Visit Italy’s Le Marche for olives, outlet shopping

A visit to Italy doesn’t have to mean standing in line for hours to view a Giotto or a Tintoretto in a museum. With a rental car, and the stomach for curlicue curves, you can breeze through Le Marche, a less traveled region on the Adriatic Coast.

The rewards include landscapes worthy of Renaissance masters. Immaculate hilltop towns. Fried olives, creamy prosciuttos, depraved lasagnas. And outlet shopping.

Landscape of Marche at Arcevia

Landscape of Marche at Arcevia

Some of the most show-offy scenery is in the south, where the Sibylline Mountains rise theatrically behind the green rolling hills.

The Marche is dotted with beautifully preserved hilltop villages. Each one has its draw.

We drove to Sant’Elpidio a Mare to see its shoe museum, and discovered a good restaurant, Il Melograno, with a fine terrace in the back that looks far out to the sea. It’s a good place to try the ubiquitous local specialty, olives ascolane (stuffed with meat and cheese, breaded, and deep-fried — why didn’t I think of that?) as well as vincisgrassi, a rich regional lasagna made with cream, veal and unmentionable chicken parts.

inland of the Marches

inland of the Marches

The museum itself, the Museo della Calzatura, reflects an important local industry: The region’s prosperity derives from its apparel factories as well as its farms. (In nearby Montappone, there’s a hatmaking museum.) The small display traces the history of footwear, from Chinese foot binding to disco platforms, and includes a few famous shoes (Ferragamo’s “invisible sandal” from 1947) and shoes of the famous (popes, singers, athletes).

The same building holds the small Pinacoteca Civica Vittore Crivelli, with an exquisite polyptych and an equally jewel-like triptych by the Quattrocento master the museum is named after. The clump of big outlet stores outside town — including Prada, Tod’s and Roberto Botticelli — draws crowds the two museums could only dream of.

Citta ideale - Piero della Francesca

Citta ideale – Perfect city – Piero della Francesca e Raffaello

Ascoli Piceno is the largest town in the southern Marche, and its central square, the Piazza del Popolo, is one of the prettiest in Italy, with loggias along two sides and the art nouveau Caffe Meletti tucked into the corner. Meletti is known for its anisette, but on a warm afternoon a “spritz” — soda dressed up with a shot of Aperol or puckery Rabarbaro (made from rhubarb) — goes well with fried olives and people-watching.

Ascoli Piceno - Piazza del Popolo

Ascoli Piceno – Piazza del Popolo

It’s a longer drive north to Loreto, the second most popular pilgrimage site in Europe after Lourdes. In the center of its splendid Renaissance cathedral sits the Madonna’s house, originally situated in Nazareth. According to certain authorities, it was flown to Italy by angels, a forebear of Dorothy’s trip to Oz.

The little house, the Santa Casa, isn’t much, even with the presence inside of the celebrated Black Madonna of Loreto, and if you suffer from claustrophobia the mob inside may make you feel like one of the damned. The true miracle is the marble casing designed for it in the early 16th century by Donato Bramante, with scenes from the life of the Virgin and the transportation of her home. Tracks carved into the rim that extends from the bottom encourage the faithful to approach the entrance on their knees.


Thanks to Craig Seligman

Bloomberg News




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