Around Val d’Orcia (The Tour of the Valley)
Val d’Orcia in Tuscany is a valley which contributed to handing down history and human relationship which has determined the quality of an area which was traversed by the main road in the Middle Age: the via Francigena (see).
All the events which developed along this highway and the adjacent hills, created a landscape which fascinated the great Sienese painters.
The scenery of the valley begins with a symmetry of natural harmony with its soft rolling hills, changes into the majestic grandeur of the Amiata, a mountain abounding with springs of crystal clear water and luxuriant vegetation. The colours of dry clay and golden earth, share the hills; dark green moss and undergrowth cover the base of rocky crags and old farm houses; the gentle colours found in the orderly lines of vineyards mix with the silver grey of the olive groves. The solitude, the empty spaces, the light, the views, conjure up a sense of pleasure, delight and even loneliness difficult to define.
The Val d’Orcia is a landscape of never-ending hills, interspersed with torrents, ravines, rugged outcrops, river banks which intertwine until they are lost in the ash colour of the Crete (clay hillocks). The Francigena, winding among this natural but hostile beauty throughout the centuries, has contributed towards the growth of the small centres and the pride of an ancient people, accustomed to sharing the dreams, arrogance and the Utopia pf powerful and famous men. The farming community of the Val d’Orcia has never surrendered to progress, it has always welcomed travellers and pilgrims and always made them welcome.
MONTICCHIELLO (15 minute drive north from Casa Pinsent)
The name of Monticchiello first appears in an official document in 973; Marquis Lamberto Aldobrandeschi gave it to the Arniatina Abbey in guarantee of a large loan. Later the Val d’Orcia was to be involved in various disputes leading to a war between the Siennese and the Florentines. In mid 1500 in the war waged by the Spanish and Germans against the French, Siena took the side of the French against Spanish, Germans and Florentines. So Monticchiello together with other fortresses of the Val d’Orcia were engaged in combat. In the conflict which took place in March 1553 the battalions of Monticchiello fought heroically forcing the imperial troops to retreat. On the 3rd April 1559 the war ended with the treaty of Chateau Cambresis. The french troops abbandoned Tuscany and all the fortresses of the Val d’Orcia were handed over to the Medicis. On the 17th century fell into disrepair ans was abbandoned, the battalions were disbanded and part of the walls demolished.
PIENZA (15 minute drive north from Casa Pinsent)
Pienza, a small town in the middle of Val d’Orcia, designed by Pope Pius II as he planned to transform his birthplace into a model town is a rare example of Renaissance town building. Defined, from time to time, the ‘ideal city’, the ‘utopian city’, it represents one of the best planned Renaissance towns, where a model of ideal living and governing was realized thus working out the idea of a town able to satisfy the need for a pacific, civil and hardworking living. It represented the so called utopia of the ‘civitas’ vainly cherished by people for centuries. Pienza has at present two museum, a third one into being. Its location enables the town to perfectly embody the basic interest which the humanistic architecture gave to the relationship man – nature. The architect Bernardo Rossellino was commissioned to build a Duomo, papal palace and town hall, the construction were completed in three years.
MONTEPULCIANO (15 minute drive north-east from Casa Pinsent)
Montepulciano is built along a narrow limestone ridge and, at 605 meters above sea level. The town is encircled by walls and fortifications designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder in 1511 for Cosimo I. Inside the walls the streets are crammed with Renaissance palazzi and churches, but the town is chiefly known for its good local ‘Vino Nobile’. A long, winding street called the Corso climbs up into the main square, ‘Piazza Grande’ surrounded by magnificent buildings such as the Palazzo Pubblico, the Cathedral with unfinished faÃ§ade begun in1594 from a design by Ippolito Scalza and several important palazzi by Vignola, Sangallo and Peruzzi. Artistic treasures abound in the many churches in the historical centre and just outside. The most beautiful is the temple of San Biagio, begun in 1518 by Antonio da Sangallo the elder just outside the town in the direction of Pienza. Between July and August, Piazza Grande becomes a stage for concerts and for the International Arts Worshop.
