For many years, the southern Marche region was an unknown gem, hiding in plain sight halfway down Italy’s eastern Adriatic coast. It was undiscovered even by Italians but has a bit of everything: beaches, some of the most beautiful hill country in Italy, mountains, quaint historic hill towns and seaside resorts as well as a culture dating back to pre-Roman times. A bit late to hitch onto the tourism bandwagon, the Marchigiani were not able or perhaps willing to capitalize on the success of neighboring regions such as Tuscany and Umbria in attracting visitors. Much has changed in the last 10 years and Le Marche has finally and justly arrived on the tourism map. Thanks in part to popular reality shows which featured couples vying to be awarded the opportunity to run a bed and breakfast here the region drew interest from folks watching their countrymen compete from first the Netherlands then Belgium and ultimately Scandinavia. These programs as well as a concerted public relations push by the region have gradually yielded results, though the Marche is still free from masses of tourists and certainly is a breath of fresh air after one suffers through the throngs of Italy’s traditional major cities and attractions.
The land mass of Le Marche is about the same as Shasta County, California but with a population of just 1.5 million. Le Marche was voted some years ago the most traditional of all the Italian regions and it may seem like every Marchigiani family has 4 rows of grapevines, 10 olive trees, 2 pigs, a flock of chickens and a vegetable garden. It remains a lot like the old days of the mezzadria and tradition runs strong here. Family land is still worked by the owners even if they now live in a small town up the road and have another job during the week. One sees empty houses everywhere in the countryside with the exodus of the major part of these family farmers to the nearby towns and cities. The moves were made for security and jobs found in the villages, the desire to avoid isolation and loneliness, and to be closer to the churches and stores. The holdouts who still live in the country will often walk a km or two to the town with their wheeled shopping cart to do their shopping, quite a contrast to the states where people drive a block to the store. Perhaps this is why the life expectancy is higher here.
Le Marche was probably colonized back in the 4th Century BCE by the Senones, a group of Gauls, but after them came Roman domination, then Goths, Lombards, Charlemagne and the Papal State. It was the Pope who made the sober Marchigiani his tax collectors, prompting this idiom which asserts “it’s better to find the angel of death at your door than a Marchigiani”. The economy here relies on agriculture to this day, with fields of grain and other cereals, vegetables, animal husbandry and of course wine and olive oil production making up the bulk of the activity . It is also an important center for shoemaking in the area around Sant’Elpidio and hat making in Montappone. Even accordions are still made here in the town of Castelfidardo where in their best year in 1953, they produced 200,000 of the instruments. The region also has the 2nd biggest fish market in Italy at San Benedetto del Tronto.
A good place to begin is Ascoli Piceno, the capitol of the eponymous southernmost province of Le Marche. The province has a population of 213,000 and the same size as an average county in the states. The city purports to be older than Rome by several centuries and was settled first by the Piceni people. It eventually came under Roman domination after a revolt and as with other areas of Italy, has been controlled by many different groups throughout the years. 62% of the province is made up are arguably the most beautiful hills in Italy and the remainder is mountainous, with the majestic Sibillini mountains making up the western border, or coastal where its eastern border is formed by the Adriatic Sea. Here you find the Riviera of the Palms, made up of the towns of Porto d’Ascoli, San Benedetto del Tronto, Grottammare and Cupra Marittima. This area with its palm shaded “lungomare” has been the main destination for vacationers in the past, but now intrepid tourists are exploring inland to find the traditional Marche .
Nearby Ascoli, travertine mines provided the beautiful stone which predominates in the construction of the old city of Ascoli Piceno which is truly an Italian jewel and was once voted one of the 10 most beautiful undiscovered cities of Italy. Surrounded by 2 rivers it was easily defensible and the rebellious Ascolani held it successfully against the Romans for 2 years before defeat. In its past glory there were more towers here than San Gimignano, before waves of invaders destroyed many of them. Both foreign and Italian visitors have returned from the city amazed and surprised by its beauty. You can still travel here from Rome along the route of one of the most ancient Roman roads called the Salaria or salt road which provided transport of precious salt from one coast to the other. This two lane highway still winds through the Appenine mountains and many beautiful small towns on a meandering path from the coast at Porto d’Ascoli to Rome.
