Just a short bus ride from Florence up into the hills brings you to the town of Fiesole. The quick side trip lays fabulous views of Florence at your feet. The city is laid out before you as a marvel of the Renaissance in Tuscany that it is.
The first thing you see upon arrival is the Medieval Cathedral.
We spent the day exploring the ruins of the Teatro Romano an archaeological site that includes a temple, the Roman theatre and the Baths.
The Roman Theatre was built somewhere between the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D. The half-round ampitheatre allowed easy seat access and was used until the 3rd century A.D.
The thermal baths date back to the 1st century B.C. and included a Frigidarium to cool off after your hot bath, a Tepidarium which was the lukewarm space and a Calidarium the hottest water which was warmed by two ovens.
The Etruscan walls partially enclose the city of Fiesole and were a defense against enemies until 1125 when Florence conquered Fiesole.
After exploring the town on an insanely hot afternoon we walked partially down the hill to grab lunch at the Belmond San Michele. This is a very special property in the Belmond chain and again overlooks the city of Florence. It was well worth making a reservation to join them for lunch. The property is stunning and I cannot wait to go back so I can experience the property properly as a guest!
Remember when travelling get off the beaten track! If you can’t afford to stay somewhere plan to go there for lunch. No restaurant that I have ever visited denies non-guests lunch. Just make a reservation!
Arezzo sits high on a hill on the western side of the Apennines toward the border with Umbria and is Tuscany’s third largest city and one of the wealthiest located in southeastern Tuscany and feels like a more modern city than some we have seen elsewhere in Tuscany founded in the 9th century and really caters to the locals. It has high end shopping and the economy here has had a hand in gold and jewelry design worldwide since Etruscan times when it was a great town and a strategic Roman city. I have a sister in the jewelry business and she travels frequently to Arezzo. I think I need to tag along!!
There were Renaissance town palaces, Romanesque and Gothic churches and medieval squares in the upper town area of the Duomo. We started at the top of the city and worked our way back down to our car at the bottom. If you so chose you can do it in reverse! The upper part of the town is very medieval and is the site of the Cathedral and the Medici Fortress.
The Arezzo Cathedral with its splendid stained glass windows sits high on a hill in the Piazza Duomo San Donato with views over the countryside on the site of an earlier Benedictine chapel begun in 1277. The bell tower of the Duomo has been visible from all over since 1337. This church dates from the 14th century and sits in a square with medieval towers and a white marble statue. Even the side entrance is very elaborate and is from the original medieval building. The door in the center is a 14th century portal in the Florentine style with 2 columns taken from an ancient temple.
Santa Maria della Pieve found in the Piazza Grande was constructed over the remains of a Roman temple. The facade is from the 13th century and has a Romanesque exterior with granite Roman columns and a Gothic interior. It has a massive bell tower built in the 12th century with a nave and two aisles and a Hundred Holes with 40 double arched mullioned windows. It sits almost 60 meters high! Both the front and back facades contain a mix of columns and is one of the best known examples of Romanesque architecture in Tuscany.
The Piazza Grande, a medieval square has an irregular shape and assorted buildings constructed over time and is reminiscent of Siena’s Il Campo. Originally, it was the city’s marketplace. The main street is Corso Italia where we found some great shopping, restaurants and it takes you up to the top of the town and backdown.
About halfway down the street is the Loggia designed by Vasari with high arches and antique doors that now has several cafes and restaurants and is a fun spot to people watch over the sloping Piazza Grande. The slope was obviously designed to funnel rain water out of the square. It is said that this Piazza was built on top of the Roman forum.
The Basilica of San Francesco is a late medieval church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. This is another church built by the Franciscans. The design is very simple and the decoration of the facade was never completed.
A walk up through the gardens surrounding the Medici Fortress reveals striking views of the city and countryside and also of the cemetery which we found fascinating. The fortress was in the form of a 5 point star built by Cosimo I . It was one of three fortresses built to defend the city and the most important because this is where the city’s ancient center was situated.
Walking along the exterior wall thru the French styled park affords some great panoramic views towards the Casentino Valley, surrounding vineyards and olive groves. (see Featured photo at beginning)
My advice: When in all these lovely towns in Tuscany try to plan some time to just relax and enjoy the place, the people and the food. Do not be in a hurry to cross each site off your bucket list or you’ll miss the very essence of Tuscany! Did you miss Lucca or Pienza? You can search the blogs by category so if you are looking for something in particular just search for it there.
Pienza is a small town located in the Val D’Orcia, (2004 UNESCO World Cultural Landscapes) in the southeastern area of Tuscany. Situated between Montepulciano and Montalcino and South of Siena it is an easy day trip if your home base is anywhere in Tuscany. In 1996, UNESCO made the center of Pienza a World Heritage Site. I recently learned exactly what this means: “considering that the site is of outstanding universal value as it represents the first application of the Renaissance Humanist concept of urban design, and as such occupies a seminal position in the development of the planned “ideal town” which was to play a significant role in subsequent urban development in Italy and beyond” (source: VisitTuscany.com)
Pienza is one of the best examples of a Renaissance planned town that has survived relatively intact from ancient times. The streets have such romantic names like Via dell’ Amore (love street)!
