Walled, austere and mostly built of brick, URBINO is a jumble of Renaissance and medieval houses, churches and palazzi atop a hill, dominated by the tremendous Palazzo Ducale. During the second half of the fifteenth century, it was one of the most prestigious courts in Europe, ruled by the remarkable Federico da Montefeltro, who employed some of the greatest artists and architects of the time to build and decorate his palace. Baldassarre Castiglione, whose sixteenth-century handbook of courtly behaviour, Il Cortegiane (The Courtier), is set in the palace, reckoned it to be the most beautiful in all Italy, and it does seem from contemporary accounts that fifteenth-century Urbino was an extraordinarily civilized place, a measured and urbane society in which life was lived without indulgence.
Nowadays Urbino is saved from an existence as an open-air museum by its lively university. In term-time at least, there’s a refreshing, energetic feel to the town and plenty of places to eat and drink. Although a new town has grown up in the valley below, it seems to have been almost wilfully designed to be as ugly as possible, so as to better highlight the glories of the walled upper town, which, after all, is where you’ll want to spend most of your time.
Outside the dour town walls, two places in northern Le Marche – the medieval strongholds of Sassocorvaro and San Leo – are well worth the effort it takes to reach them.