An advantage to visiting San Marino is its proximity to so many other places worth seeing. San Leo, Gubbio, and Gradara are a few nearby stopping points that are worthy of any traveler, but on this visit we took the country roads south to the town of Urbino.
First, let’s talk about the region of Le Marche, because it seems to be a secret that everyone wants to keep to themselves.
Le Marche is located in central Italy, where it borders the Adriatic Sea to the East and the Apennine Mountains to the West. In English this area is usually referred to as the Marches, but I’m not sure if that is anglicizing the name or if it actually refers to the multiple provinces of the region. Le Marche is plural and refers to the traditional four provinces and the now five provinces of the area. On this trip we drove through the northern province of Urbino e Pesaro on our way to Urbino.
Unintentionally, our GPS wound us along hill top lanes that gave us spectacular views of spiky hills and verdant valleys, patched with fields of golds and greens and outlined with sparkling streams. Photos do not do it justice.
What I find special about this landscape is the remoteness of it. It has a terrain similar to Tuscany but without the congestion or careful cultivation that characterizes that region. (I’m definitely not discouraging Tuscany, it’s just different.) This area has a wildness and natural beauty that seems refreshing in a country that takes a lot of deserved pride in its manicured good looks.
Whenever we plan on visiting a town I don’t know much about, I always get a little sweaty when I think about parking. Will we be parallel parking on the street, if so will there be room? Is there an NTZ zone, if so will we have to park far outside of town? Do we have to use a parking garage, if so will they still be open when we get back? Which is why I always bring up the super boring issue of parking, because if you’re driving through Italy it’s a constant anxiety. So far we’ve been lucky. Usually we can find free or ticketed parking outside the city walls of wherever we’re going. And it turns out that Urbino has it all figured out with a parking garage on the north side of town complete with a small shopping mall and elevator that zips you up to the top of the town right outside the walls. Much easier than normal, and probably a way to make up for their lack of train station. The only way to get to here is by bus or car.
If you have heard of Urbino but can’t remember why, it’s probably because of this guy:
Federico III da Montefeltro or the Duke of Urbino was the ultimate Renaissance Man. He studied the classics, nurtured artists like Raphael’s father, advised Popes, ruled fairly, and hobnobbed in his palace with the likes of Machiavelli. But mostly he was a notoriously ruthless warlord. In his forty plus years of battle, he never lost a war. Cities would pay him to avoid conflict. Dynasties like the Sforzas and Medici’s regularly sought him out as their Condottiere, which literally means contractor but in this context is meant as Mercenary. And just to illustrate how hardcore he was just look at his unnatural profile. No one is born with a nose like that. Apparently he was blinded during a tournament. As a result he lost income because he was thought to be an assassination risk since he could not see on his right side. He solved this by having surgeons remove the bridge of his nose so his left eye could see to his right. His reputation was restored, but I’ve always wondered if this made him a mouth breather.
Anyway, Urbino is intact and much the way he left it in the late 1400s. Still a center for learning and higher education, just like it was when he was Duke. We were there in July, so school was out, which left the town pleasantly open and uncrowded. Perfect for afternoon strolling.
We got there around lunchtime, starving, and quickly found a perfect lunchtime spot at the outdoor restaurant Il Girarrosto.
We carbed out on flat bread, cheese, and homemade pasta.
I drank wine, and my husband drank a local amber ale (Italian beer is often under-rated), as we enjoyed the mild summer weather and international chatter in our small breezy piazza. Afterwards we saved room for gelato and continued our walk towards the the Palazzo Ducale.
Up Via Puccinotti…
…and arriving in Piazza Rinascimento.
For a full picture of the palace look here. The palace is huge, and very impressive from the backside, but lunch made us lazy and we didn’t want to descend the town and climb neighboring hills to get an all encompassing shot. So our experience was mostly from the inside.
If you’ve seen the duke’s portrait then you may also be familiar with the often copied courtyard designed by Piero della Francesca, a famous artist and mathematician from that period. Half of it was scaffolded when we were there, so I could only get this corner shot.
Once inside, it was immediately apparent, this place is literally a shell of what it used to be. There are clues with the half recovered frescoes, ornate mantels, wide corridors, and inlaid doors; but beyond the art displays that have been set-up the building is empty.
The large empty spaces are a bit haunting when you try to associate them with their past. The rooms, once filled with soldiers and nobles, music and art, are now quiet and empty with whitewashed walls and cold fireplaces. Not that it’s not worth seeing. One of the highlights was the duke’s studiolo or study, which is entirely covered in intricate wooden inlays.
We spent about an hour here, then it was time to get back in the car and return to our hours long trip back to Rome. One of the best parts about summer roadtrips are the sunflowers. Fields turn sunshine yellow in late June through early August with rowed audiences of these fat faced flowers . I tried over and over to get a good car shot to share. But I was constantly thwarted with a telephone pole, fence, or tree. Finally, a traffic jam kept the car still long enough so I could get this pic.
Worth the ten minutes of traffic. I don’t always recommend Italy during the summer, but I can’t deny that it has perks.