SARTEANO (20 minute drive east from Casa Pinsent)
Surrounded by and overflowing a double ring of medieval city walls, Sarteano is a small hill town on the ridge of Mount Cetona. The town itself dates from the early Middle Ages but the area was inhabited much earlier by the Etruscans, whose burial sites and tombs are scattered about the town and countryside. Sarteano is crowned with the ruins of a castle dating from around 1100. There are a number of lovely and ancient churches in the town, including the 16th century (ex) Convent of Santa Chiara (now home to an elegant restaurant). A very interesting Etruscan museum is found in one of the Renaissance palazzi built into the city walls; there is a restored and active (with theatrical and musical events) 19th century theatre, Teatro degli Arrischianti, on the main piazza. The annual Giostra del Saracino (see the Events section) takes place every August 15th.
RADICOFANI (15 minute drive south from Casa Pinsent)
Radicofani is characterised by the presence of the Rocca which dominates the Orcia valley from south. The Rocca was built during the first years of the Middle Ages and then amplified during the years: it was of military relevance since the 18th century when eventually was destroyed by an arson. The tower that can be seen from everywhere in the valley, has been rebuilt in the XIX century. The Rocca is rich of historical and literary memories concentrated on the figure of the legendary master Ghino di Tacco whose life was described by Dante and Boccaccio. The village of Radicofani maintains the original structure and keeps nearly intact its architectural characteristics of the thirteenth century. In the Romanic Deanship of San Pietro you can find a precious collection of glazed earthware and some beautiful wooden statues. Always in the old village it is possible to admire the Magisterial Palace and the church of Sant’Agata. Outside the built up area rises the Palazzo della Posta (The Post), ancient shooting lodge of Ferdinando I, built in the sixteenth century.
ABBADIA SAN SALVATORE (20 minute drive west from Casa Pinsent)
The town was built around the homonymous Benedictine Abbey and during the years has become one of the most important political and economic centre of the Amiata. The foundation of the Abbey was motivated by the creation of the Francigena road , or Romea, born as a safe way among the biggest Longobard cities. The Abbey of San Salvatore remained powerful and economically flourishing for all the thirteenth century: in 1299 it lost its temporal power, but it survived untill 1782 when the Grand Duke of Tuscany suppressed it. In 1939 the Abbey returned to the monks’ property and they promote the works of restoration. Not very far from the Abbey there is the most ancient part of the town called the Castellina; in the south part there is the borgo Castello (Castle), of more recent origins, where there are the Palazzo del Popolo and PodestÃ (Palace of the People and PodestÃ ), the church of Sant’Angelo (Saint Angel) and the church of Santa Croce (Saint Cross). The church of San Leonardo (Saint Leonard) is situated beyond the old walls and not far from the ancient centre you can admire the churches of Madonna dei Remedi and Madonna del Castagno (Our Lady of Restore and Our Lady of the Chestnut tree). Going on along the mountain near the summit you can find the small church of Ermeta, surrounded by a beautiful wood.
VAL D’ORCIA BY TRAIN
For nature and history lovers, the Nature Train offers the chance to travel the rural line between Asciano and Monte Antico in specially restored antique cars. This line runs through particularly beautiful landscape, with changing vistas from the clay fields of Siena through the Orcia River valley to the foothills of Monte Amiata. During the day, you can walk along nature paths, visit the medieval towns of Asciano and San Giovanni d’Asso, the abbeys of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Sant’Antimo, the wine cellars where the famous Brunello di Montalcino is produced, as well as the many museums. This is an exciting trip through history that is not to be missed. Trekking tours are also available with specialized guides.
