Once they used to say: in the Marche you will only find great “marche”, brands (of shoes).
So on Saturday we reached the province of Macerata, to grab the last great name article with outlet price. Maybe if we had enough time we would go for a walk on the beach of Civitanova or in a street market. It was certainly enough to tell about a beautiful day. Customers coming from west would have found a comfortable plain road that met, up to the Apennines, the need for speed. You could barely recall its name: Valdichienti. Yet around that eternally unfinished road, far away from the industrial areas that flowed under the eyes, a range of rare beauty opens up.
Once they used to say: you look for a river and you find a civilization.
In the Internet era, if you look for a river you will find that highway. In the upcoming months the work on the SS77 Foligno - Civitanova Marche will be finished, so that, through the Colfiorito pass, the Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic Sea will be much closer. This road allows you to cross, in an hour, one of the most beautiful landscapes of Italy. Mountains and sea, rivers and lakes, hills and plains: the Chienti lacks for nothing along the 91 km of its path. By exiting the four lanes to venture into its discovery, the eyes and the heart rejoice, even if the roads are less beautiful and the places are sometimes hidden. We walk along the river from east to west, from the mountain source of Colfiorito up to its mouth in Civitanova. There we widen between hilly and coastal areas, reaching the Parco del Conero and the marca fermano-picena. From the Abbey of Macereto sui Sibillini, up to Sante Marie di Portonovo and Offida; by the red rocks of Mount Fiegni, the blue banks of Chienti lakes; from the balconies of the Borghi più belli d’Italia (most beautiful villages of Italy), to the “never ending hills". Welcome to Valdichienti, where the big “Marche” are all there.
I stop – The marsh between the uplands
Colfiorito (Foligno). “You will find the water lilies in autumn, but it’s also beautiful this way”. How could you blame the excursionists?: the rounded marsh, of approximately 100 hectares, is the heart of the Colfiorito Park. Birds can be seen everywhere, while you can go through wooden walkways. Defined as the lagoon of Forcatura, the pedestrian path flanks, for 800 meters, the north-east side of it until the swallow-hole of Molinaccio. The visible canalization works begun in the XVI century. Even today, when the level rises, the swallow-hole absorbs the marshy waters, raising the 20 litres per minute. Until the first half of the last century, the force of the water was exploited to activate a mill, of which you can see the ruins. We continue on the soft climb for Forcatura. Above us the Orve mountain, extreme top of the uplands (996 m.), known for a "castelliere" (fortified borough) of proto-Umbrian settlements. Under us, the harmonious landscape with open fields, for the original collective use of plots. At the first hairpin, we descend the track on the left. Once we exceed the picnic area of Fontaccia source, we go again in the marsh. From the observatory for birdwatching, we follow on the right the marshy edge up to the state road. By skirting it, we turn back to the starting point. The ring, of about 5 km, requires an hour of easy walking with only 40 m. of difference.
Route. Called "plestini" from the Umbrian-Roman site of Plestia, the 7 karst plateaus are a protected area of Umbria and the Marches, which reaches the municipalities of Foligno, Nocera Umbra and Serravalle del Chienti. The SS77 starts from Foligno, separating from the Via Flaminia. After 20 km, the 831 metres of Colfiorito represent the easier pass of the entire Apennines’ cordillera. You can find the described path by turning left for Forcatura, 100 meters before the village. Continuing along the uplands, we overcome the regional border in the hamlet of Taverna. The agricultural polycultures are stretched for 2038 hectares up to Serravalle del Chienti. The lentil and red potato plantations have a flourishing market. Before the village, near Fonte delle Mattinate, behind a homestead, you can see the entrance of the Botte dei Varano. As the sinkholes of Molinaccio or Annifo, the hydraulic works, built in the XV century by Giulio Cesare Varano, lord of Camerino, had the purpose of enhancing the uplands. Already at 300 meters deep it was found a previous Roman work. From 2000, a third underground cesspool has replaced the previous ones. The water outlet downstream is considered the historical source of Chienti. And in Serravalle you can see the river flowing.
