UMBRIA: Towns in the Upper Tiber Valley
Citta di Castello
Only 15 minutes away up the motorway to the north of Casa Bacciana, Citta di Castello is a very attractive and interesting town situated in the flood plain of the Tiber Valley, where the ancient walls around the historic centre are still largely intact. There has seen considerable expansion northwards toward San Giustino, with industrial parks developing along the river, railroad and main highway: the area has a thriving economy and produces farm machinery, textiles, ceramics and furnishings, all of which contributes to the sense of prosperity and vibrancy in the town. There is a busy market on Thursday and Saturday mornings, and there are plenty of varied shops and a range of good bars and restaurants (the delightful Bar Magi and Trattoria Lea are highly recommended, but there are plenty to choose from). Citta di Castello’s graceful Duomo displays a mixture of styles in its architecture, ranging from the 12th to the 18th centuries, and houses some notable art and religious artefacts, including a Madonna by Pinturicchio. The medieval Palazzo Comunale and an impressively tall tower – the Torre Communale – also grace the very appealing historic centre. The town’s Pinacoteca Comunale (Art Gallery) is housed in the beautifully frescoed Palazzo Burri (its external decoration by Georgio Vasari), with mainly Renaissance works. The important abstract painter and sculptor Alberto Burri (1915-1995) who was born in Città di Castello, has been commemorated by the city with the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, housing a large museum of his works in the 15th century Palazzo Albizzini in Via Albizzini in the town centre, and a newer museum in a former tobacco factory, Ex Seccatoi del Tabacco which is the permanent venue of 128 of his works. Check the website for details and opening times: http://www.fondazioneburri.org/
Citta di Castello hosts the Festival della Nazioni – an annual, international festival of chamber music and master-classes held in late August/early September
While not the most beautiful of our local towns, Umbertide (15 minutes to the south of Casa Bacciana) is our local shopping town, since it boasts two large supermarkets (a Co-op and a Eurospin) and has an excellent market on Wednesdays, as well as a farmers’ and artisans’ market on Saturday mornings. Its workaday appearance and atmosphere might hide its interesting history, as its strategic importance dates from the Middle Ages when it was the site of one of only a few bridges over the River Tiber. “Umbertide” cannot be found on ancient maps, as it was once called Fratta. It was renamed in honour of Umberto I (King of Italy 1878-1900). The town has an appealing historic centre with an ancient Rocca (once a prison) and beautifully restored circular pink church, the Collegiata. On the town’s website you will be able to take a 360 degree look at the historic centre: http//www.comune.umbertide.it/
From the historic centre, if you cross the railway track you will stumble across a hidden treasure – a beautiful, quiet Renaissance piazza with the cloistered Church of Santa Croce, now a museum housing a magnificent altarpiece by Luca Signorelli. Beyond the railway, you will come to modern Umbertide. The town was bombed badly during World War 2 and much of it has been rebuilt, resulting in a modern area complete with blocks of flats, hospital and schools, sports facilities, and an industrial zone. Umbertide is a real, thriving town not a tourist resort and, as so often in Umbria, the old and the new blend to give it a completely unique character.
You can take a train from Umbertide that will take you up and down the Tiber Valley: north to Sansepolcro and south to Perugia, where you can connect you with routes all over Italy.
Similar in many ways to Montone, Anghiari is a small medieval town enclosed in massive 13th century walls, situated right on the border between Tuscany and Umbria (but actually in Tuscany) in the Tuscan Valtiberina valley. The town occupies a strategic position on a hill overlooking a flat valley, the setting for the famous Battle of Anghiari in 1440, when Florentine troops won a battle against the Milanese army. The legendary fresco depicting the “Battle of Anghiari” by Leonardo da Vinci for Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio (unfortunately lost shortly after it was painted) was commissioned to celebrate this victory. But Anghiari deserves to be visited for far more than being the scene of a famous battle long ago. The panoramic view from its walls is spectacular, and the long straight road leading to it (Via della Battaglia and then Via dei Tarlati) runs across the flat valley floor of the Upper Tiber and up a steep hill to the town. The approach offers a view of Anghiari which is just as splendid as the view from it, as the city walls rise up atop a high spur overlooking the valley. Within the walls, the narrow, winding streets feel drenched in history and, in the spring and summer, with the colours and perfumes of flowers from the many small gardens, balconies and courtyards. Like Montone, Anghiari is considered one of the “most beautiful villages in Italy” and has also been awarded the Orange Flag by the Touring Club of Italy. A visit to Anghiari combines well with a trip to Citta di Castello, Monterchi, Arezzo or Sansepolcro, and shouldn’t be missed!
