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Archive for the ‘Day Trips from Florence Italy’ Category

Rooftops of Lucca

Let’s see . . . it was in 2004 that I was walking in front of Sant’Alessandro Maggiore in central Lucca with Alessandro Tombelli, a friend from Florence. He saw one of his acquaintances, Wanda Martinelli, standing with a group of tourists. She was able to wave and speak briefly before moving on with her group.

For the past eight years, our small group tours with Private Italy Tours have visited Lucca and Wanda has always been our constant companion during those visits. A Lucchese by birth, she is passionate about her city and shares an incredible level of knowledge during the day that we spend with her. She has become a dear friend.

It has been in the course of those years, visiting Lucca with and without clients, that I have come to deeply love and respect the history of this incredible walled city. There are so many places to visit and sights to see. This post shares some history as well as impressions of my favorite places within a beautiful, and rightly famous, Tuscan city.

From Roman occupation to Silk-A Brief Overview

It is relatively easy to imagine the most important moments in Lucca’s long history by walking inside the city walls. In 177 B.C. a Roman colony was established along the banks of the Auserculus (Orzieri) river. As with all Roman colonies, there were four gates that permitted access to the city along the two main roads.

It was during the 2nd Century A.D. that a large amphitheater was built just outside the northeast gate of the city. By the end of the 2nd Century, there were over 10,000 inhabitants in the area. The main commerce routes of the city were connected to the Via Cassia (linking Rome and Florence) as well as other roads that lead to the sea (west) or to Bologna (north).

Lucca Street View

It was when the silk trade was established with the Far East that Lucca became enormously wealthy. Numerous families used their fortunes to create incredible country estates in the hills outside the city. (see A Day Near Lucca for further details and information about the villas and gardens.)

From the time of the Romans, through the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance, Lucca has retained the words that represent the spirit of the city: Libertas (Liberty).  The city has never been militarily nor politically subdued until the unification of Italy in the latter part of the 19th Century.

Inside the walls – The Conservative Lucchesi

Ostentatious displays of wealth, with the exception of Lucca’s churches, were forbidden at the time that the growth of the silk trade made the city extremely wealthy.  When you visit the city you will notice that the exterior of the largest family palaces is, architecturally, conservative while still showing, by size alone, the importance of the owners.

The list of these incredible city villas reflects the names of the wealthiest families: Mansi, Pfanner, Micheletti, Bernardini, Diodati-Orsetti to name but a few. The Palazzo Ducale, now the seat of the Lucca Provincial government, was once the private home of Elisa Baiocchi. Who was Elisa? She was Napoleon’s younger sister. In 1805, and already titled the Princess of Piombino, she was given the Republic of Lucca to govern.

Enormously unpopular among the residents of the city, she tore down blocks of buildings in what is now the Piazza Napoleone so that she could enjoy ‘views’ from her palace.

As you stroll the streets of the city, the sheer number of these huge villas cannot fail to impress upon you the incredible power, and financial resources, of Lucca.

Churches, Churches, Churches

Lucca was once referred to as the “City of One Hundred Churches”. Today, the number has dwindled, yet the style, grace and beauty still impress.

Sunset, San Michele in Foro, Lucca

San Michele in Foro

One of the most beautiful churches in the city is San Michele in Foro, built on the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum that once stood at the intersection of the two main streets of the colony. A façade of four levels, with forty-eight individually designed and carved columns surmount the main entrance of the church. High atop the façade, two angles flank a nearly fourteen foot high statue of Saint Michael.

San Frediano

Opening to a relatively large piazza, the façade of San Frediano never fails to impress visitors with its glass, gold and precious stone inlaid mosaic.  The Basilica was built during the 6thCentury and the current appearance of the

Facade Mosaic
Basilica of San Frediano, Lucca

church, very Romanesque in style, was completed in the 12th Century.  Named  for an Irish Bishop of Lucca (Fridianus), the interior of the church is striking in its austere simplicity.

Duomo (Cathedral) of San Martino

This is one of the most visually stunning churches in all of Italy. When the Bishop of Lucca, Anselm, began construction of the building in 1063, little could he have known (even after becoming Pope Alexander II) that the church would appear as it does today.

There are, much like San Michele in Foro, three levels of colonnaded façade. Thrity-seven individually unique columns support the levels above the portico entrance of the cathedral. A copy of San Martino, Saint Martin, adorns the façade. The original sculpture was moved inside the cathedral several years ago.

Volto Santo di Lucca. Within the vast interior of the cathedral is a gold clad “temple”. The contents of this temple were what brought thousands of religious pilgrims as they made their way along the Via Francigena, the main pilgrim route between Canterbury and Rome.

