Guide to Arezzo and its surroundings
Things to Do
Towns and Sites
Food and Wine
Located in Eastern Tuscany, just an hour’s train ride from Florence, Arezzo sits at the unique hilltop crossroads of four valleys: the Val Tiberina, Casentino, Valdarno and Valdichiana. One of the wealthiest cities in Tuscany due to its history in gold-smithery, the city is a hidden gem for the European traveller; a beautiful and vibrant city steeped in rich art and architecture. Generally free of crowds and masses of tourists, discovering all that Arezzo has to offer provides an authentic experience of Italian history that can be enjoyed at one’s own pace. No wonder that it was chosen as the setting for the film Life is Beautiful. Here, in fact, it is.
Piazza Grande fills with colour and spectators in June and September for the Saracen Joust
History of Arezzo
Arezzo’s early history was a glorious and prominent one: as Aritim it was one of the 12 major Etruscan cities and as Arretium it grew to be the 3rd largest city in the Roman empire, whose artisan works reached as far as India. The bronze Etruscan Chimera (pictured) was discovered in Arezzo only in 1553.
During the Middle Ages the city retained its prestige and became part of the Carolignian Holy Roman Empire, where the ecclesiatic authority and noble powers merged. By 1098, however, Arezzo was considered a Free City and led by a Consul the city built new walls, tower houses and its many churches. Native son and medieval music theorist, Guido of Arezzo invented the system of musical notation in 1025.
A municipality loyal to the Emperor, it was the last Ghibelline bulwark against the Pope, Florence and its French allies. Once defeated in 1289, its vast territories were divided between Siena and Florence. Over the following centuries, with few exceptions, the Aretini were controlled by the Florentines, hence the vast Medici fortress that dominates the city. Yet artists such as Piero della Francesca, Giorgio Vasari and Guglielmo de Marcillat flourished and noble residences and the sweeping Piazza Grande gave shape to the city. Until 1859 Arezzo was subsumed into the Medicean Grand Duchy of Tuscany and only with the unification of Italy in 1861 was the city’s administrative autonomy reconquered. The city itself suffered considerable damage during World War II when the Germans and the British battled in the summer of 1944, yet the city centre surrounding Piazza Grande, which sits on a steep hill above the River Arno floodplain, survived and maintains the medieval appearance visitors enjoy today.
Events in and around Arezzo
Tovaglia a Quadri in Anghiari – 2nd & 3rd weeks of August
Red & white checkered tablecloths deck long tables for rustic dinner theatre in which the whole community participates. To the accompaniment of an accordion, traditional stories of the the town and its citizens meet the dining public in an often improvised and lively performance in 4 courses. Delicious!
Palio della Balestra in Sansepolcro – 2nd Sunday of September
This crossbow competition has been held since the mid 15th C. and sees Sansepolcro in competition with the crossbowmen of the Umbrian town of Gubbio Even Piero della Francesca took up the bow to show loyalty to his home town. The event, the finale of a series of cultural events in honor of Sant'Egidio, patron of the city, commemorates centuries-old competitions held in order to maintain a well-trained military reserve once essential for the defense of the city.
Festa della Voce in Arezzo – mid-June
Three days prior to Arezzo’s Saracen Joust the city celebrates in concerts and master classes of choral music in the historic city centre. Choral groups from all over Italy and of all ages meet to harmonize, with performances held in two of the city's churches - Chiesa di San Michele and the Chiesa di Santa Maria in Gradi. As it was Arezzo's native son Guido di Arezzo who is credited as the inventor of musical notation, this venue is a natural fit and these performances guaranteed to uplift.
Maggiolata Lucignanese in Lucingano – last 2 Sundays of May
For the past 80 years this joyous festival celebrates Spring with music, dance and floral floats representing competing town districts. The celebration revels in the passing of winter and its hopes of a fruitful harvest to come. Beginning with a costumed parade, featuring folk dancing, popular bands from all over Italy and most importantly, four floats decorated with thousands of flowers. Each float represents a district of the town and one will be judged the best for the year. That judgment aside, district residents erupt in an enthusiastic 'Battle of the Flowers' in which their armaments are the very flowers that made up their float. All in good fun and always accompanied by evenings of food and music.
Giostra del Saracino in Arezzo – in June and September
The highlight of Arezzo’s folkloric festivals fills its Piazza Grande with costumed citizens and jousting knights in a medieval game of chivalry. Though born as an exercise for military training, these Baroque-style jousts were important social events once held for visiting dignitaries or to add ceremony to a civil event. Only in the early 20th C. did it acquire the competitive character that visitors enjoy today.