Ascoli Piceno has two of the most beautiful city squares in Italy, the Piazza d’Arringo and the Piazza del Popolo, the protagonist of the former being a gorgeous duomo. In the latter one finds the historic coffee bar Meletti with Roman ruins in its basement and the famous anise liquor on prominent display and the church of St. Francis with impressive stain glass windows. Elegant shopping and dining opportunities are located in and around the plazas and the city is home to an active ceramic culture with maiolica objects unique to Ascoli . Several museums, a Roman amphitheater and other archeological venues combine to easily fill a couple of days of exploration. One must try the tasty olive ascolane which are large mild olives of the region, pitted and stuffed with a meat and cheese filling, then battered and fried to be enjoyed with one of the famous local wines, both white and red.
Moving northeast from Ascoli, Offida is located in an area probably first inhabited almost 2600 years ago. The town itself probably had a starting point some 1,000 years later and was built on a peninsula of land. A smaller jewel perhaps than Ascoli, but a bright gem, nonetheless, Offida is known for the famous church Santa Maria della Rocca at the very end of the peninsula which started as a small fortress and now manifests as 2 churches one atop the other in a majestic setting. Offida has a beautiful central plaza and city hall, and is famous for the crafting of lace with a technique known as merletto al tombolo. One can wander the streets and little piazza and see women practicing the craft in front of their houses and stores and is a vanishing craft. Each year the Offidani host a Carnevale celebration famous in all of Italy which must be experienced. Funghetti (anise flavored pastries) and chichi ripieno (foccaccia stuffed with tuna, capers, anchovies and bell pepper) are foods which originated here.
Offida is the home of one of the two regional enoteche or wine store/wine bars in Le Marche, the other found in Jesi, and has on display and for tasting many of the wines of the local producers. Offida’s economy is still mostly agriculturally based and is recognized as the most important area of the southern Marche for winemaking. The zone boasts 3 DOCG designated wines, Pecorino and Passerina white wines and Offida Rosso red and 4 DOC wines, Rosso Piceno Superiore red and Falerio Pecorino, Falerio dei Colli Ascolani and Terre di Offida. While most of the grape growers here still plant only the traditional varieties, they have also had great success with international varieties rarely planted in the province.
Ripatransone is another medieval town nearby and occupies a spot on a hill crest at nearly 500 meters above sea level. It is a true terrace of the Piceno with 360 degree views north to Conero, south to Abruzzo, east to the Adriatic Sea and west to the Sibillini mountains which make up our border with Umbria. Its position on a steep hilltop left little space for any “periferia” or modern suburbs, so it retains all the aspects of a medieval village. It is worth a visit for its old amphitheater, its many churches, the narrowest alley in Italy and most of all the views which stretch for kilometers in every direction. Some of the restaurants and bars have impressive vistas from their courtyards and locations at the edge of the town.
San Benedetto del Tronto and Porto d’Ascoli are both famous sea resort town with a long sandy beach and protected swimming area which has attracted sun and sea worshipers for decades. San Benedetto has a long pedestrian shopping area, a busy couple of market days each week and an active beachfront night life which runs until almost dawn. The country’s second largest fish market is here with fresh seafood arriving daily from the fishing fleet of the area. Seafood restaurants abound along the beaches of both towns. Porto d’Ascoli continues south from San Benedetto and its lungomare was voted the prettiest in Italy several years ago. Ideal for families with its playgrounds and parks along the beach, it is a bit quieter than its bigger brother to the north and at its southern border one finds a windsurfing complex and a wildlife reserve, the Zona Sentina with hiking trails and old ruins left over from the days of the salt flats.
Castelluccio is a town you see just after the crest of the forca di Presta below Monte Vettore and is on a mound jutting out of the plateau famous for their eponymous DOP lentils. It was definitely a photogenic village from all directions before being nearly completely destroyed by the earthquake of October 2016 and the plateau is once again brim full of tourists every July for the flowering of the plateau. Pictures of the town from afar are always beautiful
Grottammare Alta, the oldest part of the resort of Grottammare is located 200 meters above the beach and is worth a visit with wonderful views of the coast, quaint shops filled with artisanal works and cafes and many outdoor events or sagre during the summer. It’s a fantastic place to watch sunrise or sunset, the latter perhaps on the terrace of Vineria M841 which has hand sliced prosciutto and artisan cheeses for a fitting appetizer which are paired with the best wines of the southern Marche. The resort town has a remodeled lungomare lined with excellent seafood restaurants and chalets where, as with all beach towns, one can rent a lounge chair and umbrella for the day enjoying the sound of the sea with breaks for lunch or dinner.
