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Time to move on again after three nights in Florence. Our willingness to leave was enhanced by another distinctly average breakfast at the hotel, and we were fairly happy to get out of the pace at mid-morning. I guess there wasn’t anything especially wrong, it just wasn’t what we were expecting for the price and it was distinctly average compared to at least two of the previous stops. Never mind. All done and dusted. Onwards and upwards, quite literally in the case of this day. We were heading for the Republic of San Marino.

Urbino_25.JPGThere’s no quick way of getting there from Florence. If you want motorways you have to drive all the way up to Bologna and then back down again to Rimini to access the only dual carriageway that enters the tiny republic. That seemed like a long way around and we fancied exploring a bit (well, technically I suppose, I fancied colouring in a few more provinces by finding a single geocache), so that’s what we did. We left Florence on the A1 heading south towards Arezzo and then headed east towards Citta di Castello. On the way between those two towns I’d found two roadside geocaches within half a mile but either side of a provincial border, so that accounted for the provinces of Arezzo and Perugia. Doing one in Perugia also meant colouring in the region of Umbria, which certainly wasn’t on my original plans. Anyway, both were easy finds.

I’d planned to colour in the Province of Pesaro and Urbino on a mountain pass just as we entered the province, but that opportunity was denied to us by some roadworks which had closed that entire stretch of road over the mountains. We therefore had to divert south by 10 miles or so to the next road down. This one was wiggly and winding, and rather sadly I found myself behind a large lorry just as we started climbing. The road was not wide enough to get past, so we drove for what seemed like an eternity behind this lorry all the way, in fact, to the town of Urbania, which is where we’d have ended up if we hadn’t had to make the diversion. It was scenic, but very slow going.

Thankfully the lorry ducked out somewhere near Urbania and we were free to accelerate all the way up to the 70km/hr speed limit, or sometimes even 90km/hr. It wasn’t a great set of roads, but I guess we weren’t in any particular hurry. In our sights we had the World Heritage Site of Urbino. We found it relatively easily and parked up in what my GPS was telling me was a big parking area. It was indeed a big parking area, and it was also underground.

The amount of time we’d spent in the car meant we immediately needed drinks and a toilet, as you do, so we popped into a little cafe on the town square where we’d parked and sat outside staring in amazement at the bottom of the Palazzo Ducale. It looked well worth the walk up the hill. We decided that Urbino would be today’s “place”, and hence we’d spend 2-3 hours wandering around before continuing on to San Marino.

We started off by walking straight up the steps towards a beautiful overlook under the palace. There was a geocache there too (Province of Pesaro and Urbino – tick) and then we climbed a couple of ramps into the rather lovely piazza next to the cathedral. From here we ventured a little further east and then northwards towards an old fortified entry gate (with prison cell included) which housed another geocache. And from there we headed back south and west again until we ended up at the Piazza della Repubblica, from where we walked directly back downhill to the car park. Most of central Urbino is traffic free, partly, I assume, because most of the roads aren’t wide enough for cars anyway. It’s also a university town, and students tend to like the whole traffic free thing. It stops them from getting run over when they’re staggering home drunk in the middle of the night. There, that’s my daily quota of horrendous stereotyping done with. I feel better for that.

Urbino_62.JPGBack at the plot, though, central Urbino is mainly traffic free apart from a couple of main streets, and a lot of the roads (or paths) are incredibly steep. In many cases, buildings bridge over the top of the paths, or at least form very narrow canyons. There’s not a lot of greenery around, but it doesn’t really need it, and the locals seem to do a good job of keeping everything neat and tidy. Also, most of the buildings are faced in brick rather than being rendered, which avoids the typical Italian medieval scene of coloured walls with big chunks of exposed blockwork beneath.

So all in all, Urbino is a very worthwhile stop for an afternoon. Had we not already booked all the hotels we might well have stayed here longer and moved on to San Marino a day later.