Monterchi is another lovely hill village or “comune”. It really isn’t possible to grow tired of these! Originating in Etruscan-Roman times and at that time a sacred place for the cult of Hercules, like Anghiari, the village is located on the border between Tuscany and Umbria, overlooking the Cerfone Valley and surrounded by olive groves, and fields of sunflowers, tobacco and wheat. Its name derives from “Mons Erculis” – the hill of Hercules. The most famous cultural attraction of Monterchi is the fresco of The Madonna del Parto (Pregnant Madonna) by Piero della Francesca, dating from around 1460, which he dedicated to his mother who was born in Monterchi. The fresco is an iconic depiction of a heavily-pregnant Madonna, one of very few of such images, which were often associated with the devotions of pregnant women praying for a safe delivery. One of the most important works of art from the Renaissance period, the fresco formerly covered a wall in an old country church – the Chapel of Santa Maria di Momentana and was rediscovered (in very bad condition) in the last century; since its restoration in 1992–93 it has been displayed in a purpose-built museum, the Museo del Madonna del Parto. Despite this somewhat unromantic modern setting, the fresco remains an arresting piece of art which should not be missed by lovers of Italian art and culture. The picturesque streets of Monterchi centre also make this a worthwhile visit, with beautiful buildings such as the castellated 16th century Palazzo Massi. Among the various and numerous festivals taking place in Monterchi, the traditional Polenta Festival held annually in September is perhaps the most notable.
About 30 minutes from Casa Bacciana, just across the border into Tuscany, Sansepolcro is a classic Tuscan town with smart shops and good restaurants behind well-preserved Renaissance facades. The most obvious reason for a visit is to see paintings by Pierro della Francesca, especially his magnificent fresco ,The Resurrection, painted around 1463-1465 for the Palazzo della Residenza in Sansepolcro, which is now the Museo Civico where the fresco is housed.
So significant is this unique fresco to the history and culture of Sansepolcro, Piero’s Christ figure is also present on the town’s coat of arms.
We recommend that you include in your trip to Sansepolcro, a leisurely lunch or dinner at the superb Ristorante Fiorentino: Locanda del Giglio, Via Luca Pacioli, 60. Tel: 0039 0575 742.033 firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a truly special, award-winning family restaurant. The food is out of this world – you will probably eat better here than anywhere else in Umbria or Tuscany, and the dessert trolley alone is a memorable experience.
FURTHER AFIELD IN UMBRIA
Lake Trasimeno (40 minutes from Casa Bacciana at its nearest point) is the largest lake on the Italian peninsula and the fourth largest lake in Italy. Its circumference is about 50 kilometres; it is only 257 metres above sea level and is shallow – with an average depth of less than 5 metres. A beautiful lake surrounded by low, lush hills covered with olive groves and vineyards, and containing three islands, Trasimeno makes a delightful itinerary because of the picturesque towns and villages around its shores, not to mention the three lovely islands within the lake. Local fishermen – fishing with nets from flat-bottomed boats – supply lakeside restaurants with the plentiful fish found in the lake: carp, perch, tench, eels and pike. Local special; dishes include regina in porchetta – carp stuffed with ham, rosemary, fennel and garlic, and tegamaccio, a fish stew, slow-cooked with tomato and white wine. In terms of its history, Trasimeno’s most famous moment was the great battle in 217 BC on its northern shores between the Roman army and Hannibal, when the latter’s strategic brilliance brought him a resounding victory. The numerous castles and medieval fortified villages around the lake testify to the fact that it was a frequent battleground even long after that.
