The back roads of Tuscany – Casentino

The back roads of Tuscany – Casentino

Hard to imagine that any corner of Tuscany could ever escape attention of tourists but the Casentino Valley, a rural area a mere 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Florence has managed to remain mainly ignored by visitors. Wedged into the densely forested foothills of the Appenine Mountains, the valley rose to prominence in the Middle Ages when it remained for 500 years the private fiefdom the Guidi Counts. They built a number of great fortresses to guard their domain before they were finally annexed by Florence in 1440. Three of these Castellos, in Poppi, Porciano and Romena still dominate the valley, although the later has been for centuries merely a foreboding ruin chiseled against the misty Castentino sky.

Poppi

Tuscany - Casentino, Poppy

Main street of medieval village of Poppi.

The ancestral seat of the Guidi Counts, the medieval village of Poppi is considered one of the best-preserved fortified villages in Italy. It is dominated by its majestic castle by Arnolfo di Cambio, which is regarded as the prototype for his latter design of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The entire castle is open to visitors, from the prison cells to the bell tower. The chapel contains well preserved frescoes attributed to Giotto’s star pupil Taddeo Gaddi, and the library holds one of the richest collections of medieval manuscripts and scrolls in the country.

Porciano

Tuscany - Casentino, Porciano

The hilltop hamlet of Porciano is a quaint rural retreat.

Surrounded by a hamlet of picturesque stone cottages build into the original fortification walls, the privately owned Castello di Porciano has been painstakingly restored starting the 1960’s. Its imposing six story (35 meter/115 foot) high keep has retained its battlement. The tower now includes a small museum. The top three stories are a private residence. The residence as well as some of the cottages are available for short-term rental and offer a unique opportunity to experience rural Tuscany at its relaxing best. The entire village is blessed with commanding views of Casentino Valley.

Arezzo

Tuscany - Casentino, Arezzo Piazza Grande.

Arezzo Piazza Grande and Vasari Loggia.

Tuscany - Casentino. Arezzo Basillica.

Piero della Francesca’s msasterpiece in the San Francesco Basilica.

Another under-visited bit of Tuscany, just 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Poppi is Arezzo. One of the main settlements of the Etruscan League (circa sixth century B.C.), it flourished well into the middle ages before falling to the Florentine hegemony in 1384. Consequently its historic center is mainly medieval, with its sloping Piazza Grande edged on the north side by the flat Mannerist façade of the Vasari Loggia (yes, by native son Giorgio Vasari of Ponte Vecchio Vasari Corridor fame) and fine view of the elaborate Romanesque apse of Santa Maria della Pieve. Arezzo’s most notable artistic treasure is La Leggenda della Vera Croce (Legend of the True Cross) by Piero della Francesca is in the chancel of the San Francesco Basilica.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Arezzo, Italy.

The back roads of Tuscany – Val d’Orcia

The back roads of Tuscany – Val d’Orcia

Today I leave behind Florence and its inestimable wealth of Renaissance treasures to take to the back roads of Tuscany. The region abounds with medieval hill towns with their own important cultural heritage. Among them my favorite of Tuscan cities, Siena and her Piazza del Campo, regarded as one of the greatest medieval squares in Europe. Just south of it lays the picture-perfect Val d’Orcia where vineyards and olive groves climb up sun-baked hills toward ancient fortified villages and country lanes lined with dark arrow-straight cypresses meander across rolling meadows toward apricot-colored farmsteads. This is a land that had me smitten at first sight, long before UNESCO recognized it a World Heritage Site for “its exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was re-written in Renaissance time to reflect the ideals of good governance” and credited it for its profound influence the development of landscape thinking.

Siena

Tuscany - Siena Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo is regarded as one of the greatest medieval squares in Europe

Tuscany - Siena Duomo.

Pinturicchio frescoes at the Siena Duomo Piccolomini Library

This classic medieval hill town is best known for its unique shell-shaped Piazza del Campo dominated by its Gothic town hall, the imposing fourteenth century Palazzo Publico. Beautifully preserved reminders of its thirteenth century grandeur, when it was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe, can be found everywhere along its steep, narrow streets. Perched high on a hill, the Siena Duomo is a superb gothic cathedral with an intricately carved marble façade. The interior walls and the high pillars of the nave are clad in black and white marble stripes that soar to a vaulted ceiling of golden stars against an indigo sky. The adjoining Piccolomini Library is filled with lavishly illuminated choir manuscripts, its walls and ceiling are covered with striking frescoes by Pinturicchio. In the popular Fontebranda neighborhood (named after the most popular fountain in Siena, still in existence), the house of Caterina Benincasa, who became Santa Caterina, the patron saint of Italy, is well worth a visit. Although it had undergone many modifications since her death in 1380, it remains a serene retreat with a lovely Renaissance loggia and brick-lined courtyard.

Bagno Vignoni

Tuscany - Bagno Vignoni sulphurous springs,

Bagno Vignoni’s hot sulfurous springs have been a popular spa since Roman times.

Known since Roman times for its thermal waters, Bagno Vignoni is a tiny medieval hamlet clustered around a large rectangular pool fed from an underground aquifer of volcanic origins. The spa is said to have been attended by many eminent Renaissance personalities, among them Pope Pius II, the afore-mentioned Santa Caterina da Siena and Lorenzo the Magnificent. Although modern spas have sprouted in the vicinity to take advantage of the hot sulfurous springs, this charming Val d’Orcia hamlet appears mainly unchanged since then.

San’ Antimo Abbey

Tuscany - San’ Antimo Abbey

San’Antimo is considered one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy.

Another Val d’Orcia jewel, San’ Antimo was built in early the early twelfth century in a remote pastoral setting of ancient cypress and olive trees. It is reputed to be one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy. It certainly is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved ones I have ever seen.

 

 

Montalcino

Tuscany - Montalcino, Altesino Vineyard.

Montalcino produces some be the most prestigious red wines in Italy,

Altesino Winery in Montalcino.

Altesino Winery in Montalcino.

While Chianti may be synonymous with Tuscan wines in the mind of many and some of the area’s wineries are worth a visit, for me the ultimate Tuscan oenology experience is Montalcino, a delightful hilltop village that traces its winemaking tradition to the fourteenth century. It offers a commending view of the Val d’Orcia and rolling hills streaked to the horizon with the vineyards that produce some of Italy’s most esteemed reds, the Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino. I have the good fortune to visit Altesino, a leading local estate, where I am treated to a tour of the entire production cycle from the neat rows of vines, each punctuated with a thriving rose bush for pest control, to the state-of-the-art aging cellars and bottling operation. A memorable tasting of Altesino’s prized vintages conclude the visit. Salut!

Visits of the Altesino Winery are by appointment only.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Siena, Italy