You want to vacation different, don't you? Let me lead you astray for a moment. Let's not talk of Rome or Tuscany. Like Walmart, everyone goes there; some have miserable experiences wallowing amongst the foreign-made trinkets. Let's talk about a relatively undiscovered valley with a lot of history and many attractions, festivals, and archaeological sites to fill your time.
From west to east our tourist fantasy route begins at the Apennine border with Tuscany at the Boca Brabaria Pass and follows the Metauro river to the sea just south of the town of Fano, called Fanum Fortunae by the Romans, at the point where the Via Flaminia reached the sea from Rome.
On our itinerary we'll discover the landscapes of artist Piero della Francesca, strange and wondrous Easter festivals featuring a fully articulated leather Christ and some very odd things to eat, great cuisine, artisan cheeses, rust-printed cloth, Italy's best proscuitto and more. On the inland journey you'll be immersed in a rural land of shepherds and cheesemakers--until you come upon the fabulous Renaissance city called Urbino and the larger cities along the Adriatic coast.
When should you go? Well, now is better than later if you like your valleys as verdant and unspoiled as this one; the plan is to run a major autostrada down the center of the valley. See: E78: Paving the Balconies of Piero della Francesca.
As I ponder the direction this article has headed, I am amazed that in every place I've described I've eaten so well that this could also be considered an almost "gourmet" guide to northern Le Marche--except for the fact that the food was normal for the territory and I had not hunted specifically for gourmet hideouts.
Click on the map markers to find out more.
The road in yellow you see exiting from Fano is the SS3 Flaminia, a road the parallels the ancient Via Flaminia that linked Rome to Fano. To the west of Frossinone the orange road on the map--the SS73--joins it, and the SS3 follows the Flaminia while the SS73 continues to Urbania or Urbino.
You'll notice that the markers on the map are relatively close together, meaning you can easily plan a trip using a couple of hubs, one in the west and one in the east. The Province is Pesaro and Urbino, called "la provincia dei 100 borghi." Our map explores some of these little villages, descriptions of which are found below.
In the west, Mercatello sul Metauro is a reasonably sized market town that has a very good restaurant in Ristorante da Uto and some great bars. Founded in 1235, the town features a compelling central piazza and all the services you need if you rent a vacation rental villa or apartment.
If you go at Easter time, Mercatello is a hopping place. The town's fully articulated, 11th century leather Christ, called a simulacrum, is nailed to the cross in the Collegiate Church in the central piazza for mass, then is paraded through the streets to its resting place. It makes for quite an amazing evening.
Easter is also the time for some specialty food, like the Easter bread: Torta Brusca. And if you really want to go native, have the traditional Easter breakfast, which includes all manner of offal and their juices—from tripe to lamb intestine, liver and lung (and then on to snails and boiled eggs in green sauce). For any other time, a trip to the extraordinary macelleria (butcher shop) in the main square can provide all you need for a sandwich or fine meal. Note the chalkboard indicating exactly where your meat comes from and who herds the beasts.
Another fine place to stay is in Borgo Pace. La Diligenza has always been a rest stop for weary travelers. The food is great and there are rooms and apartments to rent in this historic town.
How historic is Borgo Pace? Ancient tradition has it that Octavian (Augustus), Mark Antony and Lepidus met here in 42 BC to form the Second Triumvirate, marking the end of the Roman Republic.
And if you like a truly "perched" village, a historic little village which looks over the Metauro valley, then Castello della Pieve is the place for you. A more eye-pleasing village can hardly be imagined--and there's a fantastic B&B with restaurant here called La Torre.
Sant'Angelo in Vado has a great historic center reflecting its glory years between the 16th and 18th centuries. Just outside the town is a 1st century Roman Villa called "Domus del Mito" or House of Myth. Most of the walls have fallen, leaving 1000 square meters of mosaics to look at.
Sant'Angelo in Vado is also known for its fall truffle fair held earlier than most in October. Just to the east of the main town is Cascata del Sasso, where you can picnic or swim, one of the Top 10 Places for wild swimming in Italy, according to Swide.
If you are really looking for an isolated place to stay that has good food and fantastic rural surroundings to explore, you'll want to head over to the Balcony of Piero della Francesca at Pieve del Colle, where the Agriturismo Pieve del Colle awaits you. The agriturismo is a "didactic farm" where they'll teach you all about farming right (organically) if you wish. The other delight that awaits you is a little viewpoint a short stroll away from the agriturismo where you can view the hidden landscape Piero della Francesca painted behind his famous work, the Diptych of the Duchess and Duke of Urbino.
The actual church, Pieve del Colle (country church of the hills) is worth exploring as well. You're isolated in Pieve del Colle, but you're also close to the other Metauro Valley attractions, as you can see from markers on the map.
