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Italy's Le Marche | The Other Side of Italy

Simon Watson A view of Urbino's tiled rooftops, from the <em>studiolo</em> in the Palazzo Ducale.

Photo: Simon Watson

The artist Enzo Cucchi, one of Italy's finest, and a native of Le Marche, has a craggy profile that competes with the craggy cliff of Conero, where he told us to meet him at the Hotel Emilia, or rather, hotel emilia, as it modestly bills itself. Not modesty but frill-lessness, one soon discovers, is what the hotel offers, and when we got there and saw its unadorned white masses, which look like someone's demurely grand villa set into a green plain overlooking a dizzying drop to the sea, I instantly knew my story on Le Marche was on solid ground from the I-don't-care-if-I-never-go-anywhere-else point of view. The spare interiors, punctuated by Achille Castiglioni lights, and the 1970's structures that look like they might have been built by a cousin or disciple of Le Corbusier (but were in fact designed by Paola Salmoni, an architect from Ancona) go well with the hotel's guests, who come in various nationalities but share one distinguishing trait: they all speak in low voices. And they are all quite thin—though the food at the Emilia is fabulous, by the pool as in the dining room. You can eat your spaghetti with cozze (mussels) while absentmindedly following the movements of a young lissome couple playing Ping-Pong in white bathing suits or a sunbather wearing a triangular black tulle pareo embroidered with tiny mirrors over her thong bikini when not reclining on a chaise covered by the hotel's signature lilac towel. Cucchi likes to walk down to the beach of Portonovo below (no doubt in his biscuit-colored moccasins) and take a cab back up, since it's quite a climb. The Emilia provides a shuttle to and from the beach, which has white and black pebbles and is, according to Cucchi, the most beautiful on the entire Adriatic coast.

At six that day, I followed Cucchi's speeding BMW down the winding narrow road to the straight coastline of Senigallia. We parked and went to sit on the terrace of a café called Mascalzone, "the Lout." There I had an orange-colored Crodino, a bittersweet nonalcoholic drink of mysterious composition, and Cucchi had a glass of Verdicchio, a dry white wine that was one of the first to be exported to America. The drinks and green olives were brought to us by a sultry pirate in a black stretch hair band, low-slung black harem pants, and a black tank top, with pink bra straps peeping through. The terrace faces the street, but I sat with my back to it so I could see the beach and a volleyball court with an ongoing game. Everyone played in bathing suits; the women reminded me of the mosaics at the ancient Roman Villa Casale in Sicily's Piazza Armerina, which show women playing ball in bandeau tops and briefs—an early version of the bikini. The popes may have stuck their golden staffs and built their churches and monasteries all over the hills, but here the way of indulgence has won over that of penance.

A schizophrenic existence is possible in Le Marche, as one shuttles back and forth between the austere hill towns and the sybaritic resorts and bathing establishments along the Adriatic, where for four to five months of the year raked sands are ornamented by a forest of striped, polka-dotted, and bright-colored umbrellas, and neat rows of deck chairs and sun beds present a world dedicated to rest and recreation, set within a "real" one of small cities, traffic, shops, and bustling life. People come from all over Europe to places like Senigallia, whose medieval center not all visitors notice and where a few hundred cafés and bagni are packed from late morning until sunset.

Le Marche is a lesser known part of Italy, with a 111-mile-long coastline—a protruding left hip on the Adriatic Sea—and stretches of unspoiled countryside extending into Umbria. The hills are the real monument here, and the way to see them is by accumulating hours driving through them or observing them from a window in a house on top of such a hill, like the one where my friends Remo Guidieri and Danielle Van de Velde live and write when they are not in Paris, in a town called Moresco. From most of the windows of their house, you can see snow-capped mountains on one side and the Adriatic Sea on the other. In between are the hills.

Le Marche was so named in 1105 when three marches, or border regions, between papal and imperial lands were joined by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. One can go practically anywhere in Le Marche, taking the highway along the coast when necessary for speed, and be back by nightfall. Every evening of my stay with the Guidieris, after scouring the countryside, I would return to the long refectory table in their dining room and sit on the wooden bench next to Remo or Danielle to plot the following day's itinerary.

Moresco, a fortress with some 400 inhabitants, about 40 miles south of Conero, is the same small town the Guidieris came to about 20 years ago, when Le Marche was the not-Tuscany, not-Umbria of Italy if you'd arrived too late in either of those regions to buy or rent anything. A heptagonal Moorish tower dominates a triangular settlement built mostly of stone. On a Sunday morning, the streets and square look as they must have centuries ago: deserted and quiet till the doors of the church open and the parishioners all spill out, chattering among themselves.

One Sunday Remo came as my guide, and a few hours expanded to what seemed like days as we drove around the more hidden Marche that he seemed to know intimately. Like the hills that can only be "seen" in increments, through a progression of miles and hours, Le Marche's treasures are scattered all over the region—a few, sometimes one, to every hill town.

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