For information call Parco della Val d’Orcia, Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: +39 0577 898303
NORTH-WEST ALONG THE VIA FRANCIGENA (NOW VIA CASSIA)
The Via Francigena or Via Romea has been for centuries used by merchants, prelate, soldiers and pilgrims travelling back and forth from the north of Europe through Siena, Val d’Orcia and Rome to Jerusalem carrying ideas as well as money and produce. It was first documented in 957 by Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Diary regarding the places he passed through in his way towards Rome. From Radicofani north the Via follows close to the Cassia, another of the old roman roads. The Abbey of San Salvatore (see above), Bagno Vignoni, San Quirico d’Orcia, Sant’Antimo, Montalcino, Buonconvento, Monte Oliveto, Asciano were also stops of Sigeric. The via Francigena continues passing through Siena, Colle val d’Elsa, San Giminiano, Volterra.
SAN QUIRICO D’ORCIA
Thanks to its central position on the Via Francigena, it was a focal point for many historic events, including the meeting between the papal legates and the German emperor Frederick the first in 1155. Visitors to this old Etruscan town, with its well preserved ring of walls, can admire several historic churches and palaces. Built on a design by Carlo Fontana (17th century), Palazzo Chigi Zondadari in Via Dante Alighieri, is famous for the frescoes decorating the walls (by Francesco Corallo, Michelangelo Ricciolini and others). The 16th century Horti Leonini gardens, created by Diomede Leoni, lie in front of the Palace. A tour of the town includes the Walls and Gate or Porta Cappuccini, the Church of S. Maria Assunta (12th cent.), the Church and Convent of S. Francesco (Marian Sanctuary and the Romanesque Collegiate (11th and 13th cent. doorways), containing a triptych by Sano di Pietro and 15th-16th cent. wooden choir stalls ) and the Hospital of S. Maria della Scala (1543), The hospital, built in the 12th century, offered shelter to pilgrims and travelers who went along the Via Francigena. In the court-yard there is a l6th century well, and a small loggia, partly blocked in, with three elegant small columns.
The quiet Tuscan village of Montalcino has undergone few changes since medieval times, when it was a stronghold pertaining to the nearby city of Siena. With a small population of around only 6,300 inhabitants, Montalcino was once a strategic point along the road to Rome and offers a panoramic view of the beautiful Asso, Orcia and Ombrone valleys. The town’s fame derives from its production of one of Italy’s finest red wines known as Brunello di Montalcino, regarded by visitors and residents alike as a ‘heavenly’ vintage. Local Brunello can be sampled in the large number of wine shops and enoteche (wine bars) lining the narrow streets, or just outside the city walls in one of the many wineries offering daily tours and a free taste to any who make the trip. The history of Montalcino dates back to the Etruscan and Roman periods, and its name was formed from the Latin ‘mons ilcinus’ (holm-oak mountain). Though independent for a time in the 12th century, the town later became subject to Sienese rule. During the 14th century, the city’s fortress was built to better defend the southernmost border of the Sienese Republic. However, four years after Florence defeated Siena (in 1555), Montalcino landed within the jurisdiction of the the Granducato di Toscana of Cosimo dei Medici. In addition to its sleepy medieval streets and sun-soaked vineyards, Montalcino presents other sights such as the Piazza del Popolo (People’s Square) and the Palazzo dei Priori (old Town Hall), as well as the medieval churches of San Fracesco, San Egidio and San Agostino. The city’s fortress is almost perfectly preserved, while its two interior courtyards offer a great spot to find shade or hold a picnic. The Enoteca La Fortezza serves up a sophisticated array of cheese plates and local wines to visitors. The Cathedral (of San Salvatore) and the Diocesano Museum are full of sacred works of art by 11th to 16th century painters, and contain other medieval objects and archeological artifacts from San Antimo Abbey (which is located 10 km from Montalcino).
