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.


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.


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.


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

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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.


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.




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

Everyday life amid Renaissance wonders

Everyday life amid Renaissance wonders

To wander around Florence, the historic city nestled in the Tuscan hills along the banks of the Arno River, is to walk back in time to the birthplace of modern western culture. The Renaissance began here, in the maze of narrow streets lined with the palazzos and monasteries of the old town. Their façades look like stark fortresses. They were, after all, intended to keep invaders at bay. But step through their foreboding, metal studded gates and a world of serene gardens, elegant cloisters and inexhaustible treasures await. Or keep following the cobblestone labyrinth and it will invariably open onto a harmonious piazza dominated by a magnificent church.

Beyond the guidebook musts

The guidebook “musts” have been so often photographed and filmed they seem familiar at first glance. Like millions of other visitors from around the world, I paid them their due years ago on my first visit. Then they became the backdrop of everyday life, convenient landmarks as I set out to discover new personal favorites each time I contrive a reason to find my way back to Tuscany.

Thuscany - Florence. The Bargello.

The cloistered courtyard of the Bargello is an ideal spot for a quiet moment right in the center of the city.

Tuscany - Florence. Della Robia Collection.

The Bargello features an extensive collection of Della Robia glazed terracottas.

Bargello. Built in the mid-thirteen century as the residence of the Podestà, the highest magistrate of the Florence City Council, this small medieval fortress is the oldest public building in Florence. Later turned prison and barracks, it became a national museum in 1865. The Bargello features a spectacular display of glazed terracotta works by the brothers Della Robia, along with works by Michelangelo and other prominent Renaissance sculptors. And it is home to the “first David”. Donatello’s one and a half meter (five foot) bronze of David (circa 1440’s), commissioned by Cosimo the Elder de’ Medici for the courtyard of his own palace and the first known nude statue created since antiquity. It set the stage for another world-class nude David: Michelangelo’s 17 foot (5.20 meter) white Carrara marble masterpiece. In addition to revisiting these favorites, I always enjoy lingering along the open loggia and under the arches of the cloistered courtyard to spend a quiet al fresco moment right in the center of the city.

Museum of San Marco This twelfth century Dominican monastery adjacent to the San Marco church was restored by Cosimo the Elder de’ Medici in 1440, who entrusted the work to his favorite architect Michelozzo. With its elegant cloister and spacious sun-filled library, the building offers a superb example of Renaissance conventual architecture. Of special interest are the perfectly preserved Fra’ Angelico frescoes that decorate the cloister, refectory and the brothers’ cells. Additionally, the library, the first public library in Europe, contains a stunning collection of elaborately illuminated manuscripts, many of them donated by Cosimo himself.

Tuscany - Florence. Cloister of the Scalzo.

Andrea Del Sarto chiaroscuro frescoes at the Cloister of the Scalzo.

Cloister of the Scalzo. Just one block from the Piazza San Marco on the Via Cavour, tucked away beyond an unassuming Renaissance doorway, this exquisite cloister once led to a chapel that was part of a much larger religious complex owned by the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist. The small rectangular space contains twelve frescoes in chiaroscuro (grayscale) representing the life of Saint John the Baptist. Entry is free and opening hours are limited to a few mornings a week. This cloister appears to be one of the best kept secrets in Florence. I drop in whenever possible and it is not unusual to find I have the place to myself.

Tuscany - Florence. Palazzo Medici Riccardi.

Michelozzo’s Courtyard of the Columns in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi.

Tuscany - Florence Chapel of the Magi.

Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in the Chapel of the Magi at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi.

Palazzo Medici Riccardi
A five-minute walk farther down Via Cavour to the corner of Via de’ Gori, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi is the antithesis of the intimate Scalzo. Designed by Michelozzo in 1444 for the Medici family, it was acquired two centuries later by the Riccardi family who undertook extensive transformations. Mercifully, the grand interior Courtyard of the Columns along with the Cappella di Benozzo Gozzoli (Chapel of the agi) survived with their Renaissance grace untouched. In the courtyard (where the aforementioned Donatello’s David once stood), a broad colonnade runs around the square perimeter of the building, supporting twelve soaring arches surmounted by a festooned frieze. The festoons link twelve medallions featuring the Medici arms alternated with reliefs of mythological subjects. But the jewel of the palace is its exquisite chapel, with its walls entirely frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli. The central theme is the adoration of the Magi. The subjects are said to be portraits of the Medici family, with Cosimo’s son Piero, along with Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos and Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg riding along the Tuscan countryside as the Three Wise Men.

