Why You Should Visit Raphael's Hometown of Urbino, Italy
Italy is my favorite country in Europe. It is a magical place with overwhelming offerings of art, culture, and cuisine in every city. Most itineraries will give you several days and a list of attractions for major cities like Rome, Florence, and Venice, but smaller, quieter places are often neglected. This is a shame, as these small towns can truly put an outsider in touch with the heart and soul of Italy and its people.
Urbino is one of those towns. A hilltop town growing out around a Renaissance palace, it has historical significance as the birthplace of Raphael and modern-day importance as a hub for international students, via the University of Urbino. It’s small size and large population of students make it a low-cost and enjoyable stop for any traveler who is seeking a quiet, friendly city in which to spend a few days of rest.
The city of Urbino has been mentioned in recorded history since the Gothic Wars of the 6th century, but its rise to prominence would come in the mid-1400s under the leadership of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, a.k.a Federico III. A lover of humanities and the arts, Federico filled his court with Renaissance thinkers and artists, including the artist Raphael’s father, Giovanni Santi. Raphael himself was born in Urbino in 1483.
Later wars and dispossessions would lead to Urbino’s changing hands between nobles several times before being absorbed into the Papal properties, and later becoming part of the modern Republic of Italy.
Urbino is located in the Marche region of Italy, in the province of Pesaro and Urbino (PU). Urbino is not connected to the Eurail system, so unless you are traveling in your own car, the easiest way to get there is by bus.
The nearest bus station is located just outside the train station in the nearby town of Pesaro. Bear in mind that this is not a heavily-traveled tourist spot, so not every local will be able to give directions or advice in fluent English. Should you find yourself unable to decipher the bus schedule, the best people to ask for help will be off-duty bus drivers, who can usually be found near their vehicles, smoking a quick cigarette between drives.
Staying in Urbino
One of the wonderful things about staying in Urbino is the low cost of excellent accommodations. My hotel of choice is the Hotel Bonconte, a small, four-star hotel with single bedrooms from €50 per night, which rivals the cost of private accommodations in most big-city hostels.
The Bonconte has its own restaurant (make a reservation for dinner), fully-stocked refrigerators in the rooms and free wifi in the common areas. As it is located atop one of the looming city walls, it also offers a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside.
There are other hotels in the city, which I cannot review from firsthand experience, but they include:
- Albergo San Dominico (Same owners as the Bonconte)
- Albergo Italia
- Hotel San Giovanni
- Hotel Rafaello
- Bed & Breakfast Aquilone
These five are also located within the bounds of the city, but the outdoorsman or agriculturally-minded traveler can find farm stays and guesthouses outside the city. The countryside that surrounds Urbino is truly beautiful, and any chance to get out and explore it is very worthwhile.
Things to Do During the Day
Urbino is not a city of big attractions as much as it is a city of retreat and study. It is quiet, with a slow, natural pace. It is not uncommon to see elderly Italian men leaning on their windowsills to observe passers-by, puffing steadily on their pipes while their wives chat from other windows across the narrow streets. The entire scene is antique, quaint, and mercifully free of commercialization. It is a good place to simply walk around and see who you will meet that day, or to sit with a glass of wine and write in a piazza.
My days in Urbino always begin with a walk up the cobblestone streets to the Piazza della Republica, where I stop at one of several deli shops for a breakfast item and a cappuccino, their total cost averaging about €1,80. I like to lean on the counter while I eat and observe the morning rush, the activity and conversations are always entertaining.
Breakfast finished, I always enjoy a morning walk while people are at work and the streets are quiet. A short ramble uphill (be forewarned, there are no level streets in this hillside city!), will take one away from the palace district up to the public park area of the old Albornz Fortress, with pleasant scenic views and residential neighborhoods beyond. If you guide your wandering feet, you might just find yourself on the University-maintained walking path that gives visitors a postcard view of the city. This spot is a travel photographer's ideal, lookout point, perfect for taking photographs by day or night, in rain or shine.
For the cultural appreciator, the Palazzo Ducale (Duke’s Palace) is now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site, and visitors can walk through it at their own pace. The galleries inside house the works of many great Renaissance artists, not the least of which being a piece by Titian and a selection of works painted by hometown heroes Giovanni and Raphael Santi. Be on the lookout for Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Woman, a piece that is especially remembered for the supreme details of the titular lady’s hands.
Another special part of the palace is the Duke’s studiolo, a study room whose walls were painted to reflect the lifestyle and personal interests of the Duke Montefeltro. The paintings on the walls range from depictions of bookshelves to hunting and recreational items, all painted directly onto the wooden walls with an awe-inspiring level of detail. Two such rooms were constructed under the Duke’s reign; one remains in the palace, but another, built outside the city on another of his properties, has been deconstructed, and the walls are now set up in the Italian Renaissance exhibit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Urbino is very proud to be the hometown of Raphael, and his family home is now open as a museum. Raphael is one of the reasons this city has remained on the map at all, and it is worth it to visit and feel close to the old master, though the man himself is buried in Rome.
Of course, every city in Italy is replete with churches, and Urbino is no exception. The Duomo and Oratoria di San Giuseppe are open to visitors and showcase a respectable collection of Renaissance and Neo-classical artwork.
After a morning walk, if I am not visiting a museum, a historic site, or extending my walk to the nearby botanical gardens (another service of the University of Urbino), I retire to the Piazza della Republica or the garden terrace of the Bonconte to do some writing until the heat of midday has passed. That is what makes Urbino a special place to me, it affords a peace and stillness that is conducive to intellectual pursuits, without the high costs of staying in a major city or a monetized agriturismo guesthouse, like many of the places now found in Tuscany.
Things to Do in the Evening
As dusk falls, it is time to go out again, and this is when Urbino becomes a truly wonderful place. Residents get off from work, students emerge from classrooms, and the piazzas come to life with conversations and songs. Given the number of students who come to the University of Urbino exchange program from schools across the world, visitors are almost guaranteed to have an interesting conversation in their native language. Just sit in a restaurant for a while, and you will find someone to chat with.
As far as restaurants go, I find myself returning to one place in particular: Ristorante La Baelstra Antica Hostaria. Nestled away in a quiet back street (the address is Via Lorenzo 16), overlooking the gate of a walled courtyard, I found it quite by accident. It has been my dedicated dinner restaurant ever since. The friendly servers know enough English to smile and accommodate my lack of Italian with total hospitality, and the food is superb. I believe I have logged my favorite calzones and soups in Italy as being from their menu. Eat outside; their porch is most pleasant.
Urbino is a very functional small town, and the main streets that run downhill to meet the bus stops and highways have plenty of grocery, clothing and laundry options in case one desires more than espresso and pastries during your stay. And like everything else in Urbino, it’s no trouble to walk to any of these places.
Everyone has their own reasons for visiting Italy. If you are seeking the "real Italy," Urbino is a city that you must see. If your schedule and budget includes time for a brief “decompression stop” between major cities, I highly recommend visiting Urbino while on your way to Venice from Rome or Naples. It breaks up what is otherwise a full day of train travel, has ample cultural opportunities, and a slow pace that conforms much more to the romantic ideas of Italian life than the frenzied crowds of Rome or Venice.
A quality visit to Urbino requires no more than two or three nights, and the low cost of staying and movie around there makes it very feasible for travelers of all wallets. A few nights is plenty, unless you fall in love with the city and want to stay longer, which is a very definite possibility.