Battle of Scanagallo in Foiano della Chiana – end of May
This re-enactment evokes the famous 1554 local battle, depicted by Vasari, in which the Medici/Spanish army defeated the French/Siena. Also known as the Battle of Marciano, for the Marciano della Chiana village where it took place, there was much at play here. Ostensibly a conflict between Siena and Florence, it also represented jockeying for power between the rival Medici and Strozzi families in Florence, confrontation between France and Spain for control of Tuscany and even struggles within the Medici family.
Giostra dell’Archidado in Cortona – 1st Sunday of June
Created in 1397 to celebrate the wedding of Cortona’s Lord to a Sienese noblewoman, this tournament evokes medieval splendor with with music & food. The town centre abounds in medieval knights, ladies, flag throwers, crossbowmen, soldiers, and authorities, all in costume and awaiting the competition between Cortona's five town districts.
Internationale Merletto Biennale in Sansepolcro – September
One of the leading exhibitions of lace artistry and production in Italy, it honors both the lace makers of Sansepolcro and international artists. At turn of the 20th century two sisters from Sansepolcro started a lace school utilizing techniques they had learned locally. Their work was at the heart of local exhibitions displaying local artisan crafts held by the Sansepolcro Culture Centre from 1983. By the following year the Sansepolcro Lace Biennial was born an event which became an international in 1990.
Festa degli Antichi Sapori Aretini in Indicatore, Arezzo – early June weekends
The classic summer evening out in Tuscany is dining together outside on recipes that have stood the test of time and then dancing to the early hours. In the Arezzo area one sagra to try is the Festa degli Antichi Sapori Aretini, the Ancient Flavors of Arezzo festival. The ingredients are usually local and the dishes deliciously authentic. Dining will be informal and at long shared tables and by the time diners get up for some digestive ballroom dancing, you will quite likely have made some new friends.
Spollinata in Arno from Giovi to the Buriano Bridge – mid June
Practically anything that will float and some unusual navigators take to the Arno River in this entertaining 3 km. boat race. The crafts that takes to the river are decidedly DIY and the face that many stay afloat is somewhat incredible. A good-humoured tradition since 1978, the race covers the Arno's rapids and still waters from Giovi to the beautiful bridge of Buriano, which can be seen in the 'Mona Lisa'. The crew of these boats is out for a rollicking day and the mood is infectious.
Things to do in & around Arezzo
Follow the Trail of Piero della Francesca and works including ‘The Legend of the True Cross’ in Arezzo's Basilica of San Francesco, ‘The Madonna del Parto’ in Monterchi, and ‘The Resurrection of Christ’ in Sansepolcro. Like all Renaissance painters, Piero della Francesca moved from one commission to another, but as this master of fresco techniques was born in Sansepolcro, there are many opportunities to view his works in this area. The Civic Museum in his hometown holds several, Arezzo's two major churches have stunning works and the small town of Monterchi has one very important piece tucked in a small church/museum.
Go bird-watching in the Nature Reserve of Buriano, where against the backdrop of the famous 13th C. bridge seen in the ‘Mona Lisa’ rare species nest in this part of the Arno River. In a reserve which was the first protected area in the province of Arezzo, species of heron, buzzards, and rare owls come to a stretch of the Arno that is buffered by cultivated fields and forests of oaks, poplars and elms.
Indulge in some antique hunting in Arezzo’s vast open-air antique market spread throughout its historic centre on the first Sunday of every month and the Saturday before. Piazza Grande cannot contain all the stands that sell antique furniture and paintings, as well as smaller collectibles; hence, tables spill onto side streets and the city becomes a mecca for connoisseurs and bargain hunters alike.
Cycle from Arezzo to Monte Cetona Even taken in portions, this itinerary that traces the footsteps of the Etruscans is a close-up of natural oases and ancient habitations that will impress. Quite likely, unless a serious biker, one may not manage all of the 140 km trail, but portions of the route, which roughly follows the Sentiero della Bonifica are quite easy and will meander their way along the Canale Maestro and past Foiano della Chiana, Cortona and Torrita di Siena before heading uphill.
Discover the Casentino Forest on horseback or bicycle and ride past castles, abbeys and the Hermitage at Calmaldoli, all within the historic protected area of the Apennines. The park gives suggested bike trails, while local riding clubs venture out on guided excursions on horseback. No matter how you travel there are definitely benefits of traveling in the slow lane.
Nearby Towns & Sites
A medieval walled town, Anghiari is known for its artisans. Famous for their work, as well as the bright checkered tablecloths that denote a place to stop and sample the locale cuisine, it is a place to fill the day with pleasurable “slow living”.
