Italy (Umbria & the Marche)

There’s so much to like about Umbria and the Marche, but for many people it’s the countryside, the dream-like landscapes painted by Piero della Francesca and Perugino, that sets their imagination into another gear.

Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, authors of Italy: Umbria & the Marche

From a thousand different viewpoints you can see several medieval hill towns, castles, churches and farms at the same time, one behind the other, in a rolling carpet of vines and olives vanishing into the bluish haze of the horizon, in autumn swirled in romantic mists. Walk a minute, drive around a curve, and the view changes yet again. Purple mountains loom in the distance; in the Marche, the deep blue of the Adriatic glitters on the horizon.

Besides their landscapes and hill towns, these two central Italian regions have much in common: both are major producers of truffles, olive oil and wine; there are wealthy Roman villas and archaeological sites to explore and some of the finest medieval and Renaissance art in the world. Often compared to Tuscany, Umbria and the Marche had a different destiny, as the massive gravitational force that is Rome eventually pulled their once proud city states into the stultifying blanket of the Papal States – which had the effect of preserving them in aspic for centuries. Unfortunately, Umbria and the Marche also share the same earthquakes, lastly in 2016.

But they are different too: since the 19th century Umbria has been celebrated as the ‘Green Heart of Italy’, the most mystical of colours; as a nun on the bus once told us, ‘Umbria speaks in silences.’ It was a spiritual powerhouse, producing more than its share of major saints, starting with Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, and Francis, the gentlest of revolutionaries. Perugia, Assisi, Orvieto, Gubbio, Spoleto, Città di Castello, Todi and a hundred smaller towns are beautiful and crammed with treasures until time stopped around 1530 (although they do have a surprising amount of contemporary art).

The Marche – often translated as the ‘Marches’ in English – likes to call itself ‘Italy in one region’. Everything we love about the Big Boot is concentrated here, from long sandy beaches to glorious mountains, arty hill towns, bijou opera theatres and festivals. Two truly exceptional art cities, Urbino in the north and Ascoli Piceno in the south, occupy either end, while in between are dozens of towns – Pesaro, Fano, Macerata, Fermo, Fabriano, Jesi, Loreto, Tolentino, Senigallia, Sassoferrato and many others that are still off the mass tourism radar, with more than their share of secrets, just waiting to be discovered.