Northern Marche is one of those fusion areas in Italy where the artificial regional borders inadequately define its cultural identity. In Gradara, for example, the restaurant of Cibovagando, meaning street food, advertises two menus – Marchegiano street food and Romagnolo street food – the latter actually being more comprehensive than the former. In this border area between Le Marche and Emilia-Romagna many residents expressed to me their sense of dual regional identity. The villages, too, sitting either side of the border, demonstrate with their architectural style and fortifications a certain homogeneity of culture. In the Medieval period, of course, this area was a great arena for the relentless battle between the renowned families of Montefeltro, Malatesta and Della Rovere.
In this article I’ll be looking at the Marchegiano villages (as defined by the border), but stay tuned for the Romagnolo villages coming soon!
Gradara is the most well-known borgo in Northern Marche due to its horizon-defining Castle which, for tourism, now plays heavily on the twisted love tale of Paola and Francesca that took place within its rooms, as recounted by Dante. There are two walls in Gradara, one encircling the Castle itself, and another larger to incorporate the houses of the borgo. It’s a distinctly well-kept village; shops have matching canopies, signage imitates the medieval, and garish plastic rubbish bins must be hidden where only the locals know. At Christmas uniform decorations adorn the main gate, church doorways and the entrance to the Castle.
The Castle and the borgo as a whole is child-friendly, with plenty of emphasis on medieval tales of knights and princesses. But adults too have the luxury of great restaurants – one that stands out in particular is Mastin Vecchio housed inside a 13th century church – and shops selling local products. A walk around the walls (accessed from beside the main entrance) gives views of the sea and skyscraper hotels that feel jarringly anachronistic after you’ve been immersed in Gradara’s medieval fantasy for a while!
A full article on Gradara Castle and the tragic story of Paolo and Francesca will be coming soon!
As the name suggests, this was a frontier town, hotly contested in the family battle, but always staying true to Montefeltro. In fact, it bears the nickname the ‘Watchman of Montefeltro’. The main street is hinged around an ivy-covered clocktower whose changing leaves must assist its Italian residents in their all-important seasonal jacket change.
Elements of the castle are still visible – a watch tower and the Mill of the Ponte Vecchio dating from 1658 which reconstructed the previous 1300s version. Just below the borgo you can visit the Franciscan Convento di Montefiorentino, founded by San Francesco in 1213 and one of the largest in Le Marche, and the Monastery of San Girolamo dating from 1500. The Monastery has been renovated as a luxury residence and is now on my urgent list of places to stay as you can eat in the old refectory underneath a Last Supper fresco.
The arrival at this village was one of those ‘stop the car immediately, I need to take a photo!’ moments. Montefabbri isn’t so much surrounded by walls as raised upon a walled plinth like a scaled-up model village (is that an oxymoron…?).
I was originally attracted to visiting Montefabbri for the particular local art found in its church, the Pieve of San Gaudenzio. The art form is called scagliola, and it is an arte povera used to imitate marble. Here it is used in black and white on the altar and framing paintings, and as you enter the church you are immediately struck by the white figures and floral patterns leaping out from the black background. These scagliole are made from spreading a paste of gesso and glue to make a flat surface, then carving the design into this white layer. Black paint is then applied to the whole surface and, when dry, is ground away to reveal with white design beneath, the black remaining in the deeper groves to create details.
After being so impressed by this arte povera I was yet more surprised to find that Montefabbri has no restaurants and just one bar in the centre. Naturally that bar had to be visited to gauge local life. One cappuccino later I had learnt that there are only 37 residents, 10 of whom are under 50. I had heard lamentations about the lack of tourism, and fear that in two years when the miraculous painting of the Madonna del Giro arrives in Montefabbri, as it does every 10 years, there won’t enough money for the celebrations. All I could think was if this borgo were in Tuscany every spare attic room and shed would have been transformed into a rustic B&B!
It was quite the winter wonderland when we visited! I’m including Macerata Feltria because, although due to the snow everything was closed, little hints of local culture and the character of the people here make me want to return. There are two parts to this borgo: the highest and oldest part with a Castle of Lombard origins, and the lower more populated part with modern expansion. Note that typing Macerata Feltria into Google Maps brings you to the lower part of the town, but there are signs leading to the Castle.
In the older part of the borgo you can visit the Museo Civico, the tower, the Romanic Pieve di San Cassiano and the Palazzo Evangelisti with a fresco cycle. In summer there are fairs and festivals, and an open air cinema.