II stop – The unlimited charm of Sibillini Mountains
From Norcia to Visso. With Sibillini Mountains it is difficult to choose. And also to stop illustrating them. The symbol of the park is the Lago di Pilato, at the foot of the Monte Vettore. The climb from Forca di Presta, 5 km in 2 and a half hours, near Castelluccio, is almost for everybody. When you descend to the double pond, you feel crushed on the ground by an impressive crown of rocky ridges. The water changes colour with the intensity of the sun: from intense green to sky blue and light blue. The world around you does not exist anymore. It is like watching a prehistoric beauty, unchanged for million years. The existence of a mysterious crustacean of lake Pilato, chirocephalus marchesonii, confirms that feeling. Let’s move on to the Gola dell'Infernaccio. Closed between the mountains of Sibilla and Priora, this is another excursion if you want to have strong feelings. The narrow canyon begins 2 km after the hamlet Rubbiano di Montefortino. Among the suggestive views over the river Tenna and tall walls hundreds of meters high, we cross the narrow "drizzle" of Pisciarelle. We remain on the valley floor for a maximum of 2 hours and a half, up to the visual opening of Capotenna. But if admiring a landscape means finding the unexpected, here is a third proposal: the incredulity of finding a pearl of the Italian Renaissance above a boundless plateau, surrounded by sheep flocks. Since late spring, the beauty of the Marche takes these shapes. The "miracle" of a mule that stopped there in 1359, while transporting a painting of the Madonna. The Sanctuary of Macereto, realized in 1529 on the project of Bramante, is situated at 1000 meters in height in a corollary of pines. The imposing octagonal structure, with the protective arches for the pilgrims and the Palazzo delle Guaite, marks the namesake plateau. The high integrity is linked to the historical persistence of large pastures lined with trees, largely lacking enclosures. The transhumance, between June and October, sees the graze of 3000 sheep. We advise you to stroll in the plateau and to visit the elegant Visso, pearl of the Sibillini Mountains and site of the Park.
Route. "In the park you can’t do without the GAS": recent joke but already consumed by its use. This is a reference to an energy source that is good for the soul, the Grande Anello (great ring) dei Sibillini. Actually, there are two rings: a hiking one of 120 meters that circumnavigates the Park, the other for mountain bikes. Precisely for the circular nature of the park, the above-mentioned places can be reached from different accesses in Umbria and the Marche. For Macereto you have to exits the SS77 in the municipality of Muccia, traveling the SP 209 for over 20 km. From the sanctuary you reach Lago di Fiastra in 15 km, with its trails.
III stop – The Lame Rosse and the gorges of Fiastrone
Fiastra. Cone-shaped peaks of intense colour suddenly emerge from the dense green scrub. The "Lame Rosse" (Red Blades) stand out, up to 15-20 meters of height, above a white gravel slope. Ok, the millenary erosion of the soil, the rain and the wind that model the pinnacles: yet that confusing combination seems to come from nothing. Imagine the uncontrollable shades of colour of deserts, surrounded by holm oaks woods of Monte Fiegni. We must climb the last meters for the vision to open and the panorama to be complete. You touch them to be sure about its consistency. You follow the perimeter to define its dimension and to photograph the best angles. You sit to enjoy that proscenium. They recall the chimneys of the fairies in Cappadocia, but they have the singularity of "sharp crests" placed in a crowd. For someone they resemble the gorges of Dadès in Morocco, the coloured canyon in Egypt or even more things. The comparisons, however, do not handle the extension: the gravel "beach" of 600 meters includes only those 200 meters of red sight. Around, nothing more. But this increases the astonishment. By observing the profusion of sharp forms on which some statuettes seem unlikely suspended, tiredness and fantasy begin to let you see a glimpse of the Tuareg people and dromedaries. At that point, you realize that it is time to go back.
