This is a road trip itinerary through Le Marche (pronounced lay marca), a region in central Italy, east of Tuscany, on the Adriatic Sea. Specifically, we’ll focus on the province of Pesaro e Urbino. The countryside features postcard-perfect rolling hills of patchwork farm fields, flattening out near the coast which features fishing villages and beach resort towns. We’ll base ourselves out of a country house (agriturismo) near the town of Urbania and make day trips to the surrounding hilltop villages, visiting fortresses (rocca) and palaces (palazzo), and tasting the local produce (truffles!), delicious Italian food and fine wine. The region is off the beaten track, so no worry about crowds. English isn’t widely spoken, but you can get far with a few key words and pointing.
The closest international airports are Rome and Venice, each about a 4-hour drive away. Plan ahead and book a car rental for pickup at the airport. Make sure you have (or rent) a GPS or ensure you can use your phone for Google Maps. If you drive manual transmission, car rentals in Europe are inexpensive compared to North America. You’ll encounter toll roads, but the tolls are relatively inexpensive and offer time-saving routes (and nicer roads).
Day 1 – Agriturismo and Urbania
The agriturismo is a traditional farmhouse accommodation in the Italian countryside that is gaining in popularity with foreign tourists. They’re really the only way to explore some of the remote areas of Italy, and offer unforgettable memories. Some are more on the rustic side (but very comfortable), while some are a bit more luxurious. They usually include breakfast, and some include dinner. The food is always very local, sometimes from the actual farm you’re staying on.
We stayed at Country House Sant’Angiolino, less than 4 km from the centre of the picturesque town of Urbania (walkable if you had too much wine at dinner). Run by Daniele, with help from his parents Rita and Augustino, in a beautifully restored country house nestled in the rolling hills, combining rustic elements with modern conveniences. Rita will spoil you with her delicious baked good (in copious amounts) and scrambled eggs loaded with fresh, local truffles scavenged nearby by Augustino and his truffle-hunting dog. (If you ask, Augustino will give you a truffle-hunting demonstration in the yard.)
The town of Urbania is a beautiful Italian town famous for ceramics and majolica. The Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale) in the city centre was a summer residence of the Dukes of Urbino, while the Barco Ducale just outside the city was a hunting lodge for the dukes. (We learn more about the dukes tomorrow.) Urbania has several excellent family-run restaurants, good gelato, and a market on Thursdays. Take a stroll through the town centre and venture down to the banks of the Metaura river.
Day 2 – Urbino
Urbino is a walled city and UNESCO World Heritage Site with a significant amount of history, not only for Urbino, but for the entire area of Le Marche. Originally a Roman town, today it has a population of 15,000. Urbino would come to be ruled by the Montefeltro family in the 13th century. The County of Urbino was formed in 1213 when when Emperor Federick II granted the family the title of counts. It became the Duchy of Urbino in 1443 when Pope Eugene IV made Oddantonio da Montefeltro the first duke of Urbino. After his assassination, he was succeeded by his half-brother, Frederico III (who is theorized to have been part of the plot to assassinate Oddantonio, but no proof exists). Under Frederico III, Urbino became a cultural centre of the Renaissance. His library is believed to have been the largest outside the Vatican.
The main attraction in Urbino is the Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale), whose construction began in 1454 under Frederico III. Today, it’s a museum that gives access to the impressive palace interiors and the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, one of the most important collections of Renaissance paintings in the world. One of the most impressive rooms in the palace is also one of the smallest: the studiolo, a 130 sq. ft. small study covered in intricate trompe-l’oeil wood inlays. The museum also provides access to fascinating underground levels and former working quarters of the palace. Definitely worth a visit, even if you’re not into art.
Right next to the Ducal Palace is the Urbino Cathedral (or Duomo di Urbino). A first cathedral was built on this site in 1021, replacing an earlier one outside the city walls. Under Frederico III, the cathedral was rebuilt, with construction finishing in 1604. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1789, and reconstruction in the Neoclassical style was completed in 1801.