Towns to visit around Lake Trasimeno
A day trip to Trasimeno from Bacciana might take you past the pretty villages of Preggio and Castel Rigone, in the hills close to Umbertide, well worth a visit in themselves. In July/August, the Preggio Music Festival (including outdoor opera performances, ( http://www.preggiomusicfestival.com) and in the third weekend of October the Chestnut Festival are very special events enjoyed by locals and visitors from far and wide. Descending from the hills, you will enjoy the wonderful views of the lake below, dotted with its islands and perhaps a pleasure boat chugging out to one of them. Passignano sul Trasimeno is a pleasant little resort and a good stopping point for refreshments by the shores of the lake, and the town is the headquarters for the boat services to the islands. Isola Maggiore, which has a small community of about 100 inhabitants, is the only island in the lake connected to the shore by a regular boat service throughout the year.
Isola Minore was abandoned by the end of the 16th century and is now privately owned. Isola Polvese, which can be reached in summer from San Feliciano, is the largest island in the lake and the most beautiful, with rich vegetation and trees, and a pretty beach (which has a bar and restaurant open in the summer months). It was acquired by the province of Perugia in 1974 and since then its birdlife is protected. As you walk around the island on the footpath (which takes about one hour) you might be lucky enough to see – and you will certainly hear – kingfishers, grebes, coots, cormorants, bitterns, kites and ospreys, to name but a few.
Tuoro sul Trasimeno is now mainly set back from the lake on a low hill, but at the lakeside district of the town, there is landing stage for ferries to Isola Maggiore . Continuing around the lake westwards, on the road towards Montepulciano, there are several sleepy villages dating from Etruscan times into which you might want to detour, such as Pozzuolo, Laviana, Petrignano, Gioiella and Vaiano. Castiglione del Lago might well be your next stop, since it is the most important place on Lake Trasimeno. The town is situated attractively on a small promontory jutting into the western side of the lake, and is dominated by its magnificent medieval fortress. Near the south shore is the picturesque little village of Panicale of Etruscan origin, situated on a hill which offers some of the best possible views of the lake. On the eastern, reeded side of the lake, places worth visiting include Monte del Lago and San Savino, both with remains of medieval castles, and San Feliciano, an attractive and lively little village (especially in the summer season) with a harbour and fishing boats. Completing this suggested tour of the lake, Maggione (birthplace of Fra Giovanni da Pian di Carpine, one of the first followers of Saint Francis of Assisi) might seem an unassuming place but on closer inspection has beautiful 14-16th century frescoes in the parish church and offers superb views of the lake from the top.
The ancient town of Gubbio (once called Iguvium) is about 40 minutes to the east of Casa Bacciana, and is highly recommended for a day’s visit. It has an imposing setting, located as it is on a densely forested mountainside –the lowest slope of Mt. Ingino, a small mountain of the Apennines, where wolves have been reintroduced. The town – largely built of gray-white stone with many well-preserved medieval, Gothic and Renaissance buildings and monuments – offers lovely views over the countryside below. On the edge of town is a Roman amphitheatre dating from the 1st century BC, where open air performances are held during the summer. The Palazzo dei Consoli is a magnificent 14th century Gothic building made of limestone, which houses an art gallery, archaeology museum, and civic museum. Here you will find the prized Eugubine tablets, seven bronze plaques from over 2000 years ago, written in the ancient Umbrian language. The palazzo, on Piazza della Signoria, dominates the town. The Duomo, higher up, is a 13th century church, notable for the Roman sarcophagus functioning as its high altar. The Palazzo Ducale, built for the Duke of Urbino in 1476, is across from the Duomo. It has a lovely Renaissance courtyard and the palazzo is open to visitors.
An important festival, the Feast of Candles – Corsa dei Ceri – takes place in May, when there is a procession through the streets up the hill to the Abbey of Sant’ Ubaldo, just outside town. Then there’s a spectacular race with three teams carrying tall candle-shaped pillars weighing 200 kilos each, topped with statues of St. Ubaldo, St. George, or St. Anthony. The crossbow palio, Palio della Balestra, is the last Sunday in May. This traditional crossbow competition between the archers of Gubbio and nearby Sansepolcro has been part of the town’s cultural life since at least the 15th century.
