Guardians of The Medieval Past: Nine Hill Towns of Central Italy

Perched precariously on rugged hilltops and cliff faces, Italy’s remote medieval towns often sit in splendid isolation, boasting extraordinary views of the pristine surrounding landscape. Generally built for defensive purposes, the stone and masonry walls, sturdy gates and watch towers which typify these towns have survived virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages. The narrow streetscapes mean car access is limited or forbidden, and many villages can still only be visited on foot. Atmospheric, soulful and beautifully preserved, these are historic moments captured in time. Dr Jeni Ryde, with over fifteen years’ experience leading tours to Italy, explores nine of Central Italy’s hill towns, including those off the usual tourist track.

1. Vigoleno: a tiny medieval fortress town

The fortified village of Vigoleno (pictured above and below) with its unusual elliptical layout is just one of many unique medieval borghi to be discovered in the region of Emilia Romagna. Built as a defensive outpost, its massive, undamaged walls are positioned on a strategic ridge with breathtaking views of the valley below. The tiny village within the walls hosts a beautiful 12th-century Romanesque church with outstanding frescoes of St George and the Dragon.

The fortified village of Vigoleno, one of the most important historical monuments near Piacenza in Emilia Romagna

2. Bagno Vignoni: a pedestrian-only medieval spa town

Towns like Bagno Vignoni, in southern Tuscany, are often forsaken by the average tourist, who prefers to tread the well beaten routes of the classic itineraries. Here, tour buses are rare. Under the radar, glossed over in travel guides (or not even mentioned) as well as being difficult to reach, the more curious and adventurous travellers will, most likely, have towns like Bagno Vignoni to themselves.

Here you’ll find, for example, the therapeutic hot springs used since Roman times to cure skin ailments – Lorenzo the Magnificent de’ Medici and St Catherine of Siena both enjoyed the waters here. You’re almost guaranteed to have the tiny village to yourself: one bar and one small hotel set around the hot pool, which here replaces the usual medieval piazza.

Bagno Vignoni, located in the heart of Tuscany, in the famous Val d’Orcia. At the centre of the village is the “Square of sources”.

3. Fontanellato and the hidden gems of Italian art

Not only scenically gorgeous and free of tourists, these towns also hold marvellous secrets, little gems that delight and surprise. Take for example the small town of Fontanellato. Bang in the centre of the town sits a petite fortress-palace. Its broad water-filled moat is still supplied by the fontana lata, the medieval water source that gives its name to the town.

Called the Rocca Sanvitale after the Sanvitale family who lived there, the palace gave birth to a town in the 15th century, right on the border with the Duchy of Parma. The jewel in the crown is an exceptional series of frescoes in the fortress-palace, the Diana and Actaeon cycle painted by Parmigianino – he of the elongated figures before El Greco – and one of the early masterpieces of the artist.

And there is more! A visit to the palace is not complete without seeking out another hidden gem, the quirky camera oscura (hidden room), which the Duke built so he could spy on the passing parade: an early voyeur!

The small town of Fontanellato is dominated by the extraordinary Rocca di Sanvitale, the looming – and moated! – castle of a provincial dynasty

4. Monteriggioni: a trip back in time

Designed with security in mind, many of Italy’s medieval hill towns have fortified walls, towers and cobbled streets, giving visitors a real sense of what life must have been like in the medieval world. Monteriggioni, a minute hillside town built in the 13th century and once strategically important in defending Siena, still has its entire circuit of medieval walls intact. Dante was so impressed by its crown of massive walls that he mentioned it in his Divine Comedy, using the towers to evoke the sight of the ring of giants encircling the infernal abyss.

The town’s position was not an accident, however. The fortress was built by Siena as a first line of defence in its continuous battles with its rival Florence, and later sheltered pilgrims making their way to Siena along the Via Francigena.

Monteriggioni, a walled town in Tuscany. The castle walls offer views of the surrounding Chianti region

5. Castell’Arquato and regional Italian gastronomy

Hill towns like Castell’Arquato are small, manageable, discrete communities. This means that town centres are compact and easy to visit in a short time, enabling a complete overview in one visit. It’s so easy to combine a visit to extraordinary churches with a wander along beautiful laneways lined with medieval buildings.

