I’m a late starter. I only passed my driving test last month. So, what better way to make up for nine years of lost road trips than by taking the long-haul from London to one of the most isolated regions of Italy, Le Marche? Brave. The entire territory is mountainous and only reached via narrow passes from Italy’s east coast or across the Appenine Mountains. If Umbria is seen as Tuscany’s newly discovered brother, then Marche is definitely a long-lost second cousin... twice-removed. For this reason it’s one of the most precious of Italy’s undiscovered treasures.
Marche derives from the same mediaeval root as the English ‘Marches’, a buffer land, an unruled state in the Middle Ages, resulting in this Adriatic-side state developing as a network of village states managed by their lords as independent territories, heavily guarded and positioned on top of conical mountains to survey the surrounding valleys for threat of attack.
With exceeding accuracy, Ms Smith and I plonked our fingers down in the centre the map and discovered the Casa San Ruffino, a gorgeous little hotel on its very own little hill just outside one of the more picturesque Marche villages, Montegiorgio.
The drive to Le Marche is epic and a journey I suggest everybody tries at least once in their life, the landscape becoming more dramatic the further south you travel. The foothills of Burgundy became the Alpine peaks of the Haute-Savoy, in turn feeding in to the wide shallow basin of the Po Delta, until finally the Apennine mountains loomed ahead and we entered Le Marche, stepping back 500 years as we crossed the border. Past Montegiorgio, we followed the careful instructions given to us by the hotel along iris-lined roads until a driveway flanked by rows of butter-yellow bushes led down to the house.
The owners, Ray and Claire, bought the property as a dilapidated farm several years ago, converting the downstairs pigsties into fully functioning guest rooms. Despite a thorough modernisation of this country house, every original feature has been kept: our room was paved in cool terracotta slabs, the ceiling a network of dark stained beams and joists. Ray is Scottish, so memoires of home have been slotted elegantly in to the space – tartan rugs and cushions added colour to the simple rooms and some heather milk soap was on hand in the bathrooms, which like the rooms retained their original floor and ceilings.
Our backs to the room, the French windows opened on to a view as far as the eye could see. ‘We’re in Middle Earth!’ exclaimed my stand-in Mr Smith, and it was an accurate description. Huddled towered villages surrounded by sheer walls sat atop every hill as far as we could see, separated by forests and boar trails, mills in the valleys and the snowy capped peaks of the Sibillini Mountains in the near distance.
Our Scottish hosts suggested that the best way to explore the area would be to meander from village to village on wheels. My co-Smith and navigator liked the sound of this, and directed me from the passenger seat using just her index finger and line of sight from each village we visited. ‘That one!’ she would assertively propose as we looked at our next destination from atop the current one, and we really tested my driving prowess.
Each village had its own very special, personal charm, all of them characterised by steep entry roads, cobbled central squares and fantastic names of bygone times such as Monte Corrado (roughly translated as ‘Mount of Crows’) and Torre San Patrizio (‘Saint Patrick’s Tower’). We chased the first sunset and found ourselves turning in to a gravel-lined path somewhere between Rapagnano and Torre San Patrizio. The road turned into meadow, thick glowing-green grass dotted with wild orchids and bathed in still air. Smith and I took turns at standing on the car for poses, a journey triumphant, 1,786km later and staying in the sweetest hotel in the most gorgeous pocket of Central Italy.
On Ray and Claire’s suggestion we drove to Magliano di Tenna, some 9km from Casa San Ruffino, passing under the town’s heavy gatehouse and parking in the tiny town square to eat at Osteria dell’Arco, a vaulted local restaurant run by a married couple, the wife curating the menu and the husband acting as front of house, sommelier and cooking fresh meats on a wood hearth in the main dining room. We ate our way through the flavours of Le Marche, as traditional as the landscape outside: wild goat, local veal, truffles and white sprouting asparagus were all on offer, all washed down with a late-night walk around the ancient hilltop hamlet.
We woke up to fresh mozzarella and cured meats on the tiny terrace outside our room, which had been recently planted with a mattress of lavender, rosemary and bay bushes. It was home time and once again Ma’am Smith’s instruction would take us forward. ‘That way!’ she said pointing at the Sibillini Mountains. We would be crossing a narrow pass through the range to come out the other side in Umbria and working our way up the west coast to the Cinque Terre.
The Casa San Ruffino had been an excellent base to explore the mystic hamlets and dramatic typography and it felt odd knowing we were heading back to a world so different from the one that we’d taken part in so briefly. Facing the mountains with Montegiorgio behind us, it took just the slightest fancy to believe we were on horseback and that our trip across those peaks would take us to another world in a whole other time.