Route. You access the Lame Rosse by parking in front of the dam of Fiastra. Its crossing opens the view on the lake and on the torrent Fiastrone. After a concrete tunnel, you cross a track, that you have to take on the right, continuing in shady holm-oak wood of Val di Nicola. Plan an hour and three quarters of mountain walk, until "Fosso della regina", where the pinnacles appear. On Sunday the "hellos!" are wasted, crossing hikers of all ages. Those who still have energy in their body may continue the path. From the Lame you will go to the left, immersing yourself again in the woods. In just over an hour of panoramic visions you climb and descend, up to 600 meters of the charming Grotta dei Frati. Ancient hermitage of the Clareni, Franciscans persecuted for the intransigence, the wide cavity preserves a picturesque stone altar. The splendor continues down to 500 meters of the torrent Fiastrone. A boulder trail skirts along its riverbed up to the entrance of the gorge, from which drops and waterfalls pour down. Fighting between fear and attraction to the sense of physical pressure emanated by high walls, we go on again. Those who wish to continue, up to climb to the Fosso della Regina, must be willing (or organized) to bathe in the stream. The whole itinerary takes 6 hours. If you go back to the Friars, same. The choice is up to your spirit of adventure.
IV stop – The artificial lakes of Chienti
From Fiastra to Serrapetrona. The Ruffella promontory offers an incomparable panorama on the Lago di Fiastra. The Region has realised a commercial with Neri Marcorè to promote it between the excellences of the Marche. It takes about 10 minutes by car from San Lorenzo to reach the lake. Imagine a daring springboard of grass 80 metres long and suspended for 200 metres on crystal clear waters. The view stretches at 180 degrees: north, we overhang the mighty dam that contains the invaded; south, we are dominated by the imminent Sibillini mountains. And around the clean contours of rocks and beaches that awaken your desire of summer. After leaving the car, we walk along the adjacent high track above the lake. The steep left bank counters with the flat right side, skirted by a cycle path. The access to the lake highly suitable for swimming is easier and more tempting. The circumnavigation up to San Lorenzo al Lago, with the comeback to Belvedere la Ruffella, requires approximately 12 km and over 2 hours of walk. Take the Lago di Caccamo, after the one of Fiastra, the same day of spring. The distance is approximately 20 km, but the impact is different from the direct access from the highway. After the majestic silence of the first one, the second is cuddled by people walking. Along the namesake lake village, we swarm between the banks of the Sunday market. A few meters are enough to appreciate the views on the hills of Valcimarra, municipality of Caldarola, that surrounds the lake to the west. Covered with olive groves, of "Coroncina" cultivar, they produce a renowned oil. With the "vernaccia" DOCG, naturally sparkling red wine produced from a native wine variety, the municipality of Serrapetrona hosts two excellences of the Marche. Enjoy the coastal promenade, surrounded by woods of oaks, that go beyond the village of Pievefavera. The small bars and the lake areas smell of families with the hobby of fishing. Caccamo, Borgiano or Pievefavera as you want to call it, offers a different calm, yet accomplished. How to choose between a cheerful wine and a meditation one? Each occasion has its relaxation.
Route. In the 50s, along the valley of Chienti 5 five artificial lakes were created for the production of electricity. Since then the area of Macerata seems the Finnish region of the "1000 lakes". Except Fiastra, the other 4 lakes are lined up along the SS 77, in just 22 km. After 15 km from Serravalle del Chienti here is the exit for the Lago di Polverina in the municipality of Camerino. Fiastra is 10 km south of that village. The spectacular Rocca dei Varano, dukes of Camerino and the lords of Chienti, opens up in Caccamo in the municipalities of Serrapetrona and Caldarola. Finally Santa Maria and Le Grazie in the municipality of Tolentino. While changing the structure of the drainage basin, at least the landscape does not seem to have loosen out on that.
V stop – The river plain of the abbeys
Tolentino. The Fiastra Abbey is the place that you don't expect to see. You know about a natural reserve that surround the Cistercian complex of Chiaravalle. So you imagine the secluded environment of a spiritual place and the slow whisper of a rural area. Maybe it will like this the rest of the week. But not on Saturday and Sunday, when children are the lords of the reserve. Credit to the ease of access and parking, the amenity of the park and of the religious structure, the organized simplicity of the paths. Actually many babies, with relatives smiling next to them, settle for playing in the beautiful English garden. This is surrounded by the entrance of the abbey church with a splendid cloister. Founded in 1142, the abbey was an important religious centre with more than 200 monks. Decisive for the organization of the territory, many properties and farms depended on it. While the sun brightens the red bricks of the complex, you suddenly realize that in the Macerata area there is no more stone. The mountains are already far away and to build they fire the soil. We continue along the main trail up to the lake Le Vene and we finish the orbital path up to the abbey. The 1800 hectares forest seems to have come out from a medieval tale among Turkey oaks, durmasts, maples and manna ashes. We find it at this modest latitude simply because, since 1142, the Cistercians have saved it from deforestation, choosing it to be their hermitage. In 1773, it was transferred to the noble family Bandini and it was no longer touched.
