche. For information on parks and reserves, follow this link. The Residenze d’Epoca is an excellent umbrella organisation for castles, villas and other historic accommodation that is often not found in hotel listings.
Local enthusiasts have a Facebook page devoted to the Posti Secreti delle Marche, which offers excellent leads to some of “The Secret Places of the Marche” (with English translations).