A day out in Urbino

If you have never heard of Urbino then put it on your list of Italian cities to visit. It is a Renaissance city on par with the greats of Florence & Rome & Siena but without the tourist scrum. Firstly Frederico da Montefeltro, who was lord of the place during the Renaissance, 13th century for those of you who are a bit unclear on history started the trend. He attracted the greatest men and artist’s of the time to turn his palace into the cultural centre of Europe. Raphael took his first painting steps here.

The next period of splendour came in the beginning of the 18th century when Clement XI became pope and his family began a programme of construction of civil and religious buildings.


Finally the University was established in the late 19th century and set about implementing a whole load of architectural renovations.


What you get is a real mixture: a wide main street lined by the huge grand palace, the imposing, towering cathedral, lording churches, tall & elegant buildings housing apartments and businesses. Narrow streets lead up & down off the ridge to create a grid pattern of bricked splendour and clay-tiled grace.

Arriving at 11 the carpark is half empty and the rear walls of the city stretch high up above. Oh, lord. How many steps to reach the top and in this heat! My heart falls. Bt HEY, this is Italy. There, over by the shadow of the wall is the entrance to…… the lift. 50 cents takes one person up 4 floors to the main promenade around the ramparts. BRILLIANT.


So, into the bright sun, a coffee to prepare the soul for the tourist trap that awaits. Up the medieval tiled steps, around the corner to the top of the main street…. there is no one there, well almost no one. Down the bottom there is a group of about 16, waiting outside the church. Sadly, the only thing to let the place down is the arrival of an incongruous, red and white plastic tourist choo-choo train . The queue quickly climbs aboard and off it goes, taking them off in its 3 x 21st century carriages to circumnavigate this wonderful classic city, never to be seen again.

And I do mean enjoy this place ‘without the tourists’. No bustling crowds, only one hawker selling religious books, no queues to get into any museum, civilised wanderings in palaces and streets, tables available in cafes & restaurants for lunch, gelatos on demand.

Many of the sights of Urbino are around on the streets both in terms of locals and wonderful architecture.

Sadly the cathedral is closed following the earthquake.

The Palazzo Ducale di Urbino, Frederico’s place is worth a visit. Not only the building itself, dating from the 13th century, but also the range of paintings by artists like Raphael, Bocatti & Alberti da Ferrara amongst others, sounding a bit like models Italian motorbikes. I have to pinch myself. Most of these many, many pieces date from around 1400. Many are painted onto wooden panels, doors, straight onto walls as frescoes and woven into huge tapestries tho cover the walls. Carvings abound around gargantuan fireplaces, doorframes & cornices.  All slightly overawing.

Easily spent 5 hours there, wandering the streets and popping into churches and gardens and piazzas before descending in the lift for the short journey down the coast and home.

Put Urbina on your list.

 

Out and about close to home

Having spent a few days cooling off in the pool it is time to get those explorer’s boots on …well my Birks. The first place to pick off the map, which is close by, is Jesi. It stretches out along a ridge and boasts a medieval centre on the site of the Roman forum. We hit it on Assumption Day when most of Italy is in church or at the beach. The place is empty except for a bit of holy chanting coming from the churches and some conversation from the only bar open in its long , wide pedestrianised streets. Most of the buildings leading up to the square are tall, rather grand 17th century properties which provide cooling shade wind relief from the baking sun.

Parking is easy, at least.

Cingoli is one of those walled, fortified, hilltop villages. We caught it as they were opening up for a wine tasting event. However tempting the drink/driving laws made me an observer rather than a participant. Still, I could enjoy the preparations and observe the Italians at play. There are so many yappy little dogs in Italy tangling their owners up in cafes and on the streets. I have never seen so many chiwow-was. Sorry, not sure how you spell it and can’t really be bothered as they are a poor excuse for a pet/dog.


The best discovery was the town of Treia. Heading elsewhere, it jumped out at us on a hilltop in the distance as we drove past and demanded that we visit.

A Roman settlement set up on a high ridge on the road from Rome to the port of Ancona. It was such a gem to find – peaceful, classic, imposing.

And then I met this chap. If you look closely you can sees that his short, shorts have prints of scooters on them. Is he Italy’s first mod? He must have thought he looked good as he stopped and posed for me. What do you think? Out of 10?

