It looks like heaven - and tastes like it too

From ducal splendour to luscious pasta dishes, the eastern region of Le Marche leaves the food writer and Italy lover William Black spoilt for choice

Some corners of Italy are so breathtakingly beautiful you almost have to slap yourself to remember that you are on the same planet as Basildon - and the central province of Le Marche is one of them.

Some corners of Italy are so breathtakingly beautiful you almost have to slap yourself to remember that you are on the same planet as Basildon - and the central province of Le Marche is one of them.

Le Marche used to be one of those little-known corners of Italy that overly romantic writers with a deep and uncontrollable passion for Italy - writers such as myself - would "discover". But since being dubbed, along with Puglia, and Umbria, "the new Tuscany", good travelling citizens (and Volvo dealerships) have begun to satisfy a growing curiosity about this province on the eastern side of Italy, sandwiched between mountainous Abruzzo to the south, radical Romagna to the north, and to the west ... yes it even has Tuscan contiguity. It is a region that, in the words of the obese French tyre man, the once respected rubber gastronome, is well worth the detour.

I was slapping myself particularly hard recently while drifting in an almost narcotic haze in my own private Marche mille miglia - stunned and hugely uplifted by the sheer vitality of it all. There were crusty old peasants up in the Sibelline Hills, an urban buzz and fabulous stoccafisso (wind-dried cod) in Ancona, rolling landscapes, a precarious hill-top castle at San Leo, plus a stream of captivating towns: Jesi, Fermo, Macerata and Ascoli Piceno to name but a few. For those in need of religious inspiration, a visit to Loreto is an absolute must. Devoted pilgrim or not, this is the site of the Santa Casa, the Holy House where Jesus once lived - no not here in Loreto, but in Nazareth, the house being kindly transported by angels in an age long before Chinook helicopters.

And if you prefer to people-watch, or café-sit, many Italians will tell you that the Marchegiani have a particular attraction - great beauty and an air of what might almost be called calmness. They are gentle Italians. Temper this if you will with the election every September of the President of the Club dei Brutti (the Club of the Ugly) in the Marche village of Piobbico, where self-professed ugly club organiser Telesforo Iacobelli says proudly: "Yes, I'm ugly. I have a small snubby nose. But if you ask me, the uglier the better!"

If ugliness is not your thing, then get yourself to the utterly exquisite town of Urbino in northern Marche. The 15th-century glory of Urbino is down to Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482), its one-time Duke. He was an exceptional, almost archetypal Renaissance man, a mercenary or condottiere of refined tastes, enormous power, and a famously aquiline, indeed broken, nose. His haughty, almost supercilious look was captured by Piero della Francesca in 1472, and can be seen in Florence's Uffizi gallery.

The marvellous Ducal Palace in Urbino was built on his orders in 1473, and although it is not as well endowed as it once was - its library has been shipped off to the Vatican in its entirety - it is still a brilliant piece of Renaissance architecture.

The Duke was considered to have been a relatively benign ruler, and an immensely cultured man. Great artists passed by. Piero della Francesca, Uccello, Pisanello, and the great Raphael was born in Urbino in 1483. His house, the Casa natale di Raffaello, still stands and can be visited. But it is the Ducal Palace that takes the breath away.

Urbino is more than just a story of the exquisite taste of one man, for it reminds us that Italy has been moulded by the machinations and fluctuating fortunes of immensely powerful families: the Medicis, the Borgias, the Gonzagas, the Este, the Sforza, all of whom created their own fiefdoms - city states that became one of the basic social structures of what we now know as Italy, a country that, it is so easy to forget, was only united in 1871.

City states and republics are part of the Italian soul. They help explain, I think, the Italian's disdain, and distrust for a centralised state, and their tendency to play the subtle game of campanilismo, a word that literally means that you are loyal to the sound of your own church bells.

As I left the Ducal Palace that winter afternoon, the fog had thickened, and it rolled ominously through the narrow streets. It was absolutely glorious. There was hardly a soul around. I half-expected to hear the mad crashing of a horse rushing through the cobbled square, with a red-velvet clad Renaissance rider careering through the streets, but sadly, the only people who passed by were the carabinieri. If atmosphere titillates your soul, then Urbino is the place for you.

