Central Italy, Florence & Tuscany
The rolling hills are covered with expanses of olive trees and vineyards, and interspersed with cypress rows and small groves of trees, The harmony and serenity of the countryside is exceptional throughout the entire Tuscan region. To the North of the Arno Basin are the Apuan Alps where you will find the beautiful white marble of Carrara. Florence lies in the heart of Tuscany at the center of the Arno Basin, where the silver green olive trees alternate with wheat, corn, and tobacco. In the south is the Chianti region famous for its wine.
From the 13th to the 16th century Florence was the intellectual and artistic center of the Western world. This period and movement became known as the “Renaissance” and extended to all over Europe. Artist such as Dante, Machiavelli, Giotto, Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Michelangelo thrived during this era. Virtually all Italian artists, either as a painter, a writer, a poet, a sculptor, or an architect, worked and lived in Florence at some point. Three to four days are recommended to visit Florence and most of the sightseeing can be done on foot.
In the Piazza del Duomo is the Cathedral, Santa Maria dei Fiori, the Campanile, and the Baptistery. See the interior and exterior and walk up the Dome, a masterpiece of Brunelleschi, to see a magnificent panorama of the city.
Take time to admire the details of the bronze doors of the Baptistery and to visit the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, with the unfinished Pieta by Michelangelo.
Piazza della Signoria is a short walk from the cathedral and is formed by the Palazzo Vecchio, the Loggia della Signoria, and the Uffizi Gallery. This Piazza is an open air museum with a collection of statues: Cosimo I on his horse, Neptune Fountain by Ammannati, copies of David by Michelangelo and Marzocco, and the heraldic lion, symbol of Florence by Donatello.
As you stroll around the city you can easily visit virtually every single famous site:
The Ponte Vecchio which spans over the Arno River with its jewelry shops.
The Pitti Palace, a 15th century Renaissance construction built by the Pitti Family, a rival of the Medici.
The Boboli Gardens, Italian style terraced gardens designed by Tribolo and with Renaissance and antique statues throughout.
The Palazzo e Museo Nazionale del Bargello, a medieval austere residence which later became police headquarters.
San Lorenzo, near the Palace of the Medici, was the private church of the Medici family where most of the family is buried.
The Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana contains thousands of manuscripts, displayed in rotation or sometimes accessible by special request. This building was commended by Prince Lorenzo the Magnificent and you can still see the beautiful 5th century cloisters and the very elegant staircase.
The other two churches of great interest are Santa Maria Novella with its 13th century attached Dominican monastery, and Santa Croce, a church and cloisters for the Franciscans.
The two most popular visits which require advance reservations are the Galleria Dell’Accademia, where you will appreciate the originality, the vision and perfection of the works of Michelangelo, especially when you see the unfinished pieces he was working on; and the Galleria degli Uffizi, considered as one of the richest art museums in the world, and which highlights collections from several generations of the Medici Family. The Botticelli room with the Birth of Venus is the most famous masterpiece visitors want to see. Without a reservation, you may have an extended wait in line and perhaps even see the closing of the Museum before you can get in. Even with a reservation you need to be prompt, because if you are late your ticket will no longer be valid. This museum is visited by millions of visitors every year, and by necessity they need to closely manage the flow of visitors.
An hour and a half drive south from Florence, by car or by coach Siena can be a day excursion and is an opportunity to see another historic and charming Tuscan city. It is a medieval city fully surrounded by ramparts and various gates, which can be confusing when you park your car outside the city walls. The narrow streets lined with palaces and mansions, converge toward the central Piazza del Campo, where twice a year the popular festival del “Palio delle Contrade” takes place. The whole town prepares for this authentic period piece horse race for weeks and months in advance. Various “contrade” (city parish teams) compete aggressively for the cherished title of winner, and much heavy betting takes place. The Duomo, the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana, and the Battistero San Giovanni are all worth visiting. Siena is also the birthplace of Saint Catherine, and pilgrims come and visit the house where she was born and lived.
Midway between Florence and Siena is San Gimignano, another landmark of Tuscany with it numerous medieval towers which gave the nickname to San Gimignano Dalle Belle Torri. This is the place of the historic rivalry between noble families, the Ghibellines, who were supporters of the Emperor, and the Guelphs, supporters of the Pope. Its wealth was due in the Middle Ages to the textile industry and to the well kept secret of the yellow saffron dye. Piazza della Cisterna, Piazza del Duomo, Palazzo del Popolo are the main sites to be visited.
Pisa is an easy day or half day excursion by train or coach, out of Florence. Despite it’s fame, it is a quiet little town by the sea. Most tourist only come for a few hours to visit the extraordinary combination of Monuments built in the Campo dei Miracoli, outside the city center. This incredible complex is formed by 4 different buildings, the Duomo, a splendid Cathedral, the Torre Pendiente (Leaning Tower), a 1189 feet high tower built between 1173 and 1350, and the Battistero and the Campo Santo, a burial ground dating from 1277.
In the center of a fertile plain, Lucca is a Roman city with remparts and a rich collection of churches, palaces, squares and streets. The Duomo, San Michele in Foro, and San Frediano are the most interesting churches of Lucca. A three mile promenade along the remparts is a great experience, and includes 11 bastions linked by walls and 4 gateways. The Old Town, with Gothic and Renaissance buildings, coats of arms, sculpted doorways, wrought iron balconies and old shops, is quite charming.
