Urbino, Storybook City

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How to enjoy a beautiful day in Urbino

In Italian, the sin of gluttony is gola. Golosita’.

In Italy, it’s so easy to be goloso.

I’m thinking about gluttony the day my wife and I drive to Urbino. From Pesaro it’s a 40 kilometer drive I do not love, on a two-lane road through village after village, past Montelabbate and Colbordolo, past Gallo and Morcia. Every few kilometers you have to brake for a roundabout. You get stuck behind trucks and vans, behind decrepit Fiats driven by old men. Then around Trasanni, 5-10 kilometers from Urbino, the road straightens out, and the hills rise gloriously, so glorious you almost think you might slow down, pull over, and take in the view.

We don’t. We are on a mission.

A few more kilometers, we round a bend and there it is.

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We’ve made a special point of arriving in Urbino early today so my wife can have a bombolone. She says the Urbino bomboline is her favorite (her current favorite), the one she gets at the top of Via Raffaello, at Pasticceria Cartolari.

A bombolone is a tube of fried dough, filled with pastry cream, rolled in sugar. Nobody in their right mind, nobody, that is, but a golasa, would eat one. They’re heavy, sweet, fattening, and, above all they are filling. You need to eat one early in the day. If you come late, Cartolari might have already sold them all. If you’re late but not too late, a bombolone will cancel your desire for lunch. Nobody wants that.

We’ve come to Urbino for bombolone and to see the Ducal Palace, where Titian’s Venus of Urbino is on loan from the Uffizi. We’ve come, also, just to be in Urbino. Storybook city. Medieval city on a hill. City of cobblesone stairways that tunnel into side streets with the look of dark alleys, down which you can be briefly and delightfully lost.

We are goloso for this place.

Full of bombolone, we stagger down Via Raffaello, the steepest street in Urbino, past Raffaello’s house, and into the main piazza where university students, fresh from their dissertation defenses, wear their laurels and parade with family and friends up and down the streets.

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While my wife steps into a ceramic shop, I have another coffee and make inquires about lunch.

“Due Leone?” I ask the bartender.

“No lunch,” he says. “They serve only dinner on weekdays.”

“Otherwise?”

“La Fornarina.”

I tell him we’ve been here. We walked by it just now. The special today is stewed boar, polenta, and baked apple. Tempting. But I’d like to try something new.

He fetches a placemat with a map on it; a placemap. “Al Cantuccio,” he says. He makes a dot on the map, slides it across the bar in front of me.

I’m pretty sure I can find this dot.

I walk up in the direction of the Ducal Palace and take an alley to the left. From a palazzo window along the way comes the sound of piano, a music student practicing. Further on, more practicings, the violin, a French horn. The street bends slightly to the left, slopes down, and stops abruptly at the edge of town.

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Across the way, a few kilometers off, are those hills we saw driving in. To the left, just around the corner, is Al Cantuccio. I check the menu, peek through the window, check the menu again. Maybe not.

Today at the Ducal Palace the rooms are full of school children, standing in front of paintings, while docents try to hold forth above the din. Here is Citta’ Ideale (the ideal city) by Piero della Francesca. And here is the Miracle of the Desecrated Host by Paolo Uccello. And here is The Mute by Raffaello. We try to stay a few rooms ahead of the children, stopping in Federico da Montefeltro’s bedroom, in the palace’s great hall of tapestries, in the Duke’s studiolo, the “little study,” which includes miracles of inlaid wood, trompe-l’oil representations of books, candle, hourglass, astrolabe, armor. They are astonishing.

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Just as we reach the room with Titian’s Venus, not one but two groups of kids arrive and surge toward the painting. The decibel level rises and falls. Venus—there is a lot of her—meets every gaze in the room, unashamed. The docent draws the children’s attention to the roses in her hand; they should associate roses, she says, with the goddess Venus. The docent draws their attention to the two ladies in waiting in the background, rummaging through a chest; the children should associate these women wedding preparations. The docent draws their attention to the dog, a symbol of fidelity. The painting, she says, is an allegory of marriage. Though there are other interpretations.

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Venus, totally at her ease, meets every gaze, unashamed.

“Let’s go,” my wife says, hooking an arm through mine. She means lunch.

I tell her another visit—I mean another day, another month another year from now—I would spend more time in the studiolo.

For lunch, we decide to go with what we know. At La Fornarina the boar is stewed with onion, carrot, celery. Also bay leaves and juniper berries. We have half a liter of the house wine. It’s enough. The polenta is firm and holds the boar sauce. The berries pop in your mouth, giving off a piny, ginny flavor.

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“What do you think,” I ask, setting down my fork. “Dessert?”

The waiter brings us one torta della nonna, it has a lemon custard, and a few slices of crostata, a standard pastry of the region, made with a local marmellata.

We walk back up the hill, past Raffaelo’s house, past Cartolari. No, we couldn’t possibly.

On the drive back to Pesaro, and then San Marino, my wife dozes. I enjoy the hills, take it easy around the roundabouts. Who cares if we have to take it slow? Bombolone, Venus, boar—it was a very good day.

And the study. Don’t forget the study.

Urbino, we’ll be back.

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