A foodie’s reward

Tuscany - Florence. Robiglio pastry shop.

Robiglio’s espressos and pastries have been a Florence institution since1928 .

All this roaming around artistic treasures requires sustenance, another commodity in abundance in Florence. Just like generations of Fiorentini before me, I like to start my day with a stop at the classic marble counter of Robiglio for one of their superb espressos. Opened in 1928 in the Via dei Servi, the busy narrow street that links the Piazza della Santissima Annonziata to the rear of the Duomo, this old-fashion pasticceria offers a mind-boggling choice of freshly baked local pastries along with its ambrosial coffees.

After a day of shopping and sightseeing, the two seem to invariably go together in this artistic and fashion-conscious city, I often head for Rivoire on Piazza de la Signoria. Tourists and elegant local ladies alike have been congregating there since 1872 to enjoy a cup of sumptuous hot chocolate, a spectacular view of the Palazzo Vecchio and the jumble of ancient sculptures of the Loggia dei Lanzi across the piazza.

Tuscany - Florence. Loggia dei Lanzi,

With its sumptuous hot chocolate, Rivoire offers a spectacular view of the Loggia dei Lanzi.

For lunch, high on my list of favorite spots is La Pentola del Oro (Pot of gold) at the corner of Via di Mezzo and Via dei Pepi in the Santa Croce neighborhood. The area that has kept a genuine local feel as few tourists seem to venture too far east of the Piazza Santa Croce. This bustling neighborhood restaurant dishes out excellent traditional Tuscan fare to a lively crowd of mainly local patrons. Some of their recipes are said to hark back to medieval times. My favorite is the Lasagnole (ribbon-shaped noodles) with a walnut, ginger and chestnut honey sauce.

Tuscany - Florence's San'Ambrogio Market.

Trattoria Rocco’s simple home-cooked food is hugely popular with San’Ambrogio Market shoppers.

Not far from there, I never miss a chance to visit the San’Ambrogio Market. Open every day until early afternoon, the large covered market is filled with colorful food stalls. It is surrounded by a tented area where merchants offer everything from clothing to cookware, paper goods and sewing, knitting and jewelry-making necessities. And in the heart of the indoor market, the hugely popular Trattoria Rocco is usually surrounded by a line of hungry shoppers waiting expectantly for seats to free up at one of the communal tables. The simple home-cooked food is delicious, the prices are easy, the portions more than generous and the caramelized baked pears irresistible.

Next we’ll cross the Arno for a visit to the artisans’ neighborhood of the Oltrarno. Until then, Ciao!

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Florence, Italy.

Florence – Cradle of the Renaissance

Florence – Cradle of the Renaissance

Florence, the regional capital of Tuscany and widely acknowledged cradle of the Renaissance, owes its splendor and unique influence on the development of the western world in great part to the dominant ruling family of the period: the Medici. Starting in the mid-fourteenth century, their far-reaching patronage of the arts left an indelible mark on the city. The emulation it encouraged in other powerful families created an environment where artists could thrive. The evolution of this profound architectural and artistic movement that was to shape Europe over the next two centuries can be appreciated here like nowhere else.

The daily tidal wave

Understandably, the city attracts close to ten million visitors per year. Each morning, a tide of tourists from around the world floods the narrow cobbled streets of the historic center in the wake of efficient guides that shepherd them along an established itinerary of the most iconic landmarks before receding at nightfall toward their next destination. “They start at the Ponte Vecchio,” a Florentine friend once lamented, “on a one and a half kilometer march that takes them by the Uffizzi, the Piazza della Signoria, Palazzo Vecchio and Duomo to end at the Galleria dell’ Accademia for a look at Michelangelo’s David. Work in time for lunch and a gelato break, and if the group has sufficient stamina a quick detour by Santa Croce or the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata for glimpse at the Brunnelleschi arches and ecco, they have seen Florence.” And, she added with a hint of regret, “they have missed most of it.”

Yet we both agreed that although it barely scratches the surface of its treasures, this guidebook itinerary provides a good introduction to the historic and cultural past of the city that shaped the evolution of Europe.

