A Drive Through The Marches:
Italy's East Coast Answer to Tuscany

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This region is another of Italy's lesser-known wonders. Our itinerary gives you the chance to sample all of its treasures, be they natural or man-made.

Our journey begins with Urbino, hidden deep in one of the most remote corners of the peninsula. Among the most exquisite Renaissance towns in the world, it is protected by the picturesque slopes and valleys of the eastern Appenines, thus eluding all but the most determined visitors who are rewarded with the breathtaking sight of its beautiful skyline as it suddenly looms overhead. Still surrounded by the walls built in 1507, it is an erudite university town that boasts a first-class picture gallery, several stunning churches and piazzas, and the Palazzo Ducale, surely one of the world's most unforgettable edifices. If you'd like to spend some time in Urbino, click here for our suggested places to stay.

We follow the road out of the mountains and down to the fishing village of Fano, whose center is the Piazza Maggiore. There you'll find a glorious 16th-century fountain topped by a nude figure that turns capriciously with the wind. Just behind it is Palazzo della Ragione, built in 1299; the graceful tower was added in the 1700s. Fano also has a monumental Roman arch, an unusual circular cathedral, an imposing castle, and the porticoed church of Santa Maria Nuova. Here you will find a masterful altarpiece and painting by Perugino and a picture by Giovanni Santi, Raphael's father. Another of his works can be seen in the 14th-century Hospital of Santa Croce. Small as it is, Fano is a real treasure trove, and Siri Hotel is our favorite place to stay.

The coastal road to Ancona is not one of Italy's most picturesque, and many people find Ancona too much of a bustling seaport to be of interest, yet its harbor, dominated by the exquisite Byzantine-Lombard-gothic church of San Ciriaco, is definitely worth a visit. And if it's lovely little beaches and harbors you're looking for, head south now, to pristine Portonovo, Sirolo and Numana, perhaps with a stop in Osimo to view the impressive cathedral and its 13th-century sculptures. Just south of here is Castelfidardo, birthplace of the accordion: hundreds of styles from around the world are on display in the local museum. [Marches' coast]

Mary's House
Continuing on you will come to Loreto, one of Catholic Europe's greatest shrines. The object of worship is a tiny building said to be the house of the Virgin Mary. Legend has it that angels carried the rustic stone walls to this lovely spot from Nazareth. Well, in truth, it was carried here in the ships of returning Crusaders -- but the legend is not entirely false, because it was the Angeli family who made sure the santa casa ended up in Loreto, on December 10, 1294. Some of the Renaissance's finest artists - Bramante, Andrea Sansovino, Antonio da Sangallo - contributed to the buildings that now surround it; the church that protects it was decorated by Piero della Francesca, Luca Signorelli, Domenico Veneziano and others; Melozzo da Forlì's trademark angels vivify the sacristy. Set on a hilltop amidst olive groves, this is as picturesque a spot as any you'll see in Italy.

Just farther south is Recanati, home of Giacomo Leopardi and Benjamino Gigli, another hilltown which looks out over vast dramatic valleys and faraway mountain peaks. While you are here, stop in the church of Santa Maria sopra Mercanti to see Lorenzo Lotto's haunting Annunciation. Then it's off to the fascinating walled village of Fermo, where you will be treated to more stunning views of mari e monti (sea and mountains). Pause at the city gate to visit the sanctuary of San Francesco, then climb up the town's narrow winding streets, past the unique long piazza to the 14th-century cathedral which crowns the hillside. If you believe in heaven, you will feel very close to it here. Whether your pilgrimage is spiritual or artistic (or both), we suggest you choose Gallery Hotel Recanati as a delightful place to stay.

Ascoli Piceno
From Fermo we drive to the southern border of the Marches, on the edge of the spectacular Gran Sasso National Park and the region of Abruzzo. Two Roman bridges lead into Ascoli Piceno, but you will use the "modern" approach, a bridge built in 1373. Just above it is the fortress, built a few decades earlier. The palazzos and belltowers of Ascoli stand out pale and pink against the mountains that form the city's backdrop, and busy Piazza del Popolo, with its lovely porticoed arcades, is a beautiful place to sit awhile. You will feel like a very smug foreigner indeed if you do. Afterwards, return to your digs at Residenza 100 Torri, a modern hotel set in a 13th-century palazzo.

Two more jewels remain on our itinerary. To reach them we travel north again, hugging the edge of the national park. We make a brief foray to San Severino to see Pinturicchio's stunning Mater Pacis, then we head west until we reach the great hill on which sits Camerino. Infused with the spartan values of the Capuchins, whose order was founded here, this is a melancholy town whose former treasures have mostly been plundered, except for that which no one can ever take away: its setting. Standing next to Porta San Giulia in the early morning or late afternoon, you see the landscape beloved of all the Renaissance masters from Perugino to Leonardo. Don't go to Camerino to see paintings; go there to become part of one yourself.  The best views of the town are from Relais Villa Fornari.

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