Talking of moving on, we found a fuel station and then spent absolutely flippin’ ages trying to figure out how to make the pumps work, before heading off in a vaguely northerly direction towards San Marino. Our route was going to take us over some minor roads and in through the “back door”, as it were. By “minor roads”, I mean “unpaved” in a couple of parts, but we figured if the geezer coming the other way in the RV could get through then so could we. It was rather twisty to say the least. At the crests of a couple of the hills, though, it became very apparent where we were heading to. It’s difficult to explain quite how much Monte Titano stands out from the surroundings, especially when viewed from the side, but from about 15km away you’re very aware that there’s a city on a mountain approaching.

The back door into San Marino was very much that, and we found ourselves approaching the City from the south side. Before we knew it we were winding our way up narrow street with multiple switchbacks and trying to guess where on earth we ought to park. I thought I’d read somewhere that the hotel said to park in Car Park 6 or 7, but we didn’t really know how to get to those. After one switchback we seemed to be driving up to the end of the road. There was a car park at the top so we resolved to pull up and call the hotel to ask them. The car park had some spaces and the hotel answered their phone immediately. I explained to the receptionist that I didn’t know which car park we were in but I could see a sign on the rock reading “Piazzale Cava Antica”, to which she replied that we’d magically found our way into Car Park 6, and that was the best one for accessing the hotel. Magic. Off we go then, having first established that she could sell me daily parking permits that were half the listed price at the car park.

The hotel in question was La Grotta, and it proved to be a small but perfectly formed affair. I think it only has about 15 rooms, but crucially for us, a couple of them could sleep four people. We’d sort of arranged our luggage the previous day so that we only had to carry one suitcase and the day bags into this hotel. The other three suitcases stayed in the car, so we were able to get checked straight in and the girls went up to check out the room while I ran back up the hill to put a parking ticket in the car.

It was still relatively early in the evening – about 5pm I think – so we had a quick wash and went out for a walk. It was immediately apparent that the City of San Marino doesn’t have many flat parts. It’s all either uphill or downhill, and in most cases it’s fairly steeply uphill or downhill. We opted for uphill, in the general direction of the top, but got distracted somewhat by shopping. On entering a couple of the shops the kids were delighted to discover that the lack of a local sales tax means that San Marino is actually pretty cheap to shop in, at least for souvenirs and luxury goods. Both kids also got very engaged by one shop really close to the hotel which sold an array of jewellery and stationary goods on the themes of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Lots of umm-ing and ahh-ing was done before we left that shop.

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The street up to the top of the hill is almost all restaurants and souvenir shops, as you’d expect, but when you do get to the top there’s a couple of cafes that have views which are rather dramatic. We felt obliged to sit at one of them and have a beer (or soft drink, depending on the person). We were also a bit peckish, but we definitely didn’t order a bowl of chips and we definitely didn’t eat them when they didn’t arrive. No, you must be thinking of someone else. Cough !

After we’d finished not eating any chips we decided we’d got time to go for a quick clean up before going out for dinner. On the way back down the hill we went into the umm-ing and ahh-ing shop again. Izzy had broken her rucksack, so we got her a new one (Harry Potter), because she was going to need it for school anyway, and we didn’t want her to have to lug stuff around in a broken rucksack for six more days.

The hotel recommended a restaurant which was a little way back up the main street / mountainside ( * delete as appropriate ) and which had a terrace view looking out over the northwest (downhill) side. Well, to be honest, if it was facing the south-eastern side it wouldn’t be a terrace, it would be a cave, but that’s by the by. The view was pretty impressive and we sat there watching the sun go down whilst gorging ourselves on a selection of local dishes. Izzy discovered the seemingly popular local delicacy of the chip pizza. We would also have gone for a pudding, but the staff seemed somehow reluctant to offer us any, so eventually we just went up to the desk to pay and left. Never mind, I’m sure there’ll be other places that have puddings later in the holiday.

And that was the end of that day. In summary, San Marino is beautiful in a way we were more or less expecting. Urbino is beautiful in a very unexpected way, and the day ended with us feeling like our decision to take that particular driving route had been a very good one.