ABBAZIA DI SANT’ANTIMO
The Abbey of Sant’Antimo, in a picture-perfect setting just about 10km south of Montalcino, dates from the 12th century. Follow the road from Montalcino to Castelnuovo dell’Abate. You will see Sant’Antimo on your right, down in the valley, just before Castelnuovo dell’Abate. Drive down into the valley and you will see parking along the road. It’s one of the finest Romanesque religious buildings in Italy. Nearby the town of Sant’Angelo in Colle, 6km from Sant’Antimo, an enchanting well-preserved village on the top of a hill contained in its circle of walls. You can drive there on a dirt road from Sant’Antimo or on a paved road from Montalcino.
ABBAZIA DI MONTE OLIVETO MAGGIORE
Monte Oliveto Maggiore is a stunning abbey perched on the top of a cliff in the Crete Senese area. The Abbey was built in the 15th century. Monks live on the premises and the church is used for religious purposes. The Great Cloister, beside the church, has a famous fresco series about the life of St. Benedict by the painter Sodoma. The abbey closes midday, so be sure you get there well before noon or in the later afternoon. There is a gift shop, run by the church, just beside the main building. The trip from Siena to the Abbey at Monte Oliveto is worth it just for the drive; seeing the abbey and the frescoes is an added benefit. As you go south from Siena, you drive through the Crete Senese area of Tuscany. From Siena, take road 438 to Asciano. Continue on road 451 to Monte Oliveto. You can also get to Monte Oliveto from the SS2 Cassia at Buonconvento.
Having Etruscan and Roman origni, the village was purchased by the Sienese in 1285 and surrounded by walls in 1351. It still preserves its medieval character despite the town-planning schemes of the fascist period and extensive building after the Second World War. The Romanesque collegiate church od Sant’ Agata (11th cent.) in travertine, is its most outstanding architectural feature. Adorned with decorative elements of the Lombard type and flanked by a 13th century crenellated campanile, it has an aisleless nave with a truss roof. Adjoining it is the Museo d’Arte Sacra where works by painters of the Sienese school of the 14th and 15th centuries are exhibited. The Museo archeologico contains finds from the excavation of a group of chamber tombs in the nearby cementary of Poggio Pinci. In 1991 a museum devoted to the artist Amos Cassioli was founded as the result of a gift from his family. A walk through the center is worthwhile, but what really makes the trip are the views from the road to to Siena once left this nice town.
The best preserved medieval town in Europe, even though a big part of its treasures have been dispersed all over the world . To see Siena you need at least one week but if you don’t have that time and you are just there for a day trip then you cannot miss:
- Piazza del Campo: Siena’s half-moon of a public square, one of the famous piazzas of Italy, is where twice a year the riders from the contrade compete to get the Palio.
- Palazzo Pubblico (town hall in the Piazza del Campo) with its tower, built in the early 1300 boasts one of the most important 14th century secular frescos cycles.
- Duomo: is an example (with Orvieto) of XIVth century central Italian Gothic architecture that never has the slenderness of north European cathedrals and signs the passage from Romanesque to Renaissance. It is a treasure house of late Romanesque gothic and renaissance masterpieces.
- Pinacoteca nazionale boasts a comprehensive collection of Sienese paintings.
- Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala (beside the Duomo): this hospital has been a powerful institution from over ten centuries that acquired, through private legacies an immense estate in land, castles palaces and houses. The vast and complicated interiors develop through different levels and contain many important paintings and frescoes and spaces dedicated to temporary and permanent exhibitions.
- San Domenico: another Italianate Gothic church, brick surface contains very important paintings by Andea Vanni, Il Sodoma, Matteo di Giovanni and others.
- Santa Maria dei Servi: Romanesque church containing fine altarpieces covering all areas of Sienese painting. Highlights are Coppo di Marcovaldo’s Madonna del Bordone, Matteo di Giovanni’s Massacre of the innocents, Pietro Lorenzetti and others painters did the frescoes.
