Montepulciano, known as one of the most attractive hilltowns in Tuscany, is located in the Val di Chiana and within easy reach of the Val d’Orcia.
Montepulciano is built on a limestone ridge of Monte Poliziano in the province of Siena in southern Tuscany with an elevation of 605 m.
The nearest bigger town is Pienza, located at about 13 km distance, Siena is 70 km away and Florence even 134 km. Continue reading Montepulciano in Tuscany→
Volterra is still almost untouched by the stress of contemporary life
Volterra, a jewel of Etruscan, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance art, dominates the whole valley of the river Cecina from its birth to the Thyrrenian sea, from a hill 550 m above sea level.
History has left its marks in Volterra from the Etruscan period to the 19th century with artistic and monumental traces of great importance.
Today Volterra is still almost untouched by the stress of contemporary life and visitors to the city get the immediate impression of stepping into the past as they walk through the narrow Mediaeval streets; here they can find craftsmen working at their ancient crafts which have been passed down directly from Etruscan times.
The tourist can admire them simply strolling on the streets of the historic centre or visiting the three city museums: the Etruscan Museum, the City Art Gallery and the Museum of Sacred Art. Besides the cultural aspect Volterra’s charm is due to the uncontaminated landscape, a way of life still moulded on a human scale, and an artistic handicraft unique in the world: the manufacture of Alabaster.
Volterra is a town to live intensely, to discover little by little with its atmosphere, its contrasts, the pulse of a civilisation and a culture that makes it unique and unrepeatable.
How to reach Volterra
From Pisa, direction east Florence, take the SGC. Exit Pontedera and follow direction for Volterra which is 40 Km far
Pisa first belonged to the Longobard kingdom and later to the Carolingian empire. Already an important naval base in the Roman era, from the 11th century Pisa intensified its Mediterranean trade, with numerous victories of its fleet over Muslim cities and ships.
The Mediaeval Era coincided with the height of its economic, political and artistic growth, to which the urban planning of the old centre bears witness by its many religious and civic buildings, its squares, its typical narrow alleys that run perpendicular to the River Arno, the great trade route that for centuries represented the economic heart of the city.
The city walls, whose construction began around 1154-1155, were completed in the mid-14th century and today represent an important part of the architectural heritage.
In 1406 Pisa was conquered for the first time by Florence, thus beginning a long period of profound crisis that ended only with the political ascent of the Medici nobles. From the second half of the 16th century there was a recovery characterized by the development of the University, founded on the orders of Lorenzo II Magnifico at the end of the 15th century.
Cosimo I de’ Medici and his successors renovated the aspect of the squares and churches, rendering Pisa the second capital of Tuscany, until its annexation to the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Continue reading Pisa in Tuscany→
San Gimignano was founded as a small village in the 3rd century BC by the Etruscans. Historical records begin in the 10th century, when it adopted the name of the bishop Saint Geminianus, who had defended it from Attila’s Huns.
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance era, it was a stopping point for Catholic pilgrims on their way to Rome and the Vatican, as it sits on the medieval Via Francigena. The city’s development also was improved by the trade of agricultural products from the fertile neighbouring hills.
In 1199, during the period of its highest splendour, the city made itself independent from the bishops of Volterra. Divisions between Guelphs and Ghibellines troubled the inner life of the commune, which nonetheless, still managed to embellish itself with artworks and architectures.
Saint Fina, known also as Seraphina and Serafina, was a thirteenth century Italian saint born in San Gimignano during 1238. Since Saint Fina died on March 12, 1253 her feast day became March 12. Her major shrine is in San Gimignano and the house said to be her home still stands in the town.
On May 8, 1300, San Gimignano hosted Dante Alighieri in his role of ambassador of the Guelph League in Tuscany.
The city flourished until 1348, when the plague that affected all of Europe, compelled it to submit to Florence. San Gimignano became a secondary centre until the nineteenth century, when its status as a touristic and artistic resort began to be recognized.
While in other cities, such as Bologna or Florence, most or all of their towers have been brought down due to wars, catastrophes, or urban renewal, San Gimignano has managed to conserve fourteen towers of varying height which have become its international symbol. Continue reading San Gimignano in Tuscany→
Lucca, one of the most famous Italian cities, located on the left-hand bank of the river Serchio. Rarely has a city identified itself so closely with its ring of walls as Lucca has done, especially as its monumental defences were never taken by siege!
Lucca was founded by the Etruscans (there are traces of a pre-existing Ligurian settlement) and became a Roman colony in 180 BC. The rectangular grid of its historical center preserves the Roman street plan, and the Piazza San Michele occupies the site of the ancient forum. Traces of the amphitheatre can still be seen in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. Lucca was the site of a conference in 56 BC which reaffirmed the superiority of the Roman First Triumvirate. Continue reading Lucca in Tuscany→
Siena was founded by the Etruscans and was a Roman colony at the time of the Emperor Augustus. In Mediaeval times with the Lombards and the Franks, the city began to exercise a certain degree of power.
Proud and wealthy during the Middle Ages it was an independant state and quite often at war with it’s neighbour Florence. The period when Siena was at her zenith was between the 12th and 16th centuries.
