Poppi, a charming medieval town in eastern Tuscany, was the first one we came across in 2007. Complete with picture-book castle, cobbled streets, graceful colonnades and shady piazze, the fortified old town is balanced on the top of a hill, with the modern town spreading out down the surrounding slopes like a multi-coloured skirt. It is also where we have always stayed when taking part in the blacksmithing bienniale run by the comune of Stia, a town that lies a few kilometres further up the Arno valley. Since then, we have passed through, eaten lunch in, wandered around and stayed overnight in several more. And when we came to view the house that has become our home some ten years after our first visit to Poppi, we discovered that the village where it is located is also one: a member of the ‘Borghi più belli d’Italia’: Montelupone is officially one of ‘Italy’s prettiest villages’.
The dictionary definition of ‘borgo’ (plural: borghi) is ‘village’, but this doesn’t really tell the full story, as technically, a borgo is a settlement that typically dates back to Renaissance, if not the Middle Ages, that is usually centred around a castle or palace, and is often encircled by defensive walls. However, simply having a historical fortified castle is not of itself enough for a village to qualify for membership of the ‘Borghi più belli d’Italia’, the association that was founded in 2001 by l’Associazione Nazionale Comuni Italiani (the National Association of Italian Municipalities) to promote the historical, cultural and artistic heritage of small Italian towns. Rule number one is that historical buildings must predominate, and in addition to this, they must form a harmonious whole: a jumble of crumbling palazzi dotted about among post-war blocks of flats plus a few metres of weed-choked fortifications next to the supermarket will not cut it. It is moreover not enough for member villages simply to look pretty; they must also have a strong cultural heritage and be living, breathing communities with an active village life, which will regularly be celebrated with events, exhibitions and festivals involving local residents and community groups. Kitsch, Disneyfied versions of traditional village life, awash with trendy bars and pricey boutiques but no butcher’s, baker’s or post office need not apply.
On this basis, it is not difficult to see why Montelupone, with its sweeping views over the turquoise Adriatic and the forest-clad Conero peninsular, qualified for membership. Overlooking the central square stands the 14th century Palazzetto dei Priori and civic clock tower, next to which stands the Palazzo Comunale that houses the exquisite little Teatro Nicola degli Angeli. Then rubbing shoulders with these gems are a handful of other grand palazzi and three magnificent churches dripping with sacred art treasures, all of which are all held in the protective embrace of over a kilometre of defensive walls that ring the entire historical centre, access to which is gained through four imposing town gates. By the way, there is also a thriving primary school in the heart of the village, something that considered crucial for the survival of smaller communities. And as I have reported in several other posts, Montelupone does very much more than simply ‘survive’: it is most certainly a living, breathing community that will enthusiastically celebrate its rich cultural and gastronomic heritage at every available opportunity. Nor is Montelupone a one-off in our neck of the woods: several fellow members of the association are within about an hour of us. In the mountainous uplands, for instance are Visso, Sarnano – the gateway to the Sibillini – and San Ginesio, which, thanks to its commanding views of the mountains, is known locally as ‘il balcone dei Sibillini’. Along the coastal strip, by contrast, lie Torre di Palme, Grottammare and Offagna, all with spectacular views along the coast. And in the undulating lowlands between the two, Montefiore dell’Aso, Montecassiano, and Montecosaro are perched – as their names suggest – on their very own hilltops.
It is still quite a select club, however: the association currently has just two hundred and eighty-one members, distributed up and down the country throughout every one of Italy’s twenty regions. It is perhaps easy to imagine that the long-established cultural hotspots of Tuscany and Umbria might dominate the list – and indeed, they have twenty-three and twenty-eight members respectively. However, the association is all about small towns and ‘the delights of hidden Italy’ (il fascino dell’Italia nascosta), so it enables lesser-known regions such as Le Marche, which has no fewer than twenty-seven members (and a population that is a third of Tuscany’s), to level the cultural playing field a little. So while there may be no Marchigian equivalent of Florence, Assisi, Rome or Venice (or the attendant tourist buses, souvenir shops and over-priced coffee) Le Marche is neither a poor relation nor a cultural backwater. Mind you, we’ve known that for years. In fact, it is one of the main reasons we have made our home in this corner of ‘real Italy’ – and, as it turned out, in ‘one of Italy’s prettiest villages’.