Soaking up la Marche

You may have wondered where I’d got to. There again, maybe not. Any way, I’ve spent a few days settling into my Italian home for the next two weeks. I have come 100 or so miles south, just inland from Anconna. This country side stretches away from the tops of rolling hills in every direction. Gentle valleys contour around slopes and folds of land like the swirls created by a gymnast ‘s ribbon. Fields of browns & tans and earthy hues jigsaw together with the green bubbles of deciduous trees and woods. Farms and barns are scattered over the land, in between the steeples and spires and walls of hilltop villages which draw the visitor like a magnet. In the distance the panorama is framed by the turqoise waters of the Adriatic around a rim of truncated volcanoes that explain why this area is subject to earthquakes.

This is the view from our terrace:

My home is set down a ‘white road’, rather a pitted track which one can get up if driven in first at 20km an hour. I am surrounded by the patchwork fields of La Marche. My silence is only disturbed by the call of circling buzzards and in the distance the metallic squeaking of harvesting tractors that quietly roar their wayup and down the gradients and then chugger to each other as they summon up the strength for another run. Within a few hours the crop is harvested & taken off, the remnants bailed and left littering the field in haphazard cuboids and deep silence descend around me again.

Cupramontana is the closest settlement of any size, just up the road. Not a lot goes on here. As the day comes to an end and the buildings give up their heat, the locals grab a chair or find a seat in the shade and ponder over events and share anecdotes and gently wind down with friends and neighbours before disappearing inside as darkness falls. Everyone seems comfortable in their groups which tend to be gender and age specific with little mixing it up.

Can life really be that simple?

 

Pootling and paddling around Bolgna

Well here we are again. Like a cosy pair of slippers, I am in Italy once more. Starting off in Bologna to get everything together. Well, you have to plan a trip properly. So, fly in, pick up a car, check in to hotel for one night, a beer in the back streets of this impressive city …..


…..pick up Hazel, sleep and hit the road.

I choose the straightest of straight Roman roads that runs from Bologna to Rimini for at least 60 miles, without a bend or diversion. Straight as a die (what does that mean?). There are three towns on the line. The first is Imola.

Under a blue, blue sky, I wander the almost empty streets, disturbed by the odd cyclist, the small clutter of pedestrians and the building work that goes on ahead of me (that’s a picture of a clock, by the way, printed with the windows on a screen to cover the manky scaffolding). Coffee is good. Almost afraid to admit a visit to the duomo, a worshipper peers out and hobbles off before anyone sees him.

The third town in this straight line to the Adriatic is Forli. A wander to the large, open space of the central square is worth it. On all 4 sides elegant buildings compete with each other for the accolade for the grandest frontage.

However, it is the Palazzio del Poste e dei Telegrafi that wins the prize hands down – a glorious edifice to the time when to be a postie was an essential role in any country that has aspirations on the world stage. Look & admire.

Now you might get a clue from this picture about the impending doom that is about to descend on Forli in the next 10 minutes. The skies darken and darken with every quickening pace back to the car. The timing is perfect – doors thunk as huge spots of rain thwack on the window and a whirl of winds rush and pound and glower and push all around the piazza. In the centre of town the buildings protect cycles & cars from the squally outbursts of torrential sprays from the mouth of the storm, accompanied by thundering claps and explosive lightning.

The real war zone lies on the plane tree-lined avenues leading out of town. Huge cannon balls of weather have blasted their wet, destructive force through the branches and trunks leaving them broken and maimed on the streets and parked cars below. A few of us try to slalom our way around the carnage, lights flashing as we avoid the dangers we can see but very aware that above, the wind still shakes the trees searching for weaknesses to drop down on our convoy.

Peering through the deluge of curtained rain and wooded obstacles, I follow the sat nav through the gloom. The wreckage becomes lighter, the sound of the storm becomes calmer and the rain patters then pitters and the world returns to normal. Having survived 30 minutes of wet, stormy hell and successfully found a way out of town, the road to Ravenna beckons. An hour later the clouds break, the sky resumes its heated blue and reason returns.

 

Capri in retrospect

So does the sun always shine on Capri? Well I don’t know the answer to that but it certainly did on the 6 days I was there; and, boy, was it glorious. It really is a lovely place to visit on a short trip. Yes, it is expensive as everything has to come by sea, and, yes, during the day the ferries discharge day trippers galore to clog up the narrow streets and lanes in the two main centres of Capri town and Anacapri. Other than these two factors it is a great place to explore.

Capri town has a classy feel about it but as long as you keep to window-shopping and people-watching over your one coffee it is a busy but intriguing experience. It does help that the last ferry off the island is at 6pm so in the evenings everything calms down, the shops shut and some gentle nightlife can take over in bars and restaurants.

