Frommer's Italy (2015)
Classic Chianti wines.
As the cradle of the Renaissance, Tuscany and Umbria are famously graced with some of the world’s most mesmerizing art and architecture. They are also lands of lush, fertile landscapes, snowcapped Apennine mountains, and olive groves and vineyards that produce rich oils and world-famous wines.
The everyday beauty and unsophisticated, easy charm that welcomes you in these regions leave no doubt that these are places apart. The narrow medieval lanes and stony piazzas of Lucca; the morning mists in the valley below Assisi; the sublime art and architecture of Gothic Siena—these are near the top of the list of the pleasures that lie in wait for you in this stretch of Italy, but so are so many other sights and experiences. Just for starters, consider also:
PIAZZAS Piazza del Campo, the scallop-shaped setting for Siena’s famous Palio race, is the heart of the city and an icon of medieval town planning. Simple and serene, Todi’s Piazza del Popolo is Umbria’s most majestic square, with 13th-century palazzi complemented by a 12th-century Duomo.
CHURCHES Western art was born at the glorious Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, the Gothic Upper Church of which houses Giotto’s 28-part fresco, “The Life of St. Francis.” Garish or glorious, there’s nothing on the planet quite like Orvieto’s Duomo, and don’t miss some gruesome interpretations of the Last Judgment inside.
PAINTINGS Siena’s Museo Civico is a showcase for Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s civic “Allegories.” Umbria’s top gallery, the Galleria Nazionale in Perugia houses Perugino’s moving “Adoration” and Piero della Francesca’s “Annunciation,” painted in precise perspective.
ARCHITECTURE No building in the world is more instantly recognizable than Pisa’s 12th-century Leaning Tower. Spoleto’s awe-inspiring Ponte delle Torri, 90m (295 ft.) above the Tessino gorge, is impressive enough—even more intriguing is how the Romans managed to build the aqueduct that preceded it.
70km (43 miles) S of Florence, 232km (144 miles) N of Rome
Siena was Florence’s longtime rival, and this medieval city of brick seems to have come out on top in terms of grace and elegance. With steep, twisting stone alleys and proud churches, palaces, and crenellated public buildings draped across its gentle hillsides, Siena is for many admirers the most beautiful town in Italy. At its heart is a ravishing piazza, and from its heights rises a magnificent duomo of striped marble.
The city trumpets the she-wolf as its emblem, a holdover from its days as Saena Julia, the Roman colony founded by Augustus about 2,000 years ago (though the official Sienese myth has the town founded by the sons of Remus, younger brother of Rome’s legendary forefather). Civic projects and artistic prowess reached their greatest heights in the 13th and 14th centuries, when artists invented a distinctive Sienese style while banking and a booming wool industry made Siena one of the richest Italian republics. Then, in 1348, the Black Death killed perhaps three-quarters of the population, decimating the social fabric and devastating the economy. Siena never recovered, and much of this city of rose-colored brick has barely changed since, inviting you to slip into the rhythms and atmosphere of the Middle Ages.
GETTING THERE By Train Some 19 trains daily connect Siena with Florence (usually 90 min.), via Empoli. Siena’s train station is at Piazza Roselli, about 3km (13⁄4 miles) north of town. Take the no. 9 or 10 bus to Piazza Gramsci (buy your ticket at the newsstand in the station; bus stops are poorly marked, but you do not want the one right out front; instead, cross the street, go into the big brick shopping center, and take the escalator down to the underground bus stop; be sure to say “Gramsci” when you board, or you can end up in a far flung outlying district). You can also take a series of escalators up to town from the shopping center—these too are poorly marked, but as long as you’re going up you’re moving in the right direction.
By Bus Buses are faster and let you off right in town: TRA-IN and SITA (www.sitabus.it) codeshare express (corse rapide; around 25 daily; 75 min.) and slower buses (corse ordinarie; 14 daily; 95 min.) from Florence’s main bus station to Siena’s Piazza Gramsci. Siena is also connected with San Gimignano (at least hourly Mon-Sat; 10 direct, the rest change in Poggibonsi; 65-80 min. not including layover), Perugia (two to four daily; 90 min.), and Rome’s Tiburtina station (five to nine daily; 3 hr.).
By Car There’s a fast road direct from Florence (it has no route number; follow the green signs toward Siena), or take the more scenic route, down the Chiantigiana SS222. From Rome get off the A1 north at the Val di Chiana exit and follow the SS326 west for 50km (31 miles). From Pisa take the highway toward Florence and exit onto the SS429 south just before Empoli (100km/62 miles total). The easiest way into the center is from the Siena Ovest highway exit.
Siena parking (www.sienaparcheggi.com; 0577-228-711) is in well-signposted lots outside the city gates. An especially handy lot is Santa Caterina, from which escalators whisk you up to town. Most charge between .50€ and 1.60€ per hour. Many hotels have discount arrangements with lots; around 15€ per day is standard.
GETTING AROUND You can get anywhere you want to go on foot, with a bit of climbing. Minibuses, called pollicini (www.sienamobilita.it; 0577-204-246), run quarter-hourly (every half-hour Sat afternoon and all day Sun) from the main gates into the city center from 6:30am to 8:30pm.
You can call for a radio taxi at 0577-49-222 (7am-9pm only); they also queue at the train station and in town at Piazza Matteotti.
VISITOR INFORMATION The tourist office, where you can get a fairly useless free map or pay .50€ for a detailed one, is at Piazza del Campo 56 (www.terresiena.it; 0577-280-551). It’s open Monday to Saturday 9am to 7pm (10am-5pm Nov-Mar), Sunday 10am to 1pm.
Where to Stay
It’s best to come to this popular town with a reservation. If you don’t have one, stop by the Siena Hotels Promotion booth on Piazza San Domenico (www.hotelsiena.com; 0577-288-084), where for 1.50€ to 4€, depending on the category of hotel, they’ll find you a room and reserve it—but remember, this is a private agency that works on commission with hotels, so their selection is limited to hotels with which they have a deal. The booth is open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 7pm (until 8pm in summer). The city tourist office also books accommodations for a fee.
Antica Torre A 16th-century tower house dishes up no-end of medieval atmosphere, with eight smallish rooms tucked onto four floors. If you don’t mind the climb, the two on the top floor come with the advantage of views across the tile rooftops, and just treading on the old stones on the staircase is a pleasure. All rooms have marble floors, brick and timbered ceilings, handsome iron bedsteads, and plenty of other character that for some guests may compensate for the fairly cramped quarters, small bathrooms, and lack of many hotel services. Continental breakfast (extra) can get the day off to a rocky start, literally, as it’s served downstairs in a rough-hewn stone vault.
Via di Fiera Vecchia 7. www.anticatorresiena.it. 0577-222-255. 8 units. 110€ double. Amenities: Smoke-free rooms, Wi-Fi (free).
Hotel Alma Domus The modern redo of the former drying rooms of a medieval wool works is run by the nuns of St. Catherine, who provide crisply homey and spotless lodgings with a slightly contemporary flair. Terraced into the hillside below San Domenico church, near the Fontebranda, the oldest and most picturesque of the city’s fountains, the place has a quiet, retreat-like air—even a meditative, monastic calm, if you choose to see it that way—along with a great perk, city-view balconies in many rooms. Breakfast is included, but it’s a bit monastic, and you may want to walk up the hill and enjoy a cappuccino in the Campo.
Via Camporegio 37. www.hotelalmadomus.it. 0577-44-177. 28 units. 54€-61€ double. Rates include breakfast. Bus: A (red). Amenities: Smoke-free rooms, Wi-Fi (free).
Palazzo Ravizza Generations of travelers have fallen under the spell of this 17th-century Renaissance palazzo, where high ceilings, oil paintings, highly polished antiques, and the gentle patina of age all seem to suggest a time of grand travel. High-ceilinged salons are set up for lounging, with deep couches and card tables, even a grand piano, and a large garden in the rear stretches towards green hills. All the rooms are different, though most have wood beams and a surfeit of period detail, including frescoes and coffered ceilings in some, and furnishings throughout are comfortable and traditionally stylish. While this wonderful old place has the aura of a country hideaway, it’s right in the city center, just a few streets below the Piazza del Campo.
Pian dei Mantellini 34 (near Piazza San Marco). www.palazzoravizza.it. 0577-280-462. 35 units. 90€-150€ double. Rates include breakfast. Free parking. Closed early Jan to early Feb. Bus: A (green, yellow). Amenities: Bar; babysitting; concierge; room service; smoke-free rooms; Wi-Fi (free).
Santa Caterina You’ll forgo a center of town location to stay here, but being just outside the walls—literally so, as this is the first house after Porta Roma, about a 10-minute walk from Piazza del Campo—comes with the advantage of making you feel like you are in the countryside. A large, shady garden enhances the feeling, and you can breakfast and enjoy a drink under the trees in good weather; for indoor lounging, there’s a snug little bar, a well-upholstered, book-lined lounge, and a glass-enclosed breakfast room. Most of the cozy and atmospheric rooms, with wood-beamed ceilings, simple wood furnishings, and nice old prints on the walls, face the back, where wide-sweeping views of the rolling greenery of the Val d’Orcia seem to go on forever. One choice room has a little balcony overlooking this scene, and a few others are two-level, with bedrooms tucked beneath the eaves. Just make sure to get a rear-facing room, because facing the street out front would mean missing the wonderful view.
Via Enea Silvio Piccolomini 7. www.hscsiena.it. 0577-221-105. 22 units. 85€-195€ double. Rates include buffet breakfast. Bus: A (pink) or 2. Amenities: Babysitting; bikes; concierge; parking (fee); smoke-free rooms; Wi-Fi (free).
Where to Eat
The Enoteca Italiana in the 16th-century Fortezza Medicea di Santa Barbara is the only state-sponsored wine bar in Italy, in vaults that were built for Cosimo de’ Medici in 1560 (www.enoteca-italiana.it; 0577-228-843; Mon noon-8pm; Tues-Sat noon-1am). You can sample a choice selection of Italian wines by the glass and accompany your choices with small plates of meats and cheeses. Every Italian city has a favorite gelateria, and Siena’s is Kopakabana, at Via de’ Rossi 52-54 (www.gelateriakopakabana.it; 0577-223-744; mid-Feb to mid-Nov noon-8pm, later in warm weather), with flavors that include panpepato, based on the peppery Sienese cake.
Antica Osteria da Divo CONTEMPORARY SIENESE It’s hard to know what the appropriate cuisine might be for this almost-eerie setting of brick vaulting, exposed timbers, walls of bare rock, and even some Etruscan tombs—either some sort of medieval gruel or perhaps something innovatively refined, which is where this menu goes. Many of the offerings are uniquely Sienese, as in pici alla lepre (thick spaghetti in hare sauce), sella di cinghiale (saddle of wild boar braised in Chianti), or a breast of guinea fowl (faraona) roasted with balsamic vinegar—such meals are well paired with vegetables, often caramelized onions or crisp roasted potatoes with herbs. Service is outstanding, and as befits one of the most romantic meals in town, the intimate spaces are beautifully candlelit at night.
Via Franciosa 25-29 (2 streets down from the left flank of the Duomo). www.osteriadadivo.it. 0577-284-381. Main courses 20€-24€. Wed-Mon noon-2:30pm and 7-10:30pm. Closed 2 weeks Jan-Feb. Bus: A (green, yellow).
Which Cumulative Tickets to Buy?
Siena should offer a free bottle of wine to visitors who manage to figure out the bewildering range of reduced-price cumulative ticket combos on offer. The two you should care about and purchase (at participating sights) are the Musei Comunali pass (11€; valid for 2 days), for admission to Museo Civico and Santa Maria della Scala, both of which are must-sees, and the OPA pass, for entry to the Duomo, Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana, Baptistery, Cripta, and Oratorio di San Bernardino for 10€—the savings on entrance to the first three alone, not to be missed, make the pass a good investment.
La Chiacchera SIENESE A hole in the wall is an apt description for one tiny, rustically decorated room tucked about halfway along a steep alleyway—the climb can help work up an appetite or work off the large portions of ribollita, a hearty bread and vegetable soup; salsicce e fagioli (sausage and white beans); or tegamata di maiale, a Sienese pork casserole. Good weather provides a unique dining experience on the street out in front, where the legs of the tables and chairs have been cut to accommodate the steep slope.
Costa di Sant’Antonio 4 (near San Domenico). www.osterialachiacchera.it. 0577-280-631. Main courses 7€-8€. Daily noon-3pm and 7pm-midnight. Bus: A (red).
La Sosta di Violante SIENESE A warm, friendly, rose-hued room is only a 5-minute walk from Piazza del Campo but just far enough off the beaten track to seem like a getaway (sosta means rest or break, as in “take a break”). The surroundings and menu attract a mostly neighborhood crowd that has come to count on the kitchen for excellent preparations of parpadelle, pici, and other classic Tuscan pastas in rich sauces. Grilled Florentine steaks are another specialty, but so are many unusual vegetarian menu choices, including delicious fritelle di pecorino, pecorino cheese fritters, and a cauliflower (cavolfiore) soufflé. Any civic-minded Sienese would get this reference to Violante, the Bavarian born 18th-century duchess who, after the death of her Medici husband from syphilis, became a beneficent governor of Siena and divided the city into its famous present-day contrade.
Via di Pantaneta 115. www.lasostadiviolante.it. 0577-43774. Main courses 7€-15€. Mon-Sat 12:30-2:30pm and 7:30-10:30pm. Bus: A (pink).
L’Osteria TUSCAN/GRILL One of Siena’s great culinary treasures is this simple, tile-floored, wood-beamed room where straightforward, local cuisine is expertly prepared and served at extremely reasonable prices. Truffles occasionally appear in some special preparations, but for most of the year the short menu sticks to the classics—pici al cinghale (with wild boar sauce), tripe (trippa) stew, and thick steaks, accompanied by fagioli bianchi (white beans) and patate fritte (fried potatoes). Service can be brusque, but that’s just because nightly crowds keep the waiters hopping.
Via de’ Rossi 79-81. 0577-287-592. Main courses 8€-21€. Mon-Sat 12:30-2:30pm and 7:30-10:30pm. Bus: A (red).
At the heart of Siena is a serious contender for the most beautiful square in Italy, the sloping, scallop-shell-shaped Piazza del Campo (Il Campo). Laid out in the 1100s on the site of the Roman forum, the welcoming expanse is a testament to the city’s civic achievements; it’s dominated by a crenellated town hall, the Palazzo Pubblico (1297-1310), and the herringbone brick pavement is divided by white marble lines into nine sections representing the city’s medieval ruling body, the Council of Nine. A poor 19th-century replica of Jacopo della Quercia’s 14th-century fountain, the Fonte Gaia, is on one side of the square (some of the restored, but badly eroded, original panels are in Santa Maria della Scala (see below). The dominant public monument is the slender 100m-tall (328-ft.) brick Torre del Mangia (1338-48), named for a slothful bell ringer nicknamed Mangiaguadagni, or “profit eater.” (There’s an armless statue of him in the courtyard.) From the platform at top of the 503 steps the undulating Tuscan hills seem to rise and fall to the ends of the earth (8€, mid-Oct to Feb 10am-4pm, Mar to mid-Oct 10am-7pm).
Piazza del Campo and Torre del Mangia in Siena.
Duomo CATHEDRAL Much of the artistic greatness of Siena comes together in the black-and-white-marble cathedral, begun in the 12th century and completed in the 13th century, a magnificent example of Italian Gothic architecture. You should come away from a visit with a greater appreciation for the Pisanos, father and son. Nicola was the principal architect of the church, until he fell out of favor with the group overseeing construction and left Siena, while young Giovanni did much of the carving on the facade, where a vast army of prophets and apostles appears around the three portals (most of the originals are now in the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana; see p. 215). They both worked on the pulpit, where the faithful may have taken great comfort in the sumptuously sculpted scenes of the life of Christ and the prophets and evangelists announcing salvation.
Beneath the pulpit spreads a flooring mosaic of 59 etched and inlaid marble panels (1372-1547), a showpiece for 40 of Siena’s medieval and Renaissance artistic luminaries. Most prolific among them was Domenico Beccafumi, born into a local peasant family and adopted by his lord, who saw the boy’s talent for drawing. Beccafumi studied in Rome but returned to Siena and spent much of his career designing 35 scenes for the flooring (from 1517-47); his richly patterned images are a repository of Old Testament figures. Matteo di Giovanni, another Sienese, did a gruesome Slaughter of the Innocents—a favorite theme of the artist, whose fresco of the same scene is in Santa Maria della Scala (see p. 217). Many of the panels are protected by cardboard overlays and uncovered only from mid-August to early October in honor of the Palio.
Umbrian Renaissance master Bernardino di Betto (better known as Pinturicchio, or Little Painter, because of his stature) is the star in the Libreria Piccolomini, entered off the left aisle. Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini (later Pope Pius III—for all of 18 days before he died in office) built the library in 1487 to house the illuminated manuscripts of his famous uncle, a popular Sienese bishop who later became Pope Pius II. Pinturicchio’s frescoes depict 10 scenes from the Pope’s life, including an especially dramatic departure for the Council of Basel as a storm rages in the background.
In the Baptistery (not a separate building but beneath the choir), the great trio of Sienese and Florentine sculptors of the early Renaissance, Jacopo della Quercia, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Donatello, crafted the gilded bronze panels of the baptismal font. Donatello wrought the dancing figure of Salome in the “Feast of Herod,” and della Quercia did the statue of St. John that stands high above the marble basin.
Piazza del Duomo. 0577-283-048. Admission on cumulative ticket, or 3€, except when floor uncovered 6€. Mar-May and Sept-Oct Mon-Sat 10:30am-7:30pm, Sun 1:30-5:30pm; Nov-Feb Mon-Sat 10:30am-6:30pm, Sun 1:30-5:30pm; June-Aug Mon-Sat 10:30am-8pm, Sun 1:30-6pm. Baptistery: Piazza San Giovanni (down the stairs around the rear right flank of the Duomo). 0577-283-048. Admission on cumulative ticket, or 3€. Mid-June to mid-Sept daily 9:30am-8pm; mid-Sept to Oct and Mar to mid-June daily 9:30am-7pm; Nov-Feb daily 10am-5pm.
