Wednesday 19th May 2010, Gubbio, Umbria
By contrast to yesterday it has been wet and chilly today. After spending two nights at the campsite by the lake we were charged a mere 20 euros! Price and quality have absolutely nothing to do with each other when it comes to camping. Camping Listro had been a pleasant site, conveniently and attractively located near both the old town and the lake with interesting places to visit nearby. Admittedly its advertised wifi didn't work but we did have as much hot water as we wanted and very friendly staff. Tonight, by contrast, we are staying on the only site we could find. It costs 25 euros a night and hot water is supplied by solar energy. It's been raining all day so the showers are cold. The grass needs cutting – not nice when you have to walk across it in the wet. There is no wifi here either. The elderly owner used to be an Italian lawyer and cannot seem to get out of the habit. It took Ian ages to register and he had to sign everything in triplicate and pay in advance before he could get our passports back. It's a real fight to stop people hanging on to them. At our advanced age we are now eligible for free or reduced price entry into lots of the museums. However, nobody will simply accept our word for it and always demand to see passports. If we cannot produce them because they are held at the campsite we have to pay the full rate to go into the museums or be turned away! Whatever happened to the concept of honesty! Why would a woman say she was older than she really was? Yesterday we forgot and left our passports in the car so I was refused free admittance to the National Museum for Etruscan history and archaeology. We went back for them and returned. They were examined with such suspicion it was quite rude! It took three staff to check them and then I was told the date was wrong on my passport so would have to pay! They had misunderstood January in English for June in Italian which Ian patiently explained to them. They really did not seem to want us in the museum and followed us around as if they seriously expected us to commit wilful damage! We were the only visitors in the building, shadowed by seven staff! At least here in Gubbio, when our passports were demanded and photocopied before we were given access to the internet, the man was cheerful and apologetic about it, handing us a password which he assured us was ours for the rest of our lives!!
This morning started wonderfully with the discovery of a Lidl supermarket! It's the first we've found and we returned to Modestine with real food! Tonight I've been able to cook us sweet and sour chicken with mushrooms and rice. Not bad in a tiny camping car in a wet field! No more pasta and pizza for a few days. Lidl's bread was still just the dry Italian stuff though.
There my delight ended for a while. Determined to get us to Gubbio without using the motorway round Perugia Ian confidently directed me to a tiny village on a steep and winding hill with no way out. Changing his mind we headed back to the motorway along the broken, pitted and patched roads. Once on the motorway the surfaces were no better as we juddered from one pothole to the next, dodging between the heavy traffic. "Take the next turn-off and whatever you do don't follow to Rome". Seconds later we were heading along the autoroute towards Rome having misunderstood the signing! We returned back along the opposite side, only to find ourselves back on the route we'd been on previously, travelling in the opposite direction!
All nightmares end eventually though and we found ourselves here in Gubbio mid-afternoon. According to our guidebook, Gubbio, encircled by its city walls, seems to have been forgotten in the passage of time. It's certainly very pleasant if rather austere, with some magnificent buildings and despite the traffic has a definite feel of the Middle Ages about it. It's built up a hillside with piazzas at different levels. Thus we could lean over the parapet of the Piazza Grande outside the Palace of the Consuls to see the old tiled roofs of the town spread out just beneath us, like slices of slightly burnt toast.
There have been recent festivities in the town as on the 15th May each year there is the Race of the Ceri. Members of three city guilds, dressed in mediaeval costume, race through the steep streets of the town up to the Monastery of Sant'Ubaldo high on the hillside above, carrying huge wooden hour glasses. (Don't ask!) As part of the festivities attractive red and gold silk banners were still hanging from almost every façade. They are all in keeping with the buildings giving a wonderful mediaeval atmosphere to the town.
We visited the Cathedral but found it dark and less inspiring than most that we've seen in the region. We also discovered a curious funicular that carried visitors in a sort of individual, open-sided cage up the hillside to the monastery of Sant'Ubaldo on the hilltop. Not something for a wet afternoon however. After soaking up the atmosphere of the old streets, along with a liberal amount of rainwater, we found ourselves at the internet shop. It seemed an excellent opportunity to do something useful while the rain continued to fall outside.
This campsite is only a couple of kilometres outside the town so tomorrow, assuming the rain ceases, we will return to continue exploring Gubbio.