In Tuscany’s Valdichiana and famed for its ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ association, this town overlooks Lake Trasimeno. Encircled with stone walls dating to Etruscan & Roman times, this gracious town is full of shops, good restaurants and a good Etruscan museum.
Named for its plentiful laurel shrubs and the Ciuffenna river that powered its many flour mills–the earliest built in 1100 – Loro Ciuffenna finds a harmonious blend of its well-preserved historic centre and the beauty the surrounding wind-sculpted landscapes.
Lucignano‘s elliptical rings leave no doubt as to its medieval origins. For at a time when its strategic position between Siena and Arezzo was critical and fought over, being able to see invaders from the any direction atop a hill was a decided advantage.
The birthplace of Piero della Francesca, this lovely city of local stone in the upper Tiber valley honors their native son in both the fine Civic Museum and Romanesque cathedral. Lively but with an understated elegance, this is a charming place to linger.
Above the Val di Chiana and looking onto cattle ranches and quiet farmlands, the walled medieval Castiglion Fiorentino loves to party, be it in the Medieval Festival in May, the Palio dei Rioni horse race in June or the Days of Baccus Wine Festival in October.
In Poppi the charming hexagonal church Oratorio della Madonna contrasts with the imposing Castello overlooking the town and once the battleground where the Ghibellines of Arezzo met the Guelphs of Florence, Dante Alighieri among them.
Sanctuary of La Verna
Tucked into the side of Mount Penna in the beautiful Casentino Forest, the Sanctuary was the spiritual retreat of St. Francis and where on his last visit in 1224 he received the stigmata. Visitors come for its striking natural beauty and for the peace.
Food and Wine
As in most of Tuscany, cooks in Arezzo make the most of their nearest ingredients, some which might be new to visitors to this area. The Gobbo all’Aretina refers to the thistle, which as a member of the artichoke and cardoon family makes it fair game for cooking. Also popular is Cavolo nero, the deep green cabbage leaf usually found in hearty vegetable soups called Minestra di pane, bread stew, or Acquacotta. At the Sagra dei Baccelli in Terranuova Bracciolini in early May a much-prized vegetable is the raw fava bean usually paired with pecorino sheep’s cheese.
In Anghiari and Arezzo Bringoli, a fresh pasta like a thick home-made spaghetti is often served with olive oil and parmesan cheese or with a meatless ‘fake sausage’ ragù, something even a Vegan would love. Those who love cheese will try the soft fresh Raviggiolo, while for meat-lovers there is Prosciutto del Casentino or ham from the Casentino forest’s free range ‘grey’ pig.
Peposo alla fornacina is a dish using beef of the famous Chianina cattle attributed to the workers who produced construction materials for Florence’s Brunelleschi Chapel. At the early September Sagra della Porchetta in Monte San Savino diners can enjoy the famous herbed suckling pig; you will be suprised how much meat can be piled between two pieces of bread.
At the July Sagra dello Gnocco Dolce in Monte San Savino the delicious cream-filled pastry tempts anyone with a sweet tooth. And in the Autumn many festivals offer the bounty of chestnuts, often ground into flour and seen in Castagnaccia, a popular chestnut cake featuring raisins, pine nuts, walnuts and rosemary.
Wines: To accompany these dishes try:
Chianti Colli Aretini DOCG
Reds of Cortona DOC – which include white grapes grown around Cortona
Serious wine aficionados may head off on the Strada del Vino wine route and take part in the tastings organized at the various wineries along the route.
MONDAYS – Loro Ciuffenna & Foiano della Chiana
TUESDAYS – Sansepolcro & Poppi
WEDNESDAYS – Anghiari & San Giovanni Valdarno
THURSDAYS – Lucignano, Cortona, Monte San Savino & Montevarchi
FRIDAYS -Castiglion Fiorentino, Terranuova Bracciolini & Loro Ciuffenna
SATURDAYS – Arezzo, Cortona & Poppi
Da Alighiero– Anghiari, Tel: +39 0575 788040
Buca di San Francesco– Arezzo, Tel: +39 0575 23271
La Pieve– Arezzo, Tel: +39 0575 1481622
La Torre– Loro Ciuffenna, Tel: +39 055 9172032
La Grotta– Cortona, Tel: +39 0575 630271
La Tavernetta– Lucignano, Tel: +39 0575 836568
Le Bindi– Monte San Savino, Tel: +39 338 6726591
Osteria del Borro– San Giustino Valdarno, Tel: +39 055 9772333
L’Antica Cantina– Poppi, Tel: +39 0575 529844