Museo Civico/Palazzo Pubblico MUSEUM Siena’s medieval governors, the Council of Nine, met in the Sala della Pace, and to help ensure they bore their duties responsibly, in 1338 Ambrogio Lorenzetti frescoed the walls with what has become the most important piece of secular art to survive from medieval Europe. His “Allegory of Good and Bad Government and Their Effects on the Town and Countryside” provides not only a moral lesson but also a remarkable visual record of the Siena and the surrounding countryside as it appeared in the 14th century. Probably not by accident, the good government frescoes are nicely illuminated by natural light, while scenes of bad government are cast in shadow and have also deteriorated over the years. In an uplifting panorama on the good side of the room, the towers, domes and rooftops of Siena appear much as they do today, with horseman, workers, and townsfolk going about their daily affairs; in the countryside, genteel lords on horseback overlook bountiful fields. On the bad government side, streets are full of rubble, houses are collapsing in frame, and soldiers are killing and pillaging; in the countryside, fields are barren and villages are ablaze.
Among other frescoes in these rooms is Sienese painter Simone Martini’s greatest work, and his first, a “Maestà” (or Majesty), finished in 1315 (he went over it again in 1321), in the Sala del Mappamondo. He shows the Virgin Mary as a medieval queen beneath a royal canopy, surrounded by a retinue of saints, apostles, and angels. The work introduces not only a secular element to a holy scene but also a sense of three-dimensional depth and perspective that later came to the fore in Renaissance painting. Mary’s presence here in the halls of civil power reinforces the idea of good government, with the Virgin presiding as a protector of the city. Just opposite is another great Martini work (though the attribution has been called into question), the “Equestrian Portrait of Guidoriccio da Fogliano.” The depiction of a proud mercenary riding past a castle he has just conquered was part of a long lost “castelli,” or “castles,” fresco cycle that showed off Sienese conquests.
Something New Under the Duomo
Siena’s “newest” work of art is a cycle of frescoes painted between 1270 and 1275, discovered during excavation work in 1999. The colorful works are on view in the subterranean room called the Cripta, though it was never used for burials. Most likely the room was a lower porch for the duomo (staircases lead to the nave), but it became a storeroom when the choir above was expanded. What remains are fascinating fragments of scenes from the New Testament, full of emotion and done in vibrant colors. Scholars are still trying to determine who painted what in the room. Entry is included on the OPA pass (see p. 211), which includes the Duomo upstairs and other sights, or is 6€.
SIENA’S SAINTLY SCHOLAR
Catherine Benincasa (1347-1380), one of 25 children of a wealthy Sienese cloth dyer, had her first vision of Christ when she was 5 or 6 and vowed to devote her entire life to God. She took a nun’s veil but not the vows when a teenager, was wed “mystically” to Christ when she was 21, and became known for helping the poor and infirm. She and her followers traveled throughout central Italy promoting “the total love for God” and a stronger church. Aside from founding a woman’s monastery outside Siena, she served as Siena’s ambassador to Pope Gregory XI in Avignon, encouraging his return to Rome, and continued to write him and other Italian leaders and to travel extensively, begging for peace and the reform of the clergy and the papal states. She fasted almost continually, and the toll this took on her health is attributed to her death at age 33.
The cavernous, stark church of San Domenico in Piazza San Domenico (free admission; 9am-6:30pm daily) houses Catherine’s venerated head, preserved in a gold reliquary, and her thumb. Her family home, The Casa di Santa Caterina, Costa di Sant’Antonio ( 0577-44177; free admission; 9am-6pm daily), has been preserved as a religious sanctuary; the former kitchen is now an oratory with a spectacular 16th-century majolica-tiled floor.
The Archivio di Stato, a near neighbor off the southeast corner of the Campo at Via Banchi di Sotto 52, preserves Boccaccio’s will and Jacopo della Quercia’s contract for the Fonte Gaia ( 0577-241-745; free admission; Mon-Sat hourly viewings at 9:30, 10:30, and 11:30am) Most riveting is a remarkable set of wooden covers dating back to 1258 and made for the city’s account books, the “Tavolette di Biccherna.” They’re painted with religious scenes, daily working life in the civic offices, and important events in Siena’s history.
Palazzo Pubblico, Piazza del Campo. 0577-292-226. Admission on cumulative ticket with Torre del Mangia 13€; or 7.50€ adults with reservation, 8€ adults without reservation; 4€ students and seniors 65 and over with reservation, 3.50€ students and seniors without reservation; free for ages 11 and under. Nov-Mar 15 daily 10am-6pm; Mar 16-Oct daily 10am-7pm. Bus: A (pink), B.
Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana MUSEUM In 1339, Siena decided to show off its political, artistic, and spiritual prominence by expanding the Duomo. Work had just begun when the Black Death killed more than half the city’s inhabitants in 1348, and the project ground to halt, never to be resumed—partly because it was discovered the foundations could not support the massive structure. The abortive new nave, part of the so-called “New Duomo,” now houses many of the church’s treasures, including the glorious-if-worse-for-wear statues by Giovanni Pisano that once adorned the facade and the 30 sq. m (323 sq. ft.) stained glass window made for the apse in the late 1280s; the nine colorful panels, beautifully illuminated to full effect in these new surroundings, depict the Virgin Mary, Siena’s four patron saints, and the four Biblical Evangelists.
Upstairs is the “Maestà” by Duccio di Buoninsenga, considered a masterpiece from the day the altarpiece was unveiled in 1311 and carried in a solemn procession from the painter’s workshop on Via Stalloreggi to the Duomo’s altar. As a contemporary wrote, “all honorable citizens of Siena surrounded said panel with candles held in their hands, and women and children followed humbly behind.” The front depicts the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints and angels while the back once displayed 46 scenes from the lives of Mary and Christ. In 1711 the altarpiece was dismantled and pieces are now in collections around the world, though what remains here shows the genius of Duccio, who slowly broke away from a one-dimensional Byzantine style to imbue his characters with nuance, roundness, and emotion.
The Facciatone, a walkway atop the would-be facade of the “New Duomo,” is the city’s second most popular viewpoint, with a stunning perspective of the cathedral across the piazza and sweeping views over the city’s rooftops to Siena’s favorite height, the Torre del Mangia towering over the Campo.
Piazza del Duomo 8. www.operaduomo.siena.it. 0577-283-048. Admission on cumulative ticket, or 6€. Mid-June to mid-Sept daily 9:30am-8pm; mid-Sept to Oct and Mar to mid-June daily 9:30am-7pm; Nov-Feb daily 10am-5pm.
Pinacoteca Nazionale ART MUSEUM The greatest works of Sienese art have long since been dispersed to museums around the world, but here you’ll have the chance to get an overview of the works of the city’s major artists, especially those working in the 12th through the 16th centuries, nicely displayed in the Brigidi and Buonsignori palaces. What you’ll soon notice is that while the Renaissance was flourishing in Florence, Siena held to its old ways, and works are rich in Byzantine gold and an almost Eastern influence in the styling. The collection tends to shift around a bit, but a walk through the second floor galleries will show you what you want to see.
Among the works of Duccio (of the famous “Maestà” in the Museo dell’Opera) is an enchanting “Madonna and Child with Saints,” in which a placid, otherworldly looking Mary holds a very wise-looking Jesus. Simone Martini (painter of Siena’s other great “Maestà,” in the Museo Civico) did the wonderful “Agostino Novello altarpiece,” in which the saint is shown performing all sorts of heroic deeds, such as flying over boulders to save a monk trapped in a ravine; in many of the panels you’ll notice Sienese street scenes. Works by the Lorenzetti brothers include some charming landscapes by Ambrogio (artist of “Allegory of Good and Bad Government and Their Effects on the Town and Countryside” in the Palazzo Pubblico); his “Castle on the Lake” is almost surrealistic, an architectural fantasy reminiscent of the 20th-century works of Giorgio di Chirico. Pietro’s “Madonna of the Carmelites,” an altarpiece the artist executed for the Carmelite church in Siena, shows the Virgin and Child in a distinctly medieval setting, surrounded by members of the order in 14th-century garb, along with a typically Sienese landscape, complete with horsemen and planted hillsides. Domenico Beccafumi’s cartoons, or sketches, for his floor panels in the Duomo are on the first floor.
Via San Pietro 29. 0577-286-143. Admission 4€. Sun-Mon 9am-1pm; Tues-Sat 8:15am-7:15pm.
A DAY AT THE RACES
Siena lets its guard down every year, on July 2 and again on August 16, when the Palio delle Contrade transforms the Piazza del Campo into a racetrack and hordes of spectators squeeze through the city’s narrow alleyways to watch. This aggressive bareback horserace around the Campo involves 10 of Siena’s 17 contrade (districts), chosen by lot to participate, and is preceded by a showy flag-waving ceremony and parade. The race itself is over in just 2 minutes. Frenzied celebrations greet the winning rider, and the day is rounded off with communal feasts in each district.
To witness the event, you’ll end up standing for hours in the sun and waging battle to get to a toilet. An easier way to enjoy the experience is to settle for the trial races, also held in the Campo (starting June 29 and Aug 13). There’s a crowd, but it’s smaller and tamer, and while trial races are not as fast and furious as the real thing, they are just as photogenic and fun to watch; there are usually six: mornings (9am) and late evenings (7:45pm June, 7:15pm Aug).
Another way to view the Palio in comfort is to reserve a spot in the temporary stands, on one of the surrounding terraces, or even at a window overlooking the campo. You should reserve a year in advance and expect to pay at least 350€ and as much as 700€ each. Among the travel agents handling arrangements is 2Be Travel Designers (www.paliotickets.com).
Santa Maria della Scala MUSEUM One of Europe’s first hospitals, probably founded around 1090, raised abandoned children, took care of the infirm, fed the poor, and lodged pilgrims who stopped in Siena as they made their way to and from Rome. These activities are recorded in scenes in the Sala del Pellegrinaio (Pilgrims’ Hall), where colorful depictions of patients and healers from the Middle Ages looked down upon rows of hospital beds as recently as the 1990s. Along with the “Allegory of Good and Bad Government and Their Effects on the Town and Countryside,” these are some of the finest secular works of the period. The color-rich 15th-century frescoes by Domenico di Bartolo and others show surgeons dressing a leg wound and holding a flask of urine to the light and caregivers offering fresh clothing to an indigent young man. One of Bartolo’s panels encapsulates an orphan’s lifetime experience at the hospital, as he pictures infants being weaned, youngsters being instructed by a stern-looking mistress, and a young couple being wed (young women raised in the hospital were given dowries). As these activities transpire, a dog and cat scuffle, foundlings climb up ladders toward the Virgin Mary, and wealthy benefactors stand on Oriental carpets.
Elsewhere in the hospital complex are other frescoes and altarpieces commissioned by the hospital as it acquired huge landholdings and considerable wealth over the centuries. One gallery houses some orginial panels from Jacopo della Quercia’s 14th-century fountain in the Piazza del Campo, the Fonte Gaia. In the cellars is the dark and eerie Oratorio di Santa Caterina della Notte, where St. Catherine allegedly passed her nights in prayer.
Piazza del Duomo 2. www.santamariadellascala.com. 0577-534-571. Admission on cumulative ticket, or 5.50€ with reservations, 6€ without reservations, free for ages 11 and under. Mar 17-Oct 15 daily 10:30am-6:30pm; Oct 16-Mar 16 daily 10:30am-4:30pm.
Siena is famous for its panforte, a sweet, dense cake city bakers created in the Middle Ages and still sold in shops all over town. Made from candied fruit and nuts glued together with honey, it resembles a gloopy fruit cake. Each shop has its own recipe, with the most popular varieties being sweet Panforte Margherita and bitter Panforte Nero. Try a slice at Drogheria Manganelli, Via di Città 71-73 ( 0577-280-002), which has made its own panforte and soft ricciarelli almond cookies since the 19th century.
Authentic Sienese ceramics feature only black, white, and the reddish-brown “burnt sienna,” or terra di Siena. Ceramiche Artistiche Santa Caterina, with showrooms at Via di Città 74-76 ( 0577-283-098) sells high-quality pieces, courtesy of Maestro Marcello Neri, who trained at Siena’s premier art and ceramics institutions, and his son, Fabio.
A Side Trip to Montepulciano
67km (41 miles) SE of Siena, 124km (77 miles) SE of Florence, 186km (116 miles) N of Rome
Sipping a delicious ruby wine in a friendly hill town is a good reason to trek across beautiful Tuscan countryside. Few better places to aim for than Montepulciano, with its medieval alleyways, Renaissance palaces and famous, violet-scented, orange-speckled Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
GETTING THERE Car is the best method: From Siena, the most scenic route is south on the SS2 to San Quirico d’Orcia, where you get the SS146 eastbound through Pienza to Montepulciano.
Six TRA-IN buses (www.trainspa.it; 0577-204-111) run daily from Siena (11⁄2 hr.). LFI ( 0578-31-174) buses run three times daily (none on Sun) from Florence to Bettolle, where you transfer for the bus to Montepulciano (21⁄4 hr. total). Montepulciano’s Corso is very steep indeed. If you are unfit, or suffer from health problems, take the bus. Little orange pollicini connect the junction just below the Porta al Prato and Piazza Grande in about 8 minutes. The official point of origin is “the fifth tree on the right above the junction.” Tickets cost 1€ each way (buy them on the bus) and run every 20 minutes
VISITOR INFORMATION Montepulciano’s tourist office is in the little parking lot just below Porta al Prato (www.prolocomontepulciano.it; 0578-757-341). It’s open daily from 9:30am to 12:30pm and 3 to 6pm (until 8pm in summer); it’s closed Sunday afternoons, but not for riposo in August.
It’s all-uphill from Porta al Prato, where the Medici balls above the gate hint at Montepulciano’s long association with Florence. The steep climb up the Corso comes with a look at some impressive palaces. At no. 91 is the massive Palazzo Avignonesi, with grinning lions’ heads, and across the street is the Palazzo Tarugi (no. 82). Both are by Vignola, the late Renaissance architect who designed Rome’s Villa Giulia. The lower level of the facade of the Palazzo Bucelli (no. 73) is embedded with a patchwork of Etruscan reliefs and funerary urns—placed there by 18th-century antiquarian scholar and former resident Pietro Bucelli to show off his collection. At the top of the street, the highest point Palazzo Comunale from the 2009 vampire movie “Twilight: New Moon”—filmed here, though set in Volterra. One side of the piazza is taken up by the rambling brick, never-completed 17th-century Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta. Inside is Montepulciano’s great work of art, a triptych on the high altar by Taddeo di Bartolo (1401) of the “Assumption of the Virgin with Saints,” topped by “Annunciation and Crowning of the Virgin.” Bartolo was one of the Sienese artists of the generation after the 1348 Black Death; and this is one of his greatest works.
WINE TASTING IN MONTEPULCIANO
The Gattavecchi cantine (wineries), Via di Collazzi 74 (www.gattavecchi.it; 0578-757-110), burrow under Santa Maria dei Servi, with cellars that that have been in use since before 1200, originally by the friars of adjacent Santa Maria dei Servi. Older still is the tiny room at the bottom chiseled from the rock; it was probably an Etruscan tomb. Gattavecchi’s Vino Nobile is top-notch, as is the 100% Sangiovese Parceto. Tasting is free. Contucci (www.contucci.it; 0578-757006), in the 11th-century cellars of a historic palace in Piazza Grande, has a fine range of Vino Nobile wines grown on four soil types, all between the magical numbers of 200m (656 ft.) and 400m (1,312 ft.) altitude. According to winemaker Adamo Pallecchi, this is crucial. The cantina is open for free tasting every day of the year. Opposite the Duomo, the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo is another stop for the wine buffs. Turn right from the corridor for the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (www.consorziovinonobile.it; 0578-757812; 11:30am-1:30pm and 2-6pm Mon-Fri, 2-6pm Sat from week after Easter-Oct), which offers a rotating menu of tastings for a small fee. Local wineries without a shop in town also sell by the bottle here, and if you’re heading into the country for some wine touring, staff can provide maps and ideas—as can the Strada del Vino Nobile office (www.stradavinonobile.it; 0578-717484) across the corridor, who are the people to speak to if you want to arrange a local wine itinerary.
The steep, winding streets of Montepulciano.
WHERE TO EAT
Acquacheta SOUTHERN TUSCAN/GRILL If you like steak, work a meal in this cellar eatery into your Montepulciano wine-tasting visit. In a rustic dining room, meat is sold by weight and brought to your table by a cleaver-wielding chef for your approval before it hits the grill. Pastas and non-beef secondi are also available, and reservations are essential.
Via del Teatro 22 (down right side of Palazzo Contucci from Piazza Grande). www.acquacheta.eu. 0578-717-086. Main courses 7€-18€. Wed-Mon noon-3pm and 7:30-10:30pm. Closed mid-Jan to mid-Mar.
A Side Trip into the Chianti
For many visitors to Italy, heaven on earth is the 167 sq. km (64 sq. miles) of land between Florence and Siena, known as the Chianti. Traversing the gentle hillsides on the SS222, the Chiantigiana is a classic drive, especially the stretch between between Castellina in Chianti and Greve. Landscapes are smothered in vineyards and olive groves, punctuated by woodland and peppered with case coloniche—stone farmsteads with trademark square dovecotes protruding from the roofs.
First stop for wine lovers is the Castello di Verrazzano (www.verrazzano.com; 055-854-243 or 055-290-684), the 12th-century seat of the Verrazzano family. Young Giovanni Verrazzano, born here in 1485, left Chianti for adventure and discovered New York. The estate has been making wine since at least 1170, and you can sample it daily at the roadside shop; tasting is free. Their “jewel” is a 100% sangiovese called Sasello, while the Bottiglia Particolare (Particular [Special] Bottle) is in the Super Tuscan style, at 70% sangiovese and 30% cab. Tours of the gardens and cellars run Monday through Friday; book ahead at least a day in advance, a week or more in high season.
Greve in Chianti is the center of the wine trade and the unofficial capital of Chianti. The central Piazza Matteotti is a rough triangle surrounded by a mismatched patchwork arcade—each merchant had to build the stretch in front of his own shop. Greve is the host of Chianti’s annual September wine fair, and there are, naturally, dozens of wine shops in town. The best is the Enoteca del Chianti Classico, Piazzetta Santa Croce 8 ( 055-853-297). At Piazza Matteotti 69-71 is one of Italy’s most famous butchers, Macelleria Falorni (www.falorni.it; 055-854-363), established in 1700 and still containing a cornucopia of hanging prosciutti and dozens of other cured meats, along with a decent wine selection. It’s open daily.