Anacapri is smaller and much more Italian with fewer columns of visitors. The one reason to visit the town is to get the chair lift up to the top of the highest peak. It is a peaceful 10 minute swing each way and is well worth the effort as the whole island and nearby mainland spreads out in below you in a landscape of rock and canopies, scattered white villas around hotels, and tracks of vessels sniffing around in the coastal waters.

I stayed even further west at a small B&B, il Paradiso di Capri, run by Guiliano and his family. The breakfast terrace and my balcony overlooked the sea and Ischia to the west, hence the sunsets.

Nothing was to much trouble for Guiliano. He made reservations for dinner, dashed up and down the hillside to collect and deposit visitors at the port, always had a smile and a happy greeting. A lovely man.

We ate at places he recommended. Restaurants on the island run this truly great service. Each one will collect their punters from their accommodation and take then back when they have eaten. Now that is cool. We took to Le Arcate in Anacapri and ate there three times. No view, no sunsets but the friendliest of welcomes, amazing service and great food. Papa opened it 36 years ago when he arrived from Naples with his family. Nico, the head waiter, looked after us- a lovely man with a dry sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye and always up to mischief whilst looking after his clients so well. On the last night he had our table waiting and set, with our favourite bottle of Chianti standing guard. The homemade lemoncello was to die for.

So thank you Capri. If any of you want to get away from it all for a while, I thoroughly recommend it.

 

Round and round the island in a tiny boat

So here we go, around the small island of Capri. This is Nico. He has a small, traditional boat painted blue. He meets his guests in the harbour, gives us a steadying hand to board,  settles us down and casts off. Leaving Capri behind us we set out into the open sea.

We sail, rather motor, anticlockwise around the island. It is a crowded procession of boats, all showing off their beautifully painted and varnished hulls and masts with bright chrome gleaming proudly in the sun. Most carry a handful of passengers but occasionally one of the harbour big boys tries to bully everyone else out the way with a hundred or so passengers pointing their iphones at the craft below.

Under blue skies and on turquoise waters, with gentle breezes cooling us down, we gasp in wonder at the ruins of castles and Roman villas perched high up at the tops of sheer cliffs. Down at sea level rocky ledges & platforms, laughingly called beaches, provide safe bathing areas for locals & tourists or acess to a private villa or an upmarket restaurant. In places ingenious designers have created formal bathing areas with bathing hits and rows of sunbeds.

The flotilla of boats hug the coastline sniffing out caves & grottos. Once one is found the skippers very politely allow each other in turn to enter the shady darkness of these arched cathedrals shaped by the sea. There is no queue barging here.

Around strong headlands arched villas or cloistered hotels appear. Natural rock formations address given human names like ‘the heart’.

Very high end, luxury craft, are moored off the coast, yatchts and sail, acting as bathing and sunning platforms for rich families and gorgeous gals & guys. A nice life if you can get it.

 

 

Amongst the rich and famous

The town of Capri is very different to Anacapri. The tourists arrive at the harbour and get a bus or the vernacular railway up the hill short distance to the small central piazza beside the church.

In this space four cafes have packed their tables and umbrellas leaving three narrow pathways to the archways and the town’s riches. Elegant & suave locals drink their coffee surveying the lines of  tourists come to disturb their peace.

They view the lines of chattering pale-skinned Chinese and the drawling large American from their wicker chairs, faintly amused by the endless stream of overheated, sunhatted visitors in columns of minipeded legs lead by the raised furled umbrella – a beacon to all tourists seeking that one image or piece of tat to impress their pals back home.

Taking one of the narrow alleys the town reveals itself.

Elegant hotels welcome high end visitors to relax in cool gardens after visiting those really upmarket designer stores that the rest of us pass by laughing in envy. Well, I love the style of the mature Italian gentleman but is this really my look: the total outfit costs £5,00 euros from the Dolce & Gabbana shop.

Tourist watering holes and rich oases need servicing. Special porters’ carts, delivery vehicles and even dustbin trucks squeeze through Capri’s arteries.

Evidence of the playground of many Caesars is dotted around the edges of the cliffs. These are the gardens of Caesar Augustus.

Most visitors head for Capri for the day. They crawl around the town, grab a piece of cold pizza and board a bus and head out to Anacapri. The little mini-mope buses scurry up & down the hill between Capri & Anacapri, the orange local buses and the smart blue private company ones, competing with each other to deliver their human cargo as quickly as possible. Out they tumble, “Ooooh, arhhh”; pizza or mozzarella & tomatoes for a tenner and back to the ferry; “ We’ve done Capri” shout American & Chinese voices “and we bought the bag”.

The rest of us can enjoy the peace of shady evenings in warm stoned streets once they have returned to the mainland.