And don’t forget lunch in a typical trattoria to taste the local produce! I love to take groups to a simple country restaurant just below Castell’Arquato. It’s surrounded by vineyards and rich farmland, and specialises in making homemade pasta fresca, a specialty of the Emilia Romagna region. And the view of the rolling Colli Piacentini (hills of Piacenza) from the bathroom window needs to be seen to be believed!

Castell’Arquato is located on the foothills of Val D’Arda in the province of Piacenza

6. The charterhouse of Pavia

It’s easy to forget how much significant architecture can still be found in Italy’s regional towns: often when we think of Italy’s contribution to architectural history, we immediately think of Rome’s Colosseum, Florence cathedral or Venice’s Ducal Palace. Yet in regional towns the urban mosaic is often little changed over centuries, and early medieval Italy was a rich intermingling of different cultures and empires.

These included the Frankish Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire and even Muslim conquerors, and traces of these cultural epochs can still be found in unexpected places. The charterhouse, or certosa, of Pavia, for example, was an elite monastic institution sponsored by the dukes of Milan as their final resting place. Inside, it boasts frescoes and tomb sculptures in a style to rival the work of the best-known artists of the Italian Renaissance, but the façade is unique. A rich work in multi-coloured marble and precious stones, it reveals a staggering range of artistic influences.

The Certosa di Pavia, a monastery and complex in Lombardy, northern Italy

7. Gothic Siena

Because modern development passed by many of Italy’s regional centres, it is also still possible to see the beauty of medieval town planning. Villages frequently grew up in a radial development around two main nuclei: the spiritual centre, and secular areas dedicated to government and trade. Close-knit communities flourished under the shadow of the church and the watchful eye of a feudal aristocracy.

Siena is the quintessential example of a perfectly structured medieval town. Its urban design, suite of outstanding medieval buildings, and ensemble of major artworks has earned it a place on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. But while today Siena has a more relaxed feel than its larger neighbour (and rival) Florence, in the Middle Ages it exerted a truly international influence, inspiring artists as far afield as Avignon and handling the majority of the papal banking business in Rome.

This earlier history, which played a significant part in the development of the Italian Renaissance, is well-preserved in Siena precisely because it did not become a significant political or manufacturing centre in the modern era.

Piazza del Campo and the Torre del Mangia in the Old Town of Siena

8. The Castelli del Ducato

The so-called “Castelli del Ducato” were part of a defensive network built in the Middle Ages and Renaissance by the dukes and aristocrats of Parma and Piacenza. There are 22 just in the area around Parma, for example, and they were used as bulwarks of protection during conflicts between communities.

So if medieval castles are your thing, the number and variety of well-preserved, impressive medieval castles that can be visited in central Italy is astounding. And the stories that are told about them are sometimes the stuff of fairytale. Take Torrechiara, for example: it was built in the 15th century by a military captain in the service of the dukes of Parma. Pier Maria II de’ Rossi wanted a bolthole for his beloved mistress, Bianca Pellegrini. He had the rooms frescoed with great mythological love stories, and even the doors of the castle’s chapel are decorated with the lovers’ interlocking crests. Two hearts are inscribed Digne et in aeternum (worthily and forever) and Nunc et semper (now and forever).

Set on rolling hills adorned with vineyards, the Torrechiara castle is one of the best preserved in Emilia Romagna

9. San Gimignano

In medieval Europe, towns were often situated either directly on or close to the great superhighways: medieval pilgrim routes leading to religious shrines, such as Rome, that would subsequently become important trade routes. One example is the Via Francigena, documented by Sigerico, Archbishop of Canterbury, during 990 and 994 CE.

The importance of the road for spiritual tourism led to the construction of a wealth of early churches with outstanding paintings: a sensory overload of stark Romanesque beauties, known as pievi, such as those to be found in Lucca and San Gimignano, for example. Some towns, such as Siena, developed into important centres of banking.

