Let’s get the name straight: it’s pronounced “lay-mar-kay”, but the British call it the Marches. This eastern region has always existed on the sidelines, at one time the borderlands of the great Papal States and neglected today in favour of Tuscany and Umbria, its showier neighbours. Which is all the better for visitors.
Hemmed in by mountains and sea, Le Marche is Italy at its rawest, and the hills of the interior are fertile ground for agritourism. At Il Tiglio, at the foot of the Monti Sibillini, you’ll dine on hand-reared chicken and vegetables fresh from the garden, served by marchigianifarmers (£27pp, B&B; iltiglioagriturismo.it). Or you can explore the best of the 110 miles of rocky Adriatic coastline, dotted with wild beaches in the Conero and San Bartolo state parks. The medieval hill towns of Urbino and Recanati are as charming as anything Tuscany can offer, with fine art and architecture, low prices and nary a queue in sight.
What to do
Begin in Urbino, Le Marche’s cultural capital. Its splendour is all down to Federico da Montefeltro, soldier, scholar and true Renaissance man: his elegant Palazzo Ducale hosts the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche’s exceptional collection, including works by Titian and Raphael (£8; gallerianazionalemarche.it).
The cobbled streets, grand palazzos and hidden courtyards of the town occasionally grant you startling views to the hills beyond. Seek out the 200-year-old botanical gardens of Pierina Scaramella, an exotic urban oasis, or take your pick of the churches: the best are the oratories of San Giovanni Battista, with frescoes of the life of John the Baptist by the brothers Salimbeni, and San Giuseppe, where the sculpted Nativity by Federico Brandani is a delight. Stop for an espresso at Camera a Sud, a little bar with a big chandelier and an even bigger welcome (Via Bramante Donato 14).
A 90-minute drive south is Recanati, the birthplace of Giacomo Leopardi, one of Italy’s greatest poets. Start with a snifter on the stools outside Cafe de la Paix, on the pretty piazza that bears his name (aperitivi from £3; facebook.com). Excerpts from the poet’s works are printed all over town. His home, Casa Leopardi, with its 19th-century library, is open to visitors (£6; giacomoleopardi.it).
While you’re here, don’t miss the museum in Villa Colloredo Mels, a 20-minute walk away. The highlight of the Renaissance portraitist Lorenzo Lotto’s polyptych here is a moving pietà (£9; villacolloredomels.it).
The splendour of Le Marche extends beyond its cultural heritage, though. The Monti Sibillini National Park, a 90-minute drive to the south, is part of the Apennine Mountains, with peaks up to 8,000ft, glacial lakes and glimpses of eagles, wolves and wildcats. It’s best to take an official guide, as it’s wild up there (from £18pp; quattropassi.org).
The trails that wind around Monte Conero, on the coast, are a lot easier. No 301 is a two-hour trek to the top, at a height of nearly 1,900ft, with views of the seaside town of Portonovo and Mezzavalle beach, as well as the turquoise Adriatic beyond. If you don’t have a head for heights, try the Grotte di Frasassi, an otherworldly cave complex southwest of Ancona (guided tour £16; frasassi.com).
If beaches are more your thing, you’ll need to put in some effort to get to Le Marche’s best. Those with small children might prefer the ease of the beach clubs in the resort town of Senigallia, but for something a bit wilder, head north to Pesaro and the San Bartolo state park (parcosanbartolo.it). Fiorenzuola di Focara has a wildflower-strewn strand a 20-minute walk from the centre along the Sentiero dell’Amore. Outside July and August, you might well be alone here.
Back in the nature reserve of Monte Conero, try the beaches around Sirolo. Walk down through the woods of Parco della Repubblica to the sands of San Michele. From here, you can pick up a boat to Le Due Sorelle (the Two Sisters), named after the white stacks jutting from the sea at the end of the cove. Stop here or swim round the corner to the Cava Davanzali, for glorious views and solitude (£23 return; traghettatoridelconero.it).
What to eat
You certainly won’t starve in Le Marche. In the small coastal town of Senigallia, there’s Moreno Cedroni’s top-notch Madonnina del Pescatore (tasting menu from £110; morenocedroni.it), as well as the three-Michelin-starred Uliassi, on the beach, with an exquisite “laboratory” tasting menu (£136; uliassi.it).
The Bottega del Villaggio, in Recanati, is the pet project of a hungry hunter, Giuseppe Clementoni, whose tiny osteria serves local classics (mains from £9; facebook.com).
In Portonovo’s tiny bay, Il Laghetto offers fresh clams, octopus and crayfish at tables on the sand (mains from £10; illaghetto.com). Alternatively, paddle through the shallows from here to Moreno Cedroni’s Clandestino, a shack-style “sushi” bar with marchigianiroots. Try the pizzetta with mackerel and burrata (mains from £14; morenocedroni.it).
In Bargni di Serrungarina, a village east of Urbino, Da Gustin is the 12-cover outpost of Virginio and Catia Baldelli’s B&B dining room: they honour the slow-food, zero-mile philosophy, producing tasty treats such as beef carpaccio with white truffles (mains from £6; dagustin.it).
Where to stay
The Gallery Hotel Recanati is a 17th-century former seminary with huge views (doubles from £67, B&B; ghr.it).
For a night in Urbino, try SanPolo 1544, a 16th-century-style bedroom for hire in an elegant palazzo (double from £108, B&B; sanpolo1544.it).
Or head to the coast: at the seven-room Locanda Rocco, on the edge of medieval Sirolo, in the Conero state park, the decor is fun and the service is friendly (doubles from £106, B&B; locandarocco.it). In nearby Portonovo, the 30-room Hotel Emilia is family-run, with a clifftop garden and pool (doubles from £124, B&B; hotelemilia.com).
Ryanair flies to Ancona from Stansted. Or try easyJet.
Mia Aimaro Ogden was a guest of the Gallery Hotel Recanati and Kirker Holidays, which has seven nights in Le Marche from £1,198pp, including return flights and car hire (kirkerholidays.com)