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Move over Tuscany…

Johannesburg - Of course, Florence, Tuscany’s most gorgeous city, will never disappoint. I’m sitting on a wall beside the River Arno, watching tourists throng the legendary Ponte Vecchio bridge, first built in Roman times, completed in the 14th century but still standing strong.

Once butchers sharpened their knives in the tiny shops that line the stone bridge. Today, the bridge is still a hub of trade, but now those shops sell expensive jewellery, art, and souvenirs. The golden-brown, honey-toned, ochres and buttery yellows of Florence’s ancient buildings glow in the golden light of early evening as they have done since medieval times, when instead of hundreds of thousands of visitors, popes, princes, potentates and peasants navigated its narrow cobbled streets and imposing main squares.

The same bells continue to ring, as do their counterparts in towns and villages over Italy – after all, this is a country of spires, domes, steeples, monasteries, churches, where old ladies in hand-crocheted lace veils pray silently, and monks still pad about in sandalled feet. Before I leave Florence, I chat to a Dominican monk from Benin in the ancient church of Santa Maria Novella. The Dominican Order came to Florence in 1219.

I’m on my way to Urbino, via the Piero della Francesca (PDF) trail. Piero della Francesca was a Renaissance painter fascinated by geometry and mathematics, noted for his fine detailed frescoes and paintings. He brought life, movement, realism into the previously very formal and static work of the day, and perhaps, most importantly, explored perspective and light. Almost unrecognised in his contemporary 15th century society, he is now fêted as one of the most important painters of the Renaissance.

I marvel at his recently restored series of frescoes in the San Francesco Church in Arezzo, The Legend of the True Cross, which tells the tale of the cross from when Adam first broke off a branch of wood in The Garden of Eden, to its final resting place in Jerusalem. (To this day, no one knows where the “true” cross is, or even if it ever existed.)

On the way to Piero’s birthplace, the little walled town of Sansepolcro (I think there’s hardly a town or village in Florence or Umbria that isn’t walled and/or on top of a mountain), I stop at Monterchi, to see the only known representation of the Madonna when pregnant. Painted by Piero in the middle of the 15th century, she now stands in a special chapel. Yes, she is indubitably a masterpiece, and yes, she looks exactly like a sulky teenager, flanked by two rather bored looking angels.

In Sansepolcro, I’m awed at Piero’s acclaimed masterpiece, The Resurrection. A very avenging looking Christ is stepping firmly out of his tomb, as sleeping soldiers slump against the stone structure, unaware of what is happening.

The PDF Trail (remember John Mortimer’s novel Summer Lease, and the movie of the same name?) finally led me to Urbino in Umbria, Tuscany’s less known but equally beautiful neighbouring province. The hills, mountains and forests are just as lush and green; the wild flowers still run riot everywhere (aah, the poppies!), narrow, almost unnavigable roads lead to tiny mountain-top towns, but there are far fewer tourists, everything is much more affordable and there is so much to see.

Urbino, once the cultural capital of the Renaissance, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, is perhaps one of the most enchanting towns I’ve ever visited. In the 15th century, it hosted one of the most prestigious courts in Europe, and claims the oldest university in the world (1506). Its Ducal Palace, built by the town’s great patron, Duke Frederico of Montefeltro, was designed to inspire awe and envy, and, created by the foremost architects, craftsmen and artists of the day, is still genuinely awe-inspiring.

Urbino has a gorgeous walled hilltop location, with streets of such steep gradients that you need to be walking fit to get to the top (although you can drive if you have a little car and are a demon driver).

I stay in a former 14th century monastery next to the palace.

The highlight of my art gazing, was not Piero’s famous Flagellation – a masterpiece of medieval perspective – but the Duke’s studiolo (study) panelled in trompe-l’oeil intarsia (inlaid wood) depicting landscapes, animals, birds, shelves, fruit and musical instruments. It’s one of only two such rooms that survive from the Italian Renaissance.

My journey round the palace has been criss-crossing with a group of teenage school kids. One or two listen to the teacher who is passionately describing the artistic wonders in the various rooms – paintings by Titian, Raphael, Barocci, Piero della Francesco – but the majority are texting, obviously unimpressed. As I study the intricately adorned walls of this medieval man cave, marvelling at the craftsmanship, some of the youngsters crowd in behind me. “Oh, wow!” exclaims a girl. “This is really cool!”

It seems that some great art is indeed timeless.

Back in Tuscany, where I’m staying in a friend’s villa high on a hilltop in a village with only 50 residents, my friend John and I decide to visit San Marino for the day.

We drive along beautiful chestnut-lined, twisting narrow roads, densely green forests, over mountain passes, swathes of scarlet poppies and patchwork fields to this tiny independent state in north-east Italy, an hour’s drive inland from the popular seaside resort of Rimini. It claims to be Europe’s oldest sovereignty, dating from 301AD. From a distance, we see its high walls and turrets on a hilltop long before we walk through one of the medieval high arches into the little town. A shock awaits us. The cobbled streets are full of Russian tourists, the shops with their imported Russian sales people sell mega expensive furs and jewels, or, if you want, you can choose your AK47, Mauser or Luger pistol from the packed display of weapons in the arms shops.

A local café owner explains sadly to us that the situation is “disastro”, and blames it on the Russian Mafia. But apparently San Marino’s 30 000 inhabitants live in one of the richest countries in the world in terms of per capita GDP, with a stable economy, one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, a budget surplus and no national debt.

In that way it’s unlike some of the rest of Italy, where, away from the tourist routes, closed hotels, houses with broken roofs and windows, overgrown vacant plots and an air of apathy seems to pervade.

Italy was once the glory of the Western world, and it’s a privilege and delight to view its ancient wonders. But it does make one realise that if those art and architectural glories hadn’t survived the centuries – the ducal palaces, the Renaissance art, the citadels and castles – Italy itself, today debt-ridden and bankrupt, might be in an even more parlous economic state.

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