On the summit of a hillock rises Monteriggioni with the suggestive and perfectly conserved surrounding wall with the particular almost round form. This is the most significant example of ‘terra murata’ of the Siena territory. The fortress was founded in 1203 by Siena as an outpost against Florence in about 1215 it was surrounded by walls which were then damaged by Florentine attacks in 1244. They were remade as we see them today, in c.1265. The curtain wall encircles the town for nearly six hundred metres and to support the turn of the curve at ground level it was made with this circular form; it is fortified with 14 square towers which inspired in Dante the similarity with the Giants in the XXXI canto dell’Inferno.
The town is famous for its numerous towers which make it conspicuous from a great distance and provide one of the most remarkable sights in Italy. It is possible to walk along the 13th C walls from which there are fine views of the rich agricultural farmland which surrounds the town San Giminiano owes its development during the middle age to the via Francigena, which runs through the town, becoming the headquarters for bankers and merchants. With its silhouette raising from the hills of the Upper Elsa Valley, facing the land of Volterra and positioned right on one of the most important stretches of the mediaeval Via Francigena, is famous all over the world. The reality of San Gimignano, with its original 14th-century town planning and architecture still almost intact, stems above all from the continuity of its history, linked as it was to the ever-changing fortunes of the Florentine Republic. It is thanks to this continuity that 15 out of the 72 towers once standing can still be admired today in a mÃªlÃ©e of antique noble houses, narrow lanes and squares. One of these, the beautiful Piazza della Cisterna (built in 1327) is undoubtedly the true heart of the town. It is encircled by the Piazza del Duomo (inside the Cathedral are works of art by Benozzo Gozzoli, Jacopo della Quercia and Taddeo di Bartolo), the PodestÃ ‘s palace, the Town Hall, which houses the Civic Museum (amongst the paintings there hang Lippo Memmi’s ‘Majesty’, and works by Pinturicchio and Filippo Lippi), and the Romanesque/Gothic Church of Saint Augustine, with 17 frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli illustrating the life of the Saint. A magnificent view over the town can be enjoyed from the only surviving tower of the 14th-century pentagonal Fortress, demolished by the Medicis in 1555.
COLLE VAL D’ELSA
Colle di Val d’Elsa is separated into the upper and lower town: cittÃ alta (upper town) and cittÃ bassa (lower town). Colle Alta (the name of the the upper town) is of great medieval architectural interest. Arnolfo di Cambio, who built the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, was born here in 1232. In the modern lower town shops sell locally made crystal glass. Piazza del Duomo is overlooked by the Praetorial Court, the seat of the Archaeological Museum, the Cathedra, the Bishops’s Palle, housing the Museum of Sacred Art, and the picturesque Via delle Volte, the most characteristic corner of the town. Passing little churches and 13th-century buildings, reaches the Rampart with view over the Plain on which the most modern part of Colle is built. Visit the church of Saint Augustine (13th century but rebuilt in the ‘500 by Antonio da Sangallo).
The ‘magic and mysterious’ city of Volterra has its roots in three thousand years of history. It is possible to find evidence and traces from every historical period which gives the artistic city a unique aspect. The ancient city walls, the imposing Porta all’Arco, the Necropolis of Marmini and the numerous archeological finds conserved in the Museo Etrusco Guarnacci like the Ombra della Sera with its unique profile, the funeral urns and the finely crafted jewellery, bear testimony of the Etruscan period. The Theatre of Vallebona survives from the period of Augustus and suggests the importance of Volterra under Roman domination. Volterra offers visitors views of the medieval, Roman and Etruscan worlds. Tour the medieval palaces and church buildings, walk through the Etruscan gateway (Porta all’Arco) and the Etruscan Museum with more than 600 funerary urns, contemplate the ruins of a First Century Roman theater. Volterra still retains its medieval character, charm and atmosphere. Its isolated position has impeded any progressive development. The defensive wall built in the 13th century was the result of an urban development that began in the year thousand and was completed at the beginning of the 14th century. Today the city conserves above all a Medieval aspect not only for the 12th century city walls but also because of the urban layout with narrow streets, palaces, tower houses and churches. The Renaissance had an important influence on Volterra but without changing the city’s Medieval character. From this period are the superb palaces of Minucci Solaini, Incontri-Viti and Inghirami, which are built into the Medieval city, the imposing Fortezza Medicea and the Convent of San Girolamo. Other than the Etruscan Museum there is the Civic Art Gallery with a fine collection of works from the Sienese and Florentine Schools, among which is the Deposition from the Cross by Rosso Fiorentino. The Museum of Sacred Art has an important collection of reliquary, 14th century Sienese sculpture and miniatures. The alabaster craft whose history is inseparable from that of the history of the city, represents another point of great interest.