South of Greve, the SS222 takes you past the left turn for Lamole. Along that road you’ll find Villa Vignamaggio (www.vignamaggio.com; 055-854-661), a russet-orange villa surrounded by cypress and elegant gardens where Lisa Gherardini, who grew up to pose for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” was born in 1479. The estate’s wine was famous in the past and in 1404 became the first red wine of these hills to be referred to as “chianti” in written record. Book ahead at least a week in advance to tour the cellar and ornate gardens and sample the wines.
The Chiantigiana next cuts through the town of Panzano in Chianti, known for its embroidery and for another famed butcher, Antica Macelleria Cecchini, Via XX Luglio 11 ( 055-852-020). Dario Cecchini, fast-becoming one of the most famous butchers in the world, loves to entertain visitors with classical music and tastes of his products while he recites the entirety of Dante’s “Inferno” from memory.
Radda in Chianti, another important wine center, retains its medieval street plan and a bit of its walls. The center of town is the 15th-century Palazzo del Podestà, studded with the mayoral coats of arms of past podestà. The local butcher here is a true artisan; Porciatti will give you a taste of traditional salami and cheeses at their alimentari on Piazza IV Novembre 1 at the gate into town (www.casaporciatti.it; 0577-738-055).
Seven kilometers (41⁄3 miles) north of Radda on a secondary road is the Castello di Volpaia (www.volpaia.com; 0577-738-066), a Florentine holding buffeted by Sienese attacks and sieges from the 10th to 16th centuries. The still-impressive central keep is all that remains, but it’s surrounded by an evocative 13th-century borgo (village) containing the Renaissance La Commenda church. You can tour the winery daily; the tour includes a tasting of the wines and their fantastic olive oil. The central tower has an enoteca for drop-in tastings and sales, plus award-winning (and scrumptious) olive oils and farm-produced white and red vinegars.
Vineyards in Tuscany.
42km (26 miles) NW of Siena, 52km (32 miles) SW of Florence
Let’s just get the clichés out of the way, shall we?—“Manhattan of the Middle Ages” and “City of Beautiful Towers.” There, it’s said. As every brochure will tell you, in the 12th and 13th centuries more than 70 towers rose above the tile roofs of San Gimignano, built partly to defend against outside invaders but mostly as command centers and status symbols for San Gimignano’s powerful families. A dozen towers remain, and from the distance, as you approach across the rolling countryside, they do indeed appear like skyscrapers and give the town the look of a fantasy kingdom. Once inside the gates, you’ll also better understand the reference to Manhattan, because visitors throng the narrow lanes shoulder to shoulder, laying asunder the medieval aura you’ve come to savor. Bus tours pour in from Siena and Florence, almost anyone on the hill town circuit makes a stop here, and Italians come on weekend outings. If you want to be swept back to the Middle Ages, you’re best off visiting during the week in off season, or late on weekday afternoons after the buses have loaded up for the return journey.
GETTING THERE Approximately 30 daily trains run between Siena and Poggibonsi (one about every half hour, trip time: 25-40 min.), from where more than 30 buses make the 25-minute run to San Gimignano Monday through Saturday; only six buses run on Sunday. Buses stop at Porta San Giovanni; you can easily walk into town from here, but shuttle buses make the run up to Piazza della Cisterna (.75€, buy a ticket from a newsstand or on the bus).
SITA (www.sitabus.it; 055-47-821) and TRA-IN (www.trainspa.it; 0577-204-111) codeshare hourly (at least, fewer on Sun) buses for most of the day from both Florence (50 min.) and Siena (45 min.) to Poggibonsi, many of which meet right up with the connection to San Gimignano (a further 20-25 min.). From Siena there are also 10 direct buses (11⁄4 hr.) Monday through Saturday.
Arriving by car, take the Poggibonsi Nord exit off the Florence-Siena highway or the SS2. San Gimignano is 12km (71⁄2 miles) from Poggibonsi.
VISITOR INFORMATION The tourist office is at Piazza Duomo 1 (www.sangimignano.com; 0577-940-008). It’s open daily March through October from 9am to 1pm and 3 to 7pm, and November through February from 9am to 1pm and 2 to 6pm.
Where to Eat & Stay
San Gimignano’s slightly peppery, dry white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, is the only DOCG white wine in Tuscany, and it has quite a provenance, too: It’s cited in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” A relaxing place to sip a glass or two is diVinorum, in former stables with a small terrace at Via degli Innocenti 5 ( 0577-907-192). At the famous Gelateria di Piazza, Piazza della Cisterna 4 (www.gelateriadipiazza.com; 0577-942-244), master gelato maker Sergio offers creative combinations like refreshing Champeigmo, with sparkling wine and pink grapefruit, and crema di Santa Fina, made with saffron and pinenuts.
Chiribiri ITALIAN This tiny vaulted cellar almost next to the city walls seems more serious about what it sends out of the kitchen than many of the more expensive places closer to the center of town do. Ravioli with pumpkin, white beans and sage, beef in Chianti, wild boar stew, and other Tuscan classics are done well and served without fuss.
Piazzetta della Madonna 1. 0577-941-948. Main courses 8€-12€. No credit cards. Daily 11am-11pm.
Dorandò TUSCAN Three stone-walled rooms with brick-vaulted ceilings are the setting for San Gimignano’s most elegant and best dining, though there’s nothing fussy about the cooking. Ingredients are locally sourced and recipes are decidedly local—beef is done in a sauce of Chianti classic, local pork comes with an apple puree, and cibrèo, a rich ragout, comes with chicken livers and giblets scented with ginger and lemon. If you want to include a dinner here on an overnight in San Gimignano, you’ll need a reservation.
Vicolo dell’Oro 2. www.ristorantedorando.it. 0577-941-862. Main courses 20€-24€. Tues-Sun noon-2:30pm and 7-9:30pm (daily Easter-Sept). Closed Dec 10-Jan 31.
La Cisterna Even if you haven’t worked a night in San Gimignano into your Tuscan itinerary, this small stone, ivy-clad charmer right on the town square might tempt you to stay. Rooms vary considerably in size and outlook, and some of the smaller ones overlook a quaint but viewless courtyard; some of the larger rooms and suites come with balconies and views that extend for miles. Furnishings throughout are simply and unobtrusively traditional Tuscan, with wrought-iron bedsteads and some flourishes like arches, tile floors, and stone walls to impart a bit of character. The glassed-in restaurant and terrace out front serve Tuscan food that is a lot better than you’d expect, given the presence of large tour groups that often pile in for lunch.
Piazza della Cisterna 24. www.hotelcisterna.it. 0577-940-328. 48 units. 85€-145€ double. Rates include breakfast. Amenities: Restaurant; bar; Wi-Fi (free).
Exploring San Gimignano
You’ll see the town at its lively best if you come on a Thursday or Saturday morning, when the interlocking Piazza della Cisterna and Piazza del Duomo fill with market stalls.
Collegiata CHURCH San Gimignano’s main church is awash in frescoes, including one around the main door: a gruesome “Last Judgment” by Sienese artist Taddeo di Bartolo (1410) in which mean-looking little devils taunt tortured souls. Bartolo allegedly modeled some of the characters after townsfolk who rubbed him the wrong way. Much of the nave is also covered in the flat, two-dimensional frescoes of the Sienese school that are in effect a comic-strip-like Poor Man’s Bible, illustrating familiar stories for the illiterate faithful in simple and straightforward fashion. The left wall is frescoed with 26 scenes from the Old Testament (look for an especially satisfying panel showing the Pharaoh and his army being swallowed by the Red Sea) and the right wall with 22 scenes from the New Testament (a very shifty looking Judas receives his 30 pieces of silver for betraying Christ).
The village of San Gimignano.
The best frescoes in the church are the two in the tiny Cappella di Santa Fina off the right aisle, where Renaissance master Domenico Ghirlandaio decorated the walls with airy scenes of the life of Fina, a local girl who, though never officially canonized, is one of San Gimignano’s patron saints. Little Fina was very devout and when she fell ill with paralysis refused a bed and lay instead on a board, never complaining even when worms and rats fed off her decaying flesh. As you’ll see in one of the panels, St. Gregory appeared and foretold the exact day (his feast day, March 12) on which Fina would die. She expired right on schedule and began working miracles immediately—all the bells in town rang spontaneously at the moment of her death. The second panel shows her funeral and another miracle, in which one of her nurses regained the use of her hand (paralyzed from long hours cradling the sick girl’s head) when she laid it in Fina’s lifeless hand.
Piazza del Duomo. 0577-940-316. Admission 3.50€ adults, 1.50€ ages 6-18. Nov-Mar Mon-Sat 10am-4:40pm, Sun 12:30-4:40pm; Apr-Oct Mon-Fri 10am-7:10pm, Sat 10am-5:10pm, Sun 12:30-7:10pm. Closed 1st Sun in Aug, Mar 12, Nov 16-30, and Jan 16-31.
Museo Civico & Torre Grossa MUSEUM The late-13th century home of the city government, Palazzo del Commune, is topped with San Gimignano’s tallest tower, the aptly named Torre Grossa (Big Tower), finished in 1311. Your reward for a climb to the top will be views of the cityscape and rolling countryside of the Val d’Elsa, but save your 5€ and enjoy the same outlook for free by making the 5-minute climb uphill from Piazza del Duomo to the ruined Rocca.
Inside the Camera del Podestà (Room of the Mayor) are San Gimignano’s most famous frescoes, Memmo di Filippuccio’s “Scenes of Married Life.” In one scene, a couple takes a bath together, and in the other, the scantily-clad fellow climbs into bed beside his naked wife. The great treasure in the adjoining painting gallery is the “Coppo di Marcovaldo Crucifix,” an astonishingly touching work in which Christ appears vulnerably human and is surrounded by six intricate little scenes of the Crucifixion. Coppo, a Florentine soldier, was captured by the Sienese, who realized what a treasure they had in the artist and persuaded him to do this and other masterpieces that show a slight transition away from flat Byzantine style to more varied texture and three-dimensionality.
St. Fina’s head (see the Collegiata, above) is in a room to the right, in the “Tabernacle of Santa Fina” (1402), painted with scenes of four of the teenager saint’s miracles. Taddeo di Bartolo, who did the terrifying Last Judgment in the Collegiata, painted the “Life of St. Gimignano (or Geminianus)” for the room. The saint was a 5th-century bishop of Modena in the Emilia-Romagna region who allegedly saved his flock by attack from Attila the Hun by conjuring up a dense fog. Hearing the news, the little town then known as Silvia changed its name to San Gimignano to buy a bit of insurance. Gimignano cradles his namesake in his lap, towers and all, figuratively offering the protection he was so often called upon to provide.
Piazza del Duomo. 0577-990-312. Admission 5€ adults, 4€ ages 6-18 and 65 and over. Apr-Sept daily 9:30am-7pm; Oct-Mar daily 10am-5:30pm.
Towers and medieval ambience aside, you’ll also be delighted to discover that San Gimignano is awash in frescoes—in churches, public buildings, and even outdoors. In Piazza Pecori, reached through the archway to the left of the Collegiata’s facade, is a fresco of the “Annunciation,” possibly painted in 1482 by the Florentine Domenico Ghirlandaio. The door to the right of the tourist office leads into a courtyard of the Palazzo del Commune, where Taddeo di Bartolo’s 14th-century “Madonna and Child” is flanked by two works on the theme of justice by Sodoma, including his near-monochrome “St. Ivo”—an appropriate presence, given Ivo’s role as patron saint of lawyers.
Sant’Agostino CHURCH An especially appropriate presence in this 13th-century church at the north end of town is St. Sebastian, the “saint who was martyred twice.” In 1464, a plague swept through San Gimignano and, when it finally passed, the town hired Benozzo Gozzoli to paint a thankful scene. The Florentine shows St. Sebastian getting some divine help to fend off the harmful effects of the arrows soldiers are shooting into his torso. In real life, the 3rd-century early Christian could not stay out of harm’s way. When Sebastian proclaimed his faith, the emperor Diocletian ordered that he be taken to a field and shot full of arrows (for which he has rather cynically been named the patron saint of archers). Sebastian miraculously survived and was nursed back to health. Once back on his feet, he stood on a step and harangued Diocletian as he passed in royal procession, and the emperor had him bludgeoned to death on the spot. San Gimignano, too, saw hard times again, despite its protective fresco. As a stop on trade and pilgrimage routes, the town was especially susceptible to the plague, which continued to decimate the population time and again. Gozzoli also frescoed the choir behind the main altar floor-to-ceiling with 17 scenes from the life of St. Augustine, a worldly well-traveled scholar who, upon having to make the decision to give up his concubine, famously prayed, “Grant me continence and chastity but not yet.” The scenes are straightforward (without a great deal of religious symbolism) and rich in landscape and architectural detail.
Piazza Sant’Agostino. 0577-907-012. Free admission. Daily 7am-noon and 3-7pm (Nov-Apr closes at 6pm, and Jan to mid-Apr closed Mon mornings).
A Side Trip to Volterra
29km (18 miles) SW of San Gimignano, 50km (31 miles) W of Siena
In the words of the writer D. H. Lawrence, Volterra is “on a towering great bluff that gets all the winds and sees all the world.” Volterra seems to rear higher than any other Tuscan town, rising a precipitous 540m (1,772 ft.) above the valley below and drawn out thinly along a narrow ridge with a warren of medieval alleys falling steeply off the main piazza. You’ll see the town long before you arrive, pointing a grimace at the world from way above the pastures of the Valdera.
Lawrence came here to study the Etruscans, who took the 9th-century-B.C. town established by the Villanovan culture and by the 4th century B.C. had turned it into Velathri, one of the largest centers in Etruria’s 12-city confederation. Seeing their haunting bronzes and alabaster funerary urns is a compelling reason to venture over here, though fans of Stephanie Meyer’s teen vampire trilogy, “Twilight,” might come to see the town that is the home of the Volturi.
GETTING THERE Driving is the easiest way to get here: Volterra is on the SS68 about 30km (19 miles) from where it branches off the Colle di Val d’Elsa exit on the Florence-Siena highway. From San Gimignano, head southwest on the secondary road to Castel di San Gimignano, which is on the SS68.
From Siena, there are 16 daily TRA-IN buses (www.trainspa.it) that make the 20- to 30-minute trip to Colle di Val d’Elsa, from which there are four daily buses to Volterra (50 min.). From San Gimignano, you have to first take a bus to Poggibonsi (20 min.), four of which daily link up with buses to Colle di Val d’Elsa for the final transfer. From Florence, take one of five daily buses (three on Sun) to Colle di Val d’Elsa and transfer there (21⁄2-3 hr. total). Six to 10 CPT (www.cpt.pisa.it) buses run there Monday through Saturday from Pisa (change in Pontedera; 2-21⁄2 hr. total).
VISITOR INFORMATION Volterra’s helpful tourist office, Piazza dei Priori 19-20 (www.volterratur.it; 0588-86-099; open daily 9:30am-1pm and 2-6pm), offers both tourist information and free hotel reservations.
The most evocative way to enter Volterra is through Porta all’Arco, the main 4th-century-B.C. gateway to the Etruscan city. On the outside of the arch are mounted three basalt heads—worn by well over 2,000 years of wind and rain to featurelessness—said to represent the Etruscan gods Tinia (Jupiter), Uni (Juno), and Menrva (Minerva). Via die Priori leads steeply uphill to Volterra’s stony medieval heart, the Piazza dei Priori and the Gothic Palazzo dei Priori (1208-57), the model on which Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio and many other civic buildings in Tuscany were modeled. The squat tower in the eastern corner is festooned with a little pig (porcellino), hence its name, Torre del Porcellino. Enjoy the view of the square with a coffee or glass of wine and a panino at one of the tables in front of Bar Priori. Inside the modest-looking Duomo, behind the piazza, is a life-size wood grouping of figures of the “Deposition from the Cross,” carved around 1228 by anonymous Pisan masters and painted in bright colors. With their fluidity and emotional expressiveness the figures look vaguely contemporary. A walk north and down toward Porta Fiorentina takes you to a walkway atop the medieval ramparts for a look at another era in Volterra’s past, the Teatro Romano, rediscovered in the 1950s (the view from here suffices; no need to pay the admission fee to enter).
The Etruscans in Brief
Greek historian Herodotus reckoned that the Etruscans came from Turkey, but the more usual explanation is that they were simply farmers, seafarers, and miners who lived in the area and gave their name to “Tuscany.” There are signs of Etruscan civilization in the area from about 800 B.C., and they had complex government structures, language, and artistic forms. At their peak they controlled the territory between the Tiber and the Arno, with lands as far north as the Po and south to Salerno. They disappeared by A.D. 100, assimilated by the rise of Rome.
The town of Volterra.
Museo Etrusco Guarnacci MUSEUM Volterra’s remarkable collection of Etruscan artifacts is dusty, poorly lit, and devoid of a lot of English labeling, but it is nonetheless a joyful celebration of this culture that flourished before the Golden Age of Greece and laid many of the foundations for the Roman Empire. The bulk of the holdings are on the ground floor, with row after row of 600 Etruscan funerary urns, most from the 3rd century B.C., but some from as early as the 7th century B.C. Ashes were placed in caskets topped with elaborately carved lids that show snippets of life from more than 2 millennia ago. Many of the finely dressed characters lounge as if at a banquet, holding cups in which they will offer wine to the gods. Some urns depict horse and carriage rides into the underworld. One of the finest, the Urna degli Sposi, is a striking bit of portraiture of a husband and wife, both very old, somewhat dour-faced and full of wrinkles, together in death as in life. The Etruscans also crafted bronze sculptures, and one of the finest is a lanky young man with a beguiling smile known as the “Ombra della Sera (Shadow of the Evening)”—so called because the elongated shape looks so much like a shadow stretched in evening light.
Via Don Minzoni 15. 0588-86-347. Admission by cumulative ticket, or 8€. Summer daily 9am-7pm; winter daily 8:30am-1:45pm.