Gubbio is particularly known for its ceramics and there are a number of ceramics shops selling hand-painted ceramics, so a good town for buying souvenirs from Umbria. Other traditional local handicrafts include wrought iron work and lace. On a more mundane note, Gubbio has a wonderful market on Tuesday mornings!
Monte Cucco Regional Park
(Information Office: Villa Anita, Via Matteotti, Sigillo. Tel: 075 917 7326)
Monte Cucco (1566m) is the peak of the regional park to which it gives its name: a protected area of outstanding natural beauty which is a paradise for many enthusiasts: walkers, climbers, natural historians, cross-country skiers, cavers, photographers, speleologists, geologists, and hang-gliders. This is superb walking country as there are miles and miles of footpaths that climb up through dense beech woods, an other-worldy landscape that makes you think of the settings of Tolkien’s stories. There is interesting bird and animal life, and, apparently, wolves still live in the wild here; the remains of huge prehistoric bears have been found in these forests. There are many caves and grottoes, including the Grotta di Monte Cucco, which is 922 metres deep. Towns for access to the park are Scheggia, Sigillo and Costacciaro; the road from Scheggia to Gubbio (about 12 kilometres to the west) is extraordinary in itself. Everywhere, you are presented with amazing panoramic vistas of Umbria far below you. If you need an antidote to churches and art galleries, and a break from the wonders produced by the hand of Man, visit Monte Cucco to see the wonders produced by the hand of Nature.
Perugia, the capital of Umbria (about 30 minutes from Casa Bacciana) was one of the twelve cities of the Etruscan Confederation, and was conquered by the Romans in 310 BC. This ancient city with its medieval centre and booming modern economy is a remarkable place. The historic centre can be accessed by pedestrians via escalators from the car parks below, and these bring you up into the city through what are now-buried medieval streets. The city has one of the oldest universities in Europe , the Universita di Perugia founded in 1308 (about 34,000 students), and the presence of many thousands of students, including those from other countries attending the world-famous Universita perStranieri (about 5,000 students) makes this a vibrant and exciting metropolis. The historic Renaissance town hall , the Palazzo dei Priori, houses the National Gallery of Umbria, well worth a visit, with paintings by Perugino (real name Pietro Vannucci but called Perugino because of his close association with the city) and Pinturicchio.
The historic heart of the city is Piazza IV Novembre, where you will find Perugia’s medieval Cathedral, begun in 1345 but construction continued until 1587, although the main facade was never completed. The Cathedral’s architectural style is late Gothic; there is an altarpiece by Signorelli and sculptures by Duccio. The steps in front of the cathedral are a popular meeting place for students, locals and tourists alike. In the centre of the piazza is Fontana Maggiore, a beautiful fountain in pink and white marble completed in 1278 by the famous sculptors Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. Bas-relief engravings circle the polygon-shaped basin of the fountain, representing scenes from the Old Testament, the founding of Rome, the seven liberal arts, the signs of the zodiac, and a griffin and lion, both of which important symbols of Perugia. These symbolic figures can also be seen on the facade of the town hall, looking down on to the piazza.
Putting aside its more famous sights, Perugia is a fascinating and atmospheric place for just walking around: along the timeless, meandering cobbled streets, under Etruscan arches, along the Roman aqueduct, down dark alleyways, looking at the magnificent buildings, churches and monuments, or doing some 21st century shopping on the smart, bustling main street, the Corso Vanucci, or eating out in the many excellent restaurants to be found in this cosmopolitan city. Fit in a visit to the oldest pastry shop in Perugia, the lovely, dark-panelled cafe founded in 1806, Pasticceria Sandri, where the cakes are legendary.
On the subject of a sweet tooth, Perugia has become famous for chocolate throughout Italy, largely because of a single local company Perugina, whose Baci (kisses) chocolate is also widely exported. Perugia hosts the Eurochocolate Festival in October – the biggest celebration in Europe of the joys of chocolate – and the Umbria Jazz Festival, one of the most important jazz festivals in the world.
