Patricia Cleveland-Peck

What do we look for in an Italian holiday? Beautiful beaches, amazing art and architecture, gem-like hilltop villages, magnificent wild mountains, interesting gardens, delicious food and drink? Le Marche, on the eastern, Adriatic, side of Italy have all these. Only one thing is lacking - crowds of tourists. During my stay it was unusual to find even a handful of visitors in most of the museums, galleries and churches I visited.

I was invited by Le Marche Segrete, an association of historic home owners, restaurateurs, artists and crafts people whose aim is to promote the culture and cuisine of the region. Some of the members offer accommodation in their historic homes and arriving at Ancona on Easyjet’s inaugural summer flight, it was a direct drive down the motorway to the hill town of Fermo where I was to stay with Countess Cecilia Romani Adami in her palazzo.

Her welcome was warm and friendly and after a uniformed maid carried my case into my large and comfortable but not overly grandiose self-catering suite, Cecila (we were soon on first name terms) and her brother lost no time on taking me on a tour of their amazing home. Palazzo Romani Adami rambles over 5 floors and has seven entrances plus a garden. It was formerly a ‘noble agricultural’ palazzo, with the ground floor given over to the production of wine, flour an olive oil from the family’s country estates, the results being sold in five shops at street level.

Later I set off up the hill in search of dinner. Fermo’s main square, the impressive Piazza del Popolo is edged by attractive arcades beneath which I soon found the lively little enoteca, Bar a Vin which had been recommended to me. Here I met the Mayor, Paolo Calcinaro and after drinking a glass of the delicious local Verdicchio wine together, he left me in the good hands of the owner, Peppe Rossi who regaled me with several delicious courses starting with the local speciality olive ascolane, huge deep-fried olives stuffed with meats.

During the following days I enjoyed wandering around Fermo and grew to love it. I visited the 30 huge underground Roman cisterns which were cold and damp and quite spooky especially as I was the only visitor. The historic library with the and famous map room was closed (but has since reopened) but I did manage to visit the historic Teatro dell’Aquilla, built in the 1780s. I was intrigued as to why there are so many historic theatres in Le Marche. Apparently there had been an economic and cultural boom in the 1700s and almost every little town wanted its own theatre. Many started life in room in a noble palazzo but were later taken over by the commune. Originally there were over a hundred, now some 70 are still in use.

I was entranced by the tiny Teatro Flora at Penna San Giovanni which is like a miniature Baroque opera house. Seating just 99 in two rows of boxes, it is an extravaganza of decoration with a painted ceiling by Antonio Liozzi depicting a dancing muse surrounded with winged cherubs, flowers and fluttering ribbons. With subtle lighting and a good acoustic, plays are still put on regularly in this little gem.

One evening Cecilia and I took a trip out to the medieval seaside village of Torre di Palma where we dined at Lu Focarò, a restaurant with particularly attractive interior décor, something not always found in mid-range restaurants, as for many Italians it is only the food that counts, not what the place looks like. Here we had both. We ate tempura of zucchini flowers, tartare of beef followed by superb pasta and a pistachio semi-freddo - all delicious. From our table on the Belvedere Terrace we had an unrivalled view out over the sea and to watch the changing light as the sun set and hear the wheeling swifts gradually fall silent was a joy.

Exploring the small marchigiani hill-towns that rise above fields of sunflowers and golden corn revealed some spectacular artistic treasures, many from the quattrocento, a period I love. In the church of Monte San Martino I saw paintings by Girolamo di Giovanni and the Venetian Crivelli brothers, Carlo and Vittore. They are in the form of polyptychs, a series of panels painted on wood within decorative frames originally destined to be altarpieces. They depict the Madonna with baby Jesus in the centre surrounded by saints but within them you also find intriguing symbolic items: apples mean original sin; peaches, the trinity; pearls, purity; a robin the blood of Christ and so on. In the case of Carlo Crivelli especially, the faces too are magnificently expressive and real. If it were the UK, such magnificent works would long since have been whipped away into national galleries, so to see them in the village church for which they had originally been commissioned was a rare privilege.

