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A peak experience in Raphael's region of Italy

Email|Print| Text size + By Richard Pennington
Globe Correspondent / June 3, 2007

URBINO, Italy -- We first viewed the Sibillini Mountains from horseback on a riding vacation outside Assisi in 1997. From high on the windy ridges of Mount Subasio , our group of riders looked upon distant limestone peaks cloaked with vibrant grassy fields.

That memory came to mind nine years later as my wife, Mary, and I climbed to our picnic spot on Mount Priora in the Sibillini to find three horses looking down on us from the mountain's tallest ridge, waiting for the return of the American riders, or so it seemed.

We had come to these mountains as part of a visit to Italy's Marche region. We flew directly from Boston to Milan, and took the train to the Adriatic coastal town of Pesaro, having stopped in Parma for a night . In Pesaro we grabbed a bus to Urbino.

This walled, hilltop city is a classic product of the Renaissance. We arrived early in the evening and took in the enchanting view up the steep via Mazzini through the Porta Valbona gate. Very little has changed here in the last 500 years. The gates and walls of the city still stand, and the ancient cobbled streets are now lined with shops. On warm nights, the city's university students gather in the Piazza della Repubblica.

After we checked into our hotel, we sought out the Trattoria del Leone, right off the main square on Via Battisti, which has a bright, cozy atmosphere. On both visits, we kept returning to the Leone, although we also enjoyed a dinner at the Taverna degli Artisti on Via Bramante.

The white neo classical facade of the early 18th-century duomo towers over the piazza of the Ducal Palace. Statues standing on pedestals watch from above. The palace, which houses the National Gallery of the Marches, has a modest entrance, but the imposing facade on the other side of the building is most impressive. Two slender round towers and three ornate balconies face far-away Florence, another capital of the Renaissance.

Urbino is largely the creation of Duke Federico da Montefeltro (1422-82). As a youth he traveled to Venice, Mantua, and Milan for his education, and as a condottiere, or mercenary soldier, he fought battles for popes, kings, and the Medici, earning an enormous fortune. His palace became a home for artists, architects, writers, poets, and musicians.

We entered the palace and admired a collection of the duke's illustrated books. After climbing wide staircases, we entered huge rooms adorned with large fireplaces and tapestries. Smaller rooms to the side, the living quarters, were decorated with meticulously crafted intarsia, or inlaid wood.

Among the many paintings in the galleries three stand out. Raphael's "Mute Woman," one of the few works in the city by this native son, is considered a masterpiece in portraiture. Piero della Francesca's enigmatic "Flagellation" pictures three men in the right foreground, seemingly oblivious to the torture of Christ in the background. Piero's simple "Ideal City" summons the virtues of Renaissance architecture.

It is refreshing to stroll along Urbino's ramparts. An outdoor table at the theater cafe below the towers is a restful place to sip wine, view the sunset, and people-watch in the late afternoon.

We visited the house where Raphael was born in 1483. Restored in 1958, it is an important archive and center for art scholars. We enjoyed the building as much as the canvases and sculpture on display. Raphael's father, Giovanni Santi, was the duke's court painter and poet, and his home is a symbol of his elevated status in the city.

We took our time going from Urbino to the Sibillini. We first drove north to San Leo, a fort with immense round towers perched on the side of a dramatic limestone outcrop overlooking the Marecchia Valley. We stopped for the night at two small walled hilltop towns, Arcevia and Camerino. In Camerino we ran into a man who spoke English hurrying off to collect truffles in the forest.

In the Sibillini, our base of operations was Cittadella, an agritourist compound, located near Montemonaco. When we first arrived, low clouds hung over the valley below us, and small fields and thick forests were all we could see. The clouds vanished overnight and we awoke to the breathtaking sight of 8,121-foot Mount Vettore in the distance -- the third tallest mountain in Italy. On the right stood Mount Sibilla at 7,129 feet.

Our first walk originated in Rubbiano, a nearby hamlet. We walked around small waterfalls, crossed a stream, and ventured into a chasm called La Gola dell'Infernaccio or Infernal Gorge. A small sign in the beech tree forest directed us up a steep trail to the Eremo di San Leonardo , a charming stone chapel perched on the edge of the gorge.

We opened a gate and walked into the garden where a short, white-bearded man in coveralls appeared before us. We told him we were Americans and he told us he did not speak English and went back to his stonework. We sat on a rock and looked across the narrow chasm at the north face of Mount Sibilla, often hidden in clouds.

The next day we drove part way up Sibilla's scarred south face and walked the last few miles on the steep gravel switchback road. At 5,500 feet, we enjoyed splendid views of the summit of Vettore. The area we were exploring was part of the 270-square- mile Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini.

We were tired on the third hiking day, but grateful for the fine temperatures in late October, when most of these mountain peaks are already snowcapped. We drove along the Aso River to nearby Foce , one of the most popular trail heads in the region, which on this day was practically deserted. We trudged up the gradual incline of the Piano della Gardoso on a trail that would eventually reach the Vettore summit and Pontius Pilate Lake, at 6,393 feet.

After an hour's walking, we turned around and were happy to see that the restaurant in Foce was still open. Cittadella has hearty country cooking. Every night, on a white cotton tablecloth next to a glowing fire, sat a small pitcher of local red wine and a big pitcher of water.

The first course might include fried egg bread, prosciutto, bread soaked in pesto, wild boar salami, or buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes. Next comes spaghetti with mushrooms, fresh ravioli filled with sage and cheese, or a bowl of farro and chickpea soup with carrots and zucchini sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. That course is followed by a green salad, spinach and a meat dish, usually pork, or game bird with green olives. Dessert might be a specially cooked fruit tart or biscotti or homemade cookies and fresh fruit, with a glass of anise or a coffee liqueur.

Silvio Antognozzi, our host, spoke a bit of English. Like most Italians we met in the Marche, his mother and her sister did not speak English, although they fed us well and made us feel most welcome. With its great natural beauty and an impressive inventory of historical attractions, the Marche region is gaining a reputation as the "new Tuscany" among knowledgeable visitors to Italy. We agree wholeheartedly.

Contact Richard Pennington, a freelance writer in Belmont, at mcpen@verizon.net.

If You Go

Where to stay

Hotel Bonconte
Urbino
011-39-0722-2463
viphotels.it
Quiet four-star hotel, a converted old villa, on the edge of the city walls with splendid views of the surrounding countryside. Doubles about $106-$182 a night; breakfast is an additional $11-$22 per person for a generous buffet.

Albergo Italia
Urbino
011-39-0722-2701
albergo-italia-urbino.it
Comfortable, centrally located three-star hotel steps away from the main square. Doubles about $88-$155, breakfast included.

Cittadella Country House
Sibillini
011-39-0736-856361
cittadelladeisibillini.it/
Off-season bed-and-breakfast price is about $40 per person, and peak season full board is about $108. The dining hall serves excellent local cuisine; the management subscribes to the "slow-food" philosophy.

Where to eat

La Trattoria del Leone
Urbino
011-39-0722-329894
latrattoriadelleone.it
A cozy restaurant in two small rooms serves wonderful regional dishes, seasonal specialties, and a nice wine list. An average dinner for two costs about $67.

What to do

Sibillini National Park
The park's extensive series of trails and walks range from a quiet hike in a valley to a strenuous climb to over 8,000 feet.

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