In our beautiful region of Le Marche, the quintessential Italian small town offers a unique insight into authentic Italian living. Usually elevated on hilltops, these small towns and villages are encased within a grand city wall that can sometimes resemble a fortress.
Within the city walls, honey-coloured stone brick houses with shutters and terracotta roofs line narrow cobbled streets, old-world piazza’s perch at the edge of clifftops offering panoramic views of awe-inpiring landscapes, and a handful of shops, cafes and restaurants provide residents with essential amenities.
The historic centre (centro storico) is where you’ll find the bulk of local life, and where you’ll usually discover the main coffee bar and pizzeria, while outside the centre the town may give way to newer, modern buildings that scatter the outskirts.
There must be well over 200 small hilltop towns and villages in Marche, and 22 of them appear on Italy’s own Tourism Council’s “Most beautiful villages in Italy” list.
Each one offers something unique — be it a traditional local skill or craft that is carried out, a museum that showcases the town’s history, a church, noble house or famous person born there, or a fabulous local dish that originated in that particular town.
Italian small towns are steeped in heritage and ancient history, and many will have a dialect known only to inhabitants.
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What is a borgo?
Italians use the word “borgo”, or “borghi” (plural) to describe the small town, and the literal term in English would be “village”, however there is much more to the borgo than simply being described in this way.
Usually dating back to the Middle Ages, medieval or Renaissance periods, an ancient city wall or towers may often surround the borgo, and can also have a noble house or palace at its centre.
Many will be home to museums and workshops, and in Le Marche the borgo’s elevated position will guarantee sweeping views of landscapes that stretch out to the Adriatic Sea.
In ancient times, farmland that surrounded the small town (usually at the foot of the hill that the borgo perches on) would provide inhabitants with food and jobs. Shops, a cafe bar and a church would ensure that the community was self sufficient.
Life in the small Italian town
Le Marche is split into five provinces – Pesaro Urbino, Ancona, Macerata, Fermo and Ascoli Piceno, and each holds an abundance of beautiful borghi that offer a trip back in time and a chance to discover authentic Italian living.
With agriculture and traditional crafts being main drivers of Le Marche’s economy, you are never too far from beautiful countryside or the workshop of an artisan. Shoemakers, furniture producers, ceramicists, textiles, leather and fabric designers name just a small part of local talent.
Life in the borgo is a mixture of old world charm meets modern living – with individual shops such as a macelleria (butchers), forno (bakers), farmacia (chemist) and often a small supermarket, tabacchi (tobacconist with newspapers and lotto tickets available), and a handful of bars, restaurants and cafes.
Ancient cobbled streets, stairways lined with potted plants blooming with flowers, and stone brick houses blend seamlessly with modern-day cars, vespas and trucks (how they navigate the winding roads that lead up to the borgo and the low arches of the city walls is beyond me!)
Each borgo has at least one piazza, usually perfectly placed to offer uninterrupted views of the surrounding valleys and mountains, and these are areas to glimpse Italian village life – a meeting place for people to sit, chat and drink coffee by day, and the ideal spot to host events, festas and gatherings at night.
Festas in an Italian small town
Speaking of festas — the towns of Le Marche host a multitude of celebrations throughout the summer (and some during winter too), and keeping up with all of them is some feat!
There are festas for just about every type of food you can imagine, festas for patron saints, wine and beer festas, pizza festas, tartufo festas and even party’s organised by the owners of classic Italian cars and motorbikes.
During these events, expect to see food stalls lining the borgo’s cobbled streets where local people gather to eat, drink, and enjoy street entertainment that can include costumed acrobats, jugglers, singers, live bands, and almost always a fantastic fireworks display.
The festas are lavish and last three or four days, normally over a weekend where Saturday night is the busiest and best time to experience the celebrations. We go to as many festas as we can during the summer, but it’s impossible to support them all as there are literally hundreds of them, ensuring that summer in Le Marche is party after party!
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Buying a house in an Italian small town
Buying a property in a borgo offers the chance to experience authentic Italian life. Rarely do you hear languages other than Italian spoken, and with the odd exception, few people speak English, giving a homeowner the perfect opportunity to practise Italian and improve listening skills. Local people were extremely welcoming towards us when we moved in and many have become great friends, we rarely go without a dinner or coffee invitation and often see people we know when walking through our town or shopping at the supermarket. In fact, a quick trip to the shops can take longer than expected!
There are plenty of borghi in Le Marche within 30 minutes drive from the coast, ensuring that the homeowner doesn’t have to go far to spend the day at the beach, and this also improves rental appeal for owners wishing to list their property on a holiday rental website such as Airbnb.
A plus point to this is that after a day at the beach you are guaranteed peace and quiet once you arrive back home, as well as a good night’s sleep! Even in summer the temperature drops considerably in the higher altitudes of the region’s elevated towns.
Aside from the above benefits, another great reason to buy a house in an Italian borgo is that prices can be far more favourable in comparison to buying elsewhere. Italian’s may inherit several homes in the borgo over time and can be keen to sell these on at low prices, meaning that restoration projects can be purchased relatively cheaply.
When we bought and restored our house in one of Le Marche’s borghi, we could not believe our luck. At 180 square metres spread over three floors, and a balcony that overlooks a beautiful valley, we knew on sight that it ticked all our boxes. We had the added advantage that David speaks Italian so could negotiate the sale, and buying in a small town ensured us of a quick immersion into local life.
I was able to practise the language, and neighbours were only too pleased to help me out. In fact, many of them at one point or another came over to see how the renovations were going. Some brought fruits and vegetables, some gifted us with wine (we love those neighbours) and the family next door even gave us two chandeliers!
The sense of community we experience in our hilltop town is inspiring, so if you are considering a move to Italy, consider a house in a borgo.
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