Duomo of San Martino, Lucca

Nicodemus, who helped bring Christ’s body from the cross and tomb, wanted to carve a likeness of Christ while it was still fresh in his mind. He began working on a large piece of Lebanon Cedar, but fell asleep when he prepared to carve the face. As he slept, an angel came and completed the carving for him.  The wooden carving made its way by boat from the Middle East, eventually arriving on the shore of the Mediterranean near Pisa. From thence, it was brought initially to the Church of San Frediano, and then to its current location in the Duomo.

In the 15th Century, Matteo Civitali designed and had built the chapel in which the Volto Santo today rests. Civitali, a well-known Renaissance architect built the structure from Carrara marble and specially forged, gold covered, iron.

On September 13th each year, the entire walled city is lit only by candles as a procession honors the Volto Santo. The sculpture, heavily adorned with priceless jewels, was carried through the city. To protect the aging wood, the sculpture now remains in the chapel. The jeweled decoration remains throughout the period of the festival.

This is truly an astounding piece of art and further underscores the religious importance of Lucca.

There are many more churches to visit in Lucca. For a complete list, see

Churches of Lucca

The Walls of Lucca

Walls of Lucca

There have been three main walls constructed to protect the city of Lucca. The first, during the Roman era, the second in the early Middle Ages and the final – the ones we see today – were completed in 1644. Though designed to protect the city from armies, the structures were never bombarded or scaled.

Today, the wide promenade atop the walls affords visitors and locals alike to stroll in the shade of countless Chestnut trees while taking in views of both the private gardens of villas and palazzi inside the walls as well as the city and hills outside the fortifications.

There are seven gates into the city: Porta dei Santi Gervasio e Protasio, Porta dei Borghi, Porta San Pietro, Porta Santa Maria, and Porta San Donato, Porta Vittorio Emanuele and Porta San Jacopo. If you arrive in Lucca by train, the Porta Santa Maria will be the gate you most likely will use to enter the city.

Piazza Amfiteatro

In the course of Rome’s demise, the amphitheater that once accommodated 10,000 spectators fell into disrepair. The marble façade was taken

Piazza Amfiteatro, Lucca

down, its slabs of marble used for the construction of churches and other buildings in the city. Homes were built around the now empty oval space. What remains today is truly the most unique ‘square’ (piazza) in Italy, the Piazza Amfiteatro.

The area, once notorious for prostitutes and crime, was cleaned up and became the location of the Lucca farmer’s markets. That activity was moved out the city after World War II and the piazza now offers lovely cafes and shops.  It is a wonderful place to just sit, enjoy a pizza and glass of wine for lunch and people watch.

Torre Guinigi View, Lucca

Torre Guinigi (Guinigi Tower)

As the wealth and prestige of the Guinigi family grew, they built a number of city villas along the Via Sant’Andrea and the Via Guinigi. During the latter part of the 13th Century, they built a high tower to represent their status in the town. Typical to that era in Italy, towers were being built for churches and by private families as symbols of economic and political power.

Holm Oaks, symbols of rebirth, were planted at the very top of the tower and remain to this day. The climb is well worth the effort and the view is unforgettable.

The town of Lucca now owns the tower and you can visit. See “If You Go” for details about open times and entrance fees.

At Long Last, Puccini!

Puccini, Statue with Family Home
(Left Background)

A visit to Lucca would be incomplete without paying homage to the city’s most famous ‘son’, Giacomo Puccini. He was born in 1858 into a famous musical family. His famly home, in the center of Lucca, has  recently reopened after a lengthy and complicated restoration.While Domenico Puccini, his grandfather, was the most famous of the family’s musicians, it was Giacomo enormous talent (and ego!) that Italian’s love.

Creator of such favoirte operas as La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West and Turandot, Puccini’s fame brought him great wealth during his lifetime. In 1891, to find some quiet away from the city and his demanding schedule, he built a lovely home at Torre del Lago, about fifteen miles from Lucca and closer to the sea. From 1900 – 1921 he lived there with his family. He died in 1924 and is buried in a chapel at Torre del Lago.

Even if you are not interested in Opera, a visit to Pucini’s home – and the bronze statue of him that sits in front of his home – is a rewarding and informative experience.  See “If You Go” below for further details about the Puccini home in Lucca and visits to Torre del Lago.

A Stroll Through Lucca

There are many afternoons when, while the shops of the city center are closed for a long lunch, I have walked the shadowed lanes of the city. While church facades and famous family towers loom overhead, the ancient cobbled streets harken to a peaceful past, of successful merchants and of political stability.

