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Le Marche - a Weekend of Wonders

Anne Robichaud

Hilltop pastures, live oak and chestnut woods, and springtime-green fields of wheat lined the twisting roads we followed into the region of Le Marche. Pino and I had planned a motorcycle trip for the three-day "Mayday" weekend (May first is a national holiday here in Italy and landed on a Friday that year, creating a bonus three-day weekend for most.)

Springtime green pastures and woods of Le Marche Region

Springtime green pastures and woods of Le Marche Region

We'd decided to motorcycle our way to the San Ginesio/Sarnano area to visit Alyssa and Bill, New Jersey friends (whom I first met as "tour clients" some years ago) to see the farmhouse they had bought there last year. The farmhouse needs some work and Bill and Alyssa wanted Pino to give them a rough idea of immediate necessary remodeling needs before they come for their first vacation in Le Marche.

History of a Name

Le Marche is the only one of the twenty regions of Italy with a plural name and although the name of this region became official only in 1815, the name is certainly of ancient Germanic origin, deriving from "mark" meaning "territory" or "region." This term was used to define the border territories of the empire of Charlemagne, which were generally governed by a marchese ("marquis) or "lord of the mark."

At the end of the tenth century, numerous "mark" (or marche, as the Italians called them) were defined between the Appenines and the Adriatic Sea and were gradually consolidated until the plural form, le marche, appeared in early 19th century literature to denote the area. Bordering Umbria on the east and extending to the Adriatic Sea, Le Marche region became part of the Papal States in the 16th century, ending centuries of strife between Papal authority and imperial authority. A network of Romanesque churches and monasteries as well as fortified feudal fortresses threads its way through the region, a testament to the age-old attrition between religious and civic power poles.

San Giusto

Most fitting that our first stop was at an ancient church of the eleventh century, San Giusto, not easy to find, at the top of a winding road. Perched on a hill with wide expansive views all around, the position of the church was telltale in defining its past history: a defensive position during the violent period of the Middle Ages. Almost always, what is a sacred site today was a sacred site for the Romans and this site would have been perfect for the sacrificial offerings of both the Romans and the Piceni, native people of Le Marche, who worshipped here even before the Romans.

Pino Admires the Round Forms of San Giusto

Pino admires the round forms of San Giusto

Like many of the earliest Christian churches, San Giusto was built in-the-round, following the models of pre-existing temples (such as the Roman Pantheon). The circular form symbolized the firmament, the "cupola" of the heavens. The perfectly-rounded stone hemisphere of San Giusto in local limestone truly astounded. A volunteer custodian from the nearest village, trusted keeper of the church keys, had opened the church in preparation for a wedding the next day, our good fortune. He enthusiastically gave us a tour of the church and showed us with pride the 17th century sacred image to the Virgin and Child tucked away in the sacristy. He pointed to a tall wooden ladder leading up to the bell tower and asked us if we wished to climb up. We refrained as had the elderly Signora Norma and her little grandson Davide, who sat near the enormous bronze church bell, no longer tolling up in the tower but now placed like a sentinel near the church entrance.


A narrow dirt road snaked down from San Giusto, connecting to the main highway leading us to nearby Tolentino. Encircled by softly-rounded hills, Tolentino's medieval streets lead to quiet piazzas bordered by redbrick porticoes which give no sign of past violence: Papal troops had battled against feudal overlords and during World War II the Fascists fought the partisans hidden in the surrounding hills.

San Nicola da Tolentino, great preacher and recognized as a saint during his lifetime, lived here until his death in 1303. So venerated was San Nicola that the town's church, dedicated to San Giorgio, was re-dedicated to him two hundred years after his death. At that time, the medieval church was heavily restored and embellished with precious marbles but the highest form of artistic beauty in the church for me is in the adjacent chapel dedicated to San Nicola and frescoed in the mid-fourteenth century by an unknown but highly skilled maestro. This fresco artist immortalized the life and miracles of Tolentino's San Nicola in vivid episodes, brought to life in astonishingly brilliant colors. I was enthralled by the depictions of the fourteenth century buildings of Tolentino which back-dropped the scenes. Such an important historical documentation of the town's medieval architecture!|

One fresco in particular caught my eye: "San Nicola Heals the Blind Girl of San Ginesio." They allow photography and I had to capture that one for Alyssa and Bill whose Italian hometown would now be the tiny village of San Ginesio. Pino and I spent a good amount of time engrossed in the frescoes and then wandered the adjacent cloister of this Augustinian shrine where, for centuries, contemplative monks had prayed and read their breviaries while strolling there.