Trade along these pilgrim routes and the prosperity that travellers brought meant that the towns became commercial hubs and, ultimately, cradles of the Italian Renaissance. Prized also for their defensive hilltop locations, towns like San Gimignano – known as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages for its many medieval towers – also attracted significant artists, commissioned to decorate the ever-increasing number of buildings in these expanding towns. San Gimignano alone boasts significant works by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, Benozzo Gozzoli and Domenico Ghirlandaio!

San Gimignano, known as the Town of Fine Towers, is a small walled medieval hill town in the province of Siena, Tuscany

Local pride in central Italy

Finally, a trademark of these medieval towns is how they have retained their charm and authenticity, each of them with distinctive personalities. Each town has its own legends, stories and related festivals, and these are a real source of pride to local communities. It’s easy to get a feel for the colour of life in these towns, as you learn about and experience centuries’ old traditions, savour local culinary specialities and taste the local wines.

This medieval feel is most pronounced during the distinctive festivals (or sagre) specific to each town. Pisa celebrates local saint Ranieri in June by placing 70,000 wax candles along the Arno river, for example, while Lucca celebrates its precious volto santo – a crucifix thought to show Christ’s true face – with a historical procession. Pienza boasts the Fiera del Cacio, a celebration of its prestigious pecorino that sees children rolling huge wheels of the cheese down the main street of town in a hilarious race … and Siena naturally has its Palio, the famous horse race run twice a year at breakneck speed around the historic Campo, still fiercely contested by neighbourhood districts. These communities are truly the guardians of the medieval heritage!

Horses turn into the Campo’s most dangerous corner during the Palio held in Siena, Italy. Credit: Mike Hewitt /Allsport

Ten cultural experiences in Florence not to miss!

You’ve waited in line to see Michelangelo’s David and you’ve sighed over Botticelli’s Birth of Venus – so what else shouldn’t you miss in Florence, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance? Tour leader Dr Kathleen Olive, who lived and studied in this beautiful city, has some suggestions.

“As long as you avoid the major tourist sites, you can very much have Florence to yourself,” says Kathleen. “You just need to watch your program on Mondays, when most of the state-owned museums are closed, and plan to do most of your touring in the morning, as a number of the minor museums close at lunch and don’t re-open.”

 

1. Florence’s neglected history

The Museo Archeologico is a great place to appreciate Tuscany’s earliest history: don’t miss the wonderful Etruscan chimera, dug up in the sixteenth century in Arezzo, or the early Roman statuary. The garden, particularly lovely in spring, has reconstructions of Etruscan tombs.

Outside the museum, in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, the Museo degli Innocenti recently re-opened inside the Foundling Hospital designed by Brunelleschi in the fifteenth century. It’s a fascinating insight into the organisation of Florence’s long-running orphanage, and also contains some stand-out artworks by Domenico Ghirlandaio and Piero di Cosimo.

The rooftop café – which you can enter without visiting the museum, if you prefer – has wonderful views over the cathedral and out to Fiesole.

 

2. Medici Magic

The Museo di San Marco, not far from Piazza Santissima Annunziata, was once a Dominican convent which architect Michelozzo redesigned at the Medici family’s expense. It is now a museum dedicated to the art of Fra Angelico, the “angelic friar” who lived here and frescoed the monks’ cells with his quietly beautiful masterpieces.

A few hundred metres down the road is the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, once the family home and now used as state offices. A ticket gains you entry to the palace’s glittering jewel, the Cappella dei Magi, entirely frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli with the procession of the Wise Men.

 

3. Something completely different: Museo “La Specola”

Just beyond Palazzo Pitti is the Museum of Natural History, known as “La Specola” for the observation room that housed Galileo’s instruments.

It has a dusty collection of flora and fauna (the butterflies are wonderful), but the real highlight is the collection of wax anatomical models. They offer a fascinating insight into medical history of the Enlightenment, so I’d recommend it for anyone with this interest.