A trip to Umbria must surely include a visit ( about a 40 minute drive from Casa Bacciana) to world-famous Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis. UNESCO collectively designated the Franciscan structures of Assisi as a World Heritage Site in 2000. Viewed from a distance, the town appears to be white, nestling on the lower slopes of Monte Subasio, its extraordinary Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, the construction of which began immediately after his canonisation in 1228 and completed in 1253. The Basilica was closed for two years after the 1997 earthquake but has been magnificently restored. You will run the gauntlet of many souvenir shops to walk to the Basilica, but once there, you won’t be able to tear yourself away. Visit the Basilica Superiore ( Upper Church, Renaissance era) and Basilica Inferiore (Lower Church – Gothic era ), with their remarkable frescoes, including scenes of the life of St Francis in the Upper Church, previously ascribed to Giotto but now thought to be by artists of the Pietro Cavallini school in Rome. The Lower Church frescoes are totally different in style and atmosphere and include those by the late medieval artists Cimabue and Giotto. (Make sure you visit at a time when the ceilings are lit, in order to see the frescoes, as the lower church is quite dark and the ceilings lit up only at certain times throughout the day. Check the Basilica’s website). Here, too, is the shrine of St Francis himself, positioned below the altar, in its silent inner sanctum in the candlelit, echoing crypt…..An unforgettable place.
Surrounded by olive groves and with ancient walls of golden stone, the peaceful little village of Bettona lies across the valley from Assisi, a few miles to the south-west. Originally called Vettona under the Etruscans and then Bettonium under the Romans, this ancient town is referred to in writings by Pliny. Bettona, unusually, still retains a complete circuit of the medieval walls, which also incorporate substantial portions of the original Etruscan walls. The town is also known locally for its lovely walled gardens. The grand 14th century building Palazzo del Podesta houses the Pinacoteca Comunale and particularly worth noting in its collection are two paintings by Pietro Perugino, including the Madonna of Mercy, painted for the Church of Sant’Antonio in Bettona, and an altarpiece of The Adoration of the Shepherds with a predella showing scenes from the life of San Crispolto (the first bishop of Bettona, which was once the seat of a bishopric), an important work by Dono Doni. The apse of the town’s main church, Santa Maggiore located in the town’s centre, was frescoed in 1939 by the futurist painter Gerardo Dottori. The Church of San Crispolto, built by monks to preserve the body of the patron saint has a pyramidal campanile and a restored cloister, which leads out onto the hillside with a very fine view of the town and its walls.
Less than an hour from Casa Bacciana, Montefalco is another magical hilltop town. At the heart of Umbrian wine country, it is surrounded by vineyards as far as the eye can see and famous for its red wines. Visit for an al fresco lunch under white umbrellas at the wonderful Enoteca l’Alchemista (where the traditional Umbrian dishes are home-made and totally delicious) and watch the world go gently by in the very pretty, central piazza as you savour your glass of Montefalco Sagrantino. Can life get any better? On your walk around the town, through narrow alleyways and out onto the walls, linger to look at the amazing views of the countryside, and don’t neglect to go to see the frescoes in the Church of San Francesco by the Florentine painter, Benozzo Gozzoli, amongst others.
Low-lying and surrounded by a fertile plain (the flood plain of the Topino River) , the Bevagna is a very pleasant, ancient, small town with an important Roman history; there are Roman fortifications in the walls dating back to the first century BC. Originally, the town was Etruscan, and later became an important Roman settlement (called Mevania) on the great road stretching into Umbria from ancient Rome: the Via Flaminia, before that road was diverted through Spoleto and Terni. The town has a beautiful medieval central piazza, the Piazza Filippo Silvestri, which boasts a Roman column with a Corinthian capital, a popular spot for having your picture taken! There is also a lovely fountain dating from 1896; in fact, this piazza is probably one of the most attractive in the whole of Umbria, and the town has a particularly friendly and welcoming atmosphere. San Michele Arcangelo, the most important of Bevagna’s churches, and with a beautiful interior, was damaged in the 1997 earthquake and restorations have been ongoing. In the last ten days of June, the Mercato delle Gaite is held, the gaite being the four districts of the town. Artisans workshops are reconstructed in medieval style and local handicrafts are sold at the street stalls. The festivities continue into the evenings, when local taverns serve traditional specialities. Bevagna is only a few miles away from Montefalco and is included in the geographical area of the Montefalco wines.