Sarnano and San Ginesio

Daylight was fading and the hills were changing from bright greens to soft blues as we headed to Sarnano to meet Bill and Alyssa at our hotel on the town's main piazza. I was grappling with my helmet strap and Pino was parking the motorcycle as a welcome shout greeted us from the outdoor terrace. Bill and Alyssa were there enjoying an aperitivo before our dinner together at the restaurant of the hotel. Early night for all: they were tired after their flight and we were satiated with outdoor beauty and indoor wonders.

We met for breakfast the next day and headed out to their newly-acquired 19th century farmhouse off the road which leads from Sarnano to San Ginesio: Bill and Alyssa in their rental car and Pino and I following behind on the motorcycle. At the abandoned farmhouse, Bill and Alyssa projected a future layout of their living space and asked Pino to check the structure. Pino was in his element - as always - while scrutinizing the beams, jumping up and down on the floors to test the solidity of the beams on the roof of the stall below, tracing with his eye the telltale lines of a crack in the bathroom wall. I enjoyed the interchange between Italian builder Pino and American architect Bill - who hopes someday to convert the wonderful hay shed behind their farmhouse into his studio.

Our friends headed off to buy cleaning equipment for the transformation of their new Italian home and Pino and I headed off to explore their new hometown, San Ginesio. Typical of the marchigiano hilltop medieval towns, San Ginesio was born as a fortified medieval castle. The golden tones of sandstone and redbrick of the houses, fortified towers and circuit of fourteenth-century protective walls contrast with the hazy blue tones of the Sibillini mountain range off in the distance. Easy to see why they call San Ginesio "il balcone dei sibillini."

We rode into San Ginesio through one of the four remaining medieval city gates (there were once eight) and parked the motorcycle near the thirteenth-century Ospedale dei Pellegrini di San Paolo ("hospice for the Pilgrims of St. Paul"), a domus hospitales, which hosted the tired pilgrims en route to Rome from the north (or on their way to the shrine of Loreto on the Adriatic seacoast).

A thirteenth century arched portico graces the upper level of the Ospedale façade, where pilgrims once slept and now only a lonely spaniel leans out over the wall, gazing forlornly at visitors. As I photographed the graceful portico of low robust columns, a woman joined her spaniel and leaned over the wall of the loggia to ask us if we would like to come in to see her house. Recently widowed, Signora Mirella (who lives in Rome) and her husband had lovingly transformed the interior into a splendid getaway home, fully respecting the medieval architecture as strict building permits would have required - and their own fine taste had evidently dictated. She showed us the house with pride but sadness: it was evident that the loss of her husband had taken the joy out of her escapes to San Ginesio.

A lonely dog on the 13th century hospice portico

A lonely dog on the 13th century hospice portico

We walked up winding narrow streets to the main piazza of San Ginesio, where the statue of Alberico Gentili stands in the center of the main piazza in front of the cathedral. Born in the 16th-century in San Ginesio, Gentili received his doctorate in law at the Universtà di Perugia (where all three of our own children studied) and soon after, laid the foundations for the study of international law. He ended his years teaching international law at Oxford as Regius Professor of Civil Law. The main piazza was once the forum area for the Romans and as I looked at the Gentili statue, I wondered if a Roman figure in toga in similar pose might not have once stood there?