72km (45 miles) W of Florence
Lucca is often called the forgotten Tuscan town, because it’s just far enough off the beaten track to be left out of itineraries. That’s less and less true these days, and really never was the case entirely. Travelers have been waxing poetic about the place for a long time. Seventeenth-century British essayist John Evelyn said “The inhabitants are exceedingly civil to strangers, above all places in Italy.” In the 19th century, novelist Henry James called Lucca “a charming mixture of antique character and modern inconsequence”—the “inconsequence” bit referring to the fact that, completely enclosed by 16th- and 17th-century walls, Lucca is a beautifully preserved remnant of ages past. The Etruscans were here as early as 700 B.C., and the Romans after them, and the city flourished as a silk center in the Middle Ages. No doubt such a long and colorful history inspired Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), who was born here and whose “Tosca,” “Madame Butterfly,” “Turandot,” and “La Bohème” are some of the greatest operatic works of all times. Lucca can seem like a stage set, and it’s easy to look at the icing-white, four-tiered facade of the church of San Michele (Victorian art critic John Ruskin said it would be difficult to invent anything more noble) and hear the strains of ‘’O Mio Bambino Caro.’’
GETTING THERE Lucca is on the Florence-Viareggio train line, with about 30 trains daily (fewer on Sun) connecting with Florence (75-90 min.). A similar number of trains make the short hop to/from Pisa (30 min.). The station is a short walk south of Porta San Pietro.
By car, the A11 runs from Florence past Prato, Pistoia, and Montecatini before hitting Lucca. Inside the walls, you’ll usually find a pay-parking space underground at Mazzini (enter from the east, through the Porta Elisa, and take an immediate right).
A VaiBus (www.vaibus.it) service runs hourly from Florence (70 min.) and from Pisa (50 min.) to Lucca’s Piazzale Verdi.
GETTING AROUND A set of navette (electric minibuses) whiz down the city’s peripheral streets, but the flat center is easily traversable on foot.
To really get around like a Lucchese, though, you need to rent a bike. See the box “Get in the Saddle,” p. 232, for rental information.
Taxis line up at the train station ( 0583-494-989), Piazzale Verdi ( 0583-581-305), and Piazza Napoleone ( 0583-491-646).
VISITOR INFORMATION The main tourist office is inside the north side of the walls at Piazza Santa Maria 35 (www.luccaturismo.it; 0583-919-931; daily 9am-7pm, sometimes later in summer). The comune also has a small local info office on Piazzale Verdi ( 0583-442-944), which keeps similar hours.
For events and concert listings, pick up the English-language monthly “Grapevine” for 2€ at most newsstands.
Where to Stay
Lucca has many B&B-style inns. Few top the large, stylish, and atmospheric rooms at the Locanda San Agostino, in a moody old palace at Piazza San Agostino 3 (www.locandasantagostino.it; 0583-467-884). Four-poster beds and polished antiques provide a homey and fairly luxurious ambience, as does the raised hearth in the attractive lounge/breakfast room and the shady terrace. Doubles begin at 109€. For a complete listing of B&Bs in Lucca, ask the tourist board for the handy booklet “Extra Alberghiero.”
Alla Corte degli Angeli Some of the most charming accommodations in Lucca flow across four floors of this beautifully restored and maintained pink palazzo just off Via Fillungo, the main shopping street. It’s hard not to fall for the gimmicky decor, which works brilliantly to provide just the right touch of playful ambience in the smallish but extremely tasteful rooms. In each, colorful murals incorporate a flower, and rich draperies and upholstered headboards pick up the theme. A scattering of antique pieces and excellent lighting enhance the air of stylish comfort, and some of the good-sized bathrooms have both showers and hydromassage tubs. Given the tightly packed medieval neighborhood, a room on an upper floor ensures an extra amount of sunlight—third-floor Paolina is an especially good choice because it has two exposures.
Via degli Angeli 23 (off Via Fillungo). www.allacortedegliangeli.com. 0583-469-204. 10 units. 130€-210€ double. Rates include buffet breakfast. Garage parking 15€. Closed 2 weeks in Jan. Amenities: Bikes; concierge; Wi-Fi (free).
Hotel Palazzo Alexander Stepping into this 12th-century palace tucked into medieval streets feels a bit like walking onto a regal operatic stage set, and the feeling certainly doesn’t let up as you settle in amid gilded and polished wood, reproduction antiques, old prints, and plush fabrics. You might have putti (cherubs) grinning down on your from the frescoed ceiling, but marble baths, Jacuzzi tubs in some rooms, excellent beds and fine linens, and other amenities are thoroughly up to date. The good-sized rooms are named after Puccini operas, and some of the especially charming suites have vaulted and beamed ceilings reminiscent of Rodolfo’s “La Bohème” garret—well, that is, if the young poet had lived very, very well, which you will in this quirkily stylish little inn where service is as memorable as the surroundings.
Via Santa Giustina 28. www.hotelpalazzoalexander.it. 0583-47-615. 9 units. From 80€ double. Rates include buffet breakfast. Amenities: Bar; Wi-Fi (free).
San Luca Palace Hotel A sense of tasteful, old-world comfort begins in the downstairs hall and sitting room and continues into the large guest rooms, nicely done up with parquet floors, well-coordinated fabrics and draperies (green color schemes in some rooms, red in others), and many nice flourishes, like inviting and handy table-and-chair arrangements in all the rooms and small “reading” alcoves with day beds in many. This old palace just inside the walls also has plenty of practical conveniences, including an easy-to-reach location (parking is adjacent), which is just a short stroll from the sights and train station. There’s no in-house restaurant, but an extremely pleasant bar off the lobby serves light snacks.
Via San Paolino 103 (off Piazza Napoleone). www.sanlucapalace.com. 0583-317-446. 26 units. 85€ double. Amenities: Bar; Wi-Fi (free).
Where to Eat
Lucca’s extra-virgin olive oil appears on every restaurant table. An atmospheric 19th-century pastry shop, Taddeucci, Piazza San Michele 34 (www.taddeucci.net; 0583-494-933), is famous for buccellato, a Lucca specialty, a ring-shaped sweet bread flavored with raisins and fennel seeds. For a fortifying (and addictive) snack, stop by Amedo Giusti, Via Santa Lucia 18 ( 0583-496-285), where focaccia with many different toppings constantly emerge piping hot from the oven. Sample Lucca’s excellent DOC wines at Enoteca Vanni, Piazza San Salvatore 7 (www.enotecavanni.com; 0583-491-902).
Buca di Sant’Antonio LUCCHESE Almost three and half centuries old, Lucca’s most famous and most venerable dining room relies a bit on its reputation these days, but sitting in the handsome tile-floored surroundings amid copper pots and brass instruments is a terribly pleasant experience—and usually requires a dinnertime reservation. We also like the nicely formal service of the waiters-in-bow-ties variety and the welcoming glass of prosecco that launches a meal of traditional Lucchese dishes. The menu changes regularly, but usually includes such house specialties as farro alla garfagnana (spelt, or barley, soup) and coniglio in umido (rabbit stew). A house dessert is buccellato, a ring-shaped confection like a coffee cake named for the bread that sustained Roman legionnaires.
Via della Cervia 3 (a side alley just west of Piazza San Michele). 0583-55-881. Main courses 15€. Tues-Sat 12:30-3pm and 7:30-10:30pm; Sun 12:30-3pm.
Da Leo LUCCHESE/TUSCAN It’s a good sign when you have to veer off the well-beaten path to find a place, even better when anyone you ask along the way knows how to get there. The pleasantly old-fashioned room with plastic-draped tablecloths has been serving local classics for 50 years, and the minestra di farro arrosto di maialino con patate (roast piglet and potatoes), coniglio (rabbit), and other authentic Lucchese fare seems to improve with age. This is the place to try the typically Luccan zuppa di farro, a soup made with spelt, a barley-like grain cooked al dente.
Via Tegrimi 1 (just north of Piazza San Salvatore). www.trattoriadaleo.it. 0583-492-236. Main courses 9€-16€. Daily noon-2:30pm and 7:30-10:30pm.
Osteria San Giorgio LUCCHESE/TUSCAN A courtyard out front and comfortably informal, welcoming rooms decorated with old photos are a local favorite, tucked away on a quiet street near the Piazza Anfiteatro. The menu is geared to neighbors looking for a home-cooked meal: several soups, including a hearty farro alla luchesse (beans and barley), coniglio stufato con olive taggiasche e uva (rabbit stew with olives and grapes), and a local seafood favorite, baccalà alla griglia con ceci (grilled cod with chickpeas). Servers seems to know just about everyone who comes in the door and extend a warm welcome to newcomers as well.
Via San Giorgio 26. www.osteriasangiorgiolucca.it. 0583-953-233. Main courses 8€-13€. Daily noon-3pm and 7-10:30pm.
Ristorante All’Olivo LUCCHESE/SEAFOOD This is where the Lucchese come when they’re in the mood for fish, and taking a seat in one of four comfortable and elegant little rooms—one with a fireplace, another like a covered garden—elevates a meal to a special occasion. The fish and seafood is brought in daily from the nearby Tuscan port of Viareggio it and appears in a bounty of seafood pastas, grilled seafood platters, a nice choice of antipasti di mare, and a simply prepared catch of the day. Meat lovers will not be disappointed with the hearty roasts and grilled Tuscan steaks.
Piazza San Quirico 1. www.ristoranteolivo.it. 0583-496-264. Main courses 12€-20€. Mon-Sat 12:30-2pm and 7:30-10pm.
In your wanderings around Lucca you’ll come upon many remarkable architectural landmarks. Most noticeable are the more than 4km (21⁄2 miles) of walls, some 18m (59 ft.) wide and topped with the Passeggiata delle Mura. You can circumnavigate this tree-shaded avenue on foot or by bike (see “Get in the Saddle,” below), peering across Lucca’s rooftops toward the hazy mountains and checking out the 11 bastions and six gates. The most curious feature of Lucca’s street plan is Piazza Anfiteatro, near the north end of Via Fillungo, the main shopping street; this semicircle of handsome medieval houses stands atop what were once the grandstands of a 1st- or 2nd-century-A.D. Roman amphitheater. Rising nearby is Torre Guinigi, sprouting from the 14th-century palace of Lucca’s iron-fisted rulers and topped with a grove of ilex trees, one of many such gardens that once flourished atop the city’s defensive towers; climb the 230 steps for a spectacular view of Lucca’s skyline, the snowcapped Apuan Alps and the rolling green valley of the River Serchio (3.50€ adults, 2.50€ children 6-12 and seniors 65 and over; Apr-May daily 9am-7:30pm; June-Sept daily 9am-6:30pm; Oct and Mar daily 9:30am-5:30pm; Nov-Feb daily 9:30am-4:30pm). One of many surprises you will come across on narrow medieval lanes is the facade of San Frediano, Piazza San Frediano ( 0583-493-627), decorated with a glittering two-story-tall 13th-century mosaic that colorfully depicts the Apostles witnessing an ascending Christ. Another grace note is the presence of many shopfronts with early 20th-century Art Nouveau signs etched in glass, imbuing the city’s medieval atmosphere with a refined elegance, and the same could be said of the Lucchese themselves.
Biking Lucca’s city walls.
Get in the Saddle
The popular way to get around Lucca, you’ll soon learn, is on a bike. Enjoy the medieval lanes and squares on foot, but equip yourself with two wheels for a ride on the Passeggiata della Mura, atop the medieval walls. You can do so in style on one of the neon green or Barbie pink models from Antonio Poli, near the tourist office at Piazza Santa Maria 42 (www.biciclettepoli.com; 0583-493-787; daily 8:30am-7:30pm, closed Sun mid-Nov to Feb and Mon mornings year-round). Bikes are also available from Cicli Bizzarri, next door at Piazza Santa Maria 32 (www.ciclibizzarri.net; 0583-496-031; Mon-Sat 8:30am-1pm and 2:30-7:30pm, and same hours Sun Mar to mid-Sept). The going rates are 3€ an hour for a regular bike, 4€ to 4.50€ for a mountain bike, and 6.50€ for a tandem.
Cattedrale di San Martino CATHEDRAL Lucca’s Duomo was completed in 1070 to house one of the most renowned artifacts in Christendom, the Volto Santo (more on that below), and the structure does justice to the prized procession. On the facade, three arches open to a deep portico sheathed in marble, and above it rises three tiers of arcaded loggias supported by several dozen little columns, each different. Legend has it that the Lucchese commissioned many artists to carve the columns, with the promise of hiring the best to do them all; they used all the entries and never paid anyone. A pair of binoculars will help you pick out the elaborate carvings of figures, animals, vines, and geometric patterns in the loggias and on the portico. St. Martin, the former Roman soldier to whom the cathedral is dedicated, figures prominently, and one statue shows the famous scene of him ripping his cloak to give half to a scantily clad beggar. A labyrinth is carved into the wall of the right side of the portico, intended for the faithful to make a figurative pilgrimage to the center of maze, as if to Jerusalem, before entering the church; faith is clearly a navigational aid on the road to salvation, as a Latin inscription makes the comparison, “This is the labyrinth built by Daedalus of Crete; all who entered therein were lost, save Theseus, thanks to Ariadne’s thread.”
Inside, the handsome sweep of inlaid pavement and altar are the 15th-century work of Lucca native Matteo Civitali, as is the Tempietto, an octagonal, freestanding chapel of white and red marble in the left nave built to house the Volto Santo. As the story goes, Nicodemus, the biblical figure who helped remove Christ’s body from the cross, carved a Crucifix but did not complete the face, fearing he could not do the holy visage justice. He fell into a deep sleep, and when he awoke he discovered a beautiful face was miraculously in place (and that’s just the beginning of the story; see “The Plot Thickens,” below). The cathedral’s other great treasure is the Tomb of Ilaria Carretto Guinigi, the wife of Lucca ruler Paolo Guinigi. Married in 1403, she died 2 years later at the age of 26; she lives on, accompanied by a little dog (a sign of her faithfulness) in a beautiful image carved by Jacopo della Quercia, the Sienese sculptor whose work so heavily influenced Michelangelo.
Piazza San Martino. 0583-957-068. Admission to church free; transepts and Ilaria tomb 2€ adults, 1.50€ children 6-14. Cumulative ticket for tomb, Museo, and San Giovanni 6€ adults, 4€ children 6-14. Mon-Fri 9:30am-5:45pm (closes 4:45pm Nov-Mar), Sat 9:30am-6:45pm, Sun 9:30-10:45am and noon-6pm.
San Michele in Foro CHURCH The magnificent facade of the Cattedrale di San Martino is matched, or even outdone for visual drama, by the delicately stacked arches and arcades on the exterior of this 12th-century church that rises above the site of Lucca’s Roman forum. The show begins just above the main portal, where St. Michael slays a dragon as mythical creatures look on. Above that two lions flank a rose window, then begin four-soaring tiers of little columns; these are inlaid with intricate carvings and topped with human heads, flowers, and animals, and above each row is a frieze on which real and mythical animals jump and run. The two top tiers are narrow and freestanding, and topped with a statue of a bronze-winged St. Michael the Archangel flanked by two trumpeting cohorts. The interior is rather dull by comparison but enlivened with a lovely Madonna that Matteo Civitali, whose work you saw in the cathedral, sculpted to celebrate the city’s deliverance from the plague in 1476, and a painting of “Sts. Roch, Sebastian, Jerome, and Helen” by Filippino Lippi. The product of a notorious relationship between the painter Fra Filippo Lippi and a young nun, Lucrezia Buti, Filippino became one of the most accomplished painters of the late 15th century; his work shows the influence of his father as well as his teacher, Sandro Botticelli. Giacomo Puccini, one of Italy’s greatest operatic composers, was born in 1858 down the block at Via Poggio no. 30 (a plaque marks the site) and sang in the church choir.
Piazza San Michele. 0583-48-459. Free admission. Summer daily 7:40am-noon and 3-6pm; winter daily 9am-noon and 3-5pm.
Entertainment & Nightlife
Every evening at 7pm, the Chiesa di San Giovanni hosts an opera recital or orchestral concert dedicated to hometown composer Giacomo Puccini, in a series called Puccini e la sua Lucca (Puccini and His Lucca; www.puccinielasualucca.com). Tickets are 17€ (13€ for those 22 and under) and can be purchased all day inside San Giovanni. Just try listening to “Nessun Dorma” in this lovely church in the composer’s hometown without chills running up and down your spine. The shore of nearby Lago di Massaciuccoli provides the backdrop for the summer Puccini Festival (www.puccinifestival.it; 0584-359-322), the biggest annual date in a local opera lover’s calendar. There’s a seasonal ticket office at Viale Puccini 257a, in Torre del Lago, or book tickets online (35€-125€).
The Plot Thickens
Nicodemus, medieval legend has it, stashed the Volto Santo in a cave for safekeeping, and an 8th-century Italian bishop discovered it while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land (the location came to him in a dream). He put the crucifix adrift in a boat, and it washed up on the shores of northern Italy. Once again, the relic was set adrift, this time in a driverless wagon pulled by two oxen, and it arrived in Lucca. It was placed in the church of San Frediano but miraculously moved itself to the cathedral. The Volto Santo and the legends attached to it attracted medieval pilgrims from throughout Europe to Lucca, and on May 3 and September 13 to 14, the Lucchese walk in a candlelit procession from San Freidano to the cathedral, where the famous statue awaits them, dressed in gold and wearing a gold crown.
85km (53 miles) south of Lucca, 76km (47 miles) W of Florence
It’s ironic that one of the most famous landmarks in a country that has given Western civilization many of if its greatest artistic and architecture masterpieces is an engineering failure. Built on sandy soil too unstable to support the weight of so much heavy marble, the city’s famous tower began to lean even while it was still under construction. Eight centuries later, the Leaning Tower puts Pisa on the map, and seeing it, maybe climbing it, and touring other landmarks on the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) is probably why you’ll come to this city near the northwestern coast of Tuscany.
Pisa began as a seaside settlement around 1000 B.C. and was expanded into a naval trading port by the Romans in the 2nd century B.C. By the 11th century, the city had grown into one of the peninsula’s most powerful maritime republics. In 1284, Pisa’s battle fleet was destroyed by Genoa at Meloria (off Livorno), forcing Pisa’s long slide into twilight. Florence took control in 1406 and despite a few small rebellions, stayed in charge until Italian unification in the 1860s. Today Pisa is lively and cosmopolitan, home to a university founded in 1343, one of Europe’s oldest. Once away from the Campo die Miracoli, however, there’s not a whole lot to see, so you may want to join the ranks of day trippers who visit from Florence or nearby Lucca.