GOING NORTH (A1 HIGHWAY – DIRECTION FLORENCE)
MONTE SAN SAVINO
Monte San Savino, on a hill to guard the plain, was inhabited by the Etruscans. In the Middle Ages, because of its geographical location, it was contested by the inhabitants of Arezzo, Siena and Perugia. Then, as a large part of Tuscany, it came under the authority of the Granducato of the Medici. It was the birthplace of Pope Giulio II and of the sculptor Andrea Contucci called Sansovino. The little town has a circle of walls with two gates, Porta Fiorentina and Porta Romana. A medieval echo can be traced in the architecture of the Cassero and its imposing tower (XIV cent.) which, completely restored, houses the Museum of Ceramics. Corso Sangallo, the main street, is lined with several fine palaces: the Renaissance Loggia Dei Mercanti by Sansovino (XVI cent.), the Palazzo Comunale with a cloister and a hanging garden, the Palazzo Pretorio (XIV) decorated with coats of arms, the Tower which offers a breathtaking view of the valley, and the Romanesque Pieve, dedicated to St. Egidio and Savino, built in the XII century and often remodelled in Rococo style. A little farther on is the church of Sant’Agostino, built in the XIV cent but enlarged several times, which contains cycles of frescoes by Spinello Aretino and followers (XV cent.) and a painting of the Assunzione by Giorgio Vasari. Next to the church the baptistry of San Giovanni with a portal by Sansovino.
Cortona boasts extremely old Umbrian and Etruscan origins (dating back to around the 6th century B.C.). It was defeated at the hands of the Romans (who called it Corito) and was then invaded by the Goths during the 5th century. In the 13th century it declared itself a free-governing municipality and in the 14th century recognized the rule of the group of hamlets, which exercised its supremacy over the neighboring towns. Cortona’s historical centre comprises Palazzo Comunale (1241) with its embattled tower, Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo (1250) and Palazzo Pretorio (1268). In the immediate vicinity of the town centre are three religious buildings of note. The 11th century cathedral of SS.Maria Assunta, the 13th century church of S. Agostino and the 13th century church of S. Francesco, with its impressive Gothic portal. An absolute must during your stay is a visit to the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca (the Etruscan Museum) that houses many Etruscan artefacts from the 5th century.
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 before becoming a free municipality (late 11th century). This was the town’s period of greatest splendour. Rivalry with Siena and Florence, marked 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. The principal monuments are to be found in the old town centre, which has a Renaissance appearance: Pieve di S. Maria (12th century, Romanesque, with a beautiful faÃ§ade, inside, a polyptych by P. Lorenzetti), Basilica of S. Francesco (14th century, housing the `Leggenda della Croce’, a series of frescoes by Piero della Francesca), Palazzo della Fraternita dei Laici (Gothic-Renaissance, 14th century), S. Domenico (13th-14th century, crucifix by Cimabue), Duomo (13th-16th century), Casa del Vasari (16th century). POPPI Poppi, in the province of Arezzo, is an exceptional example of Tuscan feudal architecture. The Castle, built by Jacopo Tedesco on a commission from the Count in the late 13th century, belonged to the powerful Guidi family, rulers in the Casentino for centuries. Its similarity to Palazzo Vecchio in Florence is due to the fact that Arnolfo di Cambio, the most famous architect of the time, later enlarged it for the Count’s son, also designing the courtyard and the left wing. The large rooms, now hosting a museum, contain a interesting collection of masterpieces, the historic archives, a library and the ancient Chapel of the Castle on the 2nd floor. With the fall of the Guidis in 1440, Poppi was annexed to the Florentine Republic and became the Vicar’s residence. The representatives of the Florentine government took up residence in the castle, thus renamed Palazzo Pretorio. Its gloomy appearance combined with its location in thick woodland gave birth, in time, to many legends. While in Poppi, it is also worth visiting the temple of the Madonna del Morbo (17th century), the Church of San Marco dating from the same period and the 13th century Church of San Fedele, built in the Vallombrosian style.
