Driving through the rolling hills of Le Marche above Ancona is truly like driving through a Renaissance painting – every hill topped with a tiny pink brick village clustered round a fifteenth century church, every hairpin bend opening up some new vista of vineyards and olive trees and newly mown hay fields.
We had gone to stay in a converted farmhouse in the tiny village of Monteleone di Fermo belonging to the daughter of my lovely Italian cookery friend, Anna del Conte – perched on the side of a hill, half a mile down a rough (and I mean rough) track a mile.
When it was a real farmhouse the animals lived in what is now a huge, brick-floored kitchen, one wall still lined with feeding troughs now used for storing linen and games. Upstairs, six brick-floored bedrooms (and three totally modern and very efficient shower/bathrooms) look out over the valley. Mine faced directly east so that I could watch the sun each morning as it peeked and then sped up over the hills to bathe our valley in sparkling early morning light. And just up on a mound, behind these oleanders and entirely surrounded by rosemary and lavender bushes, more white oleanders and several plum and mulberry trees, is a splendid fresh water swimming pool.
One on side of the house was a wide open view over the hills – where else could you possibly want to have supper? On the other side was a great collection of pear, apple and plum trees laden with what will no doubt be utterly delicious and succulent fruit in a month’s time – but sadly for us, it was not yet ripe. The trees had the huge benefit of shading you from the midday sun – but the down side was that they were a magnet for every bug, mosquito, horsefly and biting creature for miles around.
I counted four distinct different types of bite. There was the flat red lump (pretty itchy in short bursts); there was mini pimple bite (small with a little head like a mild teenage spot, intensely itchy for short periods); then there was the scatter bite – about ten mini bites together in a group. These combined forces so that the area in the immediate vicinity became hard and swollen. Then finally there was the really serious, in depth bite – I know not by whom. This one injected positively litres of poison so that the whole area of the leg became hard, swollen and painful – especially so when you put your foot to the ground in the morning. It produced a large bright scarlet lump which in due course developed a massive pustule on the top and took around week to finally quiet down – although I still have a small hard red patch on my leg to show for it. I am relieved to say that I only got one of those! The most common were bite number one and because it was so hot (34 degrees and climbing) that one tended to sleep with very little if any covering, thus exposing positively acres of succulent white English flesh to the night time biters. As a result the whole of my back currently looks rather like a red polka dot table cloth!! To be fair, I cannot blame this situation entirely on the bugs of Monteleone as we had gone singularly unprepared so really did deserve to be bitten!
And it certainly would have taken more than a few odd bites to dim the delights of the farmhouse, the pool, the views, the villages, the hills and our local town, Servigliano. Servigliano has a delightful colonnaded piazza inside some fine walls and two rather impressive arches. These record that no less than two popes had a hand in its rebuild in the mid 1700s when its castle started sinking into the valley floor. Around the piazza are to be found an ace butcher who also sells the most divine pecorino, an excellent fruit and veg shop (just die fro the nectarines…), a lovely pasta shop not to mention an excellent pizzaria and a café bar. Here, before your pizza you can sit and drink chilled Campari and orange – and after your pizza, lick at a choice of about 30 yummiferous ice creams – including the most delicious creamy but totally dairy-free dark chocolate ice made just from chocolate and water! And if you go on a Monday evening, the whole town turns out for the weekly evening market with kids racing round on bikes and their grannies licking their ices on the piazza benches.
Rather than flying to Ancona, which is only about 50 kilometres away (the sea is only 25 kilometres from the house) we flew to Bologna and drove down the spine of Italy past Florence, Perugia, Assisi and finally across the mountains to Monteleone. The Bologna-Florence autostrada is spectacular although sadly now rather old and carries a great deal of heavy traffic on a two lane highway. This somewhat distracts from amazing views and even more amazing feat of engineering that it took to build it. The whole trip, including a few hours spent in Assisi where our men folk all but got thrown out of the basilica for wearing hats…., took about eight hours but was well worth it – especially the last sections through the hills of Le Marche.
If you are interested, the farmhouse could sleep 16 although I would go for 12 unless several are small children – and, although it is basically their own holiday home, the family will let it out. You can contact them via their Airbnb site here. However, be aware that it is very hot in July and August (although this year is apparently the hottest in 70/100 years, depending on who you speak to) – and that I am told that the insects bite even more enthusiastically in September-October! But then you would also have the benefit of the fruit from you own trees in the autumn!! The flip side to the heat is that the pool feels delightfully refreshing and totally irresistible, even to a confirmed swimming-pool-hater like me! Anyhow who could resist a killer game of pool badminton?….