Route. Camerino, Tolentino, Macerata: the exits from the SS 77 towards the larger towns of the Val di Chienti are placed between the artificial lakes. The industrial areas are in addition to the beauty of those old town centres. And the risk is not seeing anything else. Take the splendid Rancia Castle, original fortified farm by the monks. Brushed by the road, it appears out of context. After the Abbey of Fiastra, with San Claudio al Chienti, in the municipality of Corridonia and Santa Maria a Piè del Chienti, in the one of Montecosaro, we arrive almost at the mouth of the river. And even here you must search for the religious centres following the brown tourist signs, between the ones of factories and places. Then when you reach it, you understand that it was worth it. San Claudio al Chienti is a significant example of it. Erected around the V century and remodelled in the IX century in the style of Ravenna is one of the major evidences of Romanesque architecture in the Marche. The two round towers, the two superimposed churches, three cylinders of the apse, seem to take you back in time really far. You can access it by a never-ending avenue of cypress trees that opens up in the farmland cultivated with wheat.
VI stop – The balconies of the infinite
Treia. “Where is the entrance?” is the common question that everybody asks when they go around the fortifications of Treia. While you wander uncertain, you seem to be observing a locked place. Thirteenth-century walls, Langobardic towers, Renaissance palaces close each perspective. Then you find the door, you arrive in Piazza della Repubblica and that shell suddenly unfolds. All the wonderful scenery converges on that airy marble balustrade. The monument to Pope Pius VI appears soaring high above the green. In 2009, the Marche region brought up Dustin Hoffman to make him recite L’Infinito, seen from Leopardi’s hills. The Marches are one of the most undulating regions of Italy: the hills comprise the 69 percent of the territory and even the 82 percent of the municipalities are located on the hilly strip. For many people, these are the most beautiful hills in Italy. Certainly, the panoramic ridges that curl the landscape represent one of the most successful paintings of the Italian charm.
Route. "The Marche Balcony": in Cingoli, this is the name of panoramic way, outside the eastern walls. From the 631 meters of the village, you can even observe the Conero “sea” and the spectacular waves… of the hills. We recommend the walk towards the nearby lake Castriccioni: it has a rather unusual shape, extended on three asymmetric branches. A questionable, but functional, bridge of reinforced concrete cuts it in two, by leading us to the place of Moscosi. "Sibillini Balcony": this is the name of San Ginesio. Enclosed by a mighty wall, the village offers a wicked vista on the surrounding hills, on the roughness of the Apennines, the Gran Sasso and on Monte San Vicino. The path from the Fiastra Abbey towards San Ginesio allows you to appreciate one of the most poetic rural areas of the Marche, between olive trees, wheat fields, vineyards and sunflowers. After 14 km of latches, you reach the 600 metres of the village. The splendid parish-collegiate church is a well-done mosaic of Romanesque and Gothic style. The Parco delle Rimembranze, that skirts the castellated walls, is a small architectural-landscape jewel. To the north and south of the medium valley of Chienti the spectacle repeats itself every time you reach one of the most beautiful villages of Italy, exiting from the SS 77. Add Sarnano, access door to the Parco dei Sibillini, try with Montecassiano, Montecosaro, Montelupone in the sinuous valley of the river Potenza. Stretching out on those "belvederes", you can understand how Leopardi’s poetry has found in this land one of the best of inspirations.
