Appreciating Arezzo

Jennifer Young
October 7, 2010

My first visit to Arezzo was with a colleague. The town was close and neither of us had ever been there, so we grabbed a guidebook, jumped in her convertible and headed east. Upon arriving, we parked, strolled around the city center, poked our heads into a few churches and shops, admired the main piazza, had a nice lunch and left. It was a pleasant way to spend the day, but I did not feel the urge to return any time soon. Fortunately, my best friend in Florence is from Arezzo, and experiencing the city through her eyes over the past few years has given me a new appreciation for it.  Like Volterra (see TF 127), the town of Arezzo was one of 12 important Etruscan outposts. Dating to around 600 BC, it was likely chosen for its strategic location on a hilltop at the confluence of four valleys: Casentino, Val Tiberina, Valdichiana and Valdarno.  Arezzo is a veritable who's who in Italian history: it was the birthplace of the poet Petrarch; artist and historian Giorgio Vasari; Guido Monaco, inventor of the musical scale; and Renaissance masters Piero della Francesca, Masaccio and Paolo Uccello. Even Michelangelo was born there!


Arezzo is most famous for the Giostra del Saracino, a spirited summertime medieval jousting festival, and the Fiera Antiquaria, an antique fair with over 500 vendors who fill piazza Grande the first weekend of every month (until December 5; see I've been to both events, and while they are definitely worth experiencing, I prefer to visit on the quieter days, when piazza Grande, the most charming piazza in all of Tuscany, in my opinion, is more subdued.


Arezzo is a perfect day trip from Florence. The train ride is only 45 minutes, the station is centrally located, there are interesting shops and good restaurants and you can walk the whole city. Following the plan I offer here, you can explore the town efficiently with time to linger over lunch, stroll through the side streets and even stay for dinner.




When you arrive in the station, make sure to pick up a map at the information centre. Then cross the street in front of the station. One block to the right is the beginning of Corso Italia, the main shopping street, which leads up the hill to the Duomo. The Roman amphitheatre nearby is a bit ho-hum, but if you feel the need to lay eyes on a ruin, do so and quickly move on.


Back on Corso Italia, make your way up to Coffee O'Clock, one of the most interesting cafes in Tuscany. Get free wi-fi, view the abstract art on exhibit and sip some coffee over a newspaper. The owner has a booming coffee roasting business, distributing his beans all over Italy, and the café has an unusually wide selection of coffee drinks and infused teas. My favorite is the Espresso Shakerato, a martini-style espresso, shaken and poured into a thick glass made of solid ice.



Time to shop

Fueled up, now head to some of the great shops on Corso Italia for casual clothing as well as several high-end boutiques - L'Albero for shoes and handbags and Sugar, featuring apparel from Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and other Italian designers are both worthy stops. I recently ventured into Viaggiando, an upscale sporting-goods store (it reminded me of Boulder, Colorado). Roberto, the owner, is an avid outdoorsman who leads hiking expeditions all over the world and the upstairs guidebook and map room beckons adventure seekers with an inviting, weathered brown leather chair.



Art and architecture

Continuing up Corso Italia, on your right is Arezzo's largest and most beautiful church, the twelfth-century Santa Maria della Pieve. Inside is the famous gilded Virgin with Child and Saints painted by Pietro Lorenzetti in 1320 and the glimmering gold and silver bejeweled bust of San Donato, patron saint of Arezzo. Above, the wooden beams are adorned with the Stemma, the white horse that is the symbol of Arezzo. Even more stunning is the church's crumbling exterior, with its striking square tower and exquisite curved, columned back that faces piazza Grande.


Once in piazza Grande you will immediately notice the colorful coats of arms decorating the building facades and dark wooden balconies that set this piazza apart from all others in Tuscany. Walk back towards Corso Italia through the famous Loggia del Vasari, designed by Giorgio Vasari. After the second restaurant, look for a flight of stairs and zig-zag your way up three more flights until you reach the Passeggio del Prato, with its shady trees and a massive statue of Petrarch. This lovely, English-style park is a great place to stroll and take in the views of the valleys below.


Arezzo's lurking sandstone Cathedral of San Donato backs up onto the park. Inside the Duomo's famous sixteenth-century stained glass windows and under its vibrantly colored ceiling lie two tombs worth visiting. One houses the remains of Pope Gregory X, the pope whose election process was the longest (three years). The other, which some believe was designed by Giotto, is Bishop Guido Tarlati's; the reliefs that decorate it recount his life (one features a miniature theatre). Next to his tomb is a fresco by Piero della Francesca of Mary Magdalene holding a crystal pot of ointment.


Head left out the main entrance onto via Cesalpino. (A few buildings down on the right, Galleria Cesalpino is a cooperative featuring local products from the province of Arezzo, including nubbed wool jackets, ponchos, handbags and hats from Astia in Casentino in bold, cheerful colors and very reasonably priced).


Further down via Cesalpino stands Arezzo's most important church, the Basilica of San Francesco. It was for this simple Franciscan edifice in the 1450s that Piero della Francesca was commissioned to paint The Legend of the True Cross, based on stories of how timber relics of the Cross came to exist and how the Cross helped Christians win battles after his death. Originally intended to decorate the walls of the nave in honor of a highly revered Byzantine wooden crucifix by Cimabue, this groundbreaking early Renaissance fresco represents a major shift towards humanism, immediately obvious when you compare the frozen features of Cimabue's Christ to the expressions of grief, fear and determination on the faces of Della Francesca's characters.



Wind down

Terra di Peiro, nearby in piazza San Francesco is a quaint little enoteca with an impressive list of wines by the glass and delicious snacks. Return there for an aperitivo and people watching and perhaps even live music in the piazza if you plan to stay for the evening.


Of the many restaurants in Arezzo, my favorite remains La Formagierra, which specializes in gourmet cheeses from Italy and France. This quaint locale, tucked in an alley between Corso Italia and via Cesalpino, is pure heaven for formaggio lovers. Try the mixed greens with fresh and aged sheep and goat's milk cheeses, or the heaping platter of hard and soft cheeses served with a basket of fresh-baked bread. The non-dairy items include pulled pork with white beans.


Alternately, check out Saffron, a Japanese trattoria serving sushi, sashimi and ‘international creative' cuisine.  Opened on via Oberdan (off Corso Italia) in 2004 by a young woman from Arezzo who had worked at a sushi restaurant in Florence, Saffron is a welcome break from the usual Tuscan fare-complete with cold sake. When I last went, just as I prepared for my first bite of raw tuna in six months, I caught my friend whipping up her own mixture of olive oil and Balsamic vinegar, into which she dipped each piece of raw fish between sips of Chardonnay. I winced at the travesty but let it pass. Arguing over what constitutes 'good food' with an Italian is one battle that will never be won. But in Arezzo, there's a little something for every palate.



Getting there:

Trains depart frequently from the Santa Maria Train Station in Florence and can take anywhere from 45-90 minutes. By car take the A1 south towards Rome and exit at Arezzo. Follow signs to the ‘centro' and park at the train station or at the large lot at Pietri where there is an escalator to the Duomo.



Shopping bonus:

G-Loft, a fabulous shop close to the train station on via Niccolò Arentino, feels like a New York City boutique. The owner, Giulio, has an eye for elegant, one-of-a-kind pieces that you won't see on any other woman in Tuscany. He carries only Italian designers and prices range from moderate to high. In early September, I was pleasantly surprised to find several special pieces still on the sale rack from July!

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