A good place to start

Tuscani - Florence. .Vassari Corridor,

The Vassari Corridor runs above the Ponte Vecchio to the Uffizi Galleria

The Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence, spans the Arno at its narrowest point. While it is believed there has been a succession of bridges in that spot since Roman times, the current structure lined with shops as was customary then, dates back to the early fourteenth century. But for me its most intriguing feature sits above the row of garish jewelry storefronts that run the length of the bridge. It is the enclosed private corridor commissioned in 1565 by Cosimo I de’ Medici to connect the Palazzo Vecchio, then seat of the ruling body of the Republic of Florence, with the Palazzo Pitti, his own residence immediately across the river. Designed by Giorgio Vasari, it is a stark reminder of a time when assassination was considered an expedient way to solve political differences.

Tuscany - Florence, Palazzo Vecchio shields.

The Terrace of the Uffizi offers a close up view of the Palazzo Vecchio.

Tuscany - Florence. The Duomo.

La Basillica Santa Maria Del Fiore is best known as the Duomo for its striking Brunelleschi dome.

The Uffizi Gallery Built in the mid-sixteenth century for Cosimo I de’ Medici to house magistrates, administrative offices and state archives, the Palazzo degli Uffizi (Italian for offices) is located between the Arno and the Palazzo Vecchio. The third floor holds a mind-boggling collection illustrating the evolution of Italian art, displayed chronologically from Gothic to late Renaissance and beyond, in rooms opening onto a large gallery that runs the length of the building. The gallery is lined with antique marble statues. It also offers a superb view of the Ponte Vecchio and the Arno. The rooftop terrace coffee shop is worth a visit for its close up view of the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and the dome of the Duomo.

The interior courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio.

The interior courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio.

Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio. The political center of the city since medieval times, the Palazzo Vecchio opens onto the Piazza della Signoria (or Government Square), which remains to this day one of Florence’s most famous and busiest squares. The visit of the Palazzo Vecchio includes the elegant private apartments as well as the internal courtyard and the grand public rooms with their frescoed walls and elaborate coffered ceilings to give an interesting insight into the life of the aristocracy of the time.

La Galleria dell’ Academia is part of the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence. A number of Michelangelo’s masterpieces are displayed here, including his four unfinished Prisoners, intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II, and his world-famous 5.20 meter (17 foot) white Carrara marble statue of David. Originally set on the Piazza della Signoria, the David was moved in the nineteenth century to a specially constructed gallery in the Accademia. A copy now stands in its place outside the Palazzo Vecchio. The remainder of the art collection, mainly works from the Gothic and early Renaissance periods, was originally assembled to educate students.

Tuscany - Florence dome and bell tower,

The Duomo and the Giotto’s Bell tower are faced with elaborate marble panels.

Duomo The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Duomo is one of the largest churches in Italy and one of the major tourist attractions in Tuscany. The exterior is faced with white marble panels outlined in green and pink. Started in 1296 in the Gothic style, it was completed in 1436 with addition of the Brunelleschi dome, which remains today the largest brick and mortar dome in the world. The façade was left bare until the nineteenth century when it acquired its elaborate Gothic Revival marble design.

The Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents or Foundling Hospital) on the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, just a short walk behind the Duomo, was Fillipo Brunelleschi’s first architectural commission. Its gracious loggia of nine semi-circular arches facing the piazza set the stage for the development of an architectural style based on classical antiquity.


Tuscany - Florence. Santa Croche Basillica,

The Santa Croce Basillica has a nineteenth century Gothic Revival marble facade.

La Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross) is the principal Franciscan church in Florence. Located on the Piazza di Santa Croce, about half a mile south-east of the Duomo, it houses the burial chapels of some of the most illustrious figures of the Renaissance, including Galileo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli, as well as nineteenth century musical great Gioachino Rossini. It acquired its Gothic Revival marble façade in the nineteenth century.


Tuscany - Florence. Giotto Coronation of the Virgin.

The incandescent Giotto polychrome Coronation of the Virgin in the Santa Croche Basillica.

While I enjoyed these “guidebook musts” on my first visit to Florence, I also developed a yearning to return. Florence has become a frequent destination for me in recent years. Along the way, I have discovered my own personal favorites among the less frequented architectural and artistic gems as well neighborhood markets and local eateries. I’ll share these next. Stay tuned for the sequel.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Florence, Italy