 

4. Beyond church fatigue

Not everyone has my tolerance for popping into every church I pass, looking for new treasures! But some of Florence’s churches offer just as much insight into the masterpieces of the past as museums like the Uffizi or Accademia do, and they’re rarely crowded.

I particularly recommend Santa Trinita (the Sassetti Chapel is a real highlight), Santa Maria Novella (now entirely a museum, and with wonderful works by Masaccio, Filippino Lippi and Paolo Uccello) and Orsanmichele (for early masterpieces by Ghiberti, Donatello and Giambologna).

 

5. Find the green spaces

Head up to the hillside above Florence, at Piazzale Michelangelo, not just for the stunning views over the city, but also for some of the best springtime gardens. The Iris Garden, where competition-winning blooms carpet an olive grove, is open in April and May only.

The Rose Garden, on the other side of the square, is open year-round but its blooms are best in May and June. It’s a lovely place for a picnic lunch, has a wonderful view, and is dotted with quirky sculptures donated to the city by Folon.

 

6. Take an artisan walking tour

Florence’s fortunes were based on the expertise of its craftsmen, and you can still visit many artisan workshops today. A lot of the leather you see in Florence now is imported, but if you go to the official Scuola del Cuoio (Tuscan Leather School) behind Santa Croce, you can see where the region is still training leatherworkers.

For paper, Il Torchio on Via dei Bardi makes paper and leather-bound books on the premises, and is a short walk from Alessandro Dari’s workshop – he’s a self-described “alchemical jeweller” whose amazing creations are displayed like fantastical artworks inside vitrines.

And for perfumes and toiletries, don’t miss the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella (which now has a sweet tea room inside), Aqua Flor on Borgo Santa Croce, or Monastica (a monastery shop inside the Florentine Badia).

 

7. Shop with the locals

Florence’s Mercato Centrale recently underwent a facelift, and now boasts a chi-chi gourmet foodhall on its upper floor. But for a more authentic experience, head near Santa Croce to the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio and spend a morning browsing with the locals.

Once you’ve had your fill of checking out the produce, you can have an inexpensive lunch inside at Trattoria da Rocco, which is a train-like compartment selling classic Tuscan fare based on the market produce outside. You’ll be seated alongside locals – lots of professors and students from the nearby university – and it’s a great experience.

 

8. Quirky museums

Very few people visit the Museo Stefano Bardini – he was an antiquarian (and, just quietly, a bit of a shyster) whose taste for displaying ancient artworks and modern recreations inspired Isabella Stewart Gardner back in Boston. His house museum in Florence has some wonderful pieces and is an interesting place to ponder the “rediscovery” of the Renaissance.

There’s a very inexpensive and sweet Shoe Museum under the Ferragamo shop on Via Tornabuoni, which tracks the company’s history making pieces for the great and the good, but which also hosts thoughtful contemporary art exhibitions.

And if you’ve never been to the Bargello museum, a treasure trove of sculpture (both large scale and small decorative objects) awaits you!

 

9. Get a different perspective

Queues to climb the cathedral’s dome are now very long and require advance bookings. Fewer people climb Giotto’s belltower, which enjoys the same view (and has less steps), and fewer again know that you can climb to the top of Orsanmichele in central Florence, free of charge, on Mondays.

To get a good view with even less exertion, head to the rooftop café on top of the Rinascente department store in Piazza della Repubblica.

 

10. Enjoy yourself!

I love a special glass of wine and nibbles at Volpi e l’Uva, just alongside the church of Santa Felicita, or at Cantinetta dei Verrazzano on Via dei Tavolini (right in the centre of town).

It’s a bit further out – near Santa Croce – but the young guys who run Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo have real verve and the food is a fantastic interpretation of classic Italian cuisine. Olio et Convivium is an intimate restaurant that specialises in Tuscan products – you’ll never look at bruschetta in the same way again!

And for a sweet treat, I head to Robiglio (tucked away near the cathedral on Via dei Tosinghi, or over near Santissima Annunziata) or Caffé Pazkowski in Piazza della Repubblica, where they still make their own pastries and cakes on the premises.