Whether in the spring of each year, when Camellia blossoms burst from gardens in the area or in the fall when a golden shower of leaves accompany an evening stroll around the top of the tree-lined city walls, the ‘feel’ of Lucca is one of ease. Unlike Florence, Rome and the numerous other large cities of Italy, Lucca affords visitors both peace and time; gifts indeed from a city built on the premise of liberty and wealth.

IF YOU GO:

Lucca is easily reached directly off of the A12 Autostrada between Florence and Pisa. If you are visiting Florence, and do not have use of a car, trains run nearly every hour from both Pisa’s and Florence’s train stations. Round trip fare in second class averages Euro 10.40 per person.

Information and schedules can be found at: www.trenitalia.it

From the train station, exit the main doors, and turn LEFT when you arrive at the main circuit road that surrounds the city walls. You can cross the street at a traffic light at the Porta San Pietro (Gate of Saint Peter), the first large city gate you will see within the city wall.

Once inside the city gate, veer to your left along the street and turn right at the second street – the Via Vittorio Veneto.  This street will bring you into the Piazza Napoleone and the Palazzo Ducale. From there, you can easily navigate the city.

Guided Tours of Lucca and surrounding country villas and estates

Wanda Martinelli is the best guide in the region. She can be reached directly through her web site,

Lucca Tours

Whether you seek an escorted walking tour of Lucca, or a full day or more exploring the city and countryside, Wanda and her team offer the finest services available. I cannot recommend them highly enough!

Church Entry times:

San Michele in Foro

Summer (May – end of October):  9:00-12:00/15:00-18:00
Winter (November – end of April):  9:00-12:00/15:00-17:00

Tel: +39 0583 419689

Basilica of San Frediano

Summer (May – end of October):  9:00-12:00/15:00-17:00
Winter (November – end of April):  9:00-12.00/15:00:18:00

Tel: +39 0583493627

Duomo of San Martino

Summer (May – end of October):  8:30-18:00
Winter (November – end of April):  9:00-12:00/15:00-17:00

Tel: +39.0583.494.726

Torre Guinigi

Web Site: Torre Guinigi

Entrance tickets: Euro 3.50 per person

Opening hours:
March: 9:00-19:00
April-May: 9:00-21:00
June-September: 9:00-24:00
16 September-31 October: 9:00-21:00
November-February: 9:30-18:00

Tel: +39.0583.316.846

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Hillside near Lucca

Wealth, born of the silk trade between merchants in Lucca and the Far East, provided the means for a fortunate few families to build spectacular country estates in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains. Lucca is a city famous for its incredible wide wall, the understated elegance of its palazzi, city villas and churches.

The city was founded by Roman settlers in the first century B.C. From that time onward, the town grew in importance.  In a future post, I will provide more detailed information about the city, its history and culture.

I first met Wanda Martinelli, now a dear friend and guide from Lucca, during a visit with another friend from Florence. She is a true Lucchese, born and raised in the area of these lovely villas. She is a passionate and appropriately proud guide whose level of knowledge about the city and the country villas near Lucca is unmatched. Wanda is available for private tours of both the city of Lucca as well as any of the country estates in the area.

See “If You Go” below for information about how to contact Wanda directly.

Head to the countryside

When you leave the walled city, through one six gates, you can easily visit any number of incredibly beautiful, well maintained, villa estates. There is an exquisite balance of nature and architectural beauty in the villas near Lucca.

The area has been enormously popular with European tourists and property seekers for decades. It has only been in the last thirty years that Americans began to ‘discover’ a lovely city, its country homes and gardens.

My post includes my four favorite country villas, though there are many more.

Villa Oliva, Facade

Villa Oliva:

Of the four villas included in this article, Villa Oliva presents the smallest scale in terms of the home. It was commissioned by the Buonvisi family toward the end of the 15th Century based on a design by Matteo Civitali. Civitali, who studied at the Accademia in Florence, also designed numerous other properties across Tuscany.  Civitali included the use of a loggia, an arch supported covered porch, on the northern facing (private) wall of the villa.

The grounds of Villa Oliva, referred to as ‘the park’, were created to make use of abundant water supplies from nearby mountain aquifers. To underscore the use of water in the garden the “Fontana della Sirena,” which clings to a high wall on the northern edge of the garden, was built.

As was true of many villas in this area of Italy, the villa was damaged during World War II. The restorations have been completed so that you would never know that such was the case.

Villa Grabau

Villa Grabau, Facade

The origins of the Villa Grabau are unique among the country villas near Lucca. Evidence indicates that, unlike other villas, this property was built on the foundations of an early 15th Century building. At the start of the 16th Century, the property came into the hands of the Diodati family from Lucca. The family’s enormous fortune, built on the design and sale of silk cloth, provided the family with ample resources for a country home.