Fine dining in the province is on the increase in the last 10 years. One of the original purveyors is Degusteria del Gigante with its charming owner Sigismondo Gaetani. Hidden just a few steps away from the imposing tower in the old town of San Benedetto, one finds this romantic space with old brick vaulted ceilings and ancient stairways leading to tiny wine cellars. The owner and his chef obtain all their food products from the best sources. Sigismondo is a tireless promoter of all the best products from the southern Marche. Menus change every seasonal, but old standards like the coniglio in porchetta are always available.
Ophis is an Osteria in the center of our main town of Offida, tucked back in a little nook with a patio for outdoor summer dining and becomes a real hotspot when Carnevale comes around with brass bands celebrating and playing there from some of the local congreghi of Carnival. Daniele, the owner and chef has developed both a traditional and an inventive menu depending on your preference. My wife prefers the former and I the latter but we always leave room for a final plate of some great cheeses from the best casseificcio in the Marche, Fontegranne.
La Mattra is a little local osteria in Borgo Miriam. The owners, Paola and Simona, run a great little dining spot with indoor and outdoor seating. Nothing beats dining outside in summer enjoying their pizza from their wood burning pizza oven or some of the best olive ascolane or a wonderful strozzapretti primo. They have a wide selection of vegetarian selections, one of the first to appreciate this change in dining habits and have a gourmet pizza night every Thursday.
Osteria Pepe Nero is a great little place in Cupra Marittima Alta (the old part on the hill), another of the beach towns making up the Riviera of the Palms. The restaurant is chock full of crazy fun artworks and is overseen by its eclectic owner Michele Alesiani He enjoys running his small restaurant with a fixed price menu of 27.50 euros which includes 2 antipasti, 2 prime and a secondo of choice with dessert, coffee and bulk wine included. One is encouraged to bring a bottle of wine and there is no corkage fee, although Michele may ask for a taste. The food is well prepared and varies from traditional cured meats to inventive dishes, all good and never boring.
Osteria del Borgo in our nearby town of Acquaviva Piceno is another fantastic little place with Gloria the owner, cook and excellent host. If you find yourself there in the winter when the crowds are absent the owner can spend more time telling stories of her town and the region. The cooking is very traditional, the prices reasonable and the ambience cozy. In the summer the outdoor patio is packed and she hires competent waitstaff, but the cooking remains spot on. The town itself has an imposing fortress one can visit during the day or during festival season.
Seafood is found everywhere along the coast and one of the best is run by Pepe and Claudio and called Don Diego on the lungomare of Grottammare. Simple preparation of only the freshest seafood all fished within 1 km of San Benedetto del Tronto is the secret of his success. Pepe is a life long surfer and his boards hang from the ceiling along with memorabilia from his adventures and signs insisting one must eat the shellfish with your hands. Start with the myriad antipasti, both cold and hot and then try a primo or secondo selecting your preferred fish from a tray on which he displays the day’s catches. Open from Easter to the end of October, few other seafood restaurants in the area beat the pure expression of the materia prima (primary ingredients) as they are prepared at Don Diego. Other good examples in Grottammare are Attico Sul Mare or Noa.
I Piceni is a bit farther afield in Ortezzano, but it is worth the effort for the wonderful dishes we are treated to by the chef Giampiero. Perched on a cliff above the Val d’Aso with a wonderful view of the surrounding hills and river valley, it is a great place to spend an evening dining al fresco in summer or in the elegant dining room in inclement weather. He has a nice wine list, inventive takes on regional cooking and occasional French influences and spent several years in the states before returning to his original home with his new family.
