October 31, 2012
Travel Back in Time: Le Marche

Tranquil green hills in the Marche
How many times when talking about Italy do we come across expressions like "hidden gems," "secret treasures" and "undiscovered jewels?" That's because the whole country is dotted with historical traces of the past: everywhere we witness the glorious sprouting of buildings and ruins in which architecture, culture and mankind's footprint harmoniously blend with the surrounding natural beauties.

An example of this idyllic setting is the region of the Marche. There's been a lot of discussion lately about Le Marche and the question appears to be always the same: "Is Le Marche the next Tuscany?" The region has been defined as "Tuscany without large crowds and high prices," although this might appear as a dismissive label for a region that proudly preserves its uniqueness and rich tradition. When traversing this land, you develop the distinct feeling that you are discovering the true Italy, a gift reserved only for curious travelers. Nature presents itself in all its multi-colored splendor: rolling hills, vineyards and olive groves, curvy roads lined with cypress trees, fields of grain and sunflowers cover the entire region in a patchwork of nuances and shapes.

The crenellated Castello di Gradara
There is a stark contrast between the marchigiana coastline, with its modern beach resorts that are crowded with tourists in summer, and the inland. Like the ravioli pesaresi, the surprise is in the middle, and it's in the heart of Le Marche that we find the true Italy. As a kid, I used to spend every summer with my family in Cattolica, a popular holiday destination on the Adriatic coast. To take a break from the relaxing routine of sun, swim and sand, my parents used to take my brother and me on day trips to secluded locations. One day my dad woke up early, went for a first-light walk by the port and came back holding a tray of paste fresche (sweet, creamy shortbread treats) for breakfast, proudly waving the road map he had studied along the path. That particular day he decided that Le Marche, specifically Gradara, would be our destination.

Gradara is a medieval village perched on a hilltop and famous for its magnificent castle: an impregnable fortress that was the legendary setting for the tragic love story of Paolo and Francesca, killed after being caught in each other's arms by Gianciotto, Francesca's husband. This story was famously portrayed by Dante in the fifth Canto of his Inferno (the first part of the Divine Comedy) and celebrated also by Petrarca, D'Annunzio and Boccaccio. Gradara Castle was built between the 11th and 15th centuries, and was the scene of continuing conflicts between the Malatesta and Montefeltro families before falling under control of the Sforza family. After centuries of battles, the complex became property of the Italian state in 1983 and is now open to the public.

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The village is truly unique and as a first-time visitor you feel like you are the winner of a golden ticket that allows you to travel back in time. The fortress elegantly welcomes you to step through the Porta dell'Orologio. I was twelve years old when, hesitant and curious, I crossed that threshold, taking a big leap into the past. Inside the medieval walls is an authentic borgo and history embraces you throughout your visit. I used to love stories of knights and damsels, horses and drawbridges, chaotic streets filled with peasant women and troubadours, and Gradara is the tangible evidence that those times were not fictional moments invented by creative writers but historical truths.

Inside the walls of Gradara, there's a good selection of family-run shops and restaurants where you can taste the local cuisine - predominantly meat-based - as well as rich cheeses like casciotta d'Urbino. In this village where legend meets history, the visitor lives a multi-sensorial experience: the visual majesty of the Castle, the cloister and the frescoes blend with the smell of trees and the nearby salty sea, while footsteps echo as people walk down the cobblestone streets. The local inhabitants of Gradara still preserve that genuine modesty and unexpected curiosity toward tourists that gives you the feeling of walking into a welcoming but traditional Italian family, ready to let you be part of their quotidian lives.

Dramatic site of the Castello di San Leo
If you wish to prolong your trip back in time, make sure to stop in San Leo to visit the famous Forte. Once the prison of Count Cagliostro, this castle is perched on top of a steep cliff in a breathtakingly dramatic setting that surpasses even that of Gradara. So consider making Le Marche your next Italian destination. I like to think of this entire region as a gift left by history, ready to be unwrapped by curious travelers looking for indelible memories in an unforgettable place where romance hangs heavily in the air.

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