Easily included in a tour of central Umbria, taking in Montefalco and Bevagna, Spello, with its long winding streets and old walls, is a real joy and strongly recommended. The main entrance to the town is through the Porto Consolare, a superb Roman gateway with three arches, beneath which you can still see the ancient paving stones of the Roman road The Collegiata of Santa Maria Maggiore, founded in the 12th century, is rich in fascinating art and architectural features, including frescoes by Pintoricchio. For dedicated art lovers, the Palazzo dei Canonici houses the Pinacoteca Civica, which contains many superb works of art, organised chronologically through its rooms.
An important Umbrian city with a fascinating history, not to mention many interesting shops and excellent restaurants, Spoleto (around an hour and a half from Casa Bacciana) has much to offer the tourist. Particularly worthy of note is the breathtaking 13th century aqueduct, the Ponte delle Torri, probably built by the Romans, and the impressive 14th century Rocca Albornoziana fortress, with its six towers. The Duomo (Cathedral) of Santa Maria Assunta (dating from 1175) is noteworthy for its graceful Romanesque edifice, its tomb of the painter Filippo Lippi, and a manuscript letter by St Francis of Assisi.
A visit to Umbria simply must include a visit to Orvieto, in the south of the region. The drive (an hour and a half to two) will be well worth the effort. As you approach by road, you will see the city perched dramatically on its volcanic plug of almost vertical cliff faces, on top of which are defensive walls, surveying the surrounding flat countryside from high above. The Cathedral is one of the most beautiful you will see in the world, with its gorgeous facade of golden mosaics, rose window and huge bronze doors, a feast for the eyes. Inside the wonders continue, with two frescoed chapels decorated by significant Italian Renaissance painters, including Luca Signorelli. Orvieto also has many remains of the Etruscan period, and is famed for its white wine. Close by is the beautiful Lago Bolsena, the perfect spot for a swim and a picnic if it’s a hot day.
THE MARCHE AND THE ADRIATIC COAST
Some towns in the Marche, including resorts on the Adriatic coast, are within an hour and a half of Casa Bacciana.
Urbino, a walled town nestling on a high hillside south-west of the coastal town of Pesaro, is as spectacular for its position and built heritage as the most special places in Tuscany or Umbria. Its historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its remarkable legacy of Renaissance culture, and boasts grandiose architecture from its golden age under Federico da Montefeltro in the late 15th century, when it was the capital of a powerful dukedom, and drew artists and scholars from all over Italy and beyond, influencing cultural developments throughout Europe. In the same period Urbino was also the birthplace of the painter Raphael, whose first home still stands in Via Raffaello. You will find one of Italy’s best art galleries, inside the Palazzo Ducale. Duke Federico’s superb Renaissance palace houses the Marche’s art collection, which includes Piero della Francesca’s strange painting The Flagellation of Christ, and works by Raphael and Uccello. Urbino has a unique atmosphere because centuries of stagnation from the 26th century onwards have resulted in its preservation, and its art and architecture are a rich treasure trove waiting to be discovered.
Pesaro is a family seaside resort on the Adriatic, with many graceful fin de siècle villas and other historic monuments, as well as the inevitable string of hotels and sandy beaches lined with sunbeds. Many of the hotels offer their guests free use of bikes, in order to enjoy the lovely cycle-ways through the town that take you right down to the port, where you can sample delicious sea food in the many excellent restaurants. Pesaro is the birthplace of the composer Rossini and as well as a museum dedicated to the composer, there is an annual opera festival (in early August) commemorating him.
Both ancient and modern, Fano is a beach resort 7 miles southeast of Pesaro, located where the ancient Roman road the Via Flaminia reaches the Adriatic sea. It was originally known as Fanum Fortunae because of the temple to Fortuna located there, and it has a long and fascinating Roman history. In acknowledgement of this, the festival Fano dei Cesari is held annually in July or August for a week. During the week there are a variety of cultural events ending with a spectacular parade in Roman costumes and chariot races. The Fano Jazz by the Sea festival is held annually for one week. Fano is a busy but very pleasant bucket-and-spade resort with good beaches.