GETTING THERE There are around 25 train runs between Lucca and Pisa every day (25-35 min.); from Florence, 50 daily trains make the trip (60-90 min.). On the Lucca line, day-trippers should get off at San Rossore station, a few blocks west of Piazza del Duomo and the Leaning Tower. All other trains—and eventually the Lucca one—pull into Pisa Centrale station. From here, bus no. 4 or the LAM Rossa bus will take you close to Piazza del Duomo.
There’s a Florence-Pisa fast highway (the so-called FI.PI.LI) along the Arno valley. Take the SS12 or SS12r from Lucca. For details on parking locations and charges, see www.pisamo.it.
Tuscany’s main international airport, Galileo Galilei (www.pisa-airport.com), is just 3km (2 miles) south of the center. Trains zip you from the airport to Centrale station in 5 minutes; the LAM Rossa bus departs every 9 minutes for Centrale station and then the Campo. A metered taxi ride costs 10€ to 15€ (drivers accept credit cards).
GETTING AROUND CPT (www.cpt.pisa.it; 050-884-284 or 800-012-773 in Italy) runs the city’s buses. Bus no. 4 and the LAM Rossa bus run to near the Campo dei Miracoli.
Taxis can be found on Piazza della Stazione and Piazza del Duomo. Call a radio taxi at 050-541-600 or 055-555-330.
VISITOR INFORMATION The main tourist office is at Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II 16, Pisa (www.pisaunicaterra.it; 050-42-291; Mon-Sat 9am-7pm, Sun 9am-4pm). There’s also a desk inside the arrivals hall at the airport ( 055-502-518; daily 9:30am-11:30pm).
To find out what’s going on in town, pick up a copy of the monthly “ToDo” (often in bars and cafes), or visit www.todomagazine.it.
Where to Eat & Stay
Most visitors comes to Pisa on a day trip, which helps keep hotel prices down but also limits quality options. The low season for most hotels in Pisa is August. For pizza or cecina (a garbanzo-bean flour flatbread served warm), stop in at Il Montino, Vicolo del Monte ( 050-598-695), a favorite slice stop for Pisans.
Osteria die Cavalieri PISAN The “Restaurant of the Knights” operates out of stone rooms that date to the 12th century; the cooking is traditionally Tuscan but founded on the contemporary Slow Food principles of fresh and local. Being Pisa, this means seafood, including tagliolini with razor clams and a classic baccala, dried cod lightly battered and fried; some hearty meat choices, such as pappardelle with rabbit sauce and grilled steaks; and robust vegetable soups. You can get away with a one-dish meal here—in fact, it’s encouraged at lunchtime, when a crowd of local office workers packs in.
Via San Frediano 16. 050-580-858. Main courses 10€-14€. Mon-Fri 12:30-2pm and 7:45-10pm, Sat 7:45-10pm.
Novecento These small and simple rooms set around a courtyard in an old villa are strictly contemporary, not an antique armoire in sight. Instead, Philippe Starck chairs and contemporary upholstered headboards are set against colored accent walls. A lush garden is filled with lounge chairs and quiet corners, and off to one side is the best room in the house, a self-contained, cottage-like unit. For guests desiring a bit more greenery, Pisa’s Botanical Garden is just up the street. The Campo Santo is a straightforward 10-minute walk away.
Via Roma 37. www.hotelnovecento.pisa.it. 050-500-323. 14 units. 80€-120€ double. Rates include breakfast. Parking on street (10€ per day). Amenities: Wi-Fi (free).
Relais dell’Orologio Maria Luisa Bignardi provided Pisa with its only truly remarkable place to stay when she converted her family mansion into refined yet relaxing guest quarters. The large garden and cozy top floor “attic” lounge provide a relaxing refuge from the crowds in the Campo, just a 5-minute walk away, and guest rooms are filled with family heirlooms, some colorful architectural details, and lots of 21st-century conveniences, including excellent beds and marble bathrooms. Some of the rooms are quite small, though for a bit extra you can settle into a larger room or one overlooking the garden. Signora Bignardi also runs the 12-room Relais dei Fiori, Via Carducci 35 (www.relaisdeifiori.com; 050-556-054), where small but very attractive doubles start at 70€. At both, travelers 65 and older get a 20% discount in some periods.
Via della Faggiola Ugiccione 12-14. www.hotelrelaisorologio.com. 050-830-361. 21 units. 140€-200€ double. Rates include buffet breakfast. Amenities: Restaurant; bar; Wi-Fi (free in lobby).
On a grassy lawn wedged into the northwest corner of the city walls, medieval Pisans created one of the most dramatic squares in the world. Dubbed the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles), Piazza del Duomo contains an array of elegant buildings that heralded the Pisan-Romanesque style. A subtle part of its appeal, aside from the beauty of the buildings, is its spatial geometry. If you were to look at an aerial photo of the square and draw connect-the-dot lines between the doors and other focal points, you’d come up with all sorts of perfect triangles and tangential lines.
Admission charges for the monuments and museums of the Campo are tied together in a complicated way. The Cattedrale alone costs 2€ (free Nov-Feb). Any other single sight is 5€; any two sites cost 6€. To access everything except the Leaning Tower costs 10€ (8€ Nov-Feb); children 9 and under enter free. For more information, visit www.opapisa.it. Admission to the Leaning Tower is separate (see below).
Baptistery CHURCH Italy’s largest baptistery (104m/341 ft. in circumference), begun in 1153 and capped with a Gothic dome in the 1300s, is built on the same unstable soil as the Leaning Tower. The first thing you will notice is a decided tilt—not nearly as severe as that of the tower, but the round structure leans noticeably towards the cathedral. The unadorned interior is considered to be where the Renaissance, with its emphasis on classical style and humanism, began to flower, in the pulpit created by Nicola Pisano (1255-60). The sculptor had studied sarcophagi and other ancient Roman works that the Pisan navy had brought back from Rome as booty, and the classic influence is obvious, nowhere more so than in the presence of a nude Hercules standing next to statues of St. Michael and St. John the Baptist. In scenes of the life of Christ, figures wear tunics and Mary wears the headdress of a Roman matron. If the baptistery is not too crowded, stand near the middle and utter something loudly; the sound will reverberate for quite awhile, thanks to the structure’s renowned acoustics.
Piazza del Duomo. www.opapisa.it. 050-835-011. For prices, see above. Apr-Sept daily 8am-8pm; Mar daily 9am-6pm; Oct daily 9am-7pm; Nov and Feb daily 9am-5pm; Dec-Jan daily 9:30am-4:30pm. Bus: E, 4, LAM Rossa.
Camposanto CEMETERY Pisa’s monumental cemetery, where the city’s aristocracy was buried until the 18th century, was begun in 1278, when Crusaders began shipping back shiploads of dirt from Golgotha (the mount where Christ was crucified). Giovanni di Simone (architect of the Leaning Tower) enclosed the field in a marble cloister, and the walls were eventually covered by magnificent 14th- and 15th-century frescoes, mostly destroyed by Allied bombings in World War II; one of the few remaining, a “Triumph of Death,” inspired the 19th-century composer Franz Liszt to write his “Totentanz” (“Dance of Death”). Roman sarcophagi, used as funerary monuments, fared better, and 84 survive. So do the huge chains that medieval Pisans used to protect their harbor and now hang on the cemetery walls.
Piazza del Duomo. www.opapisa.it. 050-835-011. For prices, see above. Same hours as the Baptistery; see above. Bus: E, 4, LAM Rossa.
Cattedrale CATHEDRAL Pisa’s magnificent cathedral will forever be associated with Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), a native son and founder of modern physics. Bored during church services, he discovered the law of perpetual motion (a pendulum’s swings always take the same amount of time) by watching the swing of a bronze chandelier now known as the “Lamp of Galileo.” (It’s also said, and the story is probably apocryphal, that Galileo climbed the adjacent Leaning Tower, dropped two wooden balls of differing sizes that hit the ground at the same time, proving that gravity exerts the same force on objects no matter what they weigh.) The exuberant structure, with its tiers of arches and columns, is quite remarkable in its own right; it was heavily influenced by Pisa’s contact through trade with the Arab world and has come to be the prime example of Pisan Romanesque architecture. Giovanni Pisano, whose father, Nicola, sculpted the pulpit in the Baptistery (see above) created the pulpit here (1302-11), covering it with intricate scenes from the New Testament. Considered to be among the great masterpieces of Gothic sculpture, the relief panels were deemed to be too old fashioned by the church’s 16th-century restorers and packed away in crates until they were reassembled, rather clumsily, in 1926.
Piazza del Duomo. www.opapisa.it. 050-835-011. For prices, see above. Apr-Sept Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 1-8pm; Mar Mon-Sat 10am-5:30pm, Sun 1-5:30pm; Oct Mon-Sat 10am-6:30pm, Sun 1-6:30pm; Nov-Feb Mon-Sat 10am-12:45pm and 2-4:30pm, Sun 2-4:30pm. Bus: E, 4, LAM Rossa.
Leaning Tower of Pisa ICON Construction began on the bell tower of Pisa Cathedral in 1173, but three stories into the job, architects Guglielmo and Bonnano Pisano called off the work when it became apparent the structure was leaning distinctly. A century later Giovanni di Simone resumed the job, having quite literally gone back to the drawing board, and tried to compensate for the lean by making successive layers taller on one side than the other, creating a slight banana shape. Over the centuries engineers have poured concrete into the foundations and tried other solutions in vain, and by the late 20th century the tower was in serious danger of collapse. The tower was closed and braced with cables as crews removed more than 70 tons of earth from beneath the structure, allowing it to slightly right itself as it settled. With lean of just 4m (13 ft.), compared to a precarious 4.6m (15 ft.) before the fix, the tower has been deemed stable for now and safe to climb once again. But before you do, take time to notice just how lovely the multicolor marble tower is, with eight arcaded stories that provide a mesmerizing sense of harmony as you look up its height.
Pisa’s Leaning Tower.
The only way to climb the arcaded tower is to book a visit in the office on the north side of the piazza—or for peak season, online well in advance. Visits are limited to 30-minutes, and you must be punctual for your slot or you’ll lose your chance to climb the 293 steps. Children under 8 are not permitted to climb the tower, and those aged 8 to 18 need to be accompanied by an adult (8-12s must hold an adult’s hand at all times). Leave bags at the cloakroom next to the ticket office behind the cathedral.
Piazza del Duomo. www.opapisa.it. 050-835-011. Admission 15€, or 17€ if you reserve a timed slot (essential in peak periods). Apr-Sept daily 8:30am-8pm (sometimes until 10:30pm June-Aug); Mar daily 9am-5:30pm; Oct daily 9am-7pm; Nov and Feb daily 9:30am-5pm; Dec-Jan daily 10am-4:30pm. Children 7 and under not permitted. Bus: E, 4, LAM Rossa.
164km (102 miles) SE of Florence, 176km (109 miles) N of Rome
Perugia is Umbria’s capital, but it’s most appealing in its guise of medieval hill town. Ancient alleys drop precipitously off Corso Vannucci, the cosmopolitan shopping promenade, and Gothic palaces rise above stony piazzas. The city produced and trained some of Umbria’s finest artists, whose works fill the excellent art gallery. Thousands of students from Perugia’s two universities impart the old streets with youthful energy, and Perugia’s most famous product, chocolate, certainly contributes to the town’s appeal.
GETTING THERE Two rail lines serve Perugia. The state railway connects with Rome (2-3 hr.; most trains require a change at Foligno) and Florence (21⁄4 hr.; most trains require a change at Terontola) every couple of hours. There are also hourly trains to Assisi (20-30 min.) and Spoleto (11⁄4 hr.). The station is a few kilometers southwest of the center at Piazza Vittorio Veneto ( 147-888-088), but well connected with buses to/from Piazza Italia (1€); Perugia’s seven-stop, 3km (2-mile) long “minimetro” also makes the run from the station up to stops in the town center (1.50€, buy tickets in machines). The station for the Umbria Mobilità-operated regional railway ( 800/512-141), Sant’Anna, is in Piazzale Bellucci (near the bus station). These tiny trains serve Todi every couple of hours.
Perugia is connected by three fast, and free, roads. The Raccordo Perugia-A1 runs east-west between the A1, Lago Trasimeno, and Perugia, bypassing the city to link with the E45 (aka SS3bis). The E45 runs south to Todi and Terni (for Rome). Heading southeast, the SS75bis connects the E45 at Perugia with Assisi and Spoleto.
Parking is fairly abundant, with the most convenient being the underground pay lots at Piazza Partigiani, from which escalators take you up to Piazza Italia (with some amazing underground scenery along the route; see box p. 245). For information about parking in Perugia, visit www.sipaonline.it.
SULGA lines (www.sulga.it; 075-500-9641) also has one bus (Mon and Fri) from Florence (6pm; 2 hr.), six or seven daily from Assisi (30 min.) and Todi (40 min.), and around six a day from Rome (21⁄2 hr.); the morning buses usually stop at the airport; the station is in Piazza Partigiani and connected to Piazza Italia by escalator. Umbria Mobilità (www.umbriamobilita.it; 800/512-141) buses connect Perugia with Assisi (six buses daily; 50 min.), Gubbio (six buses daily; 1 hr., 10 min.), and Todi (six buses daily; 1 hr., 15 min.).
Six weekly Ryanair (www.ryanair.com; 0871/246-0000) flights connect London Stansted with Perugia’s Aeroporto Internazionale dell’Umbria (www.airport.umbria.it; 075-592141), 10km (6 miles) east of the city at San Egidio. Flights are usually met by a minibus outside the terminal, taking you to Perugia train station and Piazza Italia (30-40 min.; 3.50€), but heading back there are just three buses per day, so check times in advance (just 1 bus Sat-Sun). Taxis cost around 25€.
VISITOR INFORMATION The tourist office, at Piazza Matteotti 18 (www.regioneumbria.eu; 075-573-6458), is open daily from 8:30am to 6:30pm. You can also pick up a copy of “Viva Perugia” (1€) at newsstands to find out what’s going on around town.
Where to Stay
Most Perugian hotels are flexible about rates, which dive 40% to 50% below posted prices in the off season, so it always pays to ask.
Brufani Palace Perugia’s bastion of luxury commands one side of Piazza Italia, looming proudly over the valley below. Built in 1883 to host English travelers on the Grand Tour, the premises have not changed too much in the intervening years, except that the large, traditionally furnished rooms (most with sweeping views) are now equipped with lavish marble bathrooms and lots of other amenities that include extremely comfortable lounge chairs and sofas and good reading lamps. Despite the grand surroundings, the real pleasures here are in the details: fires burn in big old stone hearths in the dining room and lounges; a swimming pool has been carved out of subterranean brick vaults, with see-through panels exposing Etruscan ruins beneath; and a large rooftop terrace is a perfect spot of a glass of wine at sunset.
Piazza Italia 12. www.brufanipalace.com. 075-573-2541. 94 units. From 140€ double. Amenities: Restaurant/bar (tables on the piazza in summer); babysitting; concierge; small exercise room; indoor pool; room service; Wi-Fi (free with most rates).
Eden This comfortable little inn occupies the top floor of a 13th-century building in the city center (an elevator takes you up), and the airy accommodations seem a world removed from the medieval city below. Furnishings are contemporary, with colorful accent walls and modern art; the compact, bathrooms are up to date; and a pleasant breakfast room that doubles as a lounge is sleek and functional. Outside the tall windows are an enticing jumble of rooftops, towers, and narrow stone lanes, and when you’re ready to go down and explore the sights, the friendly management supplies an insightful, self-guided itinerary of their own design.
Via Cesare Caporali 9. www.hoteleden.perugia.it. 075-572-8102. 12 units. 65€-95€ double. Rates include breakfast. MC, V. Garage parking 25€. Amenities: Wi-Fi (free).
The City of Cioccolato and Jazz
Perugia is a chocoholic’s paradise. Perugina has been making candy here since 1907 and now pumps out 120 tons of the brown stuff a day, including 11⁄2 million Baci (kisses), its gianduja-and-hazelnut bestseller. You can buy them and other products at the Perugina shop at Corso Vannucci 101 ( 075-573-4760). Perugia hosts a weeklong Eurochocolate Festival (www.eurochocolate.com) every year from mid- to late October. The highlight is the chocolate-carving contest, when the scraps of 1,000kg (455-lb.) blocks are handed out for sampling. Umbria Jazz (www.umbriajazz.com), one of Europe’s top jazz festivals, draws top international names to town for 2 weeks in mid-July.
Primavera Minihotel It’s well worth the climb up the three flights of stairs to reach this aerie-like retreat atop a house just down some twisty streets from Piazza della Repubblica. The rooftop locale means all the tall windows frame views of rooftops and the green valleys spread out below the town. Best are from a room one additional flight up, with its own large terrace, though there’s not a bad room in the house. All are different, some with Art Nouveau pieces, some with traditionally rustic furnishing and Deruta pottery, others quite contemporary. All have hardwood floors and lots of timber, stone, and other architectural details, and all surround a welcoming lounge/breakfast room (though you’ll have to pay extra for breakfast).
Via Vincioli 8. www.primaveraminihotel.it. 075-572-1657. 8 units. 65€-90€ double. Garage parking 15€ per day. Amenities: Wi-Fi (free).
Where to Eat
Plenty of cheap pizzerie feed the student population. The best is Il Segreto di Pulcinella, Via Larga 8, off Via Bonazzi and a short walk from Piazza della Repubblica ( 075-573-6284). Pizzas cost 4€ to 7€, and it’s open Tuesday through Sunday (noon-2:30pm and 8:30pm-midnight).
Bottega del Vino UMBRIAN A snug, vintage-photo-lined room right off Piazza IV Novembre dispenses wines by the glass and accompanies them with a nice assortment of Umbrian hams and cheeses—perfect for an evening aperitivo at one of the tables out front as all of Perugia promenades by. Small lunch and dinner menus include salads and a couple of pastas, as well as a dish or two of the day, which might be a steak or roasted leg of lamb. Live jazz often continues into the small hours, making this a popular after-dinner spot, too.