Chiusi is strategically located in the center of Italy. By train (station at Chiusi) it takes 1 hour and 40 minutes to the centre of Rome and about the same time to the centre of Florence.
The oldest part of town spreads out over the top of a hill, in a strategic position overlooking the Val di Chiana and the roads heading into Umbria and Arezzo. Chiusi itself offers some interesting attractions such as the Etruscan Museum, the 6th Century Chatedral, the Chatedral Museum, the Etruscan necropolis, and Catacombs. Special events are organised during the high season (patronal feast in mid August and wine festival at the end of September).
Chiusi was at the height of its importance during the Lucumon reign of the famous King Porsenna (6th Century B.C.) and today it still preserves its Etruscan and Roman origins, which make it an important archeological centre. A couple of kilometres on the way to Chiusi Lake lies one of the finest frescoed etruscan tumbs (Tomba della Scimmia)
Perugia, the great “Guelf strong-hold” rises up in the region’s heart, with its 5 storical quarters closed-in by its Etruscan town walls. These enormous bastions, formed by cyclopic square masses, were constructed 22 centuries ago and are still visible for long stretches. When the city of Rome was little more that an encampment of huts, one could already enter the etruscan Perugia through one of the 7 portals. One of the most imposing, the Porta Pulchra or of Augustus, dates back to Etruscan times.
Entering the city via Porta San Pietro, whose exterior was remodelled by Agostino di Duccio in 1475, you’ll arrive at the Basilica of St. Dominic on the right-hand side; the very important National Archeological Museum of Umbria is to be found in the adjacent cloisters and convent. Continuing along, you’ll reach the Piazza del Sopramuro, where the 15th century Palace of the Old University and the adjacent Palace of the People’s Captain look down on the square. Further on, after a short climb, you’ll find yourself in one of Italy’s most important squares, where you’ll see the Priors’ Palace, the Cathedral and the 13th century fountain Major Fountain at the center. These monuments make the Piazza Grande of Perugia (now called Piazza IV Novembre) a superb architectural complex. At the extreme end of Corso Vannucci you’ll find famous panoramic gardens built on the foundations of the Rocca Paolina, a strong-hold built by Pope Paul III in 1540. These foundations contain an entire quarter of the old Perugia: a dead city, a sort of Medieval Pompei which has been brought to light again and which is fascinating to visit.
Perugia’s ascents and stairways are usually quite steep, both the most ancient and the most recent. The way Via delle Prome is a typical example. Leaving from the Augustus Arc, this way leads to the upper point of Perugia, old site of the Castle of Porta Sole, erected in the XIV century by dal Gattapone, and destroyed later for willing of the whole town people.
A short visit to Perugia is definetly interesting, but is a longer stay which will reveal all the artistic jewels in detail. Even if you are on a short tour, you should not miss the architectural complex of St. Francesco, with the Oratory of St. Bernardino, a masterpiece of Agostino di Duccio, who, in covering the facade with bas-reliefs of enchanting grace and modelled fineness, made it a little poem of Renaissance sculpture.
Among the most important events taking place in the city, the musical festival Umbria Jazz and the gastronomic festival Eurochocolate are definitely worth a mention.
A few miles east of Perugia, in the rolling hills of Umbria, stands the exceptionally well-preserved medieval town of Assisi.
