Montegiorgio, Italy — A brisk, chilly wind buffets my face as I walk from my guest house at Officina Del Sole in Montegiorgio to a bountiful breakfast in a separate dining facility situated on the far side of a vast field of colourful hillside vineyards.
In the distance are the beckoning, sometimes snow-covered 2,400-metre mountain peaks of Monti Sibillini National Park set in Italy’s Marche region on the country’s sweeping Adriatic Coast.
I’ve come here to explore the area’s intriguing landscape, its ancient Medieval villages and fortresses, and maybe learn the secrets of the popular Mediterranean diet which originated here.
Le Marche is not Tuscany or Umbria - the real estate is less expensive, the pace slower and it feels “like home.” The landscape is particularly stunning, with woods full of boar, truffles and mushrooms, and the ever-present undulating hills. And then there’s the Marchigianni, the people of the region: simple, smiling and approachable.
Breathing the pure, fresh air on the way to breakfast was helpful in arousing my senses and making me more aware of this picturesque landscape. One of the first stops in my venture was Montefiore dell’Aso, perched high above the surrounding cultivated fields and sturdily-built stone farm houses.
Above: The vineyards in this area of Italy produce a wine every bit as good as Tuscany's.
The cobbled, precipitous, muscle-stretching streets in this Borgo — part of a collection of 23 certified fortress-like communes in the region — make me realize I should have worked out more than I did prior to coming. But my efforts are rewarded: the Polo Museale di San Francesco, where the stunning 15th-century wooden triptych is displayed — it was created by artist Sala Carlo Crivelli — is easily accessible once inside. The work virtually shines in the specially-designed museum setting, and I attentively gaze for 20 minutes, amazed at the intricate work from nearly 550 years before.
My Marche visit turns up even more exceptional paintings, sculptures and other works by the likes of Piero della Francesca, Raphael, Perugino and Bramante.This landscape was the inspiration for their genius, and thankfully there are still traces of their Renaissance works remaining in these villages.
Later, with a small gathering of friends around a table brimming with local wines and a selection of mouth-watering meats and cheeses, I’m introduced to another aspect of life in Le March: very fresh, delectable food.
“All the flavour is good,” reads a brochure I pick up from a local three-generation family-run pasta company called Molini Agostini Srl.
“Passions were born,” says Agostini Manager Roberto, “to re-introduce things that in the past were interrupted.”
Now Roberto is restoring a whole line of organic dried pasta “that distinguished our grandparents’ way of life and eating,” he says. Slow-drying is one of the keys to his product’s success, he adds.
Left: A women sells her wares from her doorway. Right: Actors play out ancient scenes.
Now maybe I was getting somewhere with this Mediterranean diet thing.
But it’s time for me to move on to Servigliano, a small neoclassic Borgo town named after a Roman settlement which held as many as 5,000 World War II prisoners from a number of Allied countries. Today, this quiet commune, with its quadrangular castle walls, annually returns to the year 1450 when residents play the part of Medieval damsels, knights in heavy armour and jousting again becomes a sport for the locals.
But I’ve come to see a special performance of a folkloristic show with colourful flag wavers and historical musicians, many displaying beautifully-crafted base and snare drums. With sunlight gone and lights illuminating the rough cobblestones on the city square, they march in uniform precision as the expert drill team executes deft maneuvers with flags as large as half a metre square.
The town mayor looks on as a crowd gathers to view the spectacle; except for the modern vehicles parked nearby, this show of colour and rhythmic excellence could have taken place centuries before.
Offida, 40 kilometres away, sits on a steep hill in southern Le Marche, and seems to preserve its old world charm by bottling it up within its massive light-coloured brick walls.
The dramatic Medieval church of Santa Maria della Rocca appears as if it sprang out of a rock, and when a fog appears in the valley below, I’m told the Romanesque-Gothic church seems to float on the clouds. Ancient bones and timeworn inscriptions on the walls attest to century upon century of untold stories of this twin-chapel church. The fresco of Jesus is so expertly painted that Jesus’ eyes follow me as I walk across the church floor.
I find the town’s unusual triangular-shaped piazza resembles a set constructed on a Hollywood backlot. The locals use the quaint square for a running of the bulls festival at the town’s annual Bove Finto during Carnevale. In the sun-soaked city square I discover several women sitting on chairs, partaking in the local custom of bobbin lace, or crafting of delicate lace, which can be traced to the 16th century. Changes come slowly to this venerable land.
I wander down Offida’s inviting streets and alleyways, past its distinctive Renaissance-style town hall, dreaming of returning when the town celebrates its wine festival so I can fully appreciate the local red, Rosso Piceno. I’m told it’s made from Sangiovese and Montepulciano grapes, which enjoy Marche’s temperate climate, somewhat rocky soil and the superb Italian sunshine.
As I leave Offida, an old, gray-haired woman appears at the wooden door of her home. She is a lace maker and is selling her wares — a gorgeous, intricate golden lace bracelet using the small crack in her front door as a showroom. A crowd quickly gathers, and within a few minutes she’s moved over 100 euros worth of her hand-made product. No big-box stores here, only products made from skillful individual craftsmanship.