The Alternative Side of Italy
Usually when you think of Italy you visualise mighty Roman monuments, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Venice with its canals and gondolas, along with piazzas heaving with tourists. But what if I was to tell you about another Italy – an Alternative Italy – just slumbering there, divine and waiting to be discovered?
Looking at a map of Italy you will see the Italian Apennines which run down the centre of the ‘boot’. But in the centre of Italy, the Le Marche region, these mountain ranges looms rather close to the Adriatic coast. In parts it is barely 10 kilometres from the sea to the rocky summits. Because of this geography there is just one major highway heading straight up and down the east coast. And, because there is little that is noteworthy to tourists along the highway, they thunder by desperately trying to reach their next ‘high profile’ destination. They have no time, patience or knowledge that there is a gorgeous, richly historical, beautiful world just up and over the hills. A world we dwell in on our incredible new Italian tour!
Italy – Under the Skin!
Originally, I was going to name this tour ‘Sotto la Pelle’, which is Italian for ‘Under the Skin’. However due to the itinerary being so different to anything else on the market, I decided to call it the ‘Alternativo’.
I have made sure we really discover and explore this beautiful part of world. Let me give you just one example – have you heard of the UNESCO Heritage listed city of Urbino? Once home to the master artist Raphael and Donato Bramante, who designed St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, it was made great by one of the most powerful men in early Renaissance times – Duke Federico da Montefeltro. Originally he was a mercenary, but he amassed such wealth, power and prestige that his influence spread right across Europe. And to exhibit that power he built a monumental Ducal Palace. The man not only had military might and tactical skill, but he was also a patron of the arts and sciences - something you clearly see when taking a stroll through his hometown! Well educated, he was also a mathematician and scholar, and he had a fascination with perspective. A fact attested by the extraordinary artwork in his private study. The walls and ceiling are lined with extravagant inlaid wood marquetry depicting landscapes and scenes which burst with the illusion of depth and perspective. Called ‘intarsia’, it is quite mesmerising.
You will only ever see one side of his face!
Like all great men he commissioned portraits of himself. Interestingly, every painting of him is a left side profile view with an obviously snarly bumpy nose, something you would assume his vanity would want to hide. But there was good reason. When younger, a nasty accident when courtly jousting totally wrecked his nose and destroyed his right eye. Hence, only the left profile.
Want to sit in Mussolini’s chair?
You can at Bar Furlo. Following your visit to Urbino we take a drive deeper into the countryside to stop at the historical Bar Furlo. Originally a Roman horse staging post, in 800 it became an Inn, and in the 1930’s Mussolini made it his favourite ‘watering hole’ when travelling north with his entourage in tow. They would stop here, before driving on the spectacular Furlo Pass. Inside is the preserved 1930’s tea room, and you can sit in his chair, and at his table, amongst black and white photos of his visits, surrounded by walls covered in post war anti-fascist graffiti. Absolutely intriguing! The Furlo Pass is now closed but we have made sure that we stay here a while to enjoy the scenery and if you like you can follow the hikers path beside the River Candigliano, into the gorge.
Our ‘Romeo and Juliet’ style hotel in gorgeous Ascoli Piceno
As always, we have discovered some quite unique properties for you to stay in. Near Venice, and in Frascati in the hills above Rome, you will stay in delightful Italian villas. And near the Republic of San Marino you will be staying in the Palazzo Viviani complex atop the vine covered hills of Montegridolfo.
But I think my favourite is the gorgeous, 500 year old Palazzo Guiderocchi, in Ascoli Piceno. It may be the colonnaded staircase and courtyard reminiscent of a Shakespearian romance story, or perhaps it just where it is, in the stunning town of Ascoli, which will take your breath away. When Rome hungered for Travertine marble they found it here. So when Ascoli evolved as an important regional Roman city, you can imagine what their favourite building material was! Overlapping the Roman architecture you will find one of the most beautiful medieval cities in Italy, and that is saying something! In a recent survey Ascoli’s main square was placed in the top 5 squares in all Italy! With a skyline that is pierced by cathedral spires and stone towers above merchant palaces, you know you have discovered somewhere different! A must see is the incredible blue painted interior of the Cathedral of Sant'Emidio. And a must do is taking the time to relax, sit in a shady café to enjoy a leisurely lunch with a glass of wine whilst watching the locals saunter by.
The Le Marche region
In Ascoli, in the Le Marche region they take their food and drinks very seriously. That is why on one evening you will visit the ‘timepiece’ Caffé Meletti, to enjoy dinner on their 2nd floor terrace looking directly down on Piazza del Popolo. Of an evening, the lights shimmer enchantingly off the polished Travertine stone pavers, and delightfully there are no crowds, no tourists, and it is all yours!
A must try is the olive all'ascolana - fried, stuffed olives invented here in Ascoli.
Further north in Mondaino you will taste locally made pecorino. Recently some enterprising locals excavated an abandoned car mechanics garage and discovered some ancient pecorino wells. After countless hours cleaning up the years of grease and oil they bought this traditional pecorino house back to life. Now you can look down into these underground cheese maturing chambers and, above ground taste genuine pecorino. Adding charm, your pecorino ‘lord and lady’, dressed in gorgeous medieval costumes, will take you on a guided walk through town.
And then there is the Theatre of the Golden Serpent in Offida
There’s a little town called Offida, famous for its handmade lace. In fact, they still make it here by hand. On sunny days you can see ladies sitting in doorways, chatting with their neighbours, whilst their hands are a flurry of movement, busy weaving bobbins into fine lace cloth. At the far end of Offida town there is the 700 year church - Santa Maria della Rocca - St Mary’s church of the rock. Unusually the entrance is via the frescoed and pillared crypt. But the place that really entranced me in town was the Teatro Serpente Aureo di Offida – the Theatre of the Golden Serpent. This antique theatre reeks of glorious regional old time opera. So compact, there are 4 tiers of pale green and golden private boxes which climb vertically above the red velvet chairs in the stalls. It is still being used today, and the actors must all get ankle ache because the old wooden stage actually slopes downwards towards the stalls so everyone gets a great view of the stage. Sitting there, you can so easily imagine the local godfather along with the provincial gentry attending the opera, hiding in the shadows above, in this perfect 18th century timepiece.
George Clooney was here…
At the end of the 19th century the stone hilltop village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, in Abruzzo, became deserted. The inhabitants, ravaged by poverty first and then earthquakes, had all fled to new lives in the Americas and Australia. But now times have changed, and the town is slowly coming back to life. It is being rebuilt, sensitively, and with care. Walking down timepiece alleys and squeezing through narrow cobbled streets and passageways, you enter a forgotten era. One minute you weave between scaffolding (yes, it is perfectly safe!) holding up the walls and the next you next to an artisan’s shop, or a café or someone’s characterful stone house, compete with lace curtains and flower pots. You will find the ‘over grown and crumbling’ next to the ‘lovingly restored’. In fact, it was here George Clooney stayed whilst filming ‘The American’.
Abruzzo and Le Marche… sshhh!
It is quite extraordinary that this area of Italy is so readily missed. There are virtually no airports nearby, which is good because then there are no plane loads of tourists. There are no motorways or service stops either. In fact, I am rather pleased with the fact there is little tourist infrastructure. Because if there was there would then be nothing ‘alternative’ about this tour. But I can assure you there is!
Come with us to Le Marche now… before it shines on the massed tourist radar. But shhhh, let’s keep it that way, so try not to tell anyone!