Casa delle Api near Castel di Lama is a place to take all your friends and eat until you have to be carted out. The family works the surrounding farm and many of the products which arrive at your table are grown by them. They keep bees and make wonderful honey products as well. On a busy night, the spaghetti dish might be served from a huge carved out wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, quite a sight, and its a good idea to share some of the courses as they are all abundant and rich. This is a great place to experience family style, local cooking.
Le Scuderie is a hidden gem in Ascoli Piceno which has transformed a 500 year old villa and its horse stables into 3 dining halls, one of which has a wood burning grill. The 2 Davide who cook here are young, talented chefs who have combined many styles into a unique dining experience. The service is impeccable and the wine list abundant and the ambience warm and inviting.
Also in Ascoli Piceno, Il Piccolo Teatro is an elegant little corner restaurant always packed due to the masterful dishes which have been prepared by chef Luca since 2009. Most offerings are locally sourced and inventively prepared, such as the Carbonara made with eggs from the farm of Luca and his wife who is the server. Howver, I can’t help but order the bison signature dish with meat brought in from Wyoming while Maryse is in love with the Capriolo (venison from roe deer). The wine list is local and extensive and the cheeses are once again from Fontegranne.
Nearby in northern Abruzzo in one of my favorite towns, Civitella del Tronto, one finds a gourmet paradise, Zunica, in the main plaza there. Daniele has hired the best young chefs in middle Italy to staff the kitchen and they do a fantastic job turning traditional dishes into a fine dining experience. An extensive wine list hand picked by Daniele helps complete the scene with an elegant dining hall which seems out of place in this ancient walled town below an imposing fort.
For the mountain lovers, the Marche is blessed with a beautiful section of the Appenines called the Sibillini mountains and they are replete with hiking opportunities.
A good first hike in the Sibillinis is an exploration of the beautiful Gola dell’Infernaccio in the shady confines of the canyon carved by the river Tenna. The trail head is near Montefortino and after parking where the road is blocked one walks the 1st km on a road which gives access to the cattle ranchers who graze their animals in the mountain valleys above. At the end of the road you encounter a beautiful veil of water which falls from the cliff to your left just before you start off on the trail. The cool vapor and scent of greenness meets you and the hike continues between the shear cliffs of the gola or canyon which have been eroded through many millennia by the power of a little stream which arises from a spring at the end of the hike. This sorgente enlarges to become the river Tenna emptying into the Adriatic Sea near Porto Sant’Elpidio. The walk continues along the river and one is enveloped in the sound of rushing mountain water. After a hike of about an hour and a half , one arrives at the spring, a fine place to enjoy the impressive mountains rising up on each side of this high valley. The first 4 or 5 months of the year the trail can be blocked by winter snowfall.
On weekdays, parking is easier and you might not encounter anyone on the trail in Spring or Fall. This is a great place to clear your mind and enjoy the beauty of the mountains on either side, listening to the goldfinches, robins, Merlo and chickadees singing at stream side and further up the bellowing of the cattle. An easy side trip brings you to the church of San Leonardo, rebuilt by hand one stone at a time by Padre Pietro Lavini over a 45 year period. The church was first built by the Benedictines in the 800's and had completely collapsed with the few standing parts having been used as an animal stall before he started his work. He lived year round at the church until he became more feeble in his 80’s and throngs of people would hike up to his midnight mass on Christmas Eve each year. He recently died, so the joy of meeting this humble priest is lost to us, but he left an indelible monument to his faith. Just a mile or so further on from the church is a beautiful hidden waterfall which is another great little place for a picnic in a little dead end canyon and from there you retrace your route back to the parking area.
The 3 peaks of Tre Vescovi, Mt. Priora and Pizzo Berro are a trio well worth the effort. The easiest way to bag all three peaks is to start at the Rifugio di Fargno where in summer you can return to a delicious hot lunch later. Often early morning winds advise a trip around Tre Vescovi mountain in the early hours of the day. Upon reaching the saddle it is a simple climb to the top. After scaling Tre Vescovi, it’s off to Mt. Priora, the 3rd highest of the Sibillini summits. As many Italians and tourists start their hikes late, an early start will allow you to arrive first at the top. It is a fairly simple hike from Priora down to the saddle towards Pizzo Berro. This summit requires some uphill scrambling on a faint trail. From the top of this third peak one has a vista extending all the way into Umbria, as well as the Bove mountains circuit across the intervening canyon. Descending to the refuge for lunch is a great way to end this fun, satisfying half day hike or you can spend the night before your hike there in somewhat spartan conditions and get an even earlier start. The Mt. Rotonda trailhead is across the road and a 2,000 meter summit awaits if you fancy an easier excursion.