Day 3 – Peglio and Sant’Angelo in Vado
The hilltop village of Peglio, population 700, was once a Roman settlement. It is easily identified from a distance because of the recognizable 13th-century belltower, Torre del Girone, rebuilt after World War II to the original Medieval design and height.
Sant’Angelo in Vado is a town of 4,000. The town itself is lovely and worth a walk-through. But the main draw of the town is the Domus del Mito (Villa of the Myth) archaeological site, probably the most important archeological site of Le Marche, featuring well-preserved floor mosaics from a Roman villa. The villa dates to the 1st century CE and covers 1,000 m2/11,000 sq. ft. The name Villa of the Myth owes to the abundance of mosaics portraying Roman gods, including Bacchus, and Neptune pulled by sea horses.
Day 4 – Frontino and San Leo
Frontino is a tiny village of less than 300 people. It consists of no more than two rows of buildings, but beautifully maintained buildings, line with narrow cobblestone roads. The focal point of the town centre is the Torre Civica, a photogenic vine-covered bell tower visible from most parts of the village. At the end of the village is a lovely square, Piazza Leopardi, with a modern water fountain and a Medieval watch tower overlooking the surrounding valleys. Nearby is a restaurant and inn, La Rocca dei Malatesta, inside a 15th century villa.
San Leo is a stunning town of 3,000 overflowing with Medieval architecture, including an a church, cathedral, watchtower and fortress. While previously part of Pesaro e Urbino and Le Marche, following a referendum in 2006 it joined the Emilia-Romagna region in 2009. San Leo sits on a rocky outcrop (the mons feretrius, which would give the Montefeltro family their name), cut off on one side with a sheer stone cliff. This geography made it a natural location for a fortification, with evidence of a fort dating to the 10th century. The San Leo Fortress we see today dates from the 15th century when Frederico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, modernized it for current (at the time) war techniques. From 1631 through 1906 it served as a prison. It has since been restored to its Renaissance glory.
One of the oldest buildings in San Leo is the Parish Church, from the 7-9th centuries. In the same square is the 12-13th-century San Leo Cathedral (or Duomo), while in the Romanesque style, incorporates parts of a much older church and is built directly on the bedrock (visible inside the cathedral) The front facade of both the Parish Church and the San Leo Cathedral butt up against the cliff and therefore lack a door and decoration; both are accessed through unassuming side doors. On the other side of the cathedral is the 12th-century Romanesque watchtower. Originally built as a defensive watchtower, it was transformed into a bell tower in the 14th century. The outer structure is square, but it houses an inner cylindrical tower, which is though to be an older bell tower contemporaneous with the Parish Church.
Day 5 – Piobbico and Frontone
Piobbico is a town of 2,000, comically known for its annual Festival of the Ugly on the first Sunday in September, organized by the World Association of Ugly People. The nearby Monte Nerone is one of the higher mountain peaks in the area, at an elevation of 1,525 meters. In Piobbico, check out the Brancaleoni Castle, residence of the noble Brancaleoni family. Originally an 11th-century fortress, it was enlarged and transformed into a residence in the 15th century (influenced by the Renaissance architecture of Urbino), with further work in the 16th century. Guided tours are available by reservation. Keen visitors note the bell tower’s unique clock with hands that move counter clockwise. This is the clock on the inner courtyard side of the bell tower; from the outside of the castle, the clock moves clockwise as usual. These clocks have a shared mechanism, simultaneously operating the hands on both dials, which means one moves backwards.
Frontone is a hilltop town of 1,300, built around the castle, Castello di Frontone (Rocca). Archaeological evidence shows activity in Frontone dates back to at least 295 BCE. The earliest evidence of the castle dates to the 11th century. In 1985, the castle was acquired by the municipality. It has been restored and is now open to the public.
Just outside Frontone is the Fonte Avellana monastery, established by a group of hermits around 980, and became an abbey in 1325. In 1982, on the occasion of its 1,000 year anniversary, it was raised to status of minor basilica by Pope John Paul II.