The Cittadella family purchased the villa from the Diodati in the latter part of the 16th Century. It remained in their hands until the latter part of the 19th Century when a family from Hamburg, the Grabau’s, purchased it. That family still own and manage the property.

The 18th Century Limonaia is famous for both its architectural style as well as its size. (Photo below)

This is an extraordinarily beautiful home and well worth a leisurely visit.

Villa Reale di Marlia

In 1805, when Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Baciocchi became sovereign over Lucca, she began a project to combine a number of smaller properties into one large estate. Not surprising as she had large blocks of central Lucca destroyed so that she would have ‘a view’ from her enormous home in the center of the city.

Villa Orsetti and other smaller estates were combined to create the Villa Reale di Marlia.

Several of the Orsetti property’s unique garden highlights, the open air theater and grotto to name just two, were retained in Baciocchi’s design.

Villa Reale di Marlia View

The villa’s history reflects that of its owners.

After Italy was united under King Vittorio Emmanuele II, the property was given to the brother of the last king of the Two Sicilies, Prince Charles of Capua. He and his wife died at the villa and are buried on the grounds.

Financial troubles followed their death, generated by the reckless behavior of the prince’s son. Trees on the property were sold for timber, the villa sold.  It was only due to the care of the current owners, and their heirs, that the park has been saved and restored.

Jacques Greber, a well-known French architect, was commissioned to complete the restoration of the grounds. The property is still privately held and is often the location of major events in support of the arts and music of Italy.

Villa Torrigiani

This is, by far, my favorite of all the villas near Lucca. When spring Camellias bloom or the colors of fall blaze in the hills above Lucca, my thoughts most often return to this villa. This was the first villa I ever visited with Wanda Martinelli and the impressions both she and the property made on me have never receded. Sabrina, who has for years guided small groups through the villa, adds a unique and passionate perspective to a place she clearly loves.

Villa Torrigiani Facade

The villa dates back to the Buonvisi family, from Lucca, in 1593.  The property was purchased by another wealthy family, the Santini. Santini became the ambassador to the Republic of Lucca from the Court of France. In deference to the Palace of Versailles, he rebuilt the façade and added two wings to the villa.

One of the things that differentiates this villa from all of the others in the area is the ornate and very Baroque façade and statues. He had the original front gardens replaced by a simple parterre with pools and he added a large pool to the grounds on the opposite side of the villa.

In 1816 Victoria Santini, granddaughter of the original owners, married into a wealthy and famous Italian family – the Torrigiani. That family still owns and maintains the property.

A gorgeous Limonaia, ‘Secret Garden’ designed by the Santini family in the mid -17th Century, ponds and lovely shaded garden walk await visitors. One of the uses of water in the grotto of the ‘Secret Garden’ are the use of “giochi d’acqua” or water games that were designed to entertain renaissance guests. Inside the villa, mementoes of a family’s long history are evident from photos of the recent marriage of the present prince to the wedding dress of his grandmother.

I have spent many pleasant moments talking with the owners over the years. Their love for, and care of, the villa and grounds is evident in every way.

If you have time to visit Lucca, be sure to add a day to explore the villas in the nearby hills above the city. The gracious beauty and style of the villas and gardens provide another surprising perspective on a stunning area of Tuscany.

IF YOU GO:

Note: You can reach Lucca by train from Florence in about an hour and ten minutes or from Pisa in about twenty minutes. You can walk into the walled city of Lucca very easily from the train station. However, visits to the country villas, if you do not have a car, should be prearranged with a private car service. Train schedules and details can be found on the Trenitalia web site.

Italian Rail System

For private car and driver services in Lucca, contact:

Lucca Limo

If you wish to enjoy the professional guide services of Wanda Martinelli while in Lucca, or while visiting the many country estates in the area, you can contact Wanda directly through her web site at:

 Wanda Martinelli

Click on map to enlarge

Villa Oliva:

Web Site: Villa Olivia

Villa Oliva

Via di Villa Oliva

55010 San Pancrazio, Italy

Tel: +39.0583.406.462

Entrance tickets are Euro 12.00 per person.