VII stop – The psycho-landscape of Conero
Portonovo (Ancona). There are places in your imagination, since before memory could sustain them. The unconscious seems to dictate a preexisting life, because childhood leaves suggestions, not memory. The Conero, for non-native ones, has these feelings. If somebody brought you here when you were little, you are done. It cannot belong to you, if you have a rural origin. And every time you come back, you still get the wrong road. However, you discover that, since always, you searched for those beaches of rock, surrounded by sheer walls. Because everyone who saw beauty, constantly searches for it. If Sirolo and Numana are places of renowned fame, Portonovo is the most romantic site. A panoramic road takes you behind the Mediterranean vegetation that surrounds the beach. You can park near the Hotel Excelsior La Fonte. Skirting Lago Grande, the view opens up on the bay. The stony beach is protected by high calcareous cliffs, which are reflected on the green crests of the sea. The wild side is defined, at our left, by the beach of Mezzavalle and by the Scoglio del Trave. Right behind it there is Ancona. We walk along the beach on the right. Once you exceed the pier, the coast draws an arch. Not everything can attract people: the beach facilities are intense and the modern structures are sometimes bundled up. The place however has unique features. Just look at the Fortino Napoleonico, which overflows almost until the sea. Built in 1808 to defend the British ships, today it is a charming hotel. The watchtower, which pops up like a dovecote, is another fascinating vision. Made in 1776, it used to protect the coast by the pirates. But the real jewel is just a little bit far away: Santa Maria di Portonovo, Romanic church of the XI century. The facade, of candid polished stone, recalls the Byzantine art. Go beyond it, along the beach. Now turn back and reach it. A few meters above the sea, defended by the low Mediterranean vegetation, it seems the spiritual celebration of the surrounding beauty.
Route. Holm oaks and pines, junipers and brooms, lavenders or wild orchids, but especially strawberry trees at the edges of the roads. Named kòmaros by the ancient Greeks, the small shrubs of red berries gave their name to the mountain. From Trieste to Gargano, the Conero is the only promontory on the Adriatic Sea. 10 km away from Ancona, it is a coastal protected area of 5800 hectares. After the strait of Messina, it is the most important place in Italy for the observation of migratory birds. For the Adriatic coast, the Park begins 25 km north to Civitanova Marche. The described path requires an hour and a quarter. Through the church, you can climb to the second lake, the Profondo and from here to the parking lot. In the precious hinterland, in addition to the famous Loreto, Recanati, Osimo and Castelfidardo, you should look for the village of Offagna, with its fortress of the XV century.
VIII stop – The Marca fermano-picena
Offida. You have to go through the entire village. Go on again when the houses are spaced out and the hill tightens up. Sheer on the valley, you suddenly see it. In a quiet panorama of grapevines and oaks, the church of Santa Maria della Rocca stands out. The entrance is in the apse, because the facade overlooks the valley and the sky, above a rise of overhanging rock. Built in 1330, the apse in brick is crossed by travertine pillars. At the centre, the portal opens up, carved with fantastic animals. From the church to the crypt what strikes the most are the frescoes of Maestro di Offida, Maestro Ugolino di Vanne and Fra Marino Angeli. They were all, almost, monks of the time. After seeing the beauty around them, they translated it into more intense shapes of the Marian piety.
Route. The area is much more than the beautiful Fermo and Ascoli Piceno. From the mouth of Chienti, between Civitanova Marche and Porto Sant'Elpidio, you can take towards south the Adriatica up to Pedaso. From the coast, we go in the hinterland for 11 km towards Moresco, an enchanted castle that endures for a long time. A change in direction from Moresco reaches the village of Servigliano, with its eighteenth-century quadrangular structure. The path from Pedaso up to Montefiore dell'Aso is parallel to it, a wedge of monuments on the Aso and Menocchia valleys. With an unchanged enchantment, Fermo area has given its seat to the Ascoli Piceno one. From the Belvedere De Carolis, climb up to the collegiate church in Piazza della Repubblica, with the altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli. Offida is located 30 km more to the south. Before ending you trip on the coastal beauty of Grottammare, visit the delightful old town centre of Offida. It is surrounded by the romantic waves created by the Tesino and Tronto. From the haughty medieval fortress until the splendid Piazza del Popolo, Offida has the same force of attraction of the local whites. Who has never heard of Passerina and Pecorino Cheese? When you think you have seen it all, you discover that you have seen nothing yet, without Santa Maria della Rocca.
One last advice for the readers: when the highway Valdichienti will be ready, do not use it only for beaches and shoes.