Welcome to the poor man’s Tuscany: the Marche region
THE Marche region in Italy used to be unkindly described as the poor man's Tuscany.
I think it has upgraded now but it has never received the excellent PR Tuscany has basked in for so long.
Yet the Marche region, which abuts the Adriatic coast and has the Apennines mountain range running down its inland backbone, is every bit as picturesque as Tuscany.
It might not have the grand cultural cities - Florence, San Gimignano, Siena, Pisa - but it has its share of stately towns with rich and layered history, it has undulating green hills, myriad haystacks and it has more than a good share of art.
Urbino is one such stately town, a walled city and the birthplace of Raphael, the master painter born in 1483 who died at the age of just 27.
Ancona has a long Roman heritage.
Macerata is the home of the summer opera with a grand open-air theatre second only to the famous theatre in Verona.
As we approached Urbino on a sultry hot summer afternoon several years ago, it looked haughty and majestic, crowning a steep hill with a skyline of domes, towers and russet-coloured rooftops.
As we walked into the centre, it appeared the entire town was in a deep afternoon slumber.
There was an eerie stillness about Urbino, even in the main piazza, the Piazza Duca Federico.
It meant we had the beautiful neoclassical cathedral, the Ducal Palace, all to ourselves and we escaped the heat into its cool and vast interior, walking over the boldly patterned floor, admiring its pale green walls.
It had none of the usual glitter of gold and the bright dazzle of frescos so ubiquitous in cathedrals in Italy.
Next door to the cathedral in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, there was the same quiet stillness, and we stood for a long time before Raphael's masterpiece, La Muta (the Mute Woman).
As I leaned forward into the painting to admire La Muta's lovely pale shoulders I set off the security alarm.
Its shocking pierce cut through the hot still air and it seemed the entire town would awake from its afternoon nap.
But no one came near us. No security guard, no receptionist, no gallery director...not a soul.
We waited for some staff member to rush to us, even the janitor would have done, but no one.
I could have walked out of the galleria with La Muta under my arm and no one would have noticed...perhaps.