Alberico Gentili's statue dominates the main piazza of San Ginesio

Alberico Gentili's statue dominates the main piazza of San Ginesio

Behind the statue of a reflective Gentili rises the gothic Collegiata, main church of San Ginesio, curiously evidencing the influence of German gothic in the terracotta decoration on the door flanked by an in inscription of 1421 indicating Enrico Alemanno as the maestro builder (his name means literally "Henry, the German"). Inside, a group of local teen-agers were enthusiastically singing their hearts out - practicing, no doubt, for Mass the next day.

Time for a gelato stop - and the locals recommended the Bar Centrale where the owners make their own ice-creams and I have to admit, never in Italy had I run into such curious flavors: specialties that day were porchetta gelato and fave e pecorino gelato! Porchetta (roast suckling pig), spit-roasted all night after being seasoned with rosemary, sage and wild fennel seed, is a specialty dish of both Le Marche and Umbria and Pino said the flavor was reminiscent of sage and fennel seed. We enjoy Pecorino (sheep's milk cheese) in the springtime, in both regions, with fresh fava beans. I tried a small taste of that flavor with trepidation - but settled for pine nut and white hazelnut, in the end.

Signora Mirella was there at the bar/gelateria with her spaniel, sipping a liquor and in teary conversation with the owner's wife. I don't think she noticed us as we headed out of the town.

The road from San Ginesio back to Sarnano snaked downhill and wound through an expansive green valley at the foot of the Sibillines. Sarnano, too, is a medieval fortress town of Roman origin, characterized by the typical narrow winding streets, fortified walls, the pointed Gothic arches of the city gates and is an attractive destination for Italians for both its proximity to ski areas and its spa facilities which make use of Sarnano's medicinal spring waters.

Pino enjoyed an early evening aperitivo on a terrace overlooking the valley and snow-topped Sibillines in the distance as I climbed up Sarnano's twisting narrow backstreets, stopping in at the very small art museum and peeking into the medieval cellars wherever open doors allowed a glimpse into the past. The town planning is typical of a castrum - a fortified walled city with winding streets leading up to the highest piazza, la Piazza Alta and then descending to the base of the hill.

Sarnano, typical fortified walled town of Le Marche

Sarnano, typical fortified walled town of Le Marche

Bill and Alyssa met us for dinner at Ristorante Le Clarisse, appropriately-named as we later learned from our waiter: the dining room is in the medieval wine cellar of what was once the convent of the cloistered Franciscan Poor Clares ("Clarisse") above. We all talked over good food, typical of Le Marche cuisine: hearty legume soups, pasta with spicy pancetta, grilled beef and lamb, and chocolate salami for dessert (a rolled refrigerator cake, resembling salami). A light rain was falling as we headed back to our hotel, not boding well for our homeward motorcycle trip the next morning.

Urbs Salvia

Luckily, our departure the next day - after breakfast with Bill and Alyssa - found us under clouds but light, soft and hopeful mounds, not menacing, so we decided to carry through on Pino's plan: a jaunt to the Adriatic for a seafood lunch before winding our way back to Assisi. We headed due east from Sarnano, and as we came around a curve, we saw Roman walls and Roman arches rising on both sides of the road. We were at Urbs Salvia, Roman town founded in the 2nd century BC and named for the Roman goddess of health, Salus Augustus Salviensis (protector goddess of the emperor).

We joined a small group of Italians for a tour at this extraordinary site with a lively and humorous guide, Leonardo who told us that Urbs Salvia had reached its maximum splendor in the early 1st century AD confirmed by its frescoed temples, theater (one of the largest in Italy) and amphitheater, where we started our tour. The small children in our group kicked a soccer ball around the grassy field, which now carpets the amphitheater center - where gladiatorial combat had once thrilled the crowds. A variety of other sorts of entertainment also entertained the amphitheater crowds, Leonardo had told us: a universal crowd-pleaser was the fights between women and dwarfs! Here, past glories have given way to crumbling walls and greenery covering the foundations.