Piobbico is an interesting little bump in the road. It's famous for its World Association of Ugly People, the Club dei Brutti. There is also a festa dei brutti, a festival celebrating ugly--along with the dish called Polentone alla Carbonara, the big polenta the way the charcoal burners might make it. Here is a video of the 2011 festivities, which features the "winner" of the ugly contest. If you'd like to take a cooking class here from an American chef or just stay in a place with great food, La Tavola Marche will do the trick--and owners Ashley and chef Jason have gone completely native and are now new members of the Ugly Club, although the membership must be honorary because they make a very handsome couple.
North of the valley is Carpegna, which produces some of the finest Prosciutto in Italy as well as artisan block-printed fabrics. You can buy a nifty bread bag that keeps bread longer than it would keep in that awful plastic wrap or bag you tend to keep it in--or you can purchase things like tablecloths and aprons.
Urbania was called Casteldurante before the Duke of Urbino made the Ducal Palace of Urbania his vacation home. He brought culture and art to Urbania--and by the 15th century the town became known for its handmade ceramics, which still make up a big part of the tourist allure here. Urbania was also a religious center, as you can see if you look at this extensive list of all the religious places. You can stay just outside of town in the rustic elegance of the Country House Parco Ducale if you want to explore this part of the valley. It is right next to the Barco Ducale, the Duke's sprawling hunting lodge. Take the car up to little Peglio for a view of the valley.
A mere 17 kilometers is all that separates Urbania from the Renaissance wonder of Urbino. Visit the Palazzo Ducale and the house where Raffaello was born, and wander the streets; it can be hilly. You can only reach Urbino by car or bus; there is no train service. Since you have a car, a stay at Ca' Andreana in the countryside might be in order. Be sure to have a meal in the restaurant.
South of Urbino is Fermignano, a city with a long history built around a triple-arched bridge over the Metauro river protected by the Torre delle Milizie, a picturesque, square medieval tower. The Palio della Rana, a frog race, takes place there the weekend after Easter. It's not that the frogs race, they're placed in carts where they're transported to the finish line by folks in medieval costume, as you can deduce from this video.
Reader recommendation from our Facebook page: "Near Fermignano is a really wonderful restaurant that serves their own grown foods, simple, not fancy, but good agriturismo with unbelievable 360 hilltop views of Urbino." There are also rooms to rent, of course. See: Agriturismo Ca' Maddalena.
Fossombrone has Roman underpinnings. It grew up along the Via Flaminia between the Cesano hills and the Colle dei Cappuccini, the hills of the Capucines. The town is topped by the Montefeltro Corte Alta palace from the 15-16 centuries. Today it is the civic museum, combining archaeology and art, including works by the local artist Gianfrancesco Guerrieri. The tourism office of Peasaro and Urbino lists the abundance of palaces in Fossombrone:
Lower down, along the porticoed main street, or corso, are the Baroque church of San Filippo, the church of Sant' Agostino which was rebuilt in the 18th Century and, a little further along, the Cathedral, which was rebuilt in the late 18th century to a design by Cosimo Morelli. Among the town's palazzi are the Town Hall, built by Filippo Terzi (16th Century), the Bishop's Palace with its elegant rusticated facade (15th Century), Palazzo Seta-Cattabeni (16th Century), the Corte Rossa (16th Century), which was one of the ducal headquarters, and the Corte Bassa (16th Century), the residence of Cardinale Giuliano Della Rovere, brother of Duke Guidubaldo II. Still further down we find the Church of San Francesco, restored in the 18th Century, and the fine Biblioteca Civica Passionei, founded in 1784. The Casa Museo Quadreria, once owned by Notaio Giuseppe Cesarini and now the property of the local authority, houses a prestigious art collection in surroundings in which the visitor can experience the atmosphere of an early 20th Century middle-class household...
Fano can be most spectacularly entered by passing through the Arco di Augusto marking the end of the Via Flaminia's run through the Marche; the triumphal arch is the entrance into the oldest part of town. The railroad separates this part of town from the beaches, fine ones considering the size of the town and the industrial port nearby. Fano celebrates the oldest carnival in Italy. Vist the Fountain of Fortuna for which Fano was named by the Romans--Fanum Fortunae--then head on over to the Corte Malatestiana built in 1357, both in Piazza X-September. Eat the local vongole, or anything in these 5 fish restaurants, then head for the beaches or stroll the historic center.
Enjoy whatever exploration of this rural, cultural and historic landscape you can cobble together from this material. Finally, did you know there was Saffron in Le Marche?
For more on the weather near the sea in the northern Marche, see our Fano Weather and Historic Climate page.
North up the coast of the Adriatic there is Pesaro to visit, of course, then the compelling little beach resort of Riccione and then Felini's birthplace, Rimini, which offers many attractions for the jaded traveler. You may wish to read: A Historic March Through Rimini for the Ultimate Piadina.