It was the home of Pope Pius II who was born here. Pienza means “the city of Pius”. Construction began approximately in 1459 on top of the ancient hamlet that existed and lasted about 4 years. Check out the old well in the Piazza Pio II main square named for Bernardo Rossellino, the architect who had previously worked with Alberti on the facade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
This town was the first to be constructed using urban planning techniques and was planned around the Piazza and all the town’s main monuments are located on this square; the cathedral and three other palaces: Palazzo Piccolomini, Palazzo Borgia, and Palazzo Comunale.
The Roman Catholic Cathedral [Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta) built on the remains of a Romanesque church stands in the main square and includes many works of art including five altar paintings from the Sienese school. The facade is typical of Renaissance architecture. Supposedly the Pope wanted the cathedral to tower over the other buildings as a sign of faith. The Duomo is one of the first Renaissance cathedrals with stained glass windows and a classical interior.
Palazzo Borgia is another important building on the square and now home to a museum.
Palazzo Comunale is the town hall and has a loggia and a facade decorated with a scratched plaster technique and a brick bell tower.
This town is so beautiful as is the countryside surrounding it dotted with cypress trees, hayfields and winding roads.
Pienza is the capital of pecorino cheese “sheep’s milk cheese” and has a distinctive sharp and salty taste acquired from a particularly aromatic milk courtesy of the sheep pastures in the Val D’Orcia region. You can be sure we brought some home!
Be sure to walk around the views are amazing!
Historical Sources: Wikipedia, Fodor’s and VisitTuscany.com
San Gimignano sits high on a hilltop about 24 miles northwest of Siena surrounded by soaring medieval towers. The walls are tall, the streets narrow and very typical of Tuscan hill towns. It was first settled in the 3rd century BC by the Etruscans and the buildings and city plan were based around 2 major streets with 4 main piazzas. Today 14 towers still remain but there were more than 70 at one time. These towers were constructed partly for defensive purposes and like in other towns we have visited were used for pouring boiling oil on attacking enemies. Ouch! They were very convenient, of course, for spotting marauders and were virtually impregnable. However, ego most likely played a role to own the highest tower and were a symbol of a family’s economic power in the city. The towers are visible from great distances, thus the name “Manhattan of Tuscany”.
The town is a very well preserved medieval town in close proximity to both Florence and Siena. Like Siena it was also devastated by the Black death of 1348 and then fell under Florentine control. San Gimignano is a walled city and very touristry so expect lots of crowds. The center is closed to traffic so you must park in an outer lot and walk in. Again a steep hilly town so wear comfy shoes!
The town’s main 12th century church is not an official Duomo because there is no bishop there. The facade is Romanesque and is filled with important frescoes covering the interior by Bartolo di Fredi and Ghirlandaio as well as two famous wooden statues by Jacopo Della Quercia.
Don’t miss the gelato at Gelateria Dondoli it is totally worth the wait!! They say the best in the world! You decide- we agreed! Enjoy your gelato in the piazza in the heart of San Gimignano. There were several bands there on the evening we visited entertaining the crowds!
The evening is lovely when it gets a little quieter and be sure to enjoy the local white wine called Venaccia di San Gimignano produced here since 1276 and was mentioned by Dante in his ‘Divine Comedy’. It has a distinctive dry and sharp taste. Vernaccia di San Gimignano, normal and riserva is made from 85%-100% of Vernaccia di San Gimignano grapes and traditionally produced in the territory surrounding San Gimignano in the countryside of Siena in the Val D’Orcia.
For a lovely view walk up to Rocca di Montestaffoli which was a 14th century fortress and is now a public garden with amazing views at the highest point of San Gimignano. From here you can see the towers and the entire countryside. In summer there is an outdoor cinema!
Make sure to also follow the signs that say “Vista Panoramica” that loops around the city for spectacular views all around the Tuscan landscape.
If you missed any of the other blogs on Tuscany here is a link to get you started: Siena
Siena is often described as Italy’s best preserved medieval city! The streets are steep and narrow with the fan-shaped sloping Piazza del Campo (known as il Campo) and the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s subtly curved town hall since the 1300’s at the historic center. The Palazzo Pubblico with its Torre del Mangia, the second tallest medieval 330′ tower in Italy soars over the Piazza del Campo in one of the finest public squares in all of Italy constructed near the end of the 12th century. You can walk to the top of the tower with commanding views of the city. The city itself is very modern with many famous designer shops.