Another adorable little hill top town is Offida where the deputy-mayor Isabella Bosano acted as my guide with the help of student Gabriel – both delightful companions. The main monument the Church of Santa Maria della Rocca is situated high on a cliff as it was originally a fortified Lombard castle containing a small church. It went through many changes until finally being rebuilt its present form in 1738. I particularly loved the frescoes by the mysterious Maestro di Offida, which date from the quattrocento. On a somewhat more modern note, at the end of WW2 the Germans tried to blow the church up but none of the 30 mines went off. This of course was put down to the miraculous intervention of its patron Santa Maria. Offida is famous for lace and on the way to the church I had noticed a woman sitting in her doorway making bobbin lace so on the way back, we popped into the Lace Museum. Here, in contrast to Burano, even young people are preserving this old and intricate craft.

Perhaps the most famous poet in Italy after Dante, is Giacomo Leopardi, a rather tragic figure disabled by various illnesses who, like Keats, died quite young. I was eager to visit Casa Leopardi at Recanti for which I enlisted the services of the very pleasant, Leonardo Colonnella, chauffeur for the comprehensively-named, Euro Full Service di Ragusa Enrico, to drive me.

On the way we passed near the town of Macerata where Bonnie Prince Charlie and Princess Louise were married 1772. They had previously been married by proxy but it was here in Palazzo Marefoschi that they renewed their vows in person. Unfortunately the palazzo is rarely open but there is an commemorative inscription on the wall of the little chapel ( see

In Recanti I first saw the ‘lonely hill’ adjacent to Casa Leopardi celebrated in the 1819 poem L’Infinito, which is soon to be landscaped as a garden. There is also a lively Centre for Leopardi Studies but I was given an excellent tour by the delightful Carmela Magri, custodian of the extensive library. It reminded me that poor Giacomo had been deeply unhappy in this house and, longing only to get away from his authoritarian parents, had found solace in these very books which now surrounded me.

Soon it was time to move on to Ascoli Piceno where I was to stay with my second hosts at the Borgo Storico Seghetti Panichi, in Castel di Lama. I was greeted by Stefania Pignatelli and her mother Giulia, the owner, who actually founded The Marche Segrete association. Both mother and daughter are the most delightful, friendly and approachable people - who just happen to be princesses. Here I was accommodated in one of the five well-appointed self-catering flats as the main house is under restoration but guests still have access to the swimming pool and the extensive historic garden, which is a haven of tranquillity. It is also a bioenegetic garden, one of the first in Europe, in which specific trees and plants which emit electromagnetic fields beneficial to human health and well being have been located and mapped.

There is a restaurant on site but within walking distance is a very good non-touristy little place, L’Ago nel Pagliaio (The Needle in the Haystack) where I enjoyed an excellent lunch. Also in Castel di Lama is The Bar Sport Gelateria, which both Giulia and Stefania assured me, makes the best gelati in Italy (and therefore the world…) and having sampled their delectable offerings, I have to agree.

Ascoli Piceno is a delightful town. The central Piazza del Popolo, paved with the travertine marble is one of the finest in Italy. We had lunch in the famous old art-deco Café Meletti which has not changed much since Giulia came there with her parents. Not far away is the Picture Gallery full of splendid works, in which I found another quattrocento artist to admire, Cola del’Amatriche.

To the west Le Marche are dominated by the Sibillini Mountains which get their name from a legend that one of the sibyls retreated to a cave there. I had expected dramatic scenery with wind swept crags, wild tarns and shepherds tending their flocks in the age old way, but knowing I loved plants, my guide Dino Gazzani a geologist who leads hikes and knows every inch of this territory, had a surprise for me. Just below the village of Casteluccio, famed for the production of lentils, we suddenly came to a wide treeless plateau, Le Piano Grande, completely covered with wildflowers. I was in my element and so, armed with a book Dino kindly gave me I set about identifying as many as possible: cerulean blue cornflowers, deeper blue viper’s bugloss, scarlet poppies, yellow verbascum, pink lupinella, mauve thyme; the colours and scents were ravishing, I could have stayed there for a week. Later we visited a new initiative, a lavender farm at Montegallo and an atmospheric old mill but I had left my heart on that flowery plain.

No, in fact it was to the whole of Le Marche I had given my heart. Everything I could have dreamed of in an Italian holiday had been more than realised. I had lived well, met warm and generous people and seen some of the region’s many magnificent natural and artistic treasures. I have travelled to many places in the world but I have rarely come home feeling so enriched.


P.C-P travelled courtesy of Easyjet from Gatwick London to Ancona

The summer route runs from late June until the beginning of September

For more information on Le Mache

Palazzo Romni Adami

Borgo Storico Seghetti Paniche

NOTE TO SUBS Le Marche are plural – like the Welsh Marches