Montegallo is another pretty little town damaged in our 2016 earthquakes and trying to rebuild. It’s also near the start point for one of the more interesting routes to climb the highest peak in Le Marche, Mt. Vettore. One starts out toward a once picturesque little church, Santa Maria in Pantano, which was built before Columbus sailed the Atlantic, but was lately destroyed by the severe 2016 tremors. This part of the trail also passes through pretty woods and by little trailside rivulets and waterfalls before heading above timberline which throughout Le Marche is quite low.
Mt. Pizzo doesn’t seem like much of a summit, but has impressive views of the whole of the Piceno and south into Abruzzo’s Monti della Laga national park and is one of the 2,000 meter peaks in the Sibillinis. A steep climb from there awards you the summit of Monte Vettore where one finds an iron cross now bent perpendicularly by severe storms. Monte Vettore is a popular night hike from the more common Forca di Presta trailhead and a great place to watch the meteor showers of summer and the sunrise. After over 3 hours of up, it’s almost all downhill from there with nice views of the mountains across the canyon above Lago di Pilato. One little uphill stretch is required to bag Mt. Torrone and claim 3 peaks over 2,000 meters in one day. From this peak a little path leads to the descent back to the trailhead. You must bring a lot of water in summer as the trail, other than its initial and final pieces, is completely exposed to the harsh sunshine. 3 hours sees you back at the car and a beer in Montegallo might be a decent reward for your efforts.
An enjoyable day hike in the Sibillinis bags the 3 peaks of Cima del Lago, Redentore and Pizzo del Diavolo. It is an ideal destination in early July when the flowers of the alto piano or plateau of Castelluccio are in bloom. Start before 9AM from forca di Presta above Arquata del Tronto to the southeast and Castelluccio to the northwest. The mountain pass is located 1600 above sea level leaving only 800 meters of altitude gain to reach these summits Arriving at the rifugio Zilioli, you will take a left for this hike, a right for Mt. Vettore or over the other side of the saddle for the Lago di Pilato. The Refugio is just an outbuilding for those who need some shade or shelter, having no services. One then climbs rapidly up a slightly exposed ridge which gives good views of the lake below, it’s a fairly steep slog to arrive first at Prato Pulito (clean lawn) before heading over to the 3 summits on our list. It’s easy going from the Prato hiking along a ridge with great views of the lake below, along the edge of a fairly steep cliff. The first peak is Cima del Lago and then the 2nd highest of the peaks in the range, Redentore. Fantastic views of the whole Piano Grande of Castelluccio can be appreciated on this leg of the hike. To get over to Pizzo del Diavolo, turn right and traverse a very narrow trail with exposure on each side before summiting the devil’s peak. If you have 2 cars, you can leave one in Castelluccio at the trail head and make this a one way hike, traversing a ridge which remains for the most part above 2,000 meters with Mt. Osservatorio and Quarto San Lorenzo on the way down. Otherwise the return hike to Forca di Presta is easily accomplished.
A fun day trip involves an early morning walk to Lame Rosse from the dam of Lago di Fiastra, an easy hike which starts downhill staying above the Gola Fiastrone and after a few kilometers takes a left and gives you a bit of exercise in a relatively steep ascent to this geological formation which reminds me of those found in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. This trail has little altitude change and you can finish the whole thing in around 3 hours. Then head to the beach at San Lorenzo al Lago, have lunch and swim in one of the prettiest lakes in the Marche or rent a sailboard or kayak or enjoy the adventure park. From here you can complete a loop with your car heading up through Bolognola and eventually to Sassotetto and its ski resort before descending to Amandola all in the midst of the impressive northern section of the Sibillini mountains.