Known primarily as the birthplace of St. Francis (1182-1226 AD), the town has been a sacred place since long before the Franciscan era. Subject to the dukes of Spoleto in the early Middle Ages, the town of Assisi became an independent commune in the 12th century and was involved in disputes and battles with nearby Perugia before passing to the Papal states.
Francis was the first known Christian to receive the stigmata, the spontaneously appearing wounds on the hands, feet and side of the body corresponding to the torments of Christ on the cross. These injuries caused Francis great pain and suffering, but he bore them with his characteristic serenity, keeping the matter secret for many years so as not to draw attention to himself and away from god.
The Basilica of San Francesco, one of Italy’s foremost monuments, was built between 1228 and 1253 AD. The short its construction time, rare for a church of this size, is often explained as a measure of the great love that the people of the time had for St. Francis. By the mid 1400s pilgrims were flocking to Assisi from all parts of Europe and today the walled medieval town and its grand basilica are among the most visited of Christian shrines. The author, during his extensive travels to the sacred sites of the world, has frequently perceived that certain places have a distinct feeling, presence, or energy of peace. Assisi is one of these places. The entire town and particularly the Basilica have a definite atmosphere of peacefulness that awakens and stimulates that same characteristic in the human heart. In this regard it is perhaps more fitting to call such sacred sites empowerment places rather than power places.
The heart of the city is Piazza del Duomo, a supremely elegant space onto which face palazzi and the imposing Duomo. Its dazzling faÃ§ade, shining with polychrome marble and mosaics, is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in central Italy. The interior contains masterpieces by Luca Signorelli, who painted the Anti Christ Episodes, The End of the World, The Resurrection of the Flesh, The Elect and the Reprobates and a spectacular Last Judgement in the chapel of San Brizio. Beato Angelico painted the angels in the ceiling. Begun in 1290, the buiding of the cathedral continued for some centuries. But as well as its Medieval and Renaissance monuments, Orvieto also has important Etruscan remains, such as the two burial grounds situated beneath the city: the Necropoli del Crocifisso del Tufo (Loc. San Martino, Orvieto Scalo), and the underground level of the city. A great place to stay while there is the award winning Locanda Rosati and the owner Giampiero Rosati, is the best host to share all about Umbria, Tuscany and Italy.
The town was founded by the Umbrian people on 2700 before Christ. Later on, before the Etruscans and after the Romans held the power of the town, and building up a number of monuments, most of which can still be admired, like the Nicchioni Romani, on Mercato Vecchio square, which at the beginning were probably part of a basilica. During the Middle Ages, Todi was always in fight against the close Orvieto. On the XII century it became free town, being this the onset of a very positive period, and marvelous monuments like Captain Palace, Priori Palace, the Dome and the very remarkable St. Fortunato Church were built. On 1236 Jacopone da Todi was born here, one of the first poets to write in Italian dialect and not in Latin. On 1500, after a long dark period, the town rised again under the Renaissance influence; dated during this time has to be found the marvelous Consolazione Temple. Many of the public buildings rised during this time are due to the bishop Angelo Cesi.
Spoleto is nestled in the hills of the Italian state of Umbria, about seventy-five miles north of Rome. Richly endowed in cultural heritage and history, Spoleto dates from pre-Roman times. One finds splendid architecture (Roman, medieval, Renaissance, and later), charming piazzas, cafes and restaurants, interesting shops, and spectacular views, plus treasures of art history, including the newly restored frescoes of the Renaissance master, Fra Filippo Lippi, adorning the apse of the Duomo. Day trips are possible to Rome, or in Umbria, to Assisi, Perugia, Orvieto, Todi, Montefalco or Norcia. Longer trips to Siena and Florence are also possible. The town offers us all the benefits of its many years of hosting the Festival of Two Worlds, composer Giancarlo Menotti’s world-famous cultural event, but without the crowds, since we begin after the Festival, when Spoleto returns to being a quiet, charming town.