Thursday 20th May 2010, Somewhere in the depth of the countryside near Monteciccardo, Marche
We returned to Gubbio and spent most of the day there. There is just so much to see we could easily have spent a couple more days exploring its wonderful old streets, squares and palaces.
Our day started on a sombre note. We had parked by a simple modern stone chapel named the Mausoleum of the Forty Martyrs. These were not early Christian martyrs but the victims of a massacre by Nazi troops in 1944, innocent people rounded up in reprisal for the killing of two German officers in a public bar. There they lay, in tombs around the walls, each with their names, their age and a portrait photograph, a sobering reminder of man's inhumanity to man.
St. Francis is greatly revered in all the towns of Tuscany and Umbria. Assisi is not far away and St. Francis used to wander around the area in the 13th century chatting to the animals and performing miracles on demand. One day he just happened to be passing through Gubbio and learned that there was a big bad wolf who was a bit of a menace to the citizens of the town – eating children, leaving his droppings by the wayside and never being able to produce his passport when asked to do so. All the things in fact that upset Italians. The citizens begged St. Francis to do something so off he set to find the wolf. They sat down together and discussed the whole issue. In no time the wolf had seen the error of his ways. Between sobs he begged forgiveness and promised never, ever, to eat any more of the inhabitants of Gubbio, to clean up after himself and never to leave home without his documentation. With tears streaming down his jowls he begged the saint to forgive him and shake his paw. There was rejoicing in the city that night. The wolf was forgiven and the good people of Gubbio happily fed the wolf on pizza for the rest of his life. When he eventually died of old age he was buried in the church of St. Francis where his grave became a site of pilgrimage, to this very day!
Determined to see the tomb we arrived hot foot this morning at the tourist office where Ian asked in his very best Italian for directions to the tomb of the wolf! Always, when he makes things up he expects to be punched on the nose for mocking the language but almost always we get a reply in Italian that we find hard to follow. Ian really is making excellent progress in speaking the language. I'm very impressed and envious.
Following instructions we found our way to the church, only to find it closed and locked. Later though we discovered a statue of St. Francis and the wolf in another part of town and somebody had placed a bouquet of flowers at their feet. At least with Grimm's Fairy tales it was always clear they were not true, but in Italy people seem to believe in anything if it can be linked to a saint. On our earlier visit we discovered inside the basilica at Loretto near Ancona the flying house in which the Virgin Mary had spent her childhood See 22nd April 2008 and now this! Just how credulous are the true died in the wool Italian Catholics?
Having spent the morning very pleasantly wandering the delightful streets of Gubbio and browsing in the ceramics shops for which the town is famed, we stopped for a plate of crisp, mixed pizza wedges and coffee in a little bar before Ian managed to drag me across the city to see a Roman amphitheatre in an excellent state of decay. It did offer rather good views back towards Gubbio. From there it became obvious that the city is spectacularly set on a green wooded hillside at the mouth of a deep ravine.
One of the few places open throughout the day was the Ducal Palace on one of the higher levels of the town. We decided to take the free lift that climbs up inside the hillside for those too lazy to climb the near vertical slopes. Italians love automated machinery even though it rarely works properly. The lift doors closed behind us and nothing happened. As we struggled to understand the symbols on the different buttons, pressing then at random in the hope something might happen, the doors opened and an elderly lady got in, eyeing us nervously. Ian explained our predicament and she then gave us a lesson in lift navigation techniques. All excellent Italian practice. She shepherded us safely out at the level of the Palace before leaving us with a cheery smile - I think she may have taught primary school children in her youth. We later decided to walk down rather than test out our newly acquired skills in lift hydraulics.
The Ducal Palace was well worth the visit. It was built in the 1470s for the Dukes of Urbino who ruled Gubbio from 1384 to 1508. Fortunately we'd taken our photos of the wonderful study of Frederico da Montefeltro by the time we were told we could not take photos. The room was the most spectacular thing in the palace, the walls beautifully faced with marquetry of mediaeval scenes, topped by paintings of the time including one of the duke himself, painted from the left in profile to hide his disfigured face where his nose was broken and his eye put out in a tournament. The ceiling too was beautifully carved and painted, the bosses covered in gold leaf. Everything though had been restored or replaced and the paintings were copies of the originals now to be seen in museums around the world.
