For all the snide comments painting the marchigiani as backward sheep farmers, their region has made some impressive contributions to Italy’s cultural heritage. The cities of Urbino, Ascoli Piceno, and Jesi aren’t on the standard tourist itinerary, though they should be, and they probably will be once travelers start looking to Le Marche to find some of Italy’s undiscovered treasures. They are good places to start searching for homes.
STARTING AN AGRITURISMO
Lori Cintioli and her family used to live in Castelfidardo, a small town in Le Marche. Cintioli ran a clothing store, while her husband was a craftsperson. Then came the big decision: They sold their apartment and moved to the countryside. With the money from the apartment’s sale and from a bank loan, we bought four and a half hectares (11 acres) of land and an old farmhouse that we started to restore, Cintioli says.
A 1985 law gave farmers the chance to offer accommodation, food, and drink, and to organize activities for tourists. Essentially, it made applying for hotel and restaurant licenses easier. The only conditions were that farming had to remain their main business, and the products served had to be mostly homemade, in order to set up such an agriturismo.
That proved to be a sticking point for New York native Nora Kravis, who started renting rooms on her Tuscan farm in 1988. She applied for an agritourism permit in her town of Radda, in the Chianti area, but the authorities turned her down. That was because Kravis was a veterinarian, and she earned more money from that profession than from farming itself. To run an agriturismo, farming has to be your major source of income. It took her seven years to get the municipal government to change its mind. After she passed an exam for her license, she started serving local produce and selling the goat milk, cashmere, and related skin care products that she makes on the farm.
Despite the potential obstacles that Italians like the Cintioli family and foreigners like Kravis face, the trend of starting an agriturismo is catching on. In 2001, the number of employees working in agriculture saw its first increase since World War II, and there are now more than 10,000 agriturismi operating across the country. In an average year, more than two million visitors, 25 percent of whom are foreigners, stay in them.
When I started my business in 1990, the agriturismi of this valley offered accommodation for 50 people only, says Vittorio Cipolla, who manages his own farm resort in Val d’Orcia, Tuscany. Now there are some 150 agriturismi with an average of 10 beds each. One of the premier success stories is located just down the road from Kravis, where, incidentally, her skin care products are proudly offered to guests: at La Petraia, owned and operated by a Canadian couple. There, Susan McKenna Grant and her husband, Michael, have built the quintessential agriturismo, complete with a Noah’s Ark of native livestock and game surrounding the beautiful stone house.
A Europe-trained chef, Susan draws eggs from her chicken coops, aromatic greens from her sprawling fields of herbs, fresh peas from her terraced vegetable garden, and fruit from medieval orchards to produce some of the most gratifying dinners in Chianti. Michael, meanwhile, travels between his finance job in Toronto and his mountain of administrative duties at the farm. Together, they have proved that with the right skills, patience, and, of course, capital, these flighty Tuscan fantasies can be etched, in fact, in stone.
Though it won’t stun you with its size, the way Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence does, Urbino’s Palazzo Ducale is considered by many art critics to be the pinnacle of Renaissance architecture. And if that’s a surprise, this probably will be as well: The artist Raphael was born here, and a modest local museum holds some of his works. This all may seem unexpected for such an out-of-the-way city, but Urbino is known among Italians as a citt d’arte and a cultural center, and indeed, its university is respected nationwide. Its students make up half of the population and give the otherwise quiet and somber area a steady nightlife and a decadent edge.
The other cultural hot spot in Le Marche is at the region’s southern end, in the province of Ascoli Piceno. Even Urbino fails to gather very much international attention, so you can’t be blamed if you’ve never heard of Ascoli Piceno, though if you lived in Roman times, you certainly would have. Ascoli was an important ally of the Latin tribes, and one of the protagonists of the Social Wars that aimed to overthrow Rome’s privileged class. The remains of those days can be seen in the city’s gates, its ruined temple, and the Roman amphitheater just outside town, in Ricci.
The city itself can be dirty and noisy, but the countryside around it is peppered with isolated towns and historic real estate at reasonable prices. Fixer-uppers with some land and a lot of charm start as low as ‚60,000, or ‚100,000 for something in better shape.
One of the more historically significant towns in the area is Fermo, once a Roman stronghold and later a university town. Its undisturbed beauty and its hilltop position about five miles from the sea give it everything a homeowner could ask for. About ‚130,000 in Fermo can buy you a historic villa with handsome columns, boasting ornate details but awaiting quite a lot of work, on several acres of forested land.
The disadvantage of this southern corner, and Urbino, too, is that they are both far away from the main city, Ancona. Then again, some people might consider that a blessing. Ancona is a busy port with an interesting walled center, but other than that, it’s a pretty dreary-looking place. While the New York Times called it a city of revelations in a recent travel article, James Joyce put it down as a filthy hole, and that was before it was bombed during World War II, flooded, and destroyed by an earthquake. It’s hard to believe that some of the nicest real estate in Le Marche is less than 10 miles away.
On the hills just inland of the city, the town of Jesi attracts a lot of foreign attention these days, not so much for its elegant theater and churches and 14th-century walls as for the stately homes dotting the countryside around them. A good case study is the stretch of vineyards between Jesi and Osimo, which grows a potent white wine, Verdicchio. This varietal was forgotten for many years in Italy, as were many of the vineyards that grew it. The result is a community of rustic houses in need of repair, sitting on lots of cultivated land. Recently, a survey of a dozen of them pegged asking prices at between ‚60,000 and ‚120,000 for those most in need of repair. Those that have already been restructured were selling for about twice that amount.
This still seems like a bargain once you take a look inside the refinished properties. A unique farmhouse that recently was selling for about ‚130,000 boasted 500 square meters on two floors and an annex, and sat on several square kilometers of panoramic vineyards. The ground floor had two large storage rooms and stables fitted with wooden beams. On the exterior were twin stone staircases leading to the second floor, comprising a kitchen, a central fireplace, and six rooms. The catch: You’ll need to hook up the water and electricity, as well as rebuild the roof and floors.