May 2017
More photos here


Thursday 4th May
So, for the third time in as many months I find myself in the Heathrow Pret with an Americano and an almond croissant. This time it's this year's Travel Editions trip with Clare Ford-Wille and the gang, to Urbino. Lots of familiar faces and hugs at the gate, but Barbara, the usual tour manager, has been replaced by Tessa, who was to cope admirably and calmly with more than her fair share, it turned out. Aside from the usual fuss-budgetary complications, vegetarian needs and unplanned church closures she had to cope with stuff like (spoiler alert!) a traveller suddenly bed-ridden and one of our number fainting in Gubbio, twice. The flight was to Bologna - again not for the first time for me this year - and it even landed 15 minutes early. A smooth transfer to our coach and then a longish drive, with a stop at a motorway services for lunch, where the food was fine - far superior to what you'd get at a similar joint in the UK.

Then it was another hour on the coach until we caught sight of Urbino, but before heading in we visited the Oratorio di San Bernardino (see right), the burial place of Federico and Guidobaldo Montefeltro and a lovely example of the orangey-honey colour of the local brick. The calm interior, not unlike a Brunelleschi, just about survives later additions and some 'concealed' fluorescent tubes. This is the church for whose high altar Piero's famous Pala Montefeltro (or Pala di San Bernardino) was painted, you know: the one with the egg dangling above Mary, which is now in the Brera in Milan.

In Urbino our coach had to park down the hill and we had to catch the lift up and pass before the spectacular palace towers (see below right). My room at our hotel, the Albergo San Domenico, was a bit spartan, but quiet and bright, it turned out, with a fine view of the side of the ducal place and along to the Duomo. And in the corridor as I was finding my room who should I bump into but Patrizia - the tour manager from my Rome trip with Art Pursuits last year, who was here with a coinciding AP group!

A short rest, and then a 6.30 regathering for prosecco and a lecture on The Patronage of Federico di Montefeltro, before dinner in the hotel. There where more vegetarians on this trip than the usual tally. I was sad to miss out on the chick pea and pasta soup, due to its chicken stock, but our pasta with vegetables substitution was tasty enough. A main course of two bunless veggie burgers was odd but OK, with rosemary fried potatoes.

Friday 5th May
Nothing special or tragic to report re. the hotel breakfast. We had a full day in Urbino today, beginning with a morning at the Palazzo Ducale, which also houses the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche. So, we saw famous rooms and some special paintings. Firstly some rooms with fragments of frescos,  then the studiolo with its fine and famous intarsia work. The paintings included the amazing and puzzling Piero Flagellation, a very damaged Bellini, and interesting pairs of works by Titian and Raphael. Also a room giving good Barocci. The Ideal City panel, often wrongly attributed to Piero, is here too. It being most famous for being a very early banner image on the famous Fictional Cities website. Wonderful to see it up so close as to fall into it. Justus of Ghent, Uccello, and Giovanni Santi (Raphael's dad) also make this gallery worth a visit. As do the big and atmospheric basement rooms - stables, laundry, kitchen etc. Lunch was some excellent pasta with artichokes, cherry tomatoes and spinach, followed by a cocco gelato.

Our afternoon visits began with the Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista with its spectacular and vivid frescoes by the Salimbeni brothers. The scenes of the The Life of Saint John the Baptist (or Saint John the Precursor, as he's known in Italy) take up the wonderful right wall, with more damaged scenes and other bits opposite, and a jaw-dropping Crucifixion behind the altar. Anything following this couldn't fail to be a bit of an anticlimax, as the stock baroque Oratorio di San Giuseppi was, although the grotto-like room with The Nativity here was oddly impressive. Raphael's house was just OK too. Our evening lecture was followed by another dinner in the hotel, which was again not bad.

Saturday 6th May
Today to Gubbio, on a coach through some awesome unflat country. We began with the church of Santa Maria Nuova, with its lovely Madonna del Belvedere fresco panel (see above) by Ottaviano Nelli, our hero of the day. After coffee (or in my case a thin and tepid hot chocolate for 4) in the Piazza Grande we visited the Palazzo dei Consoli to see frescos, majolica, apothecary pots and the various rooms of the Municipal Art Gallery. The paintings mostly evoked the modest joy of art that's not of the first rank, but there were some quiet gems nonetheless, by unfamous names. After lunch it started to rain most seriously, as we headed for the Duomo and found it closed. The Palazzo Ducale opposite, another palazzo of Federico di Montefeltro, is smaller than the one in Urbino, and almost totally stripped of art and fittings, including the intarsia panelled walls of his studiolo here, now in the Met in New York, and here replaced by replicas giving a fair impression. The reproductions of paintings placed above the panelling (including two which are in the National Gallery) are placed there in contradiction to most scholarly opinion, however. The other rooms here contain some art of polite interest which is, however, not really connected with the place. On the walk downhill there was just time for a quick gelato (nocci & fichi and limone) before our last visit, to the church of San Francesco, to end on the very high note of our man Ottaviano Nelli's fresco cycle of The Life of the Virgin in the chapel left of the apse.

In the evening Tessa and Clare took some of us to a restaurant which, considering it was the third choice, numbers one and two being closed, was something of a find and a true treat. I had tempura vegetables, spinach and ricotta lasagne rolls, and apple pie (actually more a muffin) with cinnamon gelato. And the swiftness and efficiency with which Tessa added up what we all owed at the end was a feat I'll not soon forget.

Sunday 7th May
After breakfast, at which I made the joyful discovery, amongst the fresh fruit, of a bowl of warm baked apple chunks sprinkled with cinnamon, we coached it to Pesaro. Before heading for the centre we began with a detour, to admire the outside of the Villino Ruggeri, a wonderful art nouveau seafront house (see above right). It was built between 1902 and 1907 for industrialist Oreste Ruggeri by an architect called Giuseppe Brega. (Art Nouveau is called Stile Liberty in Italy.) In town, after a coffee break, at which I finally got some real thick and dark hot chocolate, we made for the Museo Civico, which doesn't have a lot of art, but does have an utterly wonderful big early Bellini altarpiece of The Coronation of the Virgin. After a pasta lunch a few of us went to look at the sea, on the way finding a gelateria which provided a holiday highlight in the form of a pear, ginger and cinnamon sorbet. We returned to meet the rest of the group and have a look at the fort designed by Luciano Laurana, the architect of the Urbino Ducal Palace, before catching our coach to the airport. Speedy check-in was followed by the security queue from hell, a ricotta and almond canollo and coffee, and a delayed flight. Automated passport control at Heathrow was a breeze, our baggage was waiting and circulating on the carousel, and Jane met me at the gate clutching a Heathrow Express ticket. Our local chip shop was closed, though, so it was just some quick beans on toast, in the company of our glad-to-see-me cat, before grateful collapse into my own bed.

In summary -  the thing with this trip was that the fullness of the itinerary meant that I didn't really get to wander much in Urbino itself, but the frescoes in all three towns visited, by artists with whom I was not familiar, where very special. All the places and artists demand further attention. As is ever the case we spent a lot of time letting (often huge) school parties pass, and I've just read that this is a particular danger in the months April to June, which is just when I always go on these guided trips. The younger groups are often engaged with the art and places, but the teenage hoards seem more interested in their mobiles and schoolmates of the opposite sex, for some reason. I wonder how my life would have gone if I'd been exposed to important Renaissance palazzi and frescoes as a youth. Oh well, better late...

Venice // Florence // London // Berlin // Trips