Festivals or Sagre throughout the Marche are great ways to mix with the locals and enjoy and learn about some of the regional and provincial traditions. A typical medieval style event occurs in the provincial capitol. The six different zones of Ascoli (sestieri) compete for the year’s bragging rights in an event which makes up part of the festival called the Quintana. It is a re-enactment of jousting contests which were commonly held in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Giostra Cavalleresca involves a rider galloping around a figure of 8 before trying to strike a bullseye with his lance in the target placed on the left shoulder of the “enemy” soldier known as ‘moro”. The best score on the target with the fastest time after 3 passes wins for that Quintana edition in both July and August. The events leading up to this finale are what make this event special for me.
The contests and events in the days leading up to the joust include squads of flag throwers well choreographed and practiced vying for best in the city, this is knows as Il Palio degli Sbandieratori. One also finds archery contests, sacred processionals with gifts to the Madonna, a candle lighting ceremony to acknowledge the patron saint of Ascoli, St. Emidio and the best part for me, the parade of the sestieri and many of the little towns which make up the fractions of Ascoli. The parade showcases the participants dressed in medieval outfits strolling through the 2 piazze and streets of the city and finishing at the Arena for the joust. Many of the groups have accompaniment with drums and trumpets and it is quite a scene leading up to the joust which occurs in the central stadium and requires the purchase of a ticket for entry. The Quintana occurs on a weekend in July and again in August.
The Templaria festival of Castignano occurs in the 3rd week of August each year and is a favorite in the medieval re-enactment category. Few sagre involve almost the entire populace as this one does. Almost every street in the old town has some sort of entertainment, whether a mock up of an ancient hospital, monks serving beer and food, jugglers, acrobats or performers of magic or music who travel from square to square. There are spectacles of dance, fire eaters, archery and sword play for the kids and every 50-100 meters another place to try traditional foods, wines and beer of the Marche. Artisans in private booths sell jewelry, food and wine, handmade baskets and clothing, essences of lavender, various honeys and wood products. Every year has a different theme, the latest being the 7 deadly sins and each night finishes with a “spettacolo” in the upper piazza which they transform into a large outdoor theater for the 4 day festival. The idea for the sagra sprang from Castignano’s history as a stopping point for the Knights Templar who would travel on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience might have caused them to look askance at what has become of their point of lodging in modern times. Everyone from Castignano seems to participate from the children to the elderly which makes it even more special for visitors for the region and tourists.
I remember my first time at Rotella walking through the mouth of the giant angry pig head which was and is the entry to the now famous Porco festival. It sets up a nice frame for pictures of your friends and sets an appropriate stage for the event. This little town at the base of Mt. Ascensione is quite industrious and prolific when it comes to hosting sagre, but none compare to the festival of the pig. With t shirts proclaiming “We are born piglets, but become hogs” (albeit in Italian) one finds every iteration of pig meat here along with multiple live music acts each night, games for adults and kids and plenty of adult libations. This is another August festival and is usually just before Ferragosto, the national holiday of Italy. You can find pig’s feet, pig shanks, mortadella, pork sandwiches, pork ribs, regular pork sausage, liver pork sausage, pork steaks on the grill, roasted ham, salami, sausages, prosciutto and many other traditional preparations from the province, such as the omnipresent olive ascolane. It has become a not to miss event in the middle of August and the streets are packed for the event. Shuttle bus are available from parking spots outside the center of town.
Nothing brings the sleepy little Italian hill town of Offida to life like Carnevale. The cittadini (local citizens) may be quietly making lace or tilling fields during the rest of the year, but starting weeks ahead of Ash Wednesday, preparations and parties are paving the way for the town’s signature event. Not only Offida, but the whole province participates in, or observes, the two main events which occur on the Friday before Fat Tuesday and Martedi Grasso itself.
January 17th each year is the day the festival kicks off coinciding with the honoring of the saint known as Antonio Abate. Two weeks before Carnival, the Sunday of the Friends, Domenica degli Amici, marks a day of dining and partying among the members of each Congrega. The Congreghi are named clubs made up of family and friends who design their costumes and form a band to help celebrate the season. Some have professional musicians as members while others try hard just to keep time on drums, but it is great fun for all. The very first Congrega formed was named Serpent, so obviously one of the following had to be Mongoose, women make up the group named for the barn swallow, Rondini, and then there are other groups named the prisoners, mescal, the red hoods, the bears, and the happy nobles with new clubs added or subtracted each year. In the days before Fat Tuesday they can be found having a glass of wine in a bar before marching through the town playing their theme song. The bands are responsible for the fanfare of the Congrega of the Serpent which symbolizes the entry of the inhabitants into the spirit of Carnival.