For the rest, the palace was mainly a collection of dark and dirty poor quality oil paintings, huge battered cupboards and a few banquet tables, dressers and seats. Downstairs were the remains of an earlier building upon which the palace had been constructed. There was also a pleasant cloistered courtyard. Of interest too was an exhibition surrounding Dante's Divine comedy with modern brass panels inspired by the poem as well as various hologram effects depicting passing through the flames of hell. A bookcase was filled with beautifully bound and illustrated modern editions of the work with an exhibition of engravings by Gustav Doré. It apparently commemorated Dante's visit to the court at Gubbio.
We left the town reluctantly. Had the campsite been cheaper and less quirky with its sanitary arrangements we'd have stayed another night.
Somewhere in Sardinia a German camper told us we should not miss visiting Urbino. So we made our way across the Apennines, through lovely green, wooded countryside, passing out of Umbria and into Marche and reaching Urbino early evening. The only campsite in the area was not on our cheap list. We found it high on a hillside on the opposite side of the valley to Urbino. The road was steep and pitted and the entrance to the site closed off with diggers and dumper trucks gouging out ditches. Once inside the site our passports were eagerly grabbed and documented while we kept asking how much it would cost. No prices were displayed anywhere and the owner seemed deliberately evasive. Eventually he told us 35 euros. What! No thanks, that's more than a hotel room in France! Can we have our passports back please? He offered 33 euros. He was still way off the mark. He torn up the documentation in irritation while we once more navigated the ditch at the entrance leaving him with a completely deserted campsite.
Well, we may as well take a look at Urbino as we were there. It was one of the quickest tours we've ever made of a city, let alone one so splendid. We'd love to have done it more justice in this blog but as Urbino has completely failed to come up with realistic camping arrangements, it can count itself lucky to have an entry here at all! It's entirely thanks to Ian who undertook to write something for me:
We had wanted to see the city because the Dukes of Urbino had been the overlords of Gubbio, particularly the cultured Duke Federico de Montefeltro. In fact the refined life at the court of the Dukes of Montefeltro in the early 16th century was the inspiration for The courtier by Balthasar Castiglione, the famous manual of etiquette for those who moved in cultivated circles. We entered by the northernmost gate of the city and descended the via Bramante past the Orto Botanico to emerge on the lively Piazza della Republica with its fountain, arcaded buildings and the inevitable church of San Francesco nearby.
We climbed up to the Piazza Duca Federico to be greeted by the neo-classical splendour of the cathedral, rebuilt after an earthquake in 1789 and the imposing bulk of the Ducal Palace built for Federico da Montefeltro between 1466 and 1482. We did not see the side overlooking the valley with its loggias but the more sober side facing the square, in brick trimmed with handsome Renaissance ornamentation. Opposite the palace are the buildings of the University founded in 1506. The student presence must have accounted for much of the liveliness in the streets during the early evening.
We finally made our way to the birthplace of Raphael in the street that now bears his name, an unadorned brick-built house with traces of earlier archways in its façade where he lived his first fourteen years from 1483 to 1497. Inside is supposed to be Raphael’s earliest work, a mural in his bedroom of the Madonna and child with his mother’s portrait as the Madonna and his own as the child.
(Don't know why this doesn't display - just click image to see)
The city of some 16,000 inhabitants is perched on two hills and surrounded by ramparts, but we did not have time to do it anywhere near justice as evening was drawing on and we still had to find a campsite.
We pressed on down towards the coast where the nearest site on our ACSI list was deep in the very heart of this luscious countryside far from civilisation. There s no way it could be stumbled upon by chance. We arrived to find it run by a cheery Dutchman. Immediately we felt at home. It's a brilliant site, clean, with all facilities. There are mainly Dutch campers here (ACSI is a Dutch camping organisation). It costs 15 Euros and it's a delight to be here. The owner explained how suffocating Italian bureaucracy can be. He's supposed to input the data immediately on his computer and email it to the police every day. He reckons such officialdom is left over from the times of Mussolini. The police cannot cope with it all and he hopes there will gradually be a relaxation in such rigid control over the movements of people throughout Italy.
This evening we sat outside listening to the twittering of birds in the surrounding woodland as the sun set and the moon came up. Soon though it became chilly and we moved inside. Last night the temperature dropped to 4 degrees. Tonight we are high in the hills so we can expect another chilly night.