The body does well by Le Marche too. It is home to one of my favourite places to eat on the planet - the Trattoria da Rosa in the backstreets of Macerata, an unpretentious but lovely, relaxed hill town with the usual sprinkling of clothes shops and perfumeries. Da Rosa is also unpretentious, but what really makes the place work for me is that rare thing, a menu that eats as well as it sounds, and one that entirely reflects the region. They know about smiling too, which always helps.

You may even be lucky enough to stumble across Le Marche's great culinary extravagance, a luscious layered pasta dish called Vincisgrassi, dotted with truffles, and covered with a rich meat ragu and béchamel sauce. Its name is at the centre of one of those interminable culinary debates. Was it named after an Austrian general, Windschgratz, who in 1799 had the dish dedicated to him during a respite from slaughter in Ancona? Or can it be, as the Maceratese convincingly suggest, a name derived from a dish called princisgrassi that was recorded in 1781 by a local author, Antonio Nebbia? Another theory says that it is a corruption of local tagliatelle called by the Maceratese, pincigrassi. The debate rages on.

Driving southwards to Ascoli Piceno, a town as famous for stuffing olives as for its beautiful central piazza, I stopped at a curiously named village called Monte Vidon Combatte, on the recommendation of a keen local gastronome. When my pancetta stocks run low, I tend to plot and plan a lightning trip to Italy to fill those vacant spaces in the fridge. Here I was told to look for a small shop run by the Passamonti family, who produce hams, a superb lightly smoked salami called ciauscolo, as well as the most exquisite guanciale, or pig's jowl.

Guanciale is not only a tastier cut than the cured pork belly, or pancetta, that is now so widely available, but for all of those who are just gagging to make a really authentic spaghetti all'amatriciana, it is guanciale that you need.

Although much of the Marche coast is dead and dull at this time of year, there are places worth exploring. Senigallia is a beautiful town, with a profoundly overpriced and well-respected restaurant, La Madonnina del Pescatore; you might be better off, and heavier in the wallet, at Al Cuoco di Bordo. Fano is worth a wander too. Meanwhile, the port of Ancona may not be the prettiest - it is busy, and dusty - but it is a great place to eat that most enigmatic of Italian culinary creations, stoccafisso - or wind-dried cod. It was a stalwart of international trade, shipped down with fur and amber from Scandinavia since the Middle Ages.

Then there are Emanuela Forlini's onions. I'd never heard of them the first time I visited Le Marche, which is a pity, for if I had I might well have been better prepared for the biting winter cold. Emanuela lives in Urbania, one among hundreds of ravishing Marchegianan towns, and is the last known practitioner of the dark art of onion weather forecasting. Every New Year's Day, she selects 12 onions, one for each month of the year, sprinkles them with salt, and then, come 24 January, looks at them closely, and with copious amounts of ancestral wisdom, delivers her meteorological verdict.

And so it is that I can divulge that the weather in Le Marche for 2005 will mostly be variable. Apart from September and October that is, when there will be, Emanuela informs us, bel tempo. Ah, the wisdom of Le Marche!

William Black's most recent book is 'Al Dente - the Adventures of a Gastronome in Italy', published by Corgi at £7.99

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com flies from London Stansted to Ancona from £50 return.

Where to stay

Hotel San Giovanni, via Barocci 13, Urbino (00 39 0722 2827), offers double rooms from €55 (£40) without breakfast. Hotel da Rosa (00 39 0733 232 670), via Armaroli 94 has double rooms from €65 (£46) with breakfast.

Where to eat

La Madonnina del Pescatore (00 39 071 698267; www.madonninadelpescatore.it), Lungomare Italia 11, Marzoccadi Senigallia. Al Cuoco di Bordo (00 39 0717 929661), Dante Aligheri 94, Marzoccadi Senigallia. Trattoria da Rosa (00 39 0733 260124), Via Armaroli, 17, Macerata. Salumificio Passamonti (00 39 0734 656109), Via G Leopardi, 10, Monte Vidon Combatte.

What to see

Palio della Rana (frog race) in Fermignano. The race through town with a frog on a wheelbarrow celebrates the village's independence from Urbino in 1607, on the Sunday after Easter.

Further information

www.le-marche.com

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