Via del Sole 1. 075-571-6181. Main courses 13€. Tues-Sun noon-3pm and 7pm-midnight. Closed Jan.
La Taverna UMBRIAN For many Perugians, a tiny courtyard down a flight of steps from Corso Vannnucci is the epicenter of good dining, filled in warm weather with tables of this venerable institution. Inside, the barrel vaulted ceilings shimmer with candlelight in evening, and the service and the cooking are similarly warm and down to earth. Everything, from bread to pasta to desserts are made in house and typically Umbrian: Papardelle is sauced with a hearty Umbrian ragù, caramelle rosse al gorgonzola (beet ravioli with Gorgonzola) is made with beets from a local farm, and the grilled and roasted meats are seasoned with fresh herbs from the surroundings hillsides. Chef Claudio will make his way to your table at some point to ensure that everything is tutto bene.
Via delle Streghe 8 (near Corso Vannucci’s Piazza Repubblica). 075-572-4128. Main courses 9€-16€. Tues-Sun 12:30-2:30pm and 7:30-11pm.
Osteria dai Priori UMBRIAN You’ll pass through a wine shop downstairs and climb a flight of stairs to reach this welcoming, brick vaulted room with contemporary blonde furnishings where the emphasis is on local ingredients and age-old Umbrian recipes. A portion of slowly cooked small beans (fagiolina) is paired with eggs and onions and bread salad; gnoccconi (large potato dumplings) are stuffed with fresh ricotta; slow-roasted pork shank (stinco di mialale) is served with crisp potatoes. The staff will eagerly walk you through the ever-changing menu and pair wines with each course.
Via dei Priori 39. 075-572-7098. Main courses 9€-12€. Wed-Mon noon-3pm and 7:30-10:30.
Piazza Italia is like a balcony hanging over the hillside at one end of town. From this airy square, sophisticated Corso Vannucci flows through the massive Palazzo dei Priori to Piazza IV Novembre, where the cathedral is a backdrop for the Fontana Maggiore, with elaborate panels and figures that Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni carved between 1278 and 1280. An especially entertaining time to stroll up the corso is in the early evening, when it becomes the stage set for one of Italy’s most lively and decorous evening passeggiate.
Cappella di San Severo CHURCH Before young Raphael Sanzio made a name for himself in Florence and Rome, he settled briefly in Perugia, where in 1504 he painted the first of the many frescoes that would make him famous in his own lifetime and establish for him a place alongside Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo in the triumvirate of great Renaissance masters. Only the upper half of his “Holy Trinity” remains, and that is damaged, and the work seems touchingly modest compared to the complex and engagingly humane “School of Athens” and other works he did for the Vatican palaces and chapels. As energetic in life as he was in his work, Raphael ran a huge workshop, had dozens of wealthy patrons, was in line to be a cardinal, and died on his 37th birthday, allegedly after a long, lustful session with his mistress. After Raphael’s death, his then-septuagenarian teacher, Perugino, painted the six saints along the bottom of the fresco.
Piazza Raffaello. 075-573-3864. Admission 3€ adults, 2€ seniors 65 and over, 1€ children 7-14, free for children 6 and under; includes admission to Pozzo Etrusco, valid 1 week. May-July and Sept-Oct Tues-Sun 10am-1:30pm and 2:30-6pm; Nov-Mar Tues-Sun 11am-1:30pm and 2:30-5pm; Apr and Aug daily 10am-1:30pm and 2:30-6pm.
Galleria Nazionale MUSEUM The world’s largest repository of Umbrian art covers seven or so fruitful centuries and showcases dozens of artists, among whom two stand out in particular. Pride of place belongs to the altarpieces by Perugino, who was born nearby in Città della Pieve and spent much of his career working in Perugia, between time in Florence, where he studied alongside Leonoardo da Vinci, and in Rome, where he executed frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Among his works in Rooms 22-26 are delicate landscapes, sweet Madonnas, and grinning Christ childs that reveal his spare, precise style. They are all the more ironically transcendent given that Perugino was openly anti-religion, and they certainly reveal nothing of the artist’s fairly turbulent life—he was arrested in Florence for assault and battery and barely escaped exile; sued Michelangelo for defamation of character; and more than once was censored for reusing images and lacking originality. He persevered, however, and worked prodigiously until his death at age 73 and left a considerable fortune.
City of Perugia.
The museum’s other showpiece is by a Tuscan, Piero della Francesca, who completed his “Polyptych of Perugia” for the city’s church of Sant’Antonio in 1470. The symmetry, precise placement of figures and objects, and realistic dimensions of interior spaces reveal the artist’s other occupation as a mathematician, though his figures are robustly human, real flesh and blood. The artist works sheer magic at the top of the piece, in a scene of the Annunciation, when an angel appears to Mary to tell her she will be the mother of the son of God. She’s standing in a brightly lit cloister, and the illusion of pillars leading off into the distance is regarded as one of the greatest examples of perspective in Renaissance art.
Palazzo dei Priori, Corso Vannucci 19. www.gallerianazionaleumbria.it. 075-574-1247. Admission 6.50€ adults, 3.25€ ages 18-25 (E.U. citizens only), free for children 17 and under and seniors 65 and over (EU citizens only). Mon 9:30am-7:30pm; Tues-Sun 8:30am-7:30pm.
Nobile Collegio del Cambio MUSEUM The cubicles and fluorescent lighting of modern office life will seem all the more banal after a visit to the frescoed and paneled meeting rooms of Perugia’s Moneychanger’s Guild, one of the best-preserved “office suites” of the Renaissance. Perugino was hired in 1496 to fresco the Sala dell’ Udienza (Hearing Room), perhaps with the help of his young student Raphael. The images merge religion, with scenes of the Nativity and Transfiguration; classical references, with female representations of the virtues; and most riveting of all, glimpses of 15th-century secular life that provide a fascinating look at Perugians of the time and their sartorial tastes.
Palazzo dei Priori, Corso Vannucci 25. 075-572-8599. Admission 4.50€ adults, 2.50€ seniors 65 and over, free for children 12 and under. Dec 20-Jan 6 Tues-Sat 9am-12:30pm and 2:30-5:30pm, Sun 9am-1pm; Mar 1-Oct 31 Mon-Sat 9am-12:30pm and 2:30-5:30pm, Sun 9am-1pm; Nov 1-Dec 19 and Jan 7-Feb 28 Tues-Sat 8am-2pm, Sun 9am-12:30pm.
A Side Trip to Gubbio
39km (24 miles) NE of Perugia
Gubbio is hands-down the most medieval-looking town in Umbria, with a crenelated skyline backed by a tree-covered mountain. At its stony heart is Piazza Grande, where the harsh expanse is softened from the south side by views of misty hills and the wide valley that spreads beneath them.
GETTING THERE By car, the SS298 branches north from Perugia, off the E45, through rugged scenery. Gubbio is not served by train, but there are eight or nine daily Umbria Mobilità buses (www.umbriamobilita.it; 800-512-141) from Perugia (4.60€; 5.50€ if you pay on board) to Piazza 40 Martiri (70 min.), named for citizens killed by the Nazis for aiding partisans during World War II.
If you want to avoid the climb up to Piazza Grande, take the free elevator at the junction of Via Repubblica and Via Baldassini (daily 7:45am-7pm). The tourist office is nearby at Via della Repubblica 15, (www.comune.gubbio.pg.it; 075-922-0693 or 075-922-0790). It’s open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 1:45pm and 3:30 to 6:30pm, Saturday from 9am to 1pm and 3:30 to 6:30pm, and Sunday from 9:30am to 1pm and 3 to 6pm; October through March, all afternoon hours are 3 to 6pm.
Museo del Palazzo dei Consoli MUSEUM The former home of the town government is a solidly Gothic-looking palace, almost improbably so, with crenellations, a tower, and an imposing stone staircase that seems to demand you climb up from Piazza Grande. The main hall, where the medieval commune met, houses the sleep-inducing town museum, where one prize stands out amid the old coins and bits of pottery. The seven Eugubine Tables, inscribed on bronze from 200 to 70 B.C., provide the only existing record of the Umbri language transposed in Etruscan and Latin letters, ancient Umbria’s Rosetta Stone. The tablets mainly detail the finer points of animal sacrifice and divination through watching the flight patterns of birds. A local farmer turned up the tablets while he was plowing his fields in 1444, and city officials convinced him to sell them for 2 years’ worth of grazing rights. In your explorations be sure to find the secret corridor that leads from the back of the ceramics room to the Pinacoteca upstairs, via the medieval toilets.
Perugia’s Medieval Pompeii
Beneath Piazza Italia is some remarkable underground scenery. Around 1530 the Perugians rebelled against Pope Paul III over a tax on salt—to this day, Perugian bread is salt-free. In retribution, the Pope demolished more than one-quarter of the city, and built his Rocca Paolina atop the ruins. After Italian unification in 1860, locals ripped the castle to pieces and built Piazza Italia on top. Today the vaults of the fort and the remains of medieval dwellings and streets it was built atop are in full view beneath the piazza. You can clamber through doorless entrances, climb the remains of stairways, walk through empty rooms, and wander at will through the brick maze. Enter the underground city daily (no admission fee) from the escalators that connect the lower-town’s Piazza Partigiani, with its car park and bus station, and Piazza Italia (daily 6:15am-1:45am).
Piazza Grande. 075-927-4298. Admission 5€ adults, 2.50€ children 7-25, free for children 7 and under and seniors. Apr-Sept daily 10am-1pm and 3-6pm; Oct-Mar daily 10am-1pm and 2-5pm.
Monte Igino PARK/GARDEN An open-air funicular whisks you to the top of this 908m (2,980-ft.) summit in about 5 minutes for yet more stupendous Umbrian views. On the ascent you can be glad you are not taking part in the May 15 Corso dei Ceri, when teams race up the mountainside carrying 15-foot-long wooden battering ram-like objects called ceri, or “candles.” (The race is part of festivities honoring St. Ubaldo, the bishop who allegedly smooth-talked Frederick Barbarossa out of sacking the town in the 1150s and was sainted for his efforts.) The Basilica di Sant’Ubaldo, a 5-minute walk from the top station of the funicular, houses the saint’s corpse, looking the worse for wear in a glass casket. The Funivia Colle Eletto ( 075-927-3881) runs Monday to Friday 10am to 1:15pm and 2:30 to 6:30pm and Saturday to Sunday 9:30am to 1:15pm and 2:30 to 7pm. Round-trip tickets are 5€ adults, 4€ children 4 to 13; one-way tickets are 4€ adults, 3€ children.
WHERE TO EAT
Grotta dell’Angelo ITALIAN/UMBRIAN A long barrel-vaulted dining room where locals have been gathering for the past 700 years or so is the place to sit in winter, while warm-weather dining is on a vine-shaded terrace. Wherever you eat, enjoy homemade gnocchi and other pastas, followed by flame-grilled sausages and other meats roasted over the open fire—the whole roast chicken stuffed with fennel is especially delicious.
Via Gioia 47. www.grottadellangelo.it. 075-927-3438. Main courses 9€-14€. Wed-Mon 12:30-2:30pm and 7:30-11pm. Closed Jan 7-Feb 7.
27km (17 miles) E of Perugia
St. Francis is still working miracles: His birthplace remains a lovely Umbrian hilltown, despite a steady onslaught of visitors. Many pilgrims come to pay homage to Francis at the Basilica di San Francisco, and almost as many are drawn by the frescoes celebrating his life with which the painter Giotto decorated the church. You’ll also find a blend of romance and magic in Assisi’s honey-colored stone, the quiet back lanes, and the mists that rise and fall over the Val di Spoleto below the town. With its saintly presence and pleasant ambience, Assisi an essential stop on any Umbrian tour.
The World’s Favorite Saint
For Christian pilgrims the magic of Assisi is all about St. Francis, one of the patron saints of Italy (along with Catherine of Siena), founder of one of the world’s largest monastic orders, and generally considered to be just about the holiest person to walk the earth since Jesus. Born to a wealthy merchant and a spoiled young man of his time, Francis did an about turn in his early twenties and dedicated himself to a life of poverty. His meekness, love of animals, and invention of the Christmastime crèche scenes have all helped ensure his popularity. Though Francis traveled as far as Egypt (in an unsuccessful attempt to convert the sultan and put and end to the Crusades) he is most associated with the gentle countryside around Assisi, where he spent months praying and fasting in lonely hermitages.
GETTING THERE From Perugia, there are about 20 trains daily (25-30 min.). From Florence (2-3 hr.), there are trains every 2 hours or so, though some require a transfer at Terontola. The station is in the modern valley town of Santa Maria degli Angeli, about 5km (3 miles) from Assisi, with bus connections to Assisi every 20 minutes (1€), or you can take a taxi for about 15€ to 20€.
By car, Assisi is 18km (11 miles) east of Perugia, off the SS75bis. The center’s steep streets are off limits to non-resident drivers. The best strategy is to park in Piazza Matteotti (1.15€ per hour), keep walking west, and finish at the basilica; it’s all downhill. A dependable alternative is the Mojano multi-story (1.05€ first 2 hrs.; 1.45€/hr. thereafter) halfway up the hill from Piazza Giovanni Paolo II to Porta Nuova. Escalators whisk you into the center of town.
Eight Umbria Mobilità buses (www.umbriamobilita.it; 800/512-141) run seven times daily (Mon-Fri) between Perugia and Assisi’s Piazza Matteotti (50 min.; 3.20€; 4€ if you pay on the bus). They also run about five buses from Gubbio (13⁄4 hr.). SULGA (www.sulga.it; 075-500-9641) runs two buses daily from Rome’s Tiburtina station, taking about 3 hours, and one daily trip from Piazza Adua in Florence, which takes about 21⁄2 hours.
VISITOR INFORMATION The tourist office (www.comune.assisi.pg.it; 075-812-534) is in the Palazzo S. Nicola on Piazza del Comune. It’s open summer daily from 8am to 6:30pm, winter Monday through Saturday from 8am to 2pm and 3 to 6pm, Sunday from 9am to 1pm. The private websites www.assisionline.com and www.assisiweb.com also have good info.
Where to Stay
Never show up in Assisi, especially from Easter to fall, without a hotel reservation. Don’t even think of showing up without a reservation on pilgrim-thronged church holidays or the Calendimaggio, a spring celebration the first weekend (starting Thurs) after May 1, when the town divides itself into “upper” and “lower” factions that date to the 1300s and celebrates with processions, medieval contests of strength and skill, and late-night partying—all in 14th-century costume, of course. At these times you’ll search in vain and find yourself stuck overnight in one of the bus-pilgrimage facilities 4km (21⁄2 miles) away in Santa Maria degli Angeli. The official central booking office is Consorzio Albergatori ed Operatori Turistici di Assisi, Via A. Cristofani 22a (www.visitassisi.com; 075-816-566).
NUN Assisi Relais & Spa Museum A dramatic change of pace from Assisi’s heavily medieval aura is in full force at this contemporary redo of a centuries-old convent. Handsome guest quarters have all white surfaces and bursts of bright colors, accented with stone walls and arches, and boldly turned out with Eames chairs, laminate tables, and high-tech lighting. A two-level suite with a hanging sleeping loft is focused on a massive 13th-century fresco of saints in the wilderness, bound to instill nighttime visions. A lavish breakfast buffet and other meals are served in a stark, white-vaulted, high-tech version of the refectory, and downstairs are hedonistic pleasures the former tenants could never have dreamed of—two pools, a series of saunas and steam rooms, and a state-of-the-art spa.
Eremo delle Carceri 1A. www.nunassisi.com. 075-815-5150. 18 units. From 260€ double. Rates include breakfast. Amenities: Restaurant; bar; concierge; indoor pools; room service; sauna; steam room; spa; Wi-Fi (free).
Umbra Assisi lodgings just don’t get any homier than they do at the Laudenzi family’s welcoming little inn down a tiny alley from Piazza del Commune. A gate opens into a shady patio and beyond are welcoming, if a bit outdated, guest rooms with vaulted ceilings, fresco fragments, and other historic remnants here and there and nicely furnished with old-fashioned armoires and dressers. Views over rooftops to the valley below unfold through the tall windows, from the private terraces off the choicest rooms, and the one on the roof for all guests to enjoy. The dining room is one of the most pleasant places to eat in town and extends into a lovely garden.
Via Delgli Archi 6 (off the west end of Piazza del Comune). www.hotelumbra.it. 075-812-240. 24 units. 110€ standard double; 125€ superior double. Rates include breakfast. Garage parking 10€ per day. Closed mid-Jan to Easter. Amenities: Restaurant; bar; babysitting; bikes; concierge; room service; Wi-Fi (free).
Villa Zuccari If you have a car, you can easily visit Assisi from any number of smaller nearby towns. The little wine village of Montefalco, about 20 minutes south, is especially appealing, given the presence of dozens of wineries and all the more so since it’s home to this old family estate where you will feel like a guest in a gracious Italian home. You will also be within easy reach of Spello, Trevi, Spoleto, Todi, and other hilltowns that spill down the Umbrian hillsides. But you might be tempted to stay put on your own large terrace or in the palm-shaded garden surrounding a pool. Inside, the airy, light-filled bedrooms are especially large and homily equipped with soft armchairs, king-sized beds, and some nice antiques, and the big bathrooms are sheathed in marble. Welcoming lounges are filled with books and pottery, and dinners are served in a vaulted room that glistens with terracotta tiles.
Locanda San Luca (just east of Montefalco). www.villazuccari.com. 742-399-402. 34 units. From 110€ double. Amenities: Restaurant; bar; pool; Wi-Fi (free).
Where to Eat
Several of Assisi’s restaurants and bars serve a local flatbread called torta al testa, usually split and stuffed with cheeses, sausages, and vegetables (spinach is popular). It’s a meal in itself and a fast and cheap lunch.
La Fortezza UMBRIAN You don’t have to veer far off the beaten track to find the Chiocchetti family’s plain, stone-walled dining room, where the focus is on authentic Umbrian home cooking. You’ll discover that both body and soul benefit from their specialties, such as cannelloni all’Assisiana (fresh pasta sheets wrapped around a veal ragù, all baked under parmigiana) and coniglio in salsa di mele (rabbit roasted in a sauce of wine and apples).