Villa Grabau:

Web Site: Villa Grabau

Villa Grabau Limonaia

Villa Grabau

Via di Matraia 269
55010 S.Pancrazio, Lucca, IT

Tel:  +39.0583.406.098

The opening hours and days vary according to seasons:

April 1 – June 30

10:00AM to 1:00PM and 2:00PM until 6:00PM

July 1 – August 31

10:00AM to 1:00PM and (note the long early afternoon closure) 3:00PM until 7:00PM

September 1 – November 1

10:00AM to 1:00PM and 2:00PM until 6:00PM

November 2 – March 31 (SUNDAY ONLY)

11:00AM to 1:00PM and 2:30PM until 5:30PM

Entrance tickets: Euro 15.00 per person

Villa Reale di Marlia:

Web Site:  Villa Reale di Marlia

Click on map to enlarge

Villa Reale di Marlia

Via Fraga Alta, 2

55014, Marlia, Lucca, IT

Tel: +39.0583.301.08

Visiting Hours:

1st of March to the 30th of November
Mornings from 10:00AM until 1:00PM and from 2:00PM until 6:00PM
Closed on Mondays, with the exception of holidays that fall on a Monday. Double check directly with the villa if you have any questions
All visits are scheduled and are led by a guide
In winter, guided visits are available only by pre-arranged appointment
Timetable of guided visits are on the hour from 10:00 until 12:00PM and again from 3:00PM until 6:00PM

Entrance tickets are Euro 7.00 per person

Villa Torrigiani:

Web Site: Villa Torrigiani

Villa Torrigiani

Via del Gomberaio, 3

55010 Camigliano, Santa Gemma, IT

Tel: +.39.0583.928.041

Visiting Hours:

March 5 – November 5

10:00AM to 1:00PM and 3:00PM to 7:00PM

NOTE:

Between February 1 and March 4 as well as 16 November and 7 January, the villa is only open to groups in excess of 10 people and by prearranged reservation only.

Entrance Tickets: Euro 10.00 per person

 

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My introduction to the Villa Garzoni and its gardens was during my childhood.  Our family lived in Tirrenia, a seaside village about midway between Pisa and the port city of Livorno. Those early impressions have been solidified over many years of subsequent visits to the village and the park named for its most famous son, author Carlo Lorenzini. There will be more on his impact on this tiny town later in this post.

Where, exactly, is Collodi?

Villa Garzoni and Collodi

Between Florence and Lucca, along the foothills of the Apennine mountains, is the city of Pescia. A bit north and west of that city, strung along a small ridge, is the village. The village’s main walkway is far too steep for cars or even the infamous “Vapi”, that noisy impossibly small three wheeled transport used by so many Italians. To walk along the cobbled steps and street through town is to encounter an increasingly rare Tuscany. It is a place, above the roads that approach the old city gate, that harkens to black and white photos, to grieving widows dressed in black, to less complicated eras.

In 1652, the Garzoni family began construction on a country villa. The site for this home was along a steep hillside near a 10th Century fortress. From the villa’s location, the family enjoyed a view over the valley below. The gardens were designed to complement the villa, while taking into consideration the very steep land upon which it would be built. The results of the design , completed in 1752, were gorgeous. In 1786, members of the family selected a local landscape architect, Ottavio Diodati, to design a water cascade that would run from the highest point of the garden to a grotto constructed at the point where the steep hills met the parterre.

When you enter the garden, the first impression is one of grandeur and beauty. Now known as one of only a few high Baroque gardens in Italy,

Garden View, Villa Garzoni

the centuries have proven the worth of both the Grazoni family’s and Diodati’s efforts.

Three flights of balustrade stairs lead to a Grotto. At each terrace, as visitors ascend the garden, there are long flat planting areas, almost like ribs, that splay out and away from the central axis of the garden. Yews, Eucalypti, palms and other local plants and trees provide welcome shade from the piercing Tuscan light.

At the top of the garden, and it is a steep climb, visitors arrive at a statue of Fame, Jove’s messenger. From the large sea shell that Fame holds to her mouth is a long arch of water that ends in a small pond at her feet. On the descent from this high point, visitors can walk to the Villa for a tour, descend through the lush Bamboo forest and return to the entrance gate of the property.

Pinocchio Park

Less than a five minute walk from the entrance to the Villa Garzoni and gardens is the entrance to the Pinocchio Park.

Parco Pinnochio
Statue by Emilio Greco, 1956

The park was named after a character created by author Carlo Collodi. Born Carlo Lorenzini in Florence (1826), he became a well-known political author. In the course of his journalistic career, he began to write political allegory. After many years of work, he took his mother’s home town as his pen name (Collodi) and wrote Pinocchio. The now famous marionette was used by Lorenzini as an allegorical figure who represented the liberating metamorphosis from strict forms of his creation, wood, to the freedom of being a truly human boy.

Lorenzini died in Florence in 1890, a mere seven years after Pinocchio was published. He did not live long enough to enjoy the spectacular success that his book created. Now translated in over 100 languages, it is one of the world’s best-selling books of all time.

