We've just spent a superb weekend in wonderful Autumn sunshine here in Le Marche staying at lovely Villa San Raffaello with its great apartments, amazing views and free organic vegetables.
On Friday we visited the lovely medieval town of Sarnano, ate at the excellent Le Clarrise ristorante in the Centro Storico and then dressed up and joined the locals at L'ex disco for Halloween.
The next morning we had to blow away the cobwebs using the local maps of old mule tracks walking in the fantastic Italian rolling hills, past the heady scent of locals making vino cotto (a cooked wine that was first made by in Roman times), past 13th century churches and a 15th century mill.
On Sunday, fuelled by a desire to eat something local and unpretentious, we hiked into the Sibillini mountains and ate at the rifugio (refuge) at Monte Amandola. This is one of a chain of mountain refuges at around 1500 metres, which walkers can eat, drink and stay at. The food was really tasty and included many seasonal dishes, including strozzaprete (literally priest strangler) pasta with truffle and sausage, and succulent lamb cooked on coals. The bill, including wine, coffee and home made tiramisu, was only €13 a head.
We have just enjoyed a weekend of wonderful autumn sunshine in this wonderful part of Italy. Halloween was spent dressing up and joining the locals at a disco in the medieval town of Sarnano, Saturday was spent blowing away the cobwebs by hiking along old mule tracks within the awesome Sibillini National Park and on Sunday we all went for lunch at the rifugio or Mountain refuge at Monte Amandola, this is one of a chain of places to eat and stay at high altitude within the park. The food was delicious and included Strozzaprete pasta (literally translated as priest strangler pasta) with a truffle and sausage sauce, meats and home made deserts, coffee and wines and all for €13 a head.
We were staying at lovely Villa San Raffaello a sympathetically restored old Marche farmhouse that has amazing views over medieval Sarnano and the Sibillini Mountains
A wonderful ristorante and wine bar in a 15th century building, complete with vaulted ceilings, in the Centro Storico of Sarnano, near to the Sibillini Mountains National Park in Italy's Le Marche region. They offer you a choice of seven house wines at giveaway prices (we settled on an aged Rosso Piceno) and have a choice of set menu, at an amazing €13, or a la carte. The food is all sourced locally and consists of antipastis of selected meats and cheeses, roasted stuffed vegetables, pasta made with local truffles, wild mushrooms and vegetables, wonderful grilled meats and sweets.
Via Mazzini in the Centro Storico at Sarnano, Marche, Italy
If you are visiting le Marche and fancy a real adrenaline rush and the most incredible views of the region, then head up to the Scoula di Volo (flying school) above Sarnano. They teach hangliding and parascending and launch from a wonderful meadow at about 1500metres. You can fly tandem with an instructor for €60. One of our crowd experienced a flight over a golden eagle exploiting the same thermal below them and didn't even have to pay extra! For stylish accommodation in the area try www.villasanraffaello.com
Near San Liberato Monastery 5km from Sarnano, Macerata, Marche
We walked through the Sibillini foothills from Sarnano to San Liberato Monastery near to the hang gliding school and Gabella Nuova, the views up to the mountains and down across the rolling hills to the sea were stunning. San Liberato was a follower and friend of Saint Francis of Assisi and this was one of a number of monasteries built throughout Le Marche by their followers the Frati Fioretti di Jesi.