Urbs Salvia conserves other wonders as we realized following Leonardo to a recently-excavated temple with four underground galleries frescoed in the Pompeian style in the 1st century AD, roughly when Urbs Salvia boasted one of the largest theaters in Italy, with a seating capacity of over twelve thousand. The city grew in population and still visible is the huge water cistern so necessary for a populous city (35,000 people during the Roman imperial period). The city flourished until the fifth century when the barbarians sacked the town. The inhabitants then abandoned the town and fled to higher ground - where the walled medieval town of Urbisaglia stands today, a sentinel looking out over the Roman ruins below.

Abbey of Chiaravalle di Fiastra

The splendor of Urbs Salvia gave way to pastureland over the centuries, contested by feudal overlords and the Church and the exquisite Roman edifices were "recycled" for use in future medieval churches and monasteries. The monks used Roman columns, topped with sculpted Ionic capitals, in the building of the nearby Abbey of Chiaravalle di Fiastra, our next stop. The altar of the church was once a Roman sacrificial altar, no doubt from nearby Urbs Salvia.

Founded by Cistercian monks in the mid-twelfth century the Abbey reached its maximum splendor in the fifteenth century thanks to generous donations of feudal lords. At the peak of its economic and spiritual growth, Perugia sacked the abbey and then it passed hands, first to a series of Cardinals, then to the Jesuits until passing into the hands of the noble family Giustiniani Bandini who added a luxurious addition to the monastery, their family palace. The last of the family died without heirs in the early twentieth century leaving the property to an agrarian foundation.

The marchigiano predilection for fortification architecture is evident everywhere in the Abbey, even in the subterranean medieval olive oil cellars and wine cellars of the monks: immense vaulted grottoes with corridors leading to the exterior of the monastery complex, exits for escape if necessary.

Civitanova Marche

Temporarily satiated with Roman and feudal history, we took a break for seafood lunch at Civitanova Marche on the seacoast though what a challenge to find a free table anywhere: the three-day holiday weekend combined with splendid warm weather had resulted in a mass exodus towards the seacoast. And families celebrating the traditional Italian "rites of passage" - baptisms, First Communions and Confirmations filled many restaurants - with huge seafood banquets. Sicilian husband Pino was determined to find seafood (the cooking of Le Marche, like that of our Umbria - centers around meats - and legumes) and perseverance led to results - and good seafood.

Maria a Piè di Chienti

From the coast, we headed west and homewards, stopping at typical marchigiano fortified monasteries and medieval fortresses along the way. First stop was just outside Montecosaro, once a fortified feudal castle, embattled for centuries with Civitanova over matters of territorial boundaries. The vestiges of the fourteenth-century walls surrounding the town are a reminder of these past conflicts. Just below the town and outside the walls is Santa Maria a Piè di Chienti, built on two levels in the ninth century and one of the most fascinating Romanesque churches in the entire region of Le Marche. Tradition tells us that Charlemagne erected the church as a sign of the victorious conquests made in his "marks."

Santo Claudio in Chienti

Not far away at the end of a winding row of stately cypress trees, another curious two-level Romanesque church surprised us: Santo Claudio in Chienti. Stairs on both sides of the lower church climb to a wide terrace opening out in front of the upper church entrances. Two cylindrical towers flank this entrance, seeming to be the guard towers at a castle entrance. Once again, the theme of fortification architecture threads its way through Le Marche.

Rocca di Varano

The imposing hilltop rocca ("fortress"), the thirteenth century Rocca di Varano, befitted, the last stop of our explorations in Le Marche, towering over the valley below crossed by the Chienti River. Perched on the flank of a wooded mountain, the stout and square fortress is completely inaccessible from three sides - and in the past, you could reach the single accessible side of the fortress only via a drawbridge, flanked by guard towers, extending over the gorge. During the Middle Ages, the fortress was an important point of control over the Chienti River flowing below. Nowadays, a twisty and narrow dirt road winds up to the Rocca.

The sun was setting over the fortress as we stopped the motorcycle in front of the entrance for a few last photos of one of the many wonders of Le Marche.

Anne Robichaud lives just outside of Assisi and offers guided tours of the Umbrian hill towns as well as cooking classes in her home. See www.annesitaly.com for more information.

© Anne Robichaud, 2010. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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