You can read the entire book, on line, or download an e-book copy at this site. Special thanks to the Guttenberg project and the phenomenal work they do.

Adventures of Pinnochio by Carlo Collodi

The “Parco Pinocchio” was opened in 1956, the result of country-wide artistic collaboration. Artists from across Italy participated in the creation of sculptures and mosaics that appeal to child and adult alike. Scenes from Carlo’s fable are represented within the small confines of the park. A visit gives you the unique opportunity to enjoy yet another treasured corner of Tuscany.

It has been decades since my first visit to this tiny, magical, place. Every time I am in Tuscany, I return. Take time to enjoy this extraordinary and little-known village perched on a hill between Florence and Lucca.

IF YOU GO:

If you do not have the use of a car, you can take an inexpensive regional train from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station and, for Euro 10.40 per person, arrive in Pescia.Trains between Florence and Pisa leave nearly every hour between 6:00AM and 10:ooPM. The trip to Pescia takes about one hour.

Schedules and more information about train schedules can be found at: www.trenitalia.it

From the Pescia train station you can take either a local bus (VaiBus) or taxi. Their complete schedules for the Pistoia region, which includes both Pescia and Collodi, can be found at: VaiBus

Taxi fare between the Pescia station and the town of Collodi averages Euro 30 per taxi (not per person!)

Entrance tickets:

You have a choice of purchasing three different tickets, depending on your interests:

Pinocchio Park, Euro 11.00

Garzoni Gardens and Butterfly House, Euro 13.00

Pinocchio Park, Garzoni Gardens and Butterfly House, Euro 20.00

Official Web site of the Villa and Gardens

Villa Garzoni and Gardens

Official Web site of the Parco Pinocchio (Pinocchio Park)

Parco Pinocchio

Information for the Park.

Tel: Parco di Pinocchio TeL: +39.0572.429.342

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A beautiful hilltop retreat, and the gardens of a Medici Villa, beckons from the valley of Florence. This easy day trip north from Florence takes you directly to both the Abbey of Monte Senario and the Villa Demidoff Parco di Pratolino. These are two little-known corners of Tuscany, rarely visited by tourists.

View of Monte Senario

A brief history:

Monte Senario, as it is now called, was one a wild, untamed, place where winds whistled through limestone caverns and wolves prowled the land. In the midst of religious upheaval in Florence, seven friars began a long and arduous journey in search of retreat, a place where they would avoid the temptations of the city.

Hilltops in the Mugello, directly north of Florence, attracted the friars. It would be in the beautiful hills of that area, they believed, they would find the best, remote, location for their hermitage. Their struggles were rewarded when, in 1241, they reached the top of Monte (as it was called at the time) Sonario – named for sounds made by winds in local limestone formations. The small group immediately went to work on a house that would serve as their retreat.

Over the centuries, the Servite order (named for their dedication to serve the Holy Mother) friars have built a large Basilica and many other buildings on their property.

Why go? The hills north of Florence are famous for their beauty. Winding roads cut through forests, pass along vineyards and provide visitors incredible views. Between Florence and Monte Senario, you pass the gates of another famous Tuscan Villa, Pratolino.

Built by Francesco I, First Grand Duke of Tuscany, the villa was completed in 1581. Designed by Buontalenti, Francesco’s favored architect and landscape designer, the villa has recently been restored. Why did Francesco choose such a remote site for this villa? His mistress, Bianca Capello, desired a county home.  The gardens were completed before Francesco’s marriage to Bianca in 1579.

Colossus of the Apennines
Parco Pratolino

Gardens with monumental statuary, including one of “The Colossus of the Apennines” over twelve feet tall, provide a shady and cooling retreat for visitors. The gardens evoke a sense of Romanticism, an intentional decadence and decay that still attract those fascinated by Italian, specifically Tuscan, gardens. The original Pratolino gardens were categorized “Mannerist”, a style that includes water features and statuary with water hydraulic systems that animate man-made structures such as doors, gates and playful water games.

After Francesco’s and Bianca’s deaths, the villa fell into disrepair. It was, after over 100 years of abandonment, that the villa was demolished. Leopold II, former Grand Duke of Tuscany, sold the property to a Yugoslavian prince, Pavel Pavlovich Demidov.

Villa Demidoff
1872 Restoration

He wished to have a residence on the grounds and set about restoring the original building where the Pages that served Francesco and Bianca lived. Hence, the current name of Villa Demidoff.

