I am not a city person.
I want to be. I’d love to be a person who thrives on cities. Who regularly takes trips to the biggest cities in the world, in size and hype – New York, Paris, London, Tokyo – and knows them, adores them. I’d love to be someone who can happily live in a shoebox in the center of the city. Who descends her tenement stairs into the beautiful gray wasteland and adoringly buys flowers from the man on the corner, wastes $7 on one scone, and regularly attends music events no matter how sticky the floor is.
But as you can see, I’m not that person. I prefer green spaces, a bit of elbow room, a sky I can actually see. And though I thoroughly enjoy visiting the big cities in the world (Singapore is one of my favorites), my biggest blessing is that I live near to Milan. Not in it, not just outside of it, but near enough. Near enough that I can have a big green garden and multiple parks near by. Near enough that I can easily go in on the weekends for dinners or aperitivi yet enjoy a reasonably priced breakfast cappuccino or sandwich for lunch.
It can be hard for many tourists to find the country in Italy. The only visions of the countryside the littered tracks from train windows as visitors trek through Rome, Florence, Venice and sometimes even Milan. Every one talks about the rolling hills and gorgeous countryside of Italy without ever mentioning how the hell we find it, how do we get there?
My entire Italian life in Italy is spent in or near to the Italian countryside. Hiking trips in the Alps, long weekends rolling through Tuscan hill towns or stopping in the small towns that dot Umbria, Italy’s green heart. Yet up until this July I had never been to the true “Wild West” of Italy: Le Marche.
The only region given a plural name, Le Marche is truly Italy’s country (pronounced cowne-TRAY) in all the best ways.
I spent five days staying with a friend in Carpegna, a town in Le Marche tucked right between Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, with the personality of all three. There, among the rolling hills so characteristic of central Italy – though these are far greener than the yellow-brown hues of Tuscany– I realized that a little bit of country life still does exist here in Italy, you just have to know where to find it.
Our weekend started, as most Italian days start, with a stop at the café for a morning cappuccino. Marco saw a 1 euro slice of nutella cake and marveled at the size cut off for him the entire morning. “Look at this! In Milan this would cost 4 euro! Look!” Ah, the joys of country life.
Not in an area of Italy that watches its weight, we followed it immediately after with lunch in an agriturismo. Agriturismi are huge in Italy right now. So-called “farm-stays”, the authentic of these are working farms that serve food made on the farm. (The non-authentic sell you food bought in a supermarket but claim that they made it on the premises. Not so bad for the diners per se, but bad for the real working farm-to-table establishments that lose money and clientele because of it.) Many also have rooms to stay in. They are typically idyllic locations with incredible food, and this one was no different. We were served heaping plates of fresh homemade egg-pasta. Tagliatelle al ragù, ravioli with speck and cream and another ravioli dish with a seemingly simple (but very difficult to achieve in real life) tomato sauce. It was a steaming plate of heavenly comfort food.
This isn’t a Conde Nast Traveler article though. No luxury travel here and nobody who wishes for it. Touring with a local gave us access (more like knowledge of) the local summer festivals. First up: the infamous annual apecar race.
An “ape” (pronounced, ah-pey) is essentially a small motorcycle enclosed on three sides. Typically used as a workhorse to haul gardening equipment, trash or whatnot, the racing ape car weren’t exactly the same. Amped up and “tricked out” as the young’ns say, these were tiny cars with big motors and even bigger personalities driving them. Each town in Le Marche had a representative and each car its own style. The course was a dry dirt path carved into a field with many a hairpin turn.
We went for the time trials and joined throngs of people slamming beers and burgers, admiring the mechanical work and laughing as huge dust clouds engulfed them. Le Marche or Kentucky? It didn’t seem so different to me.
By the time we left my once black sundress was covered in a gray film of dirt and dust, my sunglasses cleaned with dirty fingers like windshield wipers. We had watched car after car race across turns, down steep slopes, spin or sputter out. People were whopping and hollering. The atmosphere was pure vacation.
Only in the country can you drive as fast or as slow as you want. Can you reach up and pick freshly ripened figs off of trees, stop by nonna’s house just because and find pin-prick towns with loads of personality. Only in the country does a small summer fest welcome you like a neighbor and any type of dress is welcomed, Italian-style be damned. That’s what I love.
Le Marche has long been ignored by Italophiles. Though Italians amass along its coasts annually to enjoy the beach and especially the clubs, foreigners have never really known what to do with the central Italy regions. Le Marche? How do you pronounce it? What is there to see? How do I even get there?
Well, it’s pronounced Ley Mar-kay, there is plenty to see and your best bet is by car. It’s the country and just like any cownetray, there’s little public transportation options but even fewer cars on the road. Here you’ll find Tuscany’s rolling hills, Emilia Romagna’s delicious fresh foods and a convenient coastline for when you’ve had enough of the hinterland.
Le Marche is home to the beach resorts and clubs of Rimini, but the real country is found in the countryside, where visitors like us can take day trips through San Marino, Urbino or nearby the creepy castle of nearby San Leo in Emilia. The distances might be a bit further than the smashed together hill towns of Tuscany, but the countryside is marvellous, offering incredible greenery and homemade foods around every curve.
To finish off our time in Le Marche, we headed to the Medieval festival of Conte Olive. Though I’m not one for reenactment scenes, the atmosphere was too lively to ignore. We had the wraps so famous in Le Marche, with dough made with pig fat and prosciutto made on the premises. We watched a fire-breathing, sword-swallowing man. We solved medieval mind games and puzzles, shot bows and watched the different town fractions compete against each other in a truly impressive archery match.
The real draw, however, was when they set the castle on fire.