On the night of 24th August, and then again on the 26th and 30th October 2016, central Italy was struck by three devastating earthquakes. Among the Italian regions affected, it was Le Marche that suffered the biggest impact.
Yet today, a mere eight months after the last tremor, this stunning region is beginning to welcome travellers once more. We hit the road to find out what travellers can expect visiting this unsung part of Italy.
So, it it time to go back to Le Marche?
An emphatic 'si'! Few expected a return to normality so soon after the earthquake, but proud i marchiagiani (natives of Le Marche) quickly rolled up their sleeves and worked hard to restore their land. Apart from severely damaged towns near the epicentre like Valle del Tronto and Visso, where reconstruction will be slow when (or if) it comes, the rest of the region is returning to normality.
Unstable buildings are now secure, streets are accessible, and hotels and damaged museums have reopened their doors. Moreover, the most precious works of art once displayed in condemned buildings have now been safely relocated ready for future exhibitions.
Of course, not everything is the same as before the earthquake. Reconstruction will require lots of time and effort, and locals still need help, especially the kind that travellers can provide through their wallets. Bars, restaurants and shops that refuse to close are easy to find and worthwhile supporting.
If you do decide to visit the area, you’ll need more patience than before – some roads, museums and churches are still closed. However you will be rewarded by charming streets devoid of traffic, unforgettable villages, a beautiful natural wilderness, stunning vistas and low hotel prices. Most importantly the unique tastes, colours and aromas of Le Marche are on show together with the company of the marchigiani, a people of outstanding generosity and spirit.
Ascoli Piceno, the spiritual home of Le Marche
Ancona may be the capital of Le Marche, but many feel that Ascoli is the spiritual home for marchigiani. This is a great first stop to discover the wonders of the region and be mesmerised by the breadth of the beauties you encounter.
Although Ascoli Piceno was struck by the earthquake, the city’s highlights are thankfully accessible and restaurants and hotels remain open. You can wander the rue (narrow streets in the historic centre) and marvel at the sumptuous Piazza Arringo, or have an aperitivo at Caffè Meletti in Piazza del Popolo, where it is easy to forget the earthquake struck just a few months ago. Many towns east of Ascoli, like Offida (famous for its lace bobbins), Monsampolo del Tronto, Acquaviva Picena and Ripatransone, are ripe for exploration despite the disaster.
Things are a little trickier to the west of Ascoli in the foothills of Sibillini Mountains. It’s worth remembering that the August earthquake was particularly violent in this part of Le Marche. You can still drive most of the roads with the exception of any that head towards the Piana di Castelliccio that borders with Umbria. Unfortunately the Museo della Sibilla in Montegallo is closed and the same is true of the 11th-century Chiesa di San Lorenzo.
Sadly, not much is left of Arquata del Tronto, a hilltop village nestled within the Valle del Tronto amongst woodland. The only thing still standing is the fortified tower of the 13th-century fortress, so it is best to not attempt the journey as tourism at this time could hamper the reconstruction effort. However, the copy of the Holy Shroud that used to be displayed in the Franciscan Church is now available to see in Ascoli's Duomo.
For the latest information on Ascoli Piceno, contact Ascoli IAT (0736 25 30 45, visitascoli.it, Piazza Arringo 7, open Mon-Sun 9am-7pm).
Trekking in the Monti Sibillini
Trekking is one of Le Marche's most important tourist draws. The Sibillini Mountains attract hikers and mountain bikers from far and wide, and even though the earthquake affected this area, the vast majority of the trail network is thankfully still open. Highlights include the Grande Anelli dei Sibillini, a 124km ring itinerary that takes 9-10 days, as well as trails around Pievebovigliana that remain intact and are ready for exploration.
Some hiking trails are off limits: the routes that begin in Foce di Montemonaco leading up to the Pilato Lake and the the Gola dell’Infernaccio are both closed, whilst authorities advise against tackling treks like the Lamme Rosse which are dangerous at the time of writing. Visit sibillini.net for an updated map that highlights the routes no longer available following from the earthquake as well as a list of closed rifugi (mountain huts) where trekkers can no longer stay.
Picturesque Fermo province
You can visit the vast majority of towns in the Fermo province without any trouble. Picturesque villages like Montefalcone Appennino, Smerillo, Montappone, Servigliano and Massa Fermana remain fully accessible.
In Fermo, the cathedral and Palazzo dei Priori, with its art gallery and historic library, have been closed since October, but restoration works are in progress. Fortunately, there’s still plenty to see including the stunning Piazzale del Girfalco (a huge garden that towers over the city) which offers sweeping views over the Marche, encompassing the Adriatic and the Sibillini mountains.
Around Sibillini, don’t miss marvellous Montefortino, a 14th century stone village. The earthquake has caused disruptions in this area; Palazzo Leopardi’s museums are closed as well as the Sanctuary of the Madonna Dell’Ambro and there is as of yet no schedule for reopening. However, in nearby Montespino, the spectacular 10th-century Pieve di Sant’Angelo is unharmed by the earthquake and you can climb up to try your luck ringing the enormous bell. Warning: you’ll need all your strength, as it is not easy!
The charming hill-towns of Macerata province
Some of the most visibly shocking effects of the earthquakes were in the Macerata province. The historic centre of Camerino, once a lively town that hosted thousands of students at its Medieval University (founded in 1336), now has a ghost town feel. There’s a similar feeling in Visso, Ussita and Castelsantangelo sul Nera – mountain villages rich in history, culture and legends. It is hard to imagine what the future holds for these places but their people nevertheless keep on hoping that one day they will be able to return home.
San Severino Marche, Treia, Amandola and Tolentino could have shared the same fate, but were more fortunate. In Tolentino the Rancia Castle was immediately reopened whilst the Basilica di San Nicola with its amazing Cappellone (resplendent with 14th century frescos) hopes to open its doors again soon. Other restoration efforts have been spurred on – after a decade of neglect the cine-teatro Politeama was finally reestablished, signalling an important moment for the rebirth of Tolentino.
Further from the epicentre, the devastation is less visible. In Macerata itself you can still find the wonderful Arena Sfesterio (one of Europe’s most stunning outdoor theatres), together with plenty of museums and the newly restored Palazzo Ricci. At the time of our visit, the majority of Macerata’s churches were closed, with the exception of the minuscule Madonna della Misericordia Church, designed by architect Luigi Vanvitelli.
For the latest news and assistance in planning your trip to Macerata, you can contact the tourist office (0733 23 48 07, turismo.provinciamc.it, Corso della Repubblica 32, open Mon-Sat 9am-1pm and 3-6pm) or the Museums Information Centre (0733 27 17 09, maceratamusei.it, Piazza Mazzini 1, open Tue-Sun 9am-1pm and 3-7pm).
This article was originally written in Italian by Giacomo Bassi, writer of the second edition of Lonely Planet's Italian-language guidebook to Le Marche. Translation provided by Tania Beccaceci.