After the mildest of winters, spring has come early to Le Marche and the sweeet rolling hills are looking their best. In the countryside all is busy as farmers make the most of the lengthening days, and on the coast the lifeguards are adding a coat of ultramarine to the beach huts.
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On the aniseed trail
There is a good chance if you see a marchigiano taking his coffee corretto - with an added dash of liquor - it will be with mistrà, the aniseed flavoured liqueur most characteristic of the region. As well as being drunk in coffee or straight as a digestivo after a meal, it is also used to add the finishing touch to the Marche speciality coniglio in porchetta, or rabbit cooked with wild fennel.
For Latin lovers
The ancient Romans began to hold sway over the modern-day Marche region around the 3rd Century BCE and among their earliest engineering feats were the construction of two major roads linking Rome and the Adriatic coast.
The via Flaminia was completed in 220 BCE, crossing the Apennine mountains to reach the Adriatic coast at Fanum Fortunae (modern-day Fano). Another great road, the via Salaria, headed east from Rome to Ascolum (modern-day Ascoli Piceno) in the south of the region, and, as its name suggests, was used for carrying salt.
By the 1st Century BCE the area had become consolidated within Roman territory and was divided into two provinces - the northern stretches formed part of Roman Umbria, while the south was known as Picenum.
There are numerous Roman monuments and ruins scattered throughout Le Marche. The remains of the region's largest Roman amphitheatre can be seen in Ancona while nearby, in the port, stands Trajan's Arch. The ruins of other Roman towns can be seen at Urbisaglia, Helvia Ricina and Falerone.
Several remarkable feats of Roman engineering along the via Flaminia include Ponte Mallio at Cagli, the Furlo Tunnel and the Arch of Augustus at Fano.
Among the finest sculptural finds of the period are the magnificent Gilded Bronzes of Pergola.
Marche World Wide on the region's heritage
An Italian El Greco
The dream-like quality and moody mannerism of the 16th Century Marche painter Simone De Magistris have lead art historians to compare him to the great El Greco and a major show of his work runs until 30 September at his birthplace, the hilltop town of Caldarola in Macerata province.
The exhibition, entitled Simone De Magistris - Un pittore visionario tra Lotto e El Greco, also includes works by Lotto, El Greco and Tintoretto, and is housed in the architectural jewel of the Palazzo dei Cardinali Pallotta.
The well-made website (in Italian) on the exhibition and the town
This year's summer opera festivals in Le Marche feature some world-class events.
Macerata's Open-Air Opera Festival in the massive Sferisterio stadium includes Verdi's Macbeth, Bellini's Norma, and a performance of Verdi's grandiose Requiem to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of the celebrated Marche tenor Beniamino Gigli. One performance of Norma - on 1 August - is also being staged at the Roman Amphitheatre at Urbisaglia.
The Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro includes new productions of Rossini's Otello and La Gazza Ladra, and a performance of the master's Petite Messe Solennelle in the giant Adriatic Arena sports stadium. Among the stars taking part in the festival is world-renowned tenor Juan Diego Flórez.
Marche Voyager opera page
Macerata Open-Air Opera Festival website
Rossini Opera Festival website
The Frasassi Caves, or Grotte di Frasassi, are some of the finest limestone caverns in Europe and from 1 May foreign visitors will find a visit there even more satisfying with the introduction of audioguides in English, French and German, enabling them to tag along with Italian guided tours. The audioguides can also be used in the nearby museum - now included in the admission price to the caves - that features the four-metre long fossilized remains of an Ichthyosaurus, a giant sea reptile that swam the Jurassic seas.
Frasassi Caves website in English
Not just a pretty face
The region's economy - based mostly on small-scale production of high-quality goods - seems to be thriving. Recent figures show that exports from Le Marche increased by 21 per cent in 2006 compared to a national average of only 9 per cent.
Distinti Salumi, the National Festival of Italian Charcuterie, is the leading appointment in the culinary calendar dedicated to high-quality, Italian, artisan cured pork products.
The festival, organized by Italy's Slow Food movement and the local town council, runs for three days on 29 & 30 April and 1 May in the northern Marche town of Cagli which is set to become a large workshop dedicated to the delights of the pig with ample opportunities to taste some of Italy's finest salumeria.
Distinti Salumi Italian website
There are 246 separate comuni or town councils in Le Marche.
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