The monks are renovating all of the monasteries (don't know where they found the capital!) and trying to make them self-sufficient, opening ristorante, bars, hotels, and hosting wedding and functions. The monastery is open daily for visitors and adjacent to this there's a bar, which is stocked with a great selection of wines and a menu of quality Belgian beers no less, the ristorante menu is really seasonal and quite different from anything else available locally. At the moment in November and December there's a robust menu based around game, chesnuts, truffles and wild mushrooms - you can go a-la-carte or take a tour de force plate of everything (€35 inc wine, coffee and grappa). It's open most lunchtimes and Saturday and Sunday evenings phone in advance on 0733 694103 or 071 977128. There's also a website with more information on the monasteries and potential itinararies. www.terradeifioretti.it
There are many comfortable hotels locally or you can rent stylish apartments just outside Sarnano at www.villasanraffaello.com
Flights to the area - Ancona and Pescara 1.5 hrs, Perugia & Rimini 2hrs, Rome & Bologna 2h45mins
San Liberato Monastery, Gabella Nuova, San Ginesio, Macerata, Le Marche
The Ski resorts of Sassotetto, Maddalena and Bolognola are small scale but a great place to learn or get a long weekend fix and give visitors the opportunity to combine skiing or boarding with a bit of culture and touring the beautiful area of Le Marche.
Prices are also very reasonable; passes and ski/boot hire are both about £12 a day. The resorts have just invested in four new lifts, artificial snow canons and a new trattoria.
The town of Sarnano is a top base for a white week in the Sibillini mountains, it has over 20 restaurants, a late music bar and even has a funky nightclub.
There's plenty to see and do locally, the area is full of wonderful medieval villages and fantastic for walking below the snowline.
There are many hotels locally or maybe you would prefer a cosy apartment with woodburning stove and free wood, in the old Sarnano Farm Villa San Raffaello.
The resort is easily reached on cheap flights into Ancona, Pescara, Perugia and even Rome and Bologna.
Ski resort piste map: www.scuolasci-montisibillini.it/pagine/cartina.htm
We have just had the most relaxing holiday at this 18th century farmhouse deep in unspoilt Deux Sevres countryside in western France- a tranquil idyll with a lovely pool and an amazing array of facilities for a great family holiday away from it all.
The farmhouse and farm buildings around the old courtyard have been tastefully converted into four gites with accommodation for parties from 4-30.
In the garden are a football pitch, swings, a slide and a children's cabin, a sunken trampoline, a safely fenced carp pond and a swimming pool. Two boule pitches allow children to use one while mums and dads use the other with that glass of local wine in the non playing hand.
Bikes for all ages and a games room with pool, table football, table tennis and darts are all available plus loads of toys, books, DVDs, videos and board games.
The Poitou-Charentes area of France is full of lovely villages and historic architecture and La Rochelle, the coast and the amzing futurescope theme park at Poitiers are all easily accessible.
Le Marche's hills roll in from the Adriatic and reach the Sibillini mountains. A national park has been created to protect this awesome high section of the Appenines and its flora and fauna which includes wolves, golden eagles, wild boar and porcupines.
In Spring the area is carpeted in a rainbow of wild flowers. In summer you can swim or eat at tavernas round the shore of a lake; walk through cool gorges that dissect the mountains; and cycle or walk the paths that cross the ridges at 2,000m.
There are an abundance of fascinating medieval hill towns with museums and great ristorante serving up great value meals.
A great base for the area is Sarnano; which has 20 ristorante, a ski resort nearby, a variety of bars and stunning views.
Sarnano is in Macerata region of Le Marche and can be reached via Ancona and Pescara airports.
Living in Le Marche and having sampled the great ristorante there, where you eat well and spend little "mangia bene spende poco", I wanted to share a few tips on where to eat out...
You will probably notice different names for restaurants apart from ristorante, such as "osteria", "trattoria", "agriturismo" and "pizzeria", but rest assured that all serve up a range of great Italian flavours to savour at about €15 a head, or €7 at a pizzeria.
Sarnano itself is well served by numerous ristorante and pizzerias. Our favourites are listed below plus a few seleced others. Please note that it is worth booking in advance as they will often prepare extra dishes. To ask to book a table for 4 or 6 people at 8 o'clock tomorrow, say “Vorrei prenotare una tavola per domani sera alle otto per quattro  / sei  persone”.
Il Jolly, Sarnano
Tel: 0733 657571.