This is a fashionable and very frequented thermal spa in Italy. Europeans come here and take the waters for treatments of the stomach, the intestines and the liver. Besides a visit to the spa the Museo Dell’Academia d’Arte exhibits personal belongings of Puccini and Verdi among Italian paintings.
When you visit Tuscany you can move around daily, stay in one of the main centers mentioned above and plan daily excursions. You can also choose a charming property in a Tuscan farm where you will share the farmer’s life and enjoy the harmony, tranquility, and charm of a region made glorious by the light and the ambiance of nature.
Umbria is very hilly and shares similar characters with nearby Tuscany. With small valleys and many rivers, including the Tiber, it presents a green landscape with pastures and farming. HistorIcally, it goes back to the pre-Roman Etruscan civilization which was established between the 8th and 3rd century BCE. It is also the land of Saint Francis who is from Assisi.
Assisi is located along the slopes of Mount Subasio. It is surrounded by walls and has kept its medieval ambiance. Saint Francis was born here in 1182, the son of a rich draper. He created the San Franciscan Order of Minors and preached absolute poverty, humility, contemplation, peace and serving others. This marked a turning point in the artistic world and Saint Francis love for nature influenced many of the artists of the time. Especially Cimabue and Giotto, who came to work on the Basilica and transformed its rigid and austere byzantine style into a more dramatic, natural, and spiritual atmosphere. The Basilica is divided into upper and lower buildings (basilicas superiore and inferiore). In the heart of the city stands the Rocca Maggiore, a 14th century military fortress from where you’ll have splendid views over the town; Santa Chiara, with a great view of the Umbrian countryside from the front of the Church; Duomo San Rufino a 12th century cathedral with a romanesque facade; and the city square called Piazza del Comune.
This is one of the 12 Etruscan city-states going back to the 7th and 6th century BCE. It is built on top of a hill, and has conserved many of its picturesque medieval buildings, including an aqueduct. It is the capital of Umbria and is also well known for its university. Piazza IV Novembre is located in the heart of the city and is the location of the Great Fountain, the Cathedral, and the Priors Palace; also at one end of the square passes the Via Maesta delle Volte, a very picturesque street with vaulted passageways.
Gubbio is another small Umbrian town built on the steep slopes of a hill, Monte Ingino. The remparts made of warm yellow stone encircle the houses covered with roman tiles. Strong supporters of the Ghibelline cause, in favor of the Emperor, Gubbio enjoyed a period of expansion and prosperity which which declined when it came under papal domination in 1624. As you stroll around the city you will see the Citta Vecchia (old town), the Palazzo dei consoli, the palazzo Ducale, The Roman Theatre, San Francesco Church and the the Duomo.
Ceramic art has been a local specialty since the Middle ages. Among various annual festivities the most unique and spectacular is the “Ceri Race” (candle race) each year on May 15.
Orvieto is another Etruscan city which succumbed to the power of the Pope when in 1527 Charles V of France and his troops sacked Rome, and Clement V took refuge in Orvieto. The city is built on the top of a volcanic rock, The beautiful Duomo is majestuous and is a good example of the transition between romanesque and gothic styles. The facade shows a sumptuous decoration of multicolored marble and mosaics, while inside there are admirable frescoes painted in the Capilla della Madonna, a unique Reliquary masterpiece of a goldsmith, and a fine gothic stained glass window.
Underground Orvieto is a maze of caves which are carved into the rock of the volcanic hill on which the city lies. The majority of these chambers already existed in Etruscan times. More than 1000 are listed and they are now used to store the local wine output. These cellars have also sheltered funerary chambers.
Another unique site of Orvieto is the Pozzo di San Patrizio (St Patrick’s Well). It was carved straight down into the volcanic rock by order of Pope Clement VII de Medici, and was used to supply water in case of a siege. This well is 203 feet deep, and keeps water pure and cool. It is made of 2 spiral staircases, lit by 72 windows, winding up and down without meeting.
The region is located on the Adriatic coast between the Republic of San Marino, one of the world’s smallest states with its own coinage, postage stamps, army and police, and the town and Province of Ascoli Piceno. It is formed by the provinces of Ancona, Ascoli Piceno, Fermo, Macerata, and Pesaro e Urbino.
Ancona is the main city of the Marches region and is built in the form of an amphitheatre along the slopes of a rocky area. It is a very busy port with traffic primarily across the Adriatic Sea to Croatia and Greece. The main specialty of Ancona is the production of accordions, electronic organs and guitars. Interesting sites include the Duomo, the 15th century Hall of the Merchants (La Loggia dei Mercanti), and Santa Maria della Piazza, a small 10th century Romanesque church.
Rose colored brick house are prominent on the 2 hills that form Urbino. It is a walled city that was ruled for many generations by the Montefeltro Family, and in 1998 it became a Unesco World Heritage site. The sites to visit are the 15th century Ducal Palace, la Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, and la Casa de Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino where the painter was born in 1483. La Strada Panoramica is a scenic road which starts at Piazza de Roma, skirts the hill, and allows splendid panoramas with hues of pink all over the lower town, the Ducal Palace and the Cathedral. Do not miss it !