The “Council of Nine” ruled from 1287 to 1355. This was one of the most peaceful periods in the city’s history and also saw a healthy economic and cultural revival. Thanks to this newfound wealth and tranquillity, many new buildings like the Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Churches of St Francis and St Domenic were built along with the Palazzo Pubblico. Some of the works of this period were by such illustrious artists as Simone Martini, the Lorenzettis, Duccio and many others.
Sienese people today are still fiercely proud of their city and their neighborhood (contrada). The Palio, the famous horse race, is all about neighborhood pride and rivalry. It also constitutes the unbroken continuation of a Medieval tradition associated with religion, pageantry, trash-talking, bragging, and occasional violence.
The Sienese take it very seriously and it is in no way just for tourists. In fact, you are likely to be less welcomed during the Palio than at any other time, and there isn’t the slightest doubt that Siena would run the Palio with great enthusiasm regardless of whether any visitors ever showed up. The chance of no tourists or other visitors turning up is not likely to happen. It’s is probably one of the bussiest periods of the year. The whole main square is packed with people.
July 2 and August 16 are the dates when the Palio di Siena is held.
Art in Siena
Over the centuries, Siena has had a rich tradition of arts and artists. The list of artists from the Sienese School include Duccio, and his student Simone Martini, Pietro Lorenzetti and Martino di Bartolomeo. A number of well known works of Renaissance and High Renaissance art still remain in Siena galleries or decorate churches in Siena.
The Church of San Domenico in Siena contains art by Guido da Siena, dating to mid 13th century.
Duccio’s Maesta which was commissioned by the City of Siena in 1308 was instrumental in leading Italian painting away from the hieratic representations of Byzantine art and directing it towards more direct presentations of reality.
And his Madonna and Child with saints polyptych, painted between 1311 and 1318 remains at the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena.
The Pinacoteca also includes several works by Domenico Beccafumi, as well as art by Lorenzo Lotto, Domenico di Bartolo and Fra Bartolomeo.
Siena’s Ampugnano airport is located 9 km from the city. At the moment, connections from Olbia, Vienna and Munich are available. For additional information tel 0577-392226. A shuttle service connection is currently available between the airport and Piazza Gramsci TRA-IN (tel. 0577-204224).
Most travellers arriving by plane will land at airports in Florence or Pisa.
From the north, take the Chiantigiana from Florence (SS 222 – 72 km) that elegantly crosses the hills of Chianti or the highway (SS 2 superstrada Siena/Firenze – 68 km). From the south, Siena can be reached by taking the Autoway from Rome (A1 Roma-Firenze, exit Valdichiana), turning right on state highway #326 (Bettolle-Siena – 240 km). Free parking can be found near Fortezza Medicea, northwest of the city stadium – and around it.
From the north, some trains go directly from Florence to Siena, and otherwise it is possible to take any train that stops in Empoli and find train connections from Empoli to Siena every 30-60 minutes. From the south, direct connections to Siena depart from Chiusi or from Grosseto. The train station in Siena is located approximately 2 km from Siena’s historical centre, a five minute bus ride – buses leave regularly from Piazza del Sale. Buses numbers 3, 8, 10, 17, 77 leave from the station to Piazza del Sale and bus #17 departs from Piazza del Sale for the train station. If you don’t mind walking uphill, you can also walk to the centre in about 20-30 minutes: Exit the train station, turn left, walk past the bus park and then uphill, bearing right at the traffic circle, staying on the road called Viale Giuseppe Manzini. When this road sharply bends to the right, follow the curve around where the road becomes Via Garibaldi, which will take you into the city.
Livorno: Pittoresque Tuscan gateway to the Mediterranean
The history of Livorno (or Leghorn) is revealed through its districts characterised by the Medicean canals, which are still navigable and all lead you to it’s historic centre. Once defined as an ‘ideal’ town during the Italian Renaissance, nowadays the Venice district is the district that preserved most of its original town planning and architectural features such as the bridges, the narrow lanes, the noblemen‘s houses and a dense network of canals which once linked the port to its storehouses.
Allthough many buildings and historic places have been bombed in WW2, the port with it’s fortresses and towers is largely spared.
The “Piazza della Repubblica” in Livorno contains two important monuments of Italian politicians. Besides being the main square it is also a bridge: in fact, under the bridge there is an old, big canal. Piazza della Repubblica is the largest bridge of Europe. (see picture above) Continue reading Livorno in Tuscany→
Build along the Arno River in a natural basin surrounded by stunning hills. Florence, or Firenze as it’s called in Italian, is THE city of the Renaissance, of Italian culture and art. The most famous places in Florence… The Uffizi Gallery, Palazzo Vecchio, Ponte Vecchio, Piazzale Michelangelo, but also many other gems, attract millions of visitors from all over the world every year.