On Giovedi’ Grasso or Maundy Thursday, the mayor gives the key of the city to these revelers signifying the city is turned over to their control. The next day the famous Bove Finto (Lu Bov Fint or fake bull)run is scheduled and early on Friday afternoon, Offida does its best Pamploma imitation. The genesis of the Bove Finto stems from a time when the rich landowners would let loose a real bull as a gift for the citizens to slaughter, as meat was in such short supply in those times. The traditional garb called the Guazzaro simulates a night gown of white with a collar of red symbolizing the blood of the bull. The bull starts his run in the upper periphery of the town and is constructed of wood and steel covered with white cloth and a fierce looking bullhead made of paper mache’ with horns attached. Underneath the skeleton he is manned by a strong youth who stands blind under the contraption and begins to run down the streets at those spectators crazy enough to be in the way. Sharp changes of direction are frequent for those following too closely and these are guided by a compatriot who runs alongside the “bull” guiding the “runner” in his course. Frequent changes of bull carrier are required, as this is tiring work. That is made easier by the bull’s frequent stops at designated sites along the route where where free red wine abundantly flows for spectators and bull fighters and the runners. The bull enters the old town and makes its way through the main streets to the end of town and then back again and at a designated hour after sunset, the bull is finally“killed”. Some folks go home and others end up instead at the town’s hospital (aid station) after imbibing a bit too much. This is also a day for locals to visit their Offida friends along the way and there are many open doors in the town where one goes to meet and greet and celebrate with those inside. It is a reminder of a key reason why I chose to settle here in Italy, the warmth and generosity of the people. This event brings people to town from all over country and is famous amongst University students looking for a fun outing. I’m not sure New Orleans during Mardi Gras is much wilder than Offida for Bove Finto.
Saturday, Sunday and Monday, celebratory balls are held in the theater, Teatro Serpente Aureo, one masked and one elegant, and others for the children allowing everyone to release the crazy energy and desires you might have before the somber Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season begin (the Quaresima). A final blowout party starts early Tuesday with everyone in costume and drinking starting early morning. After sunset many of these now inebriated celebrants then carry large bundles of dried bamboo bundles which are set on fire and carried through every street of the old town. I have seen folks stumble into buildings or fall completely to the ground. Luckily all the local buildings are made of brick and stone which are resistant to the burning embers falling from these 15 foot long bundles. There are sober individuals and families as well with the latter indoctrinating their children into the celebration at an early age. Those who finish the route and most do or are helped to the finish toss what remains of their bundle into a large bonfire in the main piazza and watch until the final embers are extinguished signifying the end of the Carnevale season. Tomorrow is a day for ashes and atonement, but Offida leaves no partying undone before the 40 days of Lent. By the following afternoon, the whole plaza and all the streets are once again clean as if all of this was just a dream and another year must pass before Offida becomes so alive again.
July and August in Le Marche are the best time for the local festivals and the only problem is deciding between the offerings. Do you prefer fruit, baccala, pasta, gnocchi or stinco di maiale? Do you want to party in a hill town or along the sea. Does a beer festival interest you more than a wine festival? The choices are endless and sagre are a fantastic way to integrate even if just for a few hours into the Italian lifestyle.
To tour Le Marche, one needs a car which can be rented in the larger cities. Train service covers the coastal towns and the nearest airports are in Ancona and Pescara, although Rome is the nearest large air hub. The Marche is not just Ascoli Piceno province, other itineraries include the Fermo, Macerata, Ancona and Pesaro Urbino provinces all worth a visit of a few days and with their own special characteristics and cultural differences.
Dwight Stanford was born in Carrollton, Missouri, and worked as a general surgeon for 25 years before moving to Parma, Italy to complete a masters degree in food science at UNISG. It was there that he met his business partner and they planted a vineyard (and ran a B&B in Le Marche, Italy). Dwight is in the process of moving to Colorado to open a wine bar offering organic wines from Le Marche.