He also had the gardens redesigned in the English style. While retaining some of the large sculptures that were built at the time of the Medici, he focused on simplifying the layout of the gardens so that they were easier to both maintain and explore. The property, which the prince expanded from approximately fifty acres to nearly two-hundred, is now the property of the province of Tuscany.

The grounds, park and villa are truly worth a stop during your travels further north to the Monte Senario complex.

So it is on an easy day trip from Florence. From the remains of a powerful Medici Grand Duke and the moneyed influence of a Yugoslavian prince you arrive at a place of retreat and sacrifice where friars gave everything away in dedication to their religious beliefs.

IF YOU GO:

Villa Demidoff and Parco Pratolino

Vaglia, Via Fiorentina 282

Tel: 39.055.408.0734 or 39.055.408.0777 (office)

Tel: 39.055.409.427 (Reception)

Hours:

from April 1, 2018: All Fridays through Sundays 10:00am – 8:00pm. Beginning October 1, the park closes at 6:00PM.

The park is closed for national holidays with the exception of Liberation Day (April 25th) and Labor Day (May 1st).  The park is open on these two Sundays even though they are National Holidays.

You can request special visits during the week and obtain other information via email:

parcomediceodipratolino@cittametropolitana.fi.it

Visits during the week there is a charge for visits. Please request further details directly from the management via email listed above.

Visits are free of charge

 

Driving Directions

From Florence, driver to the Piazza della Libertá

As you enter the Piazza, watch for overhead sings in the direction of Mugello, Pratolino and Bologna (Old State road to Bologna, North)

Stay on SR 65 and you will arrive at Pratolino. The car park is on your left, directly across from the main gate of the Villa/Park property

Take SR Route 65 NORTH toward Pratolino.

 

To return to Florence, return on the same route, headed south

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Pitigliano View

South of Grosetto, the southern most large city in the Tuscan Province, stands the village of Pitigliano. Though it was not until the 11th Century that written records first mention this village, evidence of both Etruscan and 5th Century Christian presence have been discovered. The commanding position of the village, surrounded by valleys, is a spectacular sight regardless of how you approach the ancient walls.

During the 16th Century, city and state governments in Italy moved their Jewish populations into Ghettos. Many of those Jews who had been closed within the Ghettos of Siena, Florence and other cities began to move to the little-known, quiet, retreat of Pitigliano.

This is not meant to imply that Jews lived an easy life in these times; it was never easy. Despite requirements to wear certain types of clothing to mark themselves “Jew”, the closely knit community made a reasonable life for themselves in the tiny village.

The town’s unique geography includes a maze of spaces within the tufa that were created by prehistoric volcanoes or carved by those who sought shelter.

It is a curious twist of both Italian and Jewish history that this small town became a refuge for those seeking a more peaceful and protected way to life.

Some friends who live near Florence related the story that, during World War II, the non-Jewish residents of Pitigliano hid and protected the Jewish community, literally, under the village. Chambers once used by the ancients became a refuge for those persecuted. Throughout the war the townspeople stood resolute in their determination to protect the innocent.

I must admit to a certain ‘ache’ when I visit Pitigliano. The domination of religions and the persecution of centuries all seem very raw even in the narrow lanes and streets of this lovely Tuscan village. When I have explored the tufa spaces beneath the city, I have felt the presence of those who have gone before. At sunset, when the bells of churches toll there is, for many visitors, a clear sense of the terrible cost exacted from those whose religious beliefs were in conflict with the ‘powers that were’.

IF YOU GO:

The easiest access to Pitigliano if you do not have a car is by train. Trains connect Grosetto with both Rome and Florence and run on a regular basis throughout the day. Once you arrive by train you can take one of the numerous buses which travel to/from the village. Buses leave from directly in front of the train station in Grosetto.

If, however, you have a car, I strongly encourage you to add a day’s visit to this fascinating and historic village.

Bus schedules and details can be found here: RAMA Grosetto

Hotels:

There is one hotel within the city walls, the Albergo Guastini. This is an intimate hotel and its location offers immediate access to the village.

Piazza Petruccioli, 4, 58017 Pitigliano Grosseto, Italy

Tel: +39 0564 61410

Outside of the city walls, there are numerous choices. Most will require a car to visit the city if you choose one of these accommodations.

S.S 74 Maremmana Ovest,

58017 Pitigliano Province of Grosseto, Italy

Tel: +39 0564 616112

Via Valle Orientina, S.R. 74 , 58017 Pitigliano, Province of Grosseto, Italy

Sites to visit:

  • The Orsini Fortress, which achieved its present state in 1545 but represents a reworking of the earlier medieval fortress
  • the town’s walls and gates, the best preserved of which is the Porta Sovana.
  • The Cathedral of San Pietro e Paolo
  • The Jewish Synagogue and Museum

Quiet Corner of Pitigliano

Restaurants

(Note: You might enjoy trying the Bianca di Pitigliano, a local white wine produced from the vineyards surrounding the village.)