As mentioned earlier, Florence truly is the Renaissance capital of the world, with his famous sons like Leonardo, Dante, Machiavelli and Michelangelo. The world-famous Duomo with Brunelleschi’s cupola and the marble clad baptistery are simply breath-taking, but not all the monuments are like this. A lot of streets of the historic town centre are often narrow and dark and still breathing that medieval feeling. The palaces are often robust and intimidating, but then you find yourself wander onto one the amazing squares in Florence: wonderful Mediterranean places where you will like spending hours sitting down, having a few beers and just watching people passing by.
To get a great overview of Florence, you have plenty of choices: climb the “Cupolone” of the Duomo or the Giotto Tower, head for Piazzale Michelangelo in Oltrarno (South or literally “other” side of river Arno) or go a bit further, up to the church of San Miniato.
Recommended things to do in Florence
If you really want to get a taste of the town, it’s best to travel on foot with a city map in your hand and just take your time. For a more in depth look at the city and background information on the historic wealth of Florence we can only advise you to book a guided tour or even take an entry class in art history for 3 days including visits to the Uffizi, important churches and some Medici-villas. The best place to do this is at arthistoryflorence.com. A professor in art history will tell you all about the famous Medici-family, important paintings and buildings in Florence. Also highly recommended is the guided tour of the Medici gardens
Florence has it’s own airport, Amerigo Vespucci International Airport (IATA: FLR). The airport is pretty close to the town centre so you won’t loose much time there. With a bus or taxi it takes about 15 minutes to get to the centre of Florence.
Modern high-speed Eurostar Italia trains from Milano to Rome or Napels stop right in the town centre at Firenze Santa Maria Novella Station. There are also overnight trains from Paris and some German cities like Munich. These will get you in Florence in the morning and you’ll have the whole day ahead of you exploring this wonderfull city.
Driving your car to Florence is not really recommended. It can be quite expensive to park your car for the whole day and on some days it’s not even allowed to drive in to the city centre due to possible smog in the summer. Best place to park is under the central train station Santa Maria Novella or at the other side of the Arno in Oltrarno.
Arezzo, an important Etruscan town. and known to the Romans as Arretium
This town stands 296 m. above sea level on a hilly slope near a wide plateau on which open the Valdarno, Casentino and Valdichiana valleys. Of Etruscan origin, it was an important Roman Municipium in the Imperial period; after the fall of the Empire it came first under Goth then Byzantine, Lombard and Frankish rule. Between the 9th and 11th centuries it was governed by the Bishop-Counts before becoming a free municipality (late 11th century). This was the town’s period of greatest splendour.
Old rivalry with Siena and Florence, marked also by defeat at Campaldino at the hand of the Florentines (1289), gradually sapped its power until, in 1384, it was definitively joined to the Florentine State, sharing its fortunes until unification with Italy.
The principal monuments are to be found in the old town centre, which has a Renaissance appearance. Just like in the city of Cortona, most houses on the main square are decorated with shields diplaying the coat of arms of famous families of Arezzo.
The fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross, the masterpiece which the Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca painted for the Franciscan church between around 1452 and 1466 can be found at The Bacci chapel in the Basilica of San Francesco.
Arezzo is an important market for agricultural and animal products from the fertile surrounding districts, and trades in textiles and clothing, shoes, olive oil, antiques, and gold and jewellery crafts.
Arezzo’s historic old town is small enough to explore on foot. Arezzo is atop a steep incline, and you will feel as though you are walking uphill pretty much everywhere.
Parking is possible for the whole day for about 10 euros
From a high Tuscan hill, fifty miles from Florence between Arezzo and Perugia, rises the equally ancient and nobile city of Cortona. The history of Cortono, the city that has became famous among millions due to “La Vita e Bella” (Life is Beautiful) by Roberto Benigni, dates back to Etruscan times.
Once you’re inside this beautiful town you get some magnificent panoramas to every point of the compass including views of Lake Trasimeno.
The best way to discover Cortona is on foot as the town is pretty small and parking or driving is close to impossible. The narrow lanes and alleys winding up and down the slopes within Cortona can be confusing; it’s a good idea to get a street plan before you start exploring this inviting town.The town is small enough to make it your destination for a day-trip including a nice glass of wine and fine meal in one of the small bars or restaurants on the charming squares.
Outside the city walls parking areas, some even free, are available.
Under the Tuscan Sun
One of the best-selling books about Italy in recent years, Under the Tuscan Sun is set in Cortona, and is a new tourist attraction for the town. There is also a film with the same title that is loosely based on the book by Frances Mayes.
To give you an idea about the book, we’ll provide you with the details as printed on the jacket of the book:
UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN is one woman’s enchanting account of her love affair with Italy and the home that changes her life.
Frances Mayes – widely published poet, gourmet cook and travel writer – opens the door on a wondrous new world when she buys and restores an abandoned villa in the spectacular Tuscan countryside. She finds faded frescoes beneath the whitewash in the dining room, a vineyard under wildly overgrown brambles – and even a wayward scorpion under her pillow. And from her traditional kitchen and simple garden she creates dozens of delicious seasonal recipes, all included n this book.
In the vibrant local markets and neighboring hill towns, the author explores the nuances of the Italian landscape, history and cuisine. Each adventure yields delightful surprises – the perfect panettone, an unforgettable wine, or painted Etruscan tombs.