Day 6 – Mondavio and Fano
Mondavio is a town of 4,000 built around the Renaissance fortress, Rocca di Mondavio. It was commissioned around 1492 and remains in excellent condition, since it was never sieged. A ramp (there used to be a second one) leads to a semi-circular tower, which connects to the larger keep building by a walkway, itself guarded by a small tower. From above, the plan (with the original 2 ramps) forms the shape of a crossbow. There were plans for an other tower, containing dwelling rooms, but it was never built. Today, the fortress is a museum presenting scenes of Renaissance life, as well as Renaissance weapons and war artefacts. But even without visiting the museum, it’s fascinating to walk around the moat, which has become a war machines park, with a replica trebuchet and other war machines built to the ordinal designs for the fortress. Like the fortress of San Leo, upon the end of the Duchy of Urbino, it became a prison through to the 1940s.
Fano is a walled city of 60,000 on the coast of the Adriatic sea. Historical documents point to a city here in 49 BCE, under the rule of Julius Caesar. Under Frederico III, it would become part of the Duchy of Urbino. Visit the Arco d’Augusto, remains of the main city gate for the Roman city. The gate and city walls were built round 9 CE (based on inscriptions on the gate) under Emperor Augustus. Under siege by Frederico III, the top level of the Arco d’Augusto was destroyed. It’s believed that Fano had 2 other Roman city gates, long lost. In the 15th century, a new wall was built around the old Roman wall, and near the Arco d’Augusto, a larger gate, Porta Maggiore (today we see a 20th-century restoration that doesn’t match the original design). A good portion of the city walls still exist today.
Just within the Arco d’Augusto is the Fano Cathedral, a Romanesque cathedral built in the 12th century (the bell tower is modern, replacing the previous one destroyed during World War II).
Following the wall to the northwest bring you to the fortress Rocca Malatestiana, built in the 15th century along with the new city wall. Significant restorations were required throughout the 20th century following an earthquake and World War II.
As an important fishing port, excellent seafood restaurants can be found in Fano. The city is also known for its unique alcoholic coffee, the Moretta di Fano, layering espresso with rum, aniseed liqueur and brandy.
Day 7 – Pesaro
Pesaro is a city of 95,000 on the Adriatic coast, the largest city in the province of Pesaro e Urbino, and the second-largest in the region of Le March (behind Ancona at 101,000). Pesaro was founded by the Romans in 184 BCE, on the site of a pre-Estruscan settlement. In 1523, the capital of the Duchy of Urbino would move from Urbino to Pesaro, when the Montefeltro line died off and passed to the Della Rovere family. Pesaro has an interesting combination of Medieval and Renaissance history, along with a beautiful beach with seaside resorts (a favourite of Italian tourists, but relatively unknown internationally).
At the heard of the old city is the Piazza del Popolo square. It’s bordered on one side by the Ducal Palace held by the Della Rovere dukes or Urbino, and on other sides by impressive historic municipal buildings. The fountain in the centre of the square dates to 1593 with additional features added in 1621.
Just beyond the square is the Pesaro Cathedral (Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta), with a Romanesque-Gothic facade. Much of the church was renovated in the Baroque style, and then again more recently in the Neoclassical style.
Nearby is an imposing fortress, the Rocca Costanza, that dates from 1474. It has a classic square plan with cylindrical towers at the corners.
For opera fans, Pesaro is the birthplace of Rossini and home to the Rossini Opera Festival in August.
But no visit to Pesaro in the summer is complete without a stay on the beach. The shallow beach is protected by a breakwater, keeping the water calm and warm. Beachside restaurants offer delicious fritto misto (a mix of deep-fried seafood, usually calamari and shrimp) and inexpensive Prosecco sparkling wine served on tap.
Have you visited these attractions or tried this itinerary for your 7 days in Le Marche? Let us know what you thought in the comments!