Vicolo della Fortezza/Piazza del Comune (up the stairs near the Via San Rufino end). www.lafortezzahotel.com. 075-812-993. Main courses 10€-13€. Fri-Wed 12:30-2:30pm and 7:30-9:30pm. Closed Feb and 1 week in July.
La Stalla GRILL/UMBRIAN It’s not often that the term “old barn” is associated with good dining, but a meal in these rustic and rather raucous converted livestock stalls, with stone walls and low ceilings, can be the highlight of a trip to Assisi (even the servers seem to be having a good time). The pleasant, 15-minute walk out here will work up an appetite, so begin with the assaggini di torta al testo, small samplers of Assisian flatbread stuffed with cheese, meat, and vegetables, then move through the hearty selection of pastas to the simple servings of steak, pork and sausage skewers, chicken, even potatoes that come off the grill. Decent house wines compliment the meals, which you can enjoy on a terrace in good weather.
Santuario della Carceri 24 11⁄2km (less than 1 mile) from centre, direction Eremo. 075-812-317. Main courses 8€-13€. Tues-Sun noon-2:30 and 7-10:30pm.
Assisi’s geographical and civic heart is Piazza del Comune, with its 13th-century Palazzo del Capitano and the stately Corinthian columns of the Roman Tempio di Minerva guarding its northern fringe. The most atmospheric route to the basilica goes downhill from here along medieval Via Portica, which becomes Via Fortini and Via San Francesco before arriving at the main event.
Basilica di San Francesco ICON One of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Christendom combines homage to eternally popular St. Francis, masterworks of medieval architecture, and some of the favorite works of Western art. The basilica is actually two churches, lower and upper; the lower church is dark and somber, a place of contemplation, while the upper church soars into Gothic vaults and is light-filled and colorful, instilling a sense of celebration. This assemblage was begun soon after the saint’s death in 1226, under the guidance of Francis’s savvy and worldly colleague, Brother Elias. The lower church was completed in 1230, and the upper church in 1280. The steeply sloping site just outside the city walls was until then used for executions and known as the Hill of Hell. The presence of the patron saint of Italy, in spirit as well as in body, now makes this one of Italy’s most uplifting sights. His kindness, summed up in his saying, “For it is in giving that we receive,” seems to permeate the soft gray stones, and the frescoed spaces move the devout to tears and art lovers to fits of near-religious ecstasy.
The Lower Church Entered off Piazza Inferiore di San Francesco (the lower of the two squares abutting the church), the basilica’s bottom half is a cryptlike church that is indeed, first and foremost a crypt, housing the stone sarcophagus of St. Francis, surrounded by four of his disciples. An almost steady stream of faithful files past the monument, many on their knees. Inside is the saint’s remarkably intact skeleton. Most saints of the Middle Ages fell victim to the purveyors of relics, who made enormous profit dispensing bones, a finger here, a toe there. It’s said that Brother Elias, Francis’ savvy colleague, had the foresight to seal the coffin in stone, and it remained undetected until 1818. The dimly lit atmosphere is greatly enlivened with the presence of many rich frescoes, including Simone Martini’s action-packed depictions of the life of St. Martin in the Cappella di San Martino (1322-1326). Martini amply displays his flare for boldly patterned fabrics and his familiarity with detailed manuscript illumination (many examples would have passed through his native Siena, on the pilgrimage route from northern Europe to Rome). He was also, like Martin, a knight, and these influences show up in several richly detailed scenes, including those of the saint, a Roman soldier, ripping his cloak to share it with a beggar; being investitured; and renouncing chivalry and weaponry in favor of doing good deeds. The imagery is not out of keeping with Francis, who as a youth dreamed of being a soldier.
Giotto and his assistants frescoed the Cappella della Santa Maria Maddalena, with the “Life of St. Mary Magdalene” (1303-1309). An incredibly moving cycle of “Christ’s Passion” (1316-1319) by Pietro Lorenzetti includes a hauntingly humane “Deposition,” in which the young Sienese artist imparts his scene with a gaunt Christ and sorrowful Mary with naturalism and emotion not before seen in painting.
The Upper Church Entering the light-filled Gothic interior of the Upper Church, you’ll first encounter scenes of the New Testament by Cimabue, the last great painter of the Byzantine style; some critics say only the “Crucifixion” (1277) is his, and the rest of the scenes are by his assistants. In any case, it’s rather ironic he’s here at all. The artist was infamous for his stubbornness and difficult personality, and in the “Divine Comedy,” Dante places him in Purgatory among the proud, adding the comment, “Cimabue thought to hold the field of painting, and now Giotto hath the cry.” It’s Giotto who famously holds court in the church, with his 28-part fresco cycle on “The Life of St. Francis,” completed in the 1290s. Even nonreligious viewers know and love these scenes of the saint removing his clothing to renounce material processions, marrying poverty (symbolized by a woman in rags), and preaching to the birds (the perennial favorite and the subject of ubiquitous postcards for sale around town).
Piazza Superiore di San Francesco. www.sanfrancescoassisi.org. 075-819-001. Free admission. Lower Church daily 6am-6:45pm; Upper Church daily 8:30am-6:45pm. You may visit church for Mass on Sun morning (before 2pm), but purely touristic visits at this time are frowned on.
Basilica di Santa Chiara CHURCH One of the first followers of St. Francis was a young woman, Chiara (Clare, in English), daughter of a count and countess who was so swept away by the teachings of the young zealot that she allowed him to cut her hair and dress her in sackcloth. She founded the order of the Poor Dames (now known as Poor Clares), whose members continue to renounce material processions, and she lies in this vast, stark church on full view, with her face covered in wax. The Oratorio del Crocifisso preserves the venerated 12th-century crucifix from which the figure of Christ allegedly spoke to St. Francis and asked him to rebuild his church (the reference was to the organization, which had by then become mired in politics, corruption, and warfare). As Clare lay ill on Christmas Eve 1252, she allegedly voiced regrets that she would not be able to attend services in the then-new Basilica di San Francisco. Suddenly, in a vision, she saw and heard the mass clear as a bell and in Technicolor, a miracle for which she was named the patron saint of television in 1958.
Piazza Santa Chiara. 075-812-282. Free admission. Daily 6:30am-noon and 2-7pm (6pm in winter).
San Francesco and Santa Chiara have a strict dress code. Entrance is forbidden to those wearing shorts or miniskirts or showing bare shoulders. You also must remain silent and cannot take photographs in the Upper Church of San Francesco.
Rocca Maggiore CASTLE A show of might is built of bleached yellow stone atop a steep hillside very high above the city. Some view enthusiasts claim that a sharp-eyed observer can see all the way to the Mediterranean on a clear day, but that’s probably an oxygen-deprivation vision induced by the hearty climb through narrow medieval lanes and up the pine-scented hillside. Hyberbole aside, views across the Umbrian plain below are wonderful and quite a bit more exhilarating than the dull displays of costumes and weapons in the restored keep and soldiers quarters; save the admission fee for a glass of wine when you get back down.
Piazzale delle Libertà Comunali, at the top of town, at the ends of Via della Rocca, Via del Colle, and the stepped Vicolo San Lorenzo off Via Porta Perlici. 075-815-292. Admission 5€ adults; 3.50€ students, children 8-18, and seniors 65 and over; free for children 7 and under; joint ticket with Foro Romano and Pinacoteca Comunale 8€ and 5€. June-Aug daily 9am-8pm; Apr-May and Sept-Oct daily 10am-6:30pm; Nov-Feb daily 10am-4:30pm; Mar 10am-5:30pm.
63km (39 miles) SE of Perugia
Spoletto can seem to be the center of the cultured world in June, when the Festival dei Due Mondi (aka Spoleto Festival) brings performers and audiences from all over the world to town. For most of the year, though, Spoleto is just another lovely Umbrian hill town, sweeping up a steep hillside. The pleasant warren of steep streets and airy piazzas are lined with artifacts from the Roman past and prosperous Middle Ages, and include one of Italy’s most beautifully situated cathedrals.
GETTING THERE Spoleto is a main rail station on the Rome-Ancona line, and 16 daily trains from Rome stop here (about 11⁄2 hr.). From Perugia, take one of the 20 daily trains to Foligno (25 min.) to transfer to this line for the final 20-minute leg. From outside the station, take bus A, B, or C to Piazza Carducci on the edge of the old town.
By car, the town sits on the old Roman Via Flaminia, now the SS3. There’s usually plenty of parking, but the easiest option is to make for the Spoletosfera parking garage, signposted from the SS3’s Spoleto Sud exit (1€ per hour). Escalators from the lot run up the hillside to the top of town, allowing you to get off at well-signposted levels (for Piazza della Libertà, the Duomo, etc.)
VISITOR INFORMATION The information center at Piazza della Libertà 7 (www.visitspoleto.it; 0743-220-773) hands out heaps of info and an excellent map. It’s open daily (Mon-Fri 9am-1:30pm and 2-7pm, Sat 9am-1pm, and Sun 10am-1pm and 3:30-6:30pm).
Where to Stay
Accommodations are tight during the Spoleto Festival; reserve by March if you want to find a good, central room.
Hotel Gattapone From the street, this completely unexpected retreat beneath the Rocca Albornozina seems like a relatively modest 19th-century villa. But step inside, and it’s all polished wood, curved, free-floating staircases, and leather couches facing window walls overlooking the Ponte dei Torre and green Montulco hillsides. There’s a cinematic, 1960s Antonioni-film quality to the place, including the guest rooms, where slightly dated but well-maintained contemporary furnishings mix with traditional pieces and surround huge bay windows hanging over the same stunning views; rooms in the newer wing have sitting areas facing the views. Some guests comment that the air-conditioning is vintage, too, and anyone with mobility issues should keep in mind that there’s no elevator and rooms and lounges flow for several floors down the hillside. But a flowery terrace at the bottom is one of many quirky charms.
Via del Ponte 6. www.hotelgattapone.it. 0743-223-447. 15 units. From 90€ double. Rates include buffet breakfast. Amenities: Bar; Wi-Fi (free).
Hotel San Luca A 19th-century tannery at the far edge of the city next to the Roman walls lends itself well to its current incarnation as an atmospheric and gracious hotel. A book-lined lounge, where canaries chirp in an antique cage and a fire crackles in colder months, faces a large courtyard, as do many of the rooms—others overlook a rose garden to the side. The unusually large quarters are all different and individually furnished with a mix of traditional and contemporary pieces and a smattering of antiques chosen by the owner—whose experience in the bath fixture business accounts for the extremely large and well-equipped windowed marble bathrooms. Sights and restaurants are about a 5-minute walk away, and the attentive staff will map out a route that involves the least amount of climbing. Among the many amenities is an easy-to-reach in-house garage, a real rarity in Spoleto.
Via Interna delle Mura 21. www.hotelsanluca.com. 0743-223-399. 35 units. From 100€ double. Rates include buffet breakfast. Garage parking (13€ per day). Amenities: Bar; babysitting; bikes; concierge; room service (bar); Wi-Fi (fee).
Palazzo Leti An entrance through a Renaissance garden that opens at one side to the Tessino gorge announces the air of enchantment that pervades this beautifully restored 13th-century palace of the Leti family. Views of the gorge and green Monteluco hills are the focal point of most of the guest rooms, though a few overlook a medieval alley that has a charm all its own; all have handsome period furnishings and rich fabrics, as well as welcoming couches and armchairs in the larger rooms, and exposed beams, granite hearths, and vaulted ceilings throughout enhance the historic surroundings. Anna Laura and Giampolo, who restored the palace from a dilapidated pile, are a friendly presence and provide all sorts of advice, including how to negotiate the narrow surrounding lanes in a car and where to find a good meal.
Via degli Eremiti 10. www.palazzoleti.com. 0743-224-930. 12 units. 130€-200€ double. Rates include breakfast. Free parking. Amenities: Bar; babysitting; bikes; spa; Wi-Fi (free).
Where to Eat
For some gastro-shopping, visit Bartolomei Orvieto at 97 Corso Cavour (www.oleificiobartolomei.it; 0763-344550), where you can taste and drink the products before buying. Colder Gelateria ( 0743-235-015; daily 12:30pm-midnight) serves some of the best gelato (notably the “bread and chocolate” flavor) in Umbria, created by local artisans Crispini.
Apollonaire UMBRIAN The low wood ceilings, stone walls, and beams are traditional holdovers from a 12th-century Franciscan monastery, but the menu is innovative and adventurous—contemporary Spoletan, if the food world has invented such a term, would well describe dishes that rely on fresh local ingredients and traditional Umbrian recipes but have that extra twist: Strangozzi (local long, rectangular wheat pasta) is topped with a pungent sauce of cherry tomatoes and mint, herb-roasted rabbit is served with black olive sauce, and pork filet mignon is topped with a sauce of pecorino cheese and pears soaked in Rosso di Montefalco.
Via Sant’Agata 14 (near Piazza della Libertà). www.ristoranteapollinare.it. 0743-225-676. Main courses 12€-24€. Thurs-Tues noon-3pm and 7pm-midnight. Closed Feb.
La Torretta UMBRIAN Comprising two welcoming rooms in a medieval tower converted to a wine cellar, just off an airy little piazza in a quiet corner of the old town, La Torretta is the place to settle in for a relaxed meal. Brothers Stefano and Elio Salvucci extend a genuine welcome and present a nice selection of Umbrian dishes with a focus on truffles, beginning with the tris di antipasti al tartufo estivo (trio of truffle-based appetizers) and working up to a choice of beautifully seasoned pork and beef grilled over a wood fire. The kitchen also makes a light-as-air truffle omelet, a memorable break from heavier secondis. Outdoor seating in summer.
Via Filitteria 43. www.trattorialatorretta.com. 0743-44-954. Main courses 9€-16€. Wed-Mon 12:30-2:30pm and 7:45-10:45pm (closed Sun evening).
A cafe in the hills of Spoleto.
You won’t spend much time in the Lower Town, but a highlight is the 11th-century Romanesque San Gregorio di Maggiore, Piazza della Vittoria ( 0743-44-140), which replaced an earlier oratory here in a cemetery of Christian martyrs. The church’s namesake saint was killed in a spectacle at the nearby amphitheater in A.D. 304, as were a supposed 10,000 lesser-known martyrs whose bones symbolically reside beneath the altar. It opens daily from 8am to noon and 4 to 6pm, and admission is free. Once you settle into town, with the aid of a map you’ll be able to figure out ways to use handy escalators to avoid steep uphill climbs; hotel staff will also usually help you plot a level course. Piazza del Mercato, the probable site of the old Roman forum, is a bustling spot in the Upper Town lined with grocers and fruit vendors’ shops.
Casa Romana HISTORIC HOME As a stop on the busy Via Flaminia and an important supplier of wine, Spoletium was fairly prosperous in the Roman world. Enough of this patrician’s home remains, including frescoes and mosaics, to give an idea of what the good life was like for a Roman occupant in the 1st century A.D. The resident was obviously well to do, though there’s no proof for the claim that it was Vespasia Polla, the mother of the Emperor Vespasian.
Via di Visiale. 0743-234-350. Admission 2.50€ adults, 2€ ages 15-25 and seniors 65 and over, 1€ children 7-14, free for children 6 and under. Daily 10:30am-5:30pm.
Cattedrale di Santa Maria dell’Assunta CATHEDRAL Spoleto’s almost playfully picturesque cathedral was consecrated in 1098, barely 40 years after Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor, razed the entire town in retaliation for the citizens’ lack of support in his ongoing wars against the papacy. The church they built seems to defy the brutality of that catastrophe and is serenely set in a broad piazza at the bottom of a flight of monumental steps, with the white marble and golden mosaics on the dazzling facade framed against a gentle backdrop of a forested hill. Inside, the apse is graced with frescoes of the “Life of the Virgin” that are largely from the brush of Filippo Lippi, one of the more colorful characters of his time. An ordained priest, Filippo shirked his duties to draw and was eventually given permission to paint full time. Though he worked frequently and was a favorite of the Medicis, he was chronically impoverished, supposedly because he spent so much money on women. The commission to come to Spoleto must have been a plum for the artist, then close to 60. His delicate and engaging scenes of the elegant Virgin being visited by the Archangel and holding her very sweet-looking infant betray nothing of the turbulence in his life, as he was fighting to get dispensation to marry a young nun, Lucrezia Buti, whom he had seduced and who had borne his son, Filippino Lippi (who would soon match his father’s greatness as a painter). Both Lippis appear in the Domition of the Virgin scene, Filippo wearing a white habit with young Filippino, as an angel, in front of him. Fillippo died before he completed the frescoes, and his assistants finished the task. The cause of his death was suspected to be poison, perhaps administered by Lucrezia’s family or yet another paramour. He is buried beneath a monument that Filippino would design at the request of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Filippo’s patron, who tried in vain to get the body back to Florence. In the Cappella delle Reliquie (Reliquary Chapel), on the left aisle, is a rare treasure—a letter written and signed by St. Francis. (Assisi has the only other bona fide signature.)
Piazza del Duomo. 0743-231-063. Free admission. Daily 8:30am-12:30pm and 3:30-5:30pm (until 7pm Apr-Oct).
Museo Archeologico/Teatro Romano MUSEUM/RUINS Spoleto had the good fortune to more or less flourish through the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, and as a consequence most of the Roman city was quarried or built over. The monastery of St. Agata was built atop this splendid theater that wasn’t recognized until 1891. After a thorough restoration in the 1950s, the theater is the evocative venue for performances during the Spoleto Festival. Much of the original orchestra flooring is intact, as is an elaborate drainage system that was allegedly quite efficient in flushing out the blood of slain animals and martyrs. Busts and statuary that once adorned the theater are on display in the adjoining Museo Archeologico.
Via di Sant’Agata 18A. 0743-223-277. Admission 4€ adults, 2€ ages 18-25, free for children 17and under and seniors 65 and over. Daily 8:30am-7:30pm.
Spoleto’s Big Bash
Spoleto’s be-all and end-all annual event bridges the end of June and early July. The Spoleto Festival (www.festivaldispoleto.it) offers 3 weeks of world-class drama, music, and dance held in evocative spaces like an open-air restored Roman theater and the pretty piazza fronting the Duomo. A secondary Spoleto Estate season of music, art, and theater runs from just after the festival ends through September.
