The Fortress of San Leo and Its Torture Chamber

As you approach the town of San Leo in Emilia-Romagna, its role as an impenetrable, menacing fortress town comes into view. San Leo’s massive stone fortress, which also served as a¬†palace and prison, was¬†designed by Sienese architect and military engineer Francesco di Giorgio Martini, whose early Renaissance fortifications dot the landscape of this area of central-eastern Italy known as Montefeltro. Continue reading The Fortress of San Leo and Its Torture Chamber

Top 5 Things to Do in Le Marche

The Duke of Montefeltro, a symbol of Le Marche
The Duke of Montefeltro, a symbol of Le Marche

Le Marche (known as “The Marches” in English) is one of the least known regions in central Italy, but that fact is quickly changing. Bordering Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, a sliver of northeastern Tuscany, and Abruzzo, Le Marche is gaining ground as a tourist favorite as more travelers venture out by road and rail to find the “real” Italy.

The Le Marche tourism board likes to bill itself as “Italy in one region.” This is not far off the mark. The region has mountains (the Apennines, made up of several chains, including Mt. Sibillini) and a long coastline separated by rolling green and gold plains. It has craggy, medieval hill towns, Renaissance gems, most notably at Urbino, and remnants from ancient cultures, including the Romans and the Piceni. Indeed, there are thousands of things to do in Le Marche. But here are 5 to get you started:

1) Revisit the Renaissance in Urbino
Located in the northern Marches, Urbino is the birthplace of master artist Raphael and the site of a major university. But the city’s main claim to fame is its Renaissance splendor. The Duke of Montefeltro (see the iconic image of him, above) rebuilt this city in the mid-15C and oversaw the construction of the Palazzo Ducale, one of the era’s first palaces built not as a fortress but as an inviting residence. The palace’s architectural symmetry, open courtyard, twin turrets, and fanciful features are as winsome as any found in Florence. Today, the National Gallery of Le Marche and the region’s Archeological Museum are housed in the Palazzo Ducale. The former has works from Raphael, Piero della Francesca, and others.

2) Attend the Opera in Macerata
Macerata, a provincial capital in Le Marche’s south-central, is site of the Sferisterio, a grand neoclassical arena that hosts an opera festival each summer. The Sferisterio Opera Festival takes place each July/August, and each performance has room for 3,000-4,500 spectators. The 2010 festival, whose theme will be “A Maggior Gloria di Dio” (To the Greater Glory of God) will take place between July 29 and August 10, 2010.

3) Eat, Eat, Eat!
Every region in Italy has its culinary specialty. In Le Marche, the edible bounty ranges from earthy – truffles, game – to the marine – fish stew, known in the capital Ancona as stoccafisso. Throughout the year, towns in Le Marche host numerous sagre, or food festivals, usually based around one product. There are feasts for snails, frogs, rabbits, veal, cheese, and pasta. The most important sagre are in mid-autumn and are devoted to the world’s most prized fungus: the truffle. Late October and early November see truffle fairs in Sant’Agata Feltria, Sant’Angelo in Vado, and Acqualagna. While “the best food is still to be had in Marche homes rather than in restaurants” (according to the tourism board), Le Marche also has some incredible restaurants, including the Michelin-starred restaurants Madonnina del Pescatore in Senigallia and Le Busche in Montecarotto.

4) Drink, Drink, Drink!
The Marches also has its share of fine wines, both reds and whites. The central part of the region, ranging from Ancona inland, has some of the best known vineyards and vintages. Verdicchio Classico is produced around Jesi and Matelica; Vernaccia at Serrapetrona (southwest of Tolentino), and Rosso Conero, a red made from Montepulciano grapes, is produced in a coastal zone between the Apennines and the Adriatic. You can even follow the Rosso Conero wine route within Ancona province’s Parco del Conero. Other wine zones in Le Marche can be found in the Colli Pesaresi (hills of Pesaro, near Urbino) and in the southern province of Ascoli-Piceno, where the main vintage is the Rosso Piceno.

5) Penetrate the Impenetrable: Walled Cities
The Marches is full of walled cities. During the time of the papal states, the region was considered virtually ungovernable because of the difficult terrain, the incalcitrant citizens, and those inpenetrable walled cities. The north and central sections of the region have several medieval cities housed within imposing stone walls. Of note are Corinaldo in Ancona province and Gradara and San Leo in the province of Pesaro-Urbino. The latter is said to resemble a miniature Republic of San Marino, a small sovereign state surrounded by Le Marche and Emilia-Romagna.