Why San Ginesio Is one of the Best Tourism Villages In the World

San Ginesio still shines as a dreamy Italian destination as it recovers from recent tragedy
San Ginesio still shines as a dreamy Italian destination as it recovers from recent tragedy

Editorial Manager

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) oversees the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism. There are a number of initiatives in place but one that has captured the imagination of many travellers is the recognition of a number of destinations as ‘The Best Tourism Villages in the World’. I took a trip to a lesser-known Italian region to find out how a tiny hillside retreat picked up this accolade and just why San Ginesio is overcoming the odds to become a dream destination in a unique style.

Welcome to San Ginesio

Winning any sort of accolade is an honour. I still dine out on my award for Best Comedy Performer from a few years ago for my film series Beyond Hollywood. I don’t usually tell people that I only claimed second prize and that we never thought we were making a ‘comedy’, but the statuette sits at home on my mum’s living room shelf. I was thinking about this on the long drive to San Ginesio from Rome, where one of the world’s best villages was waiting for me.

San Ginesio is a small village of less than 3,200 inhabitants, situated in the Marche region. It has been a centre of culture and learning since the Middle Ages, when it was one of the most important towns of the Marquisate of Ancona and the Duchy of Camerino. Known for its 100 churches, which house an important artistic heritage, the patron saint of the city is the Catholic protector of theatre and actors.

The first permanent theatre in the Marche region was built in San Ginesio in 1547. I picked up all of this information as soon as I arrived, as I was whisked off from the only hotel in the village to the town hall. The local mayor was waiting, proudly dressed in his official refinery. The short walk back from our impromptu visit from the hotel – where we were the only guests for reasons that were about to become very obvious – revealed more about the recent events that have shaped the region.

San Ginesio

Workmen and builders roll into town and are putting up scaffolding on the facades of most buildings here. None of the 100 churches the region is famed for are currently accessible and its all down to an event that lives in the minds of locals to this day. The team from the tourist office welcome us to an informal lunch (prepared by our guide’s mother) and the conversation turns to the events of 2016.

A large earthquake hit the area at that time with the centre of the village being evacuated. Many of the old buildings became uninhabitable and some people are still living in temporary shelters that were put up nearby more than six years later. You might think that its taken quite a while for the work to be completed, but the reality is that its taken this long for it to start at all. You can still see the beauty of the village, and of village life, through the metal poles and tarpaulin sheets. The only hotel here is still standing but there are too many building projects ongoing for it to function at the moment. The good news is that tourists are still coming, and they are coming back fast.

I can see the attraction and even start thinking about moving here as part of one of those retirement plans we all start making that never actually happen, but just how does somewhere like this get international recognition?

The Best Tourism Villages in the World

UNWTO recognises villages which are an outstanding example of a rural tourism destination with cultural and natural assets that preserve and promote the rural and community based values, products and lifestyle.

It also recognises the villages which have a clear commitment to sustainability in all its aspects – economic, social and environmental – in its development of tourism as one of the drivers of rural development and community well-being. San Ginesio was part of the first round of villages singled out for the list in 2021. A second group of destinations have since been added with a third batch set to be announced too.

One quantifiable requirement all villages have to meet is a population threshold below 15,000 inhabitants. Villages must also be located in a landscape with an important presence of traditional activities such as agriculture, forestry, livestock or fishing. Regional wine and cheese form quite a predictable portion of the produce sold here but the landscape is also special. A rare cow breed, only found here, roam the mountains freely. You can paraglide for the best views and in the winter months a ski resort operates close by. A cycle route is planned that not only takes you around the old city walls of San Ginesio but will also connect a number of other villages in the area.

San Ginesio is undergoing its own upgrade programme thanks to investment from the Italian government but some villages that don’t meet all the criteria of being fully recognised by UNWTO are getting additional help from the organisation. The plan is to improve and work on their weak points through workshops, virtual meetings and other initiatives.

All applications have to be submitted through the UNWTO Member States to a maximum of eight villages per Member State. Applications will then be evaluated by an independent, multidisciplinary Advisory Board.

Discover more information about The Best Tourism Villages by UNWTO.

Things to do in San Ginesio

Le Marche region stretches from a mountainous inland area to the east coast of Italy. Although I flew in via Rome, which has regular flights from around the world, there are other options for air travellers. Smaller airports like Bologna and Verona have a limited selection of flights but the closest international airports to San Ginesio are in Ancona and Perugia. UK travellers can get direct flights to either and there further options to get to San Ginesio too. Hiring a car is one way to make the most of the region at your own leisure, but you should also consider driving here all the way from home. Trains in Italy are some of the best in the world and the bus network will reach even the most remote destinations.

One of the friendly locals you’re bound to meet whilst hiking in the mountains around San Ginesio

Mayor Giuliano Ciabocco introduced us to his small team as soon as we arrived from our lengthy drive. There’s a great mix of cheerful locals, like our host Elisa, who have a great understanding of what it takes to bring business back to San Ginesio and just how important tourism will be as part of the bigger picture for sustainable growth. Ciabocca’s deputy tells us about a planned cycle network that will be the pride of the region when it opens in the coming years.

With the building work and future plans you might wonder if this is somewhere to visit right now. Well, the answer is a resounding ’yes!’. You can stroll around town and take in an extensive art collection which has been rehoused in some of the remaining civil buildings that were left standing after the earthquake in 2016. There are various viewing areas that give you a great scope of the immense nature in the region. There are pockets of industry you’ll see, but these just highlight some of the exciting local produce available here. The cheese and wine are as good as anything else you’ll taste in Italy, and the sparkling reds are something of a speciality here. If you’re looking for dishes from San Ginesio, then opt for Olive All’Ascolana (deep-fried olives stuffed with mixed meat) and Vincisgrassi (a hearty take on lasagna that lacks the creamy sauce yet has even more flavour). Polenta dishes are popular here too with the reputation of the ingredient having evolved from something only the poor ate to a modern day delicacy (when cooked right, obviously!).

My late summer trip felt like great timing with temperatures not fluctuating too much for day to night. In winter you’ll be able to ski on the surrounding mountains but Monti Sibillini National Park is one example of a green space where you’ll find peaceful relaxation and great hiking routes throughout the year. Fiastra’s Lake is another great place to hangout when the weather is clear, especially if you want to take a walk alongside the waterfront.

San Ginesio has always been proud of its medieval heritage, something you see everywhere throughout the centre of the walled fortifications of the village. Various reenactments take place during the year, such as the Palio of San Ginesio. During the Palio local quarters joust against each other. There are also the Battaglia tra Ginesini e Fermani, the reenactment of the medieval battle between Fermo and San Ginesio immortalized by Nicola Da Siena’s painting, and the Ritorno degli Esuli, a joint celebration with Siena, remembering medieval political feuds.

Less than an hour from San Ginesio, the Italian coastline is a popular destination in the summer

There are a number of spectacular day trips you can take if you have additional time in San Ginesio. The coast is a short drive away, something you realise on clear days when you can see the the Adriatic Sea from the tops of the hills and mountains surrounding the village. A number of other villages and towns can be found across the region, but obviously none of them match up to my beloved San Ginesio.

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