Numana is an Adriatic coastal town deservedly famous for its lovely beaches and the quality of the sea swimming it can offer. It lies at the southern foot of Mount Conero and most of the area falls within the Conero Regional Park, which boasts the best beaches on the Adriatic. The old town is referred to as “Numana alta” as it is on top of a cliff overlooking while “Numana bassa” includes the area around the port. The beach of “Numana alta” comprises two bays formed close to the cliffs: the Spiaggiola Beach and the friars and the beach of “Numana bassa” extend to the south of the port village of Marcelli, which was founded by the family of the same name and developed specifically as a tourist resort. As with Fano, Numana’s status as a beach resort might belie its rich history stretching back to Roman times. This is typically a quieter and gentler resort than Fano and Pesaro.
Set on a steep hill rising above the floodplain of the River Arno, Arezzo was one of the twelve most important Etruscan cities and is still known for its goldsmiths. In the upper part of the town are the cathedral, the town hall and the Medici Fortress (Fortezza Medicea), from which the main streets branch off towards the lower part as far as the gates. The upper part of the town maintains its medieval appearance despite the addition of later structures.
If you are interested in art and architecture, Arezzo is a must for your itinerary, and the sights worth seeing are too numerous to mention here, but noteworthy is the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Donatus with its beautiful stained glass, and a fresco by Piero della Francesca portraying the Madeleine. The Basilica of San Domenico is equally or even more important, for its stupendous History of the True Cross fresco cycle (1453-1464) by Piero della Francesca, in the Bacci Chapel. If this is not enough for one visit, in the Basilica of San Domenico a masterwork of 13th century Italian art can be seen: a Crucifix by Cimabue
Of particular interest in Arezzo is Casa Vasari (in Via XX Settembre) an older house rebuilt in 1547 by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574- painter, architect, writer and historian) and frescoed by him; it is now open as a museum. The main rooms were decorated by Vasari in an illusionist manner. The drawing room, where Vasari painted the life journey of an artist, with the artistic virtues protected by the gods of antiquity represented as heavenly bodies, is remarkable. Once a month – on the first Sunday in the month – a vibrant and fascinating antique and collectors’ market takes over all the streets in the centre of Arezzo.
This beautiful town, about 40 minutes from Casa Bacciana, was the birthplace of the Renaissance artist Luca Signorelli, and a number of his paintings can be viewed n the museum and local churches. Cortona has steep, winding streets and many buildings of great architectural interest, not to mention superb shopping: clothes, jewellery, leather goods, linens, and exquisite gift stationery are all a joy to shop for in Cortona, which also boats some excellent restaurants. The town is popular with tourists and hosts the Under the Tuscan Sun festival, inspired by the book and film of that name. The lovely Signorelli Theatre is the venue for an exciting summer programme of concerts by internationally acclaimed musicians. The town stands on a hill looking down to Lake Trasimeno. The position of the town is stunning and a visit here could be included in a tour around the lake, though you will want plenty of time to soak up the unique atmosphere of Cortona.
Under two hours from Casa Bacciana and accessible via good, fast roads (and by train from Umbertide, change at Perugia) Florence is viable for a day trip, though there is so much so much art and beautiful architecture that a day will allow you merely to scratch the surface. Known as la culla del Rinascimento (“ the cradle of the Renaissance”) for its monuments, churches, and buildings, and believed to have the greatest concentration of art in the world (comparative to its size), Florence presents the sightseer with a dazzling array of choices, so don’t try to do too much. A visit to the cathedral or “duomo” is likely to be your first port-of-call: the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore or Il Duomo di Firenze, as it is usually called, was begun in 1296 in the Gothic style and completed structurally in 1436 with its breath-taking dome engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi. It’s possible to go up inside the dome, and this is an experience not to be missed, unless you suffer from vertigo. The basilica is one of Italy’s largest churches, and until development of new structural materials in the modern era, the dome was the largest in the world; to this day, 600 years later, it remains the largest brick dome ever constructed. The beautiful exterior is faced with green and pink marble bordered by white. In 1982 UNESCO declared the unique historic centre of Florence to be a World Heritage Site.
