Finding Tuscany a little pricey these days? Then head a little further east to the historic cities, attractive countryside and beaches of Le Marche, where your holiday euro stretches further
One attraction where Le Marche scores over its more fashionable neighbour, Tuscany, is the Frasassi Grottoes. This vast, awe-inspiring network of caverns – the largest in Europe – makes Somerset’s much-visited Cheddar Caves appear distinctly grotty grottoes in comparison.
In the first cave, called the Abyss, we gazed over formations resembling a crystallised lake to glistening calcite fairy castles and a spectacular frozen waterfall. In the Grand Canyon, stalagmites rising from the floor appear as huge candles, while a group of parallel stalactites dropping from the roof look like the pipes of a giant church organ.
The jaw-dropping grandeur of the place, and the cool temperatures, give the impression of being in one of Italy’s magnificent cathedrals. In fact, the Grotta del Vento alone is huge enough to house Milan’s Duomo.
Forty miles inland from the regional capital of Ancona on the Adriatic coast, the Frasassi Grottoes were only discovered by accident in 1971. A guided tour costs €15 (child €10) and is well worth a detour for anyone exploring a region of central Italy still largely unknown to British visitors.
The easiest way to reach Le Marche ('The Marches' in English) is by Ryanair’s Stansted-Ancona service. Ryanair and British Airways also offer other regional flights to Bologna, at least a 90-minute drive away.
If you’re taking children, the resort of Senigallia is popular with Italian families because of its long stretch of velvet-sand beach. The beautifully-restored old town has an ancient fortress, palaces, and a thriving market selling fish, fruit and vegetables inside the circular Doric-columned Fore Anonario. In the heart of the town the 17th-century Palazzo Governo overlooks the Piazza Roma, a great spot for drinks while watching the locals enjoying their evening passegiata.
Beach resorts in this region have a short season and to avoid the crowds and still enjoy reliable weather, the best time to visit is in mid-June or late-August/early-September.
The landscape along this stretch of coast is rather flat and unexciting, but just south of Ancona the semi-wild, less touristy Conero Peninsula offers more picturesque beaches, coves and little resorts such as Portonovo.
We stayed at a rather dull hotel in Senigallia, but when we return we’ll head for the Conero, where two hotels were recommended to us. Hotel Fortino Napoleonico
is a Napoleonic coastal fortress where the surf breaks on the sea wall. Now run as a hotel, it charges from around €220 for a double room this summer. The more modern Hotel Emilia
is set in the heart of the Conero Park and also has marvellous views of the Adriatic. A room costs from €190.
Tuscany has more art, but Le Marche is no cultural desert. The historic cities have their share of impressive art, music and architecture. The artist Raphael was born in Urbino and Rossini’s birthplace, Pesaro, stages an opera festival in the composer’s honour every August.
Le Marche is a region best explored by hire car and we took to the hills inland to discover more inspiring scenery and some of the region’s fine old cities. Perched on one hill is Urbino, the regional capital built in the 15th century. We parked the car and staggered up steep cobbled streets in pouring rain. At the top, the view of the city below and surrounding countryside were well worth the soaking. So, too, was a visit to the beautiful Palazzo Ducale, with its grand Renaissance architecture and art collection, and the nearby neo-classical Duomo. Urbino is small and easily explored on foot. And, unlike Italy’s bigger tourist honey-pots, prices in the bars and restaurants are reasonable.
Throughout Le Marche we enjoyed excellent, inexpensive meals. Restaurants serve hearty, rustic fare and some of the best local specialities include wild produce such as game, fungi, nuts and – famously – truffles. Pork dishes and charcoal-grilled meats are also excellent.
One meal at an unpretentious, welcoming little restaurant five minutes from the Frasassi caves was particularly memorable. At Le Copertelle
in Serra San Quirico, we tucked into regional specialities, including pasta dishes with wild boar and tomato sauce, rabbit and truffles. Our Italiophile friend finished off with the best tiramisu she’d ever tasted and we washed it all down with a carafe of particularly good local red wine
. It was hardly fine dining – just delicious, good-value food and drink typical of the region.