Il Tufo Allegro

Vicolo della Costituzione, 5

58017 Pitigliano Italy

Tel: +39.0564.616.192

My favorite. Slow Food, beautifully prepared with lovingly served. Don’t expect fancy. Expect exceptional food.

La Ceccottino*

(no web site)

Via Vignole

58017 Pitigliano

*I have never eaten at this restaurant, though the reviews are consistently good and friends say it is equal to “Il Tufo Allegro”.

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View of Fiesole
Above Florence

Atop a hill to the north of the city of Florence, largely ignored by most visitors to the city, is the Convent of San Francesco. Below that gorgeous renaissance building is the heart of Fiesole, a little known jewel and the birthplace of modern day Florence.

The village was founded by the Etruscans. When the Roman’s conquered the village in the third century BC, they named it Faesulae, hence its modern name. The earliest inhabitants of Florentia, modern day Florence, came from Fiesole.

What most visitors don’t realize is that within a few minutes bus ride from the center of Florence is one of the best archaeological sites in Tuscany.

The Archaeological site includes remains of the Roman temple (built on the foundations of the Etruscan’s temple), a well restored Roman bath complex and an amphitheater capable of holding up to 2000 spectators.

Amphitheater Fiesloe

Beyond the relics in the Etruscan Museum, located on the grounds of the archaeological site, is the Museo Bandini, which offers an amazing collection of 14th to 14th Century works by artists like Taddeo gaddi and Lorenzeo Monaco. The ticket for the archaeological site includes admission to this museum.

There are not many walks in the are of Florence that offer more spectacular views of the city than the Via San Francesco, which leads from the main town square UP the hill to the convent of the same name. If the timing is right, stop by the Erta del Mangia, a lovely restaurant on your right as you climb above the town. The restaurant offers a quiet garden and fairly priced meals.

Courtyard Fiesole
Monastery of Saint Frances

The chapel at the Monastery of San Francesco, sited on what once was the Acropolis of the Etruscans, contains a spectacular early Renaissance altarpiece. The quiet inner courtyard offers a sense of the peaceful seclusion found by the monks who once inhabited the buildings.

Fiesole is truly a little-known jewel above the city. Include a visit when you are in the area and you will not be disappointed.

Some additional details and restaurant recommendations are listed below.

IF YOU GO:

The Number 21 bus leaves from Santa Maria Novella Station on a regular basis. Fares run Euro 3.50 each way for the trip to the main piazza in Fiesole. Easy access to all the sites mentioned in this post from this bus stop.

Tickets for the Archaeological Area and the Museo Bandini are available at the entrance to the site. The entrance is located a few steps from the main square in the village.Cost: Euro 10.00 per person. No discount for children unless EU citizens. Group rate available for groups larger than ten visitors. (Euro 6.00 per person)

Archaeological Site: Via Portigiani, 1 – Fiesole
Open: 9,30am- 7pm (summer) and 9.30am-5pm (winter). Closed on Tuesdays only during the winter.

Museo Bandini: Via Dupré, 1 – Fiesole
Open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays – in March, 10am-6pm, in April 10-7pm
Call 055.596.1293 to verify opening times

Monastery of Saint Francis: May-Sep 10am-12 noon and 3pm-6pm; Sat, Sun and holidays 3pm-6pm; rest of the year 10am-12 noon and 3pm-5pm; Sat, Sun and hols 3pm-5pm. Closed on Mondays.

Restaurants:

Perseus: On the square in the village. Excellent Tuscan menu, authentic preparations. Beefsteak Florentine? This place is famous for its preparation. Italian’s eat here. Not much more to say.

Hotels:

Hotel Villa Aurora: The entrance to this unassuming three stay hotel is directly off the main square in the village. They offer lovely clean rooms for a fraction of Florence’s costs – the views from the rooms facing west are unforgettable. There is a large terrace for drinks and meals – owned by another business, yet directly next to the hotel. Good value.

Piazza Mino, 39 – 50014 Fiesole (FI)
Tel. 05559363 –

Web Site: Hotel Villa Aurora

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Facade, Santa Croce, Florence

This is a quick note to let everyone know that the entrance fee at the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence has been increased effective March 1, 2012. New price per person, adult, not with a group, is Euro 6.00 per person. As with all things Florentine and Italian, prices continue to rise. Hope that this information is of assistance as you travel. Mark

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