Italy is one of those countries that keeps pulling me back. So much so that I’m starting to lose track of the number of times I’ve visited. Until now most of my time in Italy has comprised a tick-list of the most visited spots in Italy, sharing elbow room with hundreds of other visitors who have come to see the same things. And, as amazing as my time in places like Florence and Rome have been, there is something much more magical about exploring the destinations where comparatively few tourists go. Urbino is one such place.
Head south-east from Bologna an hour and you find yourself in Le Marche, a region defined by its rolling, green patchwork of land where towns perch on hilltops and red-tiled roofs amble downwards as far as the eye can see. It’s one of Italy’s best kept secrets. Here are the 7 best things to do in Urbino.
1. Urbino’s Panoramas
Even in the crux of substantive renovation, Urbino wowed me within seconds of arriving. The Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale) is an imposing presence that dominates the skyline of the city, and despite the two towers being clad in scaffolding, conjuring up a vague association in my mind with the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the vision caught my breath.
Yet, unbelievable as it may sound, the palace isn’t the Ace in Urbino’s deck.
Rising above the valleys of Le Marche, Urbino is a hilltop town that can throw a vista into your viewpoint without warning. Walking between the tall, traditional tan brick building, lost as usual, I turned a corner and was slammed by this sight, which turns out to be fairly commonplace.
The hilly cobbled streets may provide texture underfoot and demand flat shoes by default, but the element of surprise panoramas were what excited me the most about Urbino.
If you want a full panorama, make sure you take the trail up to Parco Della Resistenze. It may have a path steep enough to make you pant but at the top you can take a rest, gather your breath and inhale the views.
2. The Ducal Palace
It was a wet Friday morning when I got to the Ducal Palace for an injection of Renaissance art. In any of Italy’s more popular cities the rain would have spelled long queues for such an indoor activity, but in Urbino we practically had the place to ourselves and I revelled in the deliciousness of the tranquillity.
Roaming the corridors and exploring the grandeur of the palace, I was staggered that the works of art on display were as good as anything I’d seen in the Pitti Palace in Florence. Better, in fact, for the lack of crowds.
3. The Cathedral
Like most cities in Italy, the Cathedral (Cattedrale) forms the heart of Urbino. Unlike the more well-visited cities in Italy, I was able to get shots absent tonnes of tourists. Better still, I was able to sit and sip a coffee and take in the views at my leisure. Without having to pay inflated prices. Ever tried that in Florence? Ever failed?
4. Restoration Artists
Perhaps the one thing that warmed my heart the most was the restoration efforts that go on in Urbino. I’m not talking here about the large-scale restoration that the city is currently undergoing, as impressive as that is (until relatively recently, parts of the Ducal Palace were in ruins). I’m talking about the training that the young students of Urbino do to become masters in restoration of Italy’s heritage.
Paintings, wood, metal and other materials I know too little about to reference properly, the future preservation of Italy’s treasure trove is in the hands of the nation’s youth and Urbino is home to one of the country’s leading universities where these vital skills are being passed down.
I took a quick snoop around the university and was lucky enough to speak to one student who had been working on a piece for over a year (many of the works used for study are donated by the plethora of churches in Italy). I felt pity for the student who, not long after starting her restoration piece discovered that there was an identical painting on the reverse side. Twice the effort, I thought. Twice the excitement, her face said, reminding me that arty endeavours command a level of patience and skill I will only ever be able to admire.
5. Modern Art in a Medieval and Renaissance Setting
Art is a dominant theme in Urbino. Perhaps prompted by the ongoing presence of the Renaissance, perhaps just the combination of that many young, aspiring minds in such a concentrated area (Urbino features an Academy of Fine Arts and a Higher Institute for Industrial Art). Consequently, it doesn’t take long to bump into some creativity in Urbino. And if the Renaissance period becomes too much (it did for me in Florence – reference: my nap in the Uffizi), it’s good to have an alternative art offering.
And speaking of alternative, I went to see a play while I was in the city, produced by the Academy of Fine Arts (Accademia di Belle Arti di Urbino). Figuring that I can follow the opera, therefore the language doesn’t need to be a barrier, I settled down to what was the most fascinating and crazy piece of performance I’ve seen in a long time – Senza Fin.e. Translated, it means unending, an appropriate title for a work that included a dead man, a dominatrix trapped in a TV, a human-sized rabbit and a stuffed cat that freaked the hell out of me. Definitely one I’ll remember for a while.
6. Urbino’s Café and Bar Culture
Life doesn’t seem to pause in Urbino. I know this because I regularly try to take stalker shots of people going about their daily life (in a mentally healthy way, I promise you), but everyone was moving too fast in Urbino for that to happen. The place was vibrant with an undercurrent of excitement that was contagious. Whether it was standing at the counter for a short shot of espresso (half the price if you drink the coffee that way in Italy), or sipping a spritz on the terraces come aperitivo time, life echoed through every portico of the city bring a smile to my lips with it.
7. Urbino’s Food
And then there was the food. I have a separate article on the passatelli and crescia served up in Urbino but suffice to say, visiting in truffle season was an excellent choice!
Rome, Florence, Venice, Cinque Terre. They are destinations that make it onto most people’s Italy itineraries. But the true richness of this beautiful country lies not just in its sights, but its culture that runs deepest in the small towns and cities that dot the map and are most often passed over in favour of more iconic spots. By all means, see those spots. Who doesn’t want to go to Italy and see the Colosseum?
But I recommend you take the time to see more.
I promise it won’t disappoint.
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My visit to Urbino was courtesy of Regione Marche but I fell in love with the city all on my own.