An agriturismo lying on the left of the SS78, 2km towards Amandola. Relaxed atmosphere, good antipasti. Try the truffle tagliatelle. Has outdoor space: useful if you have children who like to play while you eat.
Ai Pini, Sarnano
Tel: 0733 657183
Good little trattoria in the centre of town. Excellent pastas and meats, and very well priced.
If you enter Sarnano from Amandola, take the left turn just before the main piazza, head down the hill and turn right by the bakers. Go through the arch and its on your left.
But wear sunglasses to reduce the effect of the paintwork!
Osteria Scherzi a Parte, Sarnano
Tel: 0733651 244.
Very convivial atmosphere created by the owner Gabrielle, who speaks English and will translate the many lovely dishes.
Take the right turning for Sassotetto at the main piazza and drive for about 4-5 km up towards the mountains - its on the left at a big right hand bend. Closed Wedensdays.
La Marchigiana, Sarnano
Tel: 0733 658 090.
Impressive ristorante with varied antipasti, good first courses and meats cooked alla braccia/flame grilled. Try the Cinghiale in Salmi (wild boar and olives in a robust sauce).
Drive through Sarnano and out the other side toward Macerata: it’s about 1km out on the right. Closed Fridays.
Bar Sassotetto, Sarnano
Excellent Pizza with very fresh ingredients. Try the Bresaola (cured beef, with fresh rocket and Parmesan). Takeaways available.
The green building opposite the park. Closed Wednesdays.
Il Pincio, Sarnano
Just out of Sarnano, 200m towards Macerata. Good Pizzas/pasta and an excellent Tiramisu.
Da Marino, Sarnano
Buzzing bar with pool table, jukebox and video games. Serves up a mean pizza and is very reasonable. Takeaways available.
Turn left into the piazza, then turn right and it's on your left.
Le Logge, Urbisaglia
Tel: 0733 506788.
In the town of Urbisaglia on the hill by the castle. Unusual menu includes goose & duck plus a lamb and wine risotto. A bit more upmarket and the food is great. Closed Wednesdays.
La Selva, Abbadia di Fiastra
At the monastery there is a pizzeria/osteria La Selva that has an interesting menu with a good choice of game and a well-stocked cellar at tremendous prices.
Open every day in Summer.
Ristorante Chiaroscuro, Belforte/Tolentino
Tel: 0733 905499.
If you fancy pushing the boat out and eating somewhere very stylish and ultra-modern then this comes highly recommended. The food is only a euro or two more expensive per dish, but its all mouthwatering, the service is the tops and the delicacies are all served up with a dash of panache.
The antipasti is amazing, the first courses vary from tagliatelle with a goose ragu to Radicchio and Sea Bass Risotto. The meats, fish and panacottas are also tremendous.
It also has a very good wine cellar. Expect to pay €20-€25.
Take the road out of Sarnano and after 5km turn left for Caldarola/Tolentino. Follow this road for 5 minutes and fork right to Belforte/Tolentino. Travel for a further 6-7 minutes and at the T-junction turn right. After another 3 or 4 minutes you will see the ristorante on your left up on a hill just before a big roundabout. Closed Sunday nights & Mondays.
Ristorante da Sandro, Caldarola
Tel: 0733 905183.
Situated in a small piazza just beyond the main one in Caldarola, this is a lovely spot and serves up very robust food at amazing prices.
Da Rosa, Macerata
Great trattoria at 17 Via Armaroli, described by an Observer critic as his favourite restaurant in the world! Modern twists on local dishes adding culinary surprises here and there. Good wines. Closed Sundays.
Osteria Pigliapochi, Macerata Tel: 0733506788
Vicolo della Rota 8, off Corso Republica, near Teatro Rossi. Cosy old Osteria with well priced sumptuous local food.
Closed weekends at lunchtime.
If you want a great place to stay whilst sampling these, I recommend Villa San Raffaello just outside Sarnano: www.villasanraffaello.com/
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