Rocca Albornoziana CASTLE Cardinal Albornoz, a power-hungry zealot tasked with rebuilding and strengthening the papal states, arrived in Spoleto in the mid-14th century and commissioned the Umbrian architect Matteo Gattapone to build a fortress. The site was perfect—atop a high hill above the town and, as history would prove, virtually impregnable. The walled-and-moated castle became famous in the 20th century as one of Italy’s most secure prisons, where members of the Red Brigades terrorist organization were routinely incarcerated. The fortunate ones might have had a view through their cell windows of the majestic Ponte delle Torri, a 232m (760 ft.) long aqueduct built in the 13th century on Roman foundations. Its arches span a deep, verdant gorge, 90m (295 ft.) above the Tessino river, a scene that so impressed Wolfgang von Goethe on a 1786 visit to Spoleto that he dedicated an entire page of his “Italian Travels” to the spectacle.
The current occupant of the fortress is the Museo Nazionale del Ducato di Spoleto ( 0743-223-055), with a benumbing collection of sarcophagi, mosaics, and religious statuary that you needn’t feel guilty about not seeing (and it’s very expensive as well). The views of the town and Umbrian countryside from the grounds are free and well worth the ride up, via a series of escalators and elevators.
Piazza Campello. 0743-224-952. Admission 7.50€ adults, 6.50€ ages 15-25, 3.50€ children 7-14, free for children 6 and under. Tues-Sun 8:30am-7:30pm (last ticket 6:45pm).
A Side Trip to Todi
45 km (28 miles) northwest of Spoleto
For sheer picturesque quotient, few hilltowns in Umbria can match somber and proud Todi. What’s more, at the top of the town is the finest square in Umbria, the Piazza del Popolo, a remarkable assemblage of 12th-century to 14th-century palaces, the duomo, and belvederes providing eagle’s eye views of the rolling Umbrian countryside and the Tiber Valley below. Standing in this square and exploring the little lanes that run off it is the reason to be in Todi, where there’s not much to see but a lot of ambience to soak in.
GETTING THERE It’s easy by car: Follow scenic S418 west out of Spoleto to Acquasparta, where you then take E45 northwest to Todi. By train, travel north from Spoleto to Perugia and change there for Todi; but you’ll have to switch from the main station to Sant’Anna, in Piazzale Bellucci, and be sure to time the trip carefully so you don’t wait hours for a connection.
VISITOR INFORMATION The central tourist office is under the arches of the Palazzo del Capitano at Piazza del Popolo 38/39 (www.comune.todi.pg.it; 075-894-2526). It’s open Monday to Saturday 9:30am to 1pm and 3:30 to 7pm, Sunday 10am to 1pm and 3:30 to 7pm (to 6pm in winter when it’s also closed Sun afternoons).
Piazza del Popolo is home to three harmonious public buildings from the 13th and 14th centuries that lend the square its austere dignity; the Palazzo del Capitano, where the tourist office is located, the Palazzo dei Priori, with its curious trapezoidal tower, and oldest of the three, the Palazzo del Popolo from 1213. Todi’s Duomo is simple and elegant, graced with a rose window added to the 12th-century structure in 1500.
These medieval stones are quite recent in the scheme of the town’s past, which is said to stretch to at least the 7th century B.C., though legend has it that Hercules founded the town a century or so before, and it was here that he killed Cacus, the fire-breathing dragon. It’s known that the Romans usurped an Etruscan outpost sometime around 217 B.C., and their walls are still part of the town’s massive fortifications.
WHERE TO EAT & STAY
Ristorante Umbria UMBRIAN For many visitors, the main reason to come to Todi is to enjoy a meal at this decades-old dining room just off Piazza del Popolo. Palombaccio (a type of wild dove), steaks, and other meats are grilled over an open fire, and often accompanied by truffles. The other pleasure of dining here is to sit on the terrace, from which all of Umbria seems to unfold at your feet like a vast green checkerboard (be sure to reserve an outside table in advance).
Via San Bonaventura 13. 075-894-2737. Main courses 10€-18€. Wed-Mon 11am-3pm and 7-10:30pm.
Castello di Castiglione For an authentic Umbrian experience, it’s hard to beat this medieval castle and its walled hamlet in the countryside outside Todi. Part of the business here is an excellent restaurant, the Il Re Beve (the King Quaffs), one of the region’s best, where meals are served in front of a roaring fire in winter (meats are roasted over the coals) and on a geranium-filled terrace overlooking fields of sunflowers in warm weather; you can also dine on request in some subterranean chambers reached through secret tunnels. A vast, vaulted suite in the castle keep is the most atmospheric accommodation, exuding medieval atmosphere in every brick and stone, except in the luxurious 21st-century bathroom with a hydro massage shower for two. Rustic yet extremely comfortable apartments scattered throughout the attached hamlet are multilevel, sleep as many as six, and face the well-kept gardens and pool or overlook the countryside. Weekly rates are available, as are nightly rates with dinner included.
Piazza Corsini 1A. Casiligiano Terni (16km/10 mi. south of Todi off E45). www.castellodicasigliano.com. 0744-943-428. 8 units. 80€-96€ double; 150€-180€ suite. Rates include breakfast. Amenities: Restaurant; bar; pool; Wi-Fi (free).
87km (54 miles) W of Spoleto, 86km (53 miles) SW of Perugia
Walking through the streets of Orvieto, you might be delighted to discover that nothing much has changed in the past 500 years. Adding to the magic is that off to one side of town is what might be Italy’s most beautiful cathedral, covered in dazzling mosaics and statuary and rising above an airy piazza. The final coup de grace is the fact that the entire town is set atop a volcanic outcropping some 315m (1,033 ft.) above the green countryside. This impenetrable perch ensured that Etruscan “Velzna” was among the most powerful members of the dodecapoli (Etruscan confederation of 12 cities) and the aerie-like positioning continues to make Orvieto seem a world apart.
GETTING THERE Fourteen trains on the main Rome-Florence line stop at Orvieto daily (1 hr., 45 min. from Florence; 1 hr., 20 min. from Rome). From Perugia, take the train to Terontola (16 trains daily) for this line heading south toward Rome (11⁄4 hr. total train time).
Orvieto’s station is in Orvieto Scalo in the valley. To reach the city, cross the street and take the funicular (www.atcterni.it; every 10 min. from 7:20am-8:30pm).
Orvieto is easy to reach by car, especially from southern Tuscany: It’s right by the A1. The main link to the rest of Umbria is the SS448 to Todi (40 min.).
VISITOR INFORMATION The tourist office is opposite the Duomo at Piazza Duomo 24 (www.comune.orvieto.tr.it; 0763-341-772). It’s open Monday to Friday 8:15am to 1:50pm and 4 to 7pm, Saturday 10am to 1pm and 3:30 to 7pm, and Sunday from 10am to noon and 4 to 6pm.
Where to Stay
The upper town does not have many places to stay, so be sure to book ahead—especially on weekends, when many Romans come up to Orvieto for a small-town getaway.
Hotel Duomo These snug quarters just a few steps from the Duomo (viewable from some rooms with a lean out of the window) are not only extremely comfortable—with lots of built in modern, rich wood furnishings and excellent lighting (a rarity in Italian hotels in this price range)—but are also surprisingly quirky. A local artist, Livio Orazio Valentini, did the decor and hung his surrealistic paintings in the hallways, lounges, and rooms, and complemented them with colorful upholstery and carpets to match the tones. He also created sculptural light fixtures that hang over many of the desks. The effect is slightly bohemian and quite homey, and the ambience is topped off nicely with a pleasant garden to one side of the hotel.
Vicolo dei Maurizio 7. www.orvietohotelduomo.com. 0763-341-887. 18 units. 80€ double. Rates include breakfast. Amenities: Wi-Fi (free).
Palazzo Piccolomini Orvieto’s most luxurious and character-filled accommodations are in a 16th-century palazzo that was resurrected from a dilapidated wreck 25 years ago. The stone and vaulted subterranean breakfast room and a couple of frescoed salons whisk you into the past, but most of the guest rooms are done in contemporary Umbrian chic—wood and tile floors, dark, simple furnishings, and crisp white walls with neutral-tone accents here and there, all very soothing. Some rooms have sitting areas, or open to terraces, or are two-level, though the real prize here is a room of any size with a countryside view (only those on the upper floors have them).
Piazza Ranieri 36 (2 blocks down from Piazza della Repubblica), 05018 Orvieto. www.palazzopiccolomini.it. 0763-341-743. 32 units. From 154€ double. Rates include breakfast. Parking 15€ in main public lot next door. Amenities: Restaurant; babysitting; concierge; room service; Wi-Fi (free in public areas).
Where to Eat
Orvieto’s unofficial pasta is umbrichelli, simple flour-and-water spaghetti rolled out unevenly by hand and somewhat chewy—similar to the pici of southern Tuscany, but not as thick. To sample a glass (or buy a bottle) of Orvieto Classico (accompanied by a panino), drop by the Cantina Foresi, Piazza Duomo 2 ( 0763-341-611). Ask to see the small, moldy cellar carved directly into the tufa.
Le Grotte del Funaro UMBRIAN A funaro (rope maker) had his workshop in these grottoes carved into the tufa in a cliffside at the edge of town almost a thousand years ago, and you can almost see him at work in the shadowy recesses of the multilevel, cavelike rooms. You can sit outside in front and enjoy the sweep of green countryside far below the town, or better yet—so you don’t miss all the atmosphere inside—ask for one of the few window seats. Wherever you sit, you’ll dine simply and well on grilled meats, the house specialty (including a grigliata mista of suckling pig, lamb, sausage, and yellow peppers), as well as excellent pizzas.
Via Ripa Serancia 41 (at the west end of town near Porta Maggiore; well signposted). www.grottedelfunaro.it. 0763-343-276. Main courses 10€-13€; pizza 5.50€-8.50€. Tues-Sun noon-3pm and 7pm-midnight. Closed 1 week in July.
Trattoria Palomba UMBRIAN This pleasant, white-walled room is the kind of place you’ll want to linger, so settle in for a long lunch after a morning of seeing the sights or a comfy evening if you’re spending the night in town—a meal here deserves long, leisurely appreciation. Black Umbrian truffles top many of the house made pastas, most notably umbrichelli al tartufo, tossed with egg yolk and parmigiano. The house signature dish (palomba, Italian for wild dove) is roasted in a memorably delicious sauce of capers, rosemary, olives, and a hint of anchovies. Any of the meat dishes, including beef in a red wine sauce, are similarly satisfying, and accompanied by a nice selection of wines.
Via Cipirano Menente 16. 0763-343-395. Main courses 10€-16€. Thurs-Tues noon-2pm and 7:30-10pm.
Duomo CATHEDRAL Orvieto’s pièce de résistance is a mesmerizing assemblage of spikes and spires, mosaics and marble statuary—and that’s just the facade. The rest of the bulky-yet-elegant church is banded in black and white stone and seems to perch miraculously on the edge of the cliffs that surround the town. You might notice that it is wider at the front than at the back, designed so to create the optical illusion upon entering that it is longer than it actually is. The facade has been compared to a medieval altarpiece, and it reads like an illustrated Catechism. On the four broad marble panels that divide the surface, Sienese sculptor and architect Lorenzo Maitani (who also more or less designed the church) and others carved scenes from the Old and New Testament. On the far left is the story of creation, with Eve making an appearance from Adam’s rib; on the far left, Christ presides over the Last Judgment, as the dead shuffle out of their sarcophagi to await his verdict. Prophets and the Apostles surround a huge rose window, and Mary appears in lush mosaics inlaid in fields of gold; she ascends to heaven in a triangular panel above the main portal, and she is crowned Queen of Heaven in the gable at the pinnacle of the facade.
Capella del Coporale In 1263, a Bohemian priest, Peter of Prague, found himself doubting transubstantiation, the sacrament in which the host is transformed into the body of Christ during mass. He went to Rome to pray on St. Peter’s tomb that his faith be strengthened and, stopping in Bolsena, just below Orvieto, was saying mass when the host began to bleed, dampening the corporal, or altar cloth. Pope Urban IV, who was in Orvieto at the time, had the cloth brought to him, and a few decades later, Pope Nicholas IV ordered the cathedral built to house the relic. Frescoes in the chapel tell the story of the miracle, and the exquisite enamel reliquary that once held the cloth remains in place.
The town of Orvieto.
Cappella San Brizio The cathedral’s other treasure is one of the Renaissance’s greatest fresco cycles. The themes are temptation, salvation, damnation, and resurrection, though the scenes are rich in everyday humanity and allegedly inspired Michelangelo, who came to Orvieto and filled sketchbooks before beginning work on the Sistine Chapel. (In subsequent centuries church authorities had workers scramble over the frescoes and put sashes on the male nudes that Michelangelo so admired, though subsequent restorations have removed most of them.) Fra’ Angelico (the “Angelic Friar,” who learned his craft illuminating manuscripts) began the series in 1447 and Luca Signorelli completed the works that have come to be considered his masterpiece in 1504. Both artists appear in a magnificent panel of the “Sermon of the Antichrist,” in which the devil coaxes a Christ impostor to lure the faithful to damnation. Signorelli looks handsome and proud, with his long blonde hair, and he gets a bit of revenge on the mistress who had jilted him, portraying her as the worried recipient of funds from a moneylender (or, according to some interpretations, she’s a prostitute being paid for her services).
To the right of the altar is “The Entrance to Hell” and “The Damned in Hell,” in which devils torment their victims, a man raises his fists to curse God as he sees Charon rowing across the Styx for him, and bodies writhe and twist for eternity. Signorelli gets his revenge again in his depiction of a winged devil leering toward a terrified blonde on his back—the ex-mistress, of course. Should a bit of relief be in order after all this misery, you need only look at the “Elect in Heaven,” where those who have been saved look quite content, even smug, in their assurance of eternal salvation.
Piazza del Duomo. www.museomodo.it. 0763-341-167. Admission 3€ including Cappella di San Brizio, free for children 10 and under. Apr-Oct Mon-Sat 9:30am-7pm, Sun 1-5:30pm (to 6:30pm July-Sept); Nov-Mar Mon-Sat 9:30am-1pm and 2:30-5pm (Sun to 5:30pm).
Grotte della Rupe (Etruscan Orvieto Underground) HISTORIC SITE More than 1,200 artificial and natural caverns have been found in the pozzolana (a volcanic stone powdered to make cement mix) and tufa rock upon which Orvieto rests. Guided tours take in just two, 15m (45 ft.) below Santa Chiara convent, reached by a steep climb up and down 55 steps, along a narrow rock-hewn passage. The caverns have variously been used as Etruscan houses, water wells, ceramic ovens, pigeon coops, quarries, and cold storage (the temperature is a constant 14°C/58°F). Residents took shelter in them during World War II Allied bombings, but most unwisely—a direct hit would have annihilated the soft rock.
To look at Orvieto’s tufa foundations from the outside, take a hike along the rupe, a path that encircles the base of the cliff. A landmark along the way is the Necropoli Etrusca di Crocifisso del Tufo (Etruscan Necropolis), where tombs are laid in a street-like grid in subterranean caverns (3€; daily 8:30am-5:30pm). The tourist office can supply a map, Anello delle Rupe.
Grotte della Rupe: Piazza Duomo 23 (next to the tourist info office; open daily 10:30am-5:30pm). www.orvietounderground.it. 0763-344-891. Admission (by guided tour only, 45 min.-1 hr.) 6€ adults, 5€ students and seniors. Tours daily at 11am and 12:15, 3, 4, and 5:15pm (other times can be arranged); tours only Sat-Sun in Feb. English tours usually at 11:15am, but check in advance.
Museo Claudio Faina e Civico MUSEUM A palace next to the cathedral houses what began as private collection in 1864. Interestingly, some of the most stunning pieces are not Etruscan at all, but Greek—Attic black-figure (6th-c.-B.C.) and red-figure (5th-c.-B.C.) vases and amphorae from Athenian workshops (including some by Greek master Exekias from 540 B.C.) that were bought by discriminating Etruscan collectors. You’ll see the resemblance to Etruscan black bucchero ware from the 6th and the 5th century B.C.
Piazza del Duomo 29. www.museofaina.it. 0763-341-511 or 0763-341-216. Admission 4.50€ adults; 3€ ages 7-12, seniors 65 and over, and families of 4 or more. Apr-Sept daily 9:30am-6pm; Oct-Mar daily 10am-5pm (closed Mon Nov-Mar).
Orvieto’s Liquid Gold
The plains and low hills around Orvieto grow the grapes—verdello, grechetto, and Tuscan varietals trebbiano and malvasia—that go into one of Italy’s great wines, a pale straw-colored DOC white called simply Orvieto Classico. A well-rounded and judiciously juicy white (often with a hint of crushed almonds), it goes great with lunch. Most Orvieto Classico you’ll run across is secco (dry), but you can also find bottles of the more traditional abboccato (semidry/semisweet), amabile (medium sweet), and dolce (sweet) varieties. To visit a vineyard, pick up a copy of the “Strada dei Vini” brochure at the tourist office; it lists the wineries along with the hours of tours and contact numbers.
Pozzo di San Patrizio (St. Patrick’s Well) HISTORIC SITE Orvieto’s position atop a rocky outcropping made it a perfect redoubt in time of siege, easy to defend but with one big drawback—a lack of water. When Pope Clement VII decided to hole up in Orvieto in 1527 to avoid turbulence in Rome, he hired Antonio Sangallo the Younger to dig a new well. Sangallo’s design was unique: He dug a shaft 53m (175-ft.) deep and 14m (45-ft.) wide, accessible via a pair of wide spiral staircases that form a double helix and are lit by 72 internal windows. Mule-drawn carts could descend on one ramp and come back up the other without colliding. You can climb down, too, though it’s a trek up and down 496 steps, and there’s nothing to see at the bottom but, well, a well. A few steps up and down will introduce you to the concept, and give you time to contemplate the name. It’s a reference to St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a pilgrimage site in Ireland where Christ allegedly showed St. Patrick a cave and told him it was an entrance to hell.
Viale San Gallo (near the funicular stop on Piazza Cahen). 0763-343-768. Admission 5€ adults, 3.50€ students. May-Aug daily 9am-7:45pm; Mar-Apr and Sept-Oct daily 9am-6:45pm; Nov-Feb daily 10am-4:45pm.