Sprawled over the central Italian hills, and fringed by a narrow coast, is the region of Le Marche (pronounced mark-ay). The four of us – wife, two children and I – flew in to the port city of Ancona, driving up to our villa just over 40 miles southwest in our hire car. We absolutely love it here; it's scenic, unspoiled and incredibly welcoming. It's been compared to neighbouring Tuscany as being just as charming, but not as crowded or expensive, which I'd say is about right.
Feeling at home in Mogliano
We stayed in an airy, light-filled rented villa with its own pool just outside of a cute little village called Mogliano, which sits between the coast and the mountains. Given our location, it was no surprise that we threw open the shutters every morning to take in stunning views over the Sibillini mountains.
It was tempting to just chill out here, but there was food to be made, gelato to be had and some sightseeing to do.
There's an annual local festival here, the Festival della Tradizioni (Traditional Festival). This is a great chance to mingle with the locals and enjoy some of the local food and drink; we all made an evening of it and even the kids were up and enjoying the live music and dancing. Don't worry if your Italian isn't up to scratch. I'm far from fluent (although I can understand more than I can actually say), but with plenty of hand gestures, apologies and smiles, we managed to order our food and drink from the queue, and find a table in the giant marquee.
By the way, if you don't pick up some cooking tips on a trip to Italy, you're missing a trick. The host of our villa happens to be involved with organising the festival, and took some time out to show us how some of the dishes we enjoyed at the festival were made.
I was keen to recreate the wild mushroom tortellini; we also made a wild boar ragu, and a flavoursome polenta (yes, really) with lashings of parmesan. Pasta is really not that difficult to make from scratch when you know how, and the only thing kids love more than eating pasta is getting stuck into the flour and eggs to make it. There are also quite a few food and cooking courses dotted around Marche; look out for the working farms with apartments (agriturismo).
We all scream for ice cream!
Well, not just any old ice cream, but Italian gelato, which is world-class. Scoring an A for ‘amazing' is Casa del Gelato Amandola, in the small town of Amandola, which is also known as the gateway to the Sibillini mountains. I'd highly recommend the delicately nutty, not-too-sweet pistachio flavour, though my son would make a beeline for the extra chocolately cioccolato fondante every time. Don't wear white to Casa del Gelato if you can help it... my son made a glorious mess, and you probably will too. Man, woman or child versus melting gelato and heat will lose every time.
If you come here at the end of October, there are extra treats to be had; the gelateria gave out free pumpkin-flavoured Halloween biscuits when we went last October.
Another must-visit gelato place is Gelateria Veneta, while you're visiting Ascoli Piceno. There's a distinctive sense of history and mystery here and the gelato is delicioso.
Gateway to the mountains and beyond
Down in the south-west of Marche lie the Sibillini Mountains. As you're travelling through rolling hills, the scenery unfolds, becoming become more rocky and dramatic. We stopped in the beautiful town of Amandola, the touring centre for the Sibillini National Park, which has a stunning Gothic piazza and plenty of little cafes to stop in and watch the world go by. There's a fresh, almost Alpine feel in the surrounding area; it's a popular place for leisurely walks and winter sports. On our last visit we wandered around the peaceful Lake of Fiastra on a cooler-than-usual day, admiring the vibrant aquamarine waters.
The Marche region has a long history, stretching back far beyond the Romans. Towns like Ascoli Piceno are perfect for soaking it up. Ascoli in particular is home to beautiful churches and cathedrals, like the Cattedrale di Sant'Emidio. This beautiful Gothic building bears traces of temples going back to the fourth and fifth centuries, and inside are stunning frescoes going back to the 12th. Take note, though, that you can't show your shoulders, as the female half of one couple delicately and politely reminded, so cover up.
While in Ascoli, we not only enjoyed the gelato but also the ambience of the elegant Cafe Meletti. You'll be in good past company here; this 110-year-old cafe was a hangout for such luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway. This is easily one of our favourite places in the whole region.
Then there's Porto San Georgio on the coast. Like the rest of the region, this pretty resort is unspoilt by crowds and high-rise buildings jostling for views of the sea. It still feels a bit undiscovered, at least by fellow Brits. In fact, the only English accents we heard were our own.
Coastal resorts really are great here – there's space to stroll and enjoy the incredible scenery without bumping into too many other tourists.
One place that's popular with visitors and locals is the Shada Beach Club Resort, in the area of Civitanova Marche. It's smart yet relaxed, and inexpensive. Beach beds weren't crazy money to hire – only six euro each – and the lunches were amazing. Pizzas are no more than about 12 euro each (and big enough to share between two children), and the seafood is fantastic, like the veggie and salad bowls, crispy squid and scampi tagliatelle. After dark it transforms into a chic nightclub venue.
Leave your Marche
If you stay in a villa as we did, you can create a ‘home from home' feel without busting the budget like you might do in Tuscany. Every time we come here we leave feeling happy and refreshed, thanks to the crisp mountain air and pleasant weather.
The scenery itself really is the star of the show here. In summer you'll be treated to the sight of fields packed with towering, bright yellow sunflowers – natural sights like that are worth the trip alone.