The basilicas of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella both charge for entry but are stuffed full with astonishing treasures. Santa Croce is the principal Franciscan church, and is known as the Tempio dell’Italie Glorie (Temple of Italian Glories) since it is the burial place of many great Italians: Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Gentile, Rossini and Marconi, to name just some. Santa Maria Novella contains works by Masaccio, Uccello, Lippi and Ghirlandaio. A visit to the Uffizi Gallery is surely a must for art-lovers, and it is possible to pre-book online and so avoid the queues, especially in high season. Perhaps a one night stopover would be more relaxed, so that you can also wander the beautiful streets and piazzas as evening falls, crossing the Arno via the Ponte Vecchio, the iconic bridge with a street of shops on stilts along its edges, mainly selling jewellery. The bridge also carries Vasari’s elevated corridor , linking the Uffizi Gallery to the Palazzo Pitti on the south side of the river, an enormous Renaissance palace, which dates from 1458 and was originally the town residence of Luca Pitti, an ambitious Florentine banker. It was bought by the powerful Medici family in 1549 and subsequently became a great treasure trove of paintings, statues, plates, jewellery and luxurious possessions. After crossing the Ponte Vecchio, you will find yourself in Oltrarno, the quieter and more bohemian part of the city, where the restaurants and bars are less touristy; here you can linger awhile in the atmospheric piazza of Santo Spirito. Before leaving Florence, at some point in your itinerary, you should also sample an ice-cream from the famous gelateria Vivoli’s – a truly memorable experience.
Siena – around an hour away from Casa Bacciana – is particularly known for its Palio – a traditional, highly competitive bareback horse race with medieval pageantry and costume, involving the rival neighbourhoods of the city. The unique, shell-shaped central piazza is arguably the most beautiful in Italy and to appreciate it you will need to linger there, perhaps while enjoying a gelato. The 13th century cathedral is notable for its striking use of black and white marble – both inside and outside; black and white are the symbolic colours of Siena, linked to the black and white horses of the city’s founders (Senius and Aschius). The facade, with its incredible sculptures and mosaics, is one of the most fascinating in all of Italy and certainly one of the most impressive features in Siena. Once inside, the wow factors continue, as you can see frescos by Pintoricchio, and even more treasures of Italian art in the Art Gallery and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
Around an hour from Casa Bacciana, Montepulciano is another lovely medieval/Renaissance (very) high hill town in the Val d’Orcia (central Tuscany), and famous worldwide for its red wines. Connoisseurs consider its Vino Nobile among Italy’s best. The town is also a major producer of food, and renowned for its pork, cheese, “pici” pasta, lentils and honey, so the many food shops are a joy for the gourmands amongst you. All in all, it’s a delightful place to include in an itinerary into this part of Tuscany, though the very steep streets can be off-putting for the faint-hearted, travel-weary or elderly.
Also in the Val d’Orcia, between Montepulciano and Montalcino, Pienza was planned as the perfect Renaissance town by Pope Pius II, whose birthplace it was, so it is of great architectural interest: “the touchstone of Renaissance urbanism.” In 1996, UNESCO declared the town a World Heritage Site, and in 2004 the entire valley, the Val d’Orcia, was included on the list of UNESCO’s World Cultural Landscapes. On a more mundane note, but nevertheless also a valid claim to fame, the town is famous for its pecorino cheese – made from the milk of the sheep which are reared on the surrounding hillsides.
Located to the west of Pienza, and boasting many fine buildings worthy of a visit, Montalcino is famous for its Brunello di Montalcino wine. In particular, the duomo, the fortress, and the Abbey of Sant’Antimo are a feast for the eyes, and local churches have lovely frescoes of the Sienese school. As is the case with many medieval Tuscan towns and cities, Montalcino is divided into quarters called contrade: Borghetto, Travaglio, Pianello and Ruga. Each has its own colours and flags, and songs and separate drum rhythms to distinguish them. Twice a year they compete in a breath taking archery contest, in medieval dress, under the walls of the Fortezza. The Tuscans, like the Umbrians, love their festivals and contests, and they are always truly spectacular.
In 2010, the Festa Europea Della Musica had its first edition in Montalcino, to celebrate and promote the beauty and culture of the town. The world-famous Festa encourages cooperation and musical exchanges between participating cities. Celebrated on the 21st of June, the entire town immerses itself for a time in the magic of music, complementing the great beauty of its built heritage and surrounding countryside.