Urbino, Italy: The Other Tuscany

By: K. F. Zuzulo

If you love cobbled streets, terra-cotta roofs, provincial cuisine made with lamb, rabbit, swine, and cheese, you may just love Urbino. This hill town lies nestled in the calf of the boot that is Italy, in a region known as Le Marche (MAHR-kay). Divided into four provinces - Pesaro-Urbino to the north, Ancona, Macerata and Ascoli Piceno to the south - the Marche extends from the Adriatic coast in the east to the Sibillini Mountain chain of the Appenines in the west. From north to south, the region is characterized by gently rolling hills and fertile valleys that run east to west from the sea to the mountains.

Along these verdant valleys, four-lane highways connect the seaboard and the A14, the major north-south highway, to the interior, making it possible to swim in the sea in the morning and relax in the shade of an alpine forest in the afternoon. The 9,694 square kilometers of the Marche are populated with 2,120,000 people, mostly employed in the service and artisan industry.

The name Le Marche was bestowed sometime around the 10th century from a German word meaning a border town. And the authentic Italy here seems to linger on the periphery of foreign binoculars. The tourists who have traversed Tuscany have not yet "marched" en masse into these very Italian hamlets, whose origins reach back into millenia.

Although there have been artifacts found on Mount Conero dating 100,000 years ago, it wasn't until the ninth century BC that a permanent settling of the Marche took place. The "Picenus," a people of controversial origin, settled in the southern part of the region having followed a sacred bird, a woodpecker (in Latin "picus" thus the name "Picenus"). The 50 necropolis founded by the Picenus clearly indicate that these people were divided into tribes, each independently ruled and having its own language. The Picenus were unable to form a political administration and continued to live in separate city-states. Overpowered by the Galls and the Athenians in 395 BC, the only remaining memory of these people is in the city of Ascoli Picenus (renamed Ascoli Piceno after Italy's Unification).

And the residue of the region's ancient peoples remains: in the atmosphere and in the cheeses of Le Marche's best-known city, Urbino. In the 15th century, Duke Federico of Montefeltro, a swashbuckling mercenary, refurbished Urbino into an early model of the ideal Renaissance town. His palace was a study in early Renaissance palazzi. The Duke cultivated art, architecture, and philosophy so that today's visitor will encounter a freeze-frame of Medieval intrigue and style.

At the Ducal Palace of Urbino, works by Raphael hang on the walls. One might still capture a whiff of history while sitting at the café tables of the Piazza della Repubblica. And if the scent is not the enchanting aura of the past, it is likely an Italian staple of sharp formaggio di fossa; a cheese that is entombed in limestone to age.

Once your appetite is piqued, there are plenty of restaurants to satisfy. After all, you're in Italy. Make your cheese selection part of an antipasti of local salami, stewed beans and polenta. Move on to the pasta. A fresh pasta of egg, parmesan and breadcrumbs, known as passatelli, is a traditional Marchigiani dish. Chunky strips of pasta in a creamy spinach sauce is called strozzapreti. Predictably, no culinary tableau will be complete without a wash of the local wine.

In Urbino, you will find food, history, atmosphere, frescoes, and orange light off clay tile. Best of all, you will experience all this without the crowds of Tuscany.

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