We had a wonderful guide here in Siena (Donatella- named after the famous Donatella) who made the city come alive for us! I cannot stress enough how valuable it is to hire a local guide. You miss so much if you are just trying to follow along in a guide book although they do provide some great information. If you need help planning your trip send me a note and I can connect you with a wonderful agent who can arrange a trip tailored just for you. Be prepared to walk and in comfy shoes and in June it was very hot so we went thru almost more water than wine, ALMOST!!!
Of course, if you have ever heard of Siena you have heard of The Palio. A famous crazy horse race that takes place twice a year on July 2 and August 16th representing the Medieval Contrade first run in 1310. All over the city you see the Medieval Contrade banners of the 17 neighborhoods which have divided the city since the Middle Ages. When we were there a few days before the Palio they were in evidence everywhere. Loyalty and rivalry runs deep in these neighborhoods. This is a crazy, insane event and the festivities kick off 3 days beforehand. The il Campo is transformed into a horse track, if that is what you can call it. The race is over in just a matter of minutes when the wild celebrations commence. There are 3 laps and it takes about 90 seconds! We spent time in the Contrade neighborhood of the Chicciola (the snail).
Catherine was the Patron Saint of Europe and her Cathedral was in Siena. The Duomo’s Gothic baptistry was built in the 14th century and is certainly one of the finest Gothic churches in Italy. The stripes you see on the Cathedral were influenced by Constantinoble and one of the most detailed facades anywhere. There are magnificent Renaissance frescoes here in excellent condition.
The inlaid marble floors in the cathedral are covered up most of the year for protection. The floor is full of stories created with yellow marble which is the most precious and was mined in the surrounding area. The painter created the design on a piece of paper first then with a hand chisel the lines were filled in with black marble dust. The stories were 15th century Pagan philosophies and had never been seen before in a Christian church. Fascinating stories surround the marble carvings on the floor depending on your point of view.
After the Palio all come there and the archbishop waits for them commencing 2 months of celebration but first they give thanks to the Virgin Mary. There will be restoration going on here for another year. It is very difficult due to the different kinds of marble and dirt and figuring out how to clean it.
The Duomo’s interior has black and white striping throughout with a coffered and gilded dome. There are panels of stained glass and is the oldest example of stained glass in Italy finished in 1288.
Two popes paid a fortune and created a crypt that was never used but the frescoes in there are in remarkable condition having never been restored and have maintained the vibrance of the colors since there was no dirt from people breathing and candles. Twenty two years ago the room was opened and people can only go in and out.
Before starting the David, Michelangelo had begun 4 other sculptures that he started 4 months before but never finished since he left and went to Florence. It seems the alcoves were not deep enough to accommodate his style.
Siena was an essential stop on a prominent medieval road that went between – Scotland and Rome used by thousands of Christians on their pilgrimage from Europe to Rome. Thus Siena grew to great wealth and power, developing a banking system, with one of Europe’s oldest working banks in the world – Monte dei Paschi, still in business. Siena dominated the wool trade, and became an art, textile and trade center establishing itself as a rival to Florence until it succumbed to Florentine rule in the mid-16th century.
In the architecture they were influenced by the French which we see in the pointed Gothic Arches. Many individual homes were created as forts where oil and arrows protected families were released from the top of the crenelation on the houses. We saw this also in Florence.
San Martino is a Roman Catholic church located in central Siena. The Baroque facade hints at the beauty within. Take time to stop in and visit if the doors are open. You will not be disappointed. A church stood on this site by the 12th century but was rebuilt in the 16th century. The Bell tower was completed in 1738. Adjacent to the church is the Renaissance style Logge del Papa erected in 1462.
Chiesa di San Pellegrino alla Sapienza – There was originally a hospital founded in the middle of the 13th century on this site. The 18th century Gothic style facade is home to a Roman Catholic church.
Since Siena is one of the best preserved medieval cities it has a network of medieval tunnels that feed water to Siena’s fountains and until recently provided the only supply of running water. These tunnels are called ‘Bottini’.
Here in southern Tuscany the windows are often closed as the sun is so strong and ruins the furniture. A funny antidote we heard was when they hang laundry out is how you know what is happening in a family, like the birth of a baby. Too funny!
This area of Tuscany is perfect for growing and is planted with vines and olives.
Many famous painters and sculptors worked in Siena including Donatello, Bernini, Michelangelo and Pisano who was the creator of some of the greatest sculptures in the world in the 13th century. They were the forerunners of the Renaissance. They started to show expression in their works. They were all in Siena but the masterpieces were in Florence and Rome.
Sadly in 1348 the city was decimated by the Black Death and then fell into decline thereafter.
In 1995 its center was declared part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Are you loving stories about Italy? Did you miss Venice, Florence or Chianti. Click on the links! Next up we continue in the Val D’Orcia region. Stay tuned and be sure you are following the blog so you don’t miss any upcoming stories!