There are few regions in Italy spoken of with such love as Tuscany. The name evokes mental images of rolling hills, historic villas and plenty of wine. The region also has some world-famous cities, with the likes of Florence and Siena. Even little Lucca gets the odd mention. And yet, there is one city that you hear very little about – Arezzo.
It’s hard to hone in on why Arezzo is overlooked. It has a strong historical and cultural pedigree of its own, much like its busier neighbours. The city sits in the region’s east at an important crossroads between many of Italy’s central regions. Most importantly, there’s actually quite a bit to see in Arezzo as well. But still, somehow, there’s not much love out there for this ancient city.
So in the hopes of shedding a little light on this ignored Italian city, here’s a look at the Tuscan city of Arezzo.
One look around the centre of Arezzo and you can tell the city has some serious history. As you near the centre you can see the remains of ancient city walls, and yet even they look young compared to the city’s history. Originally founded by the Etruscans, the city grew for centuries before the arrival of the Romans.
One relic from the Etruscan period that is strongly entwined with the city’s identity is the bronze statue of the Chimera. Uncovered in the 16th century, this fabulous statue of the mythological creature was crafted by the Etruscans. While the original is safely in a museum in Florence, replicas can be found in Arezzo, proudly reflecting their ancient heritage.
As was the case in ancient Italy, Arezzo was conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century BC and thrived. It soon became a vital religious seat under the local bishopric. From this time in the city’s history, only the Roman Amphitheatre remains.
Enlightened Medieval City
The historic centre of the city sits on a large hill and that’s where you’ll find the majority of attractions. It is here that you’ll find many of the changes Arezzo went through in the Middle Ages. Entering the old town, you’ll likely pass through a historic gate and find yourself in narrow, steep streets. While it can feel like a maze at times, being on a hill means you can always just head up hill to find your way.
And it is up hill where you can find some of the city’s most interesting attractions, its palaces. One that is easy to spy is the Palazzo dei Priori with its distinctive tower that pops above the rooftops. A 14th century building with some detailed frescos, it is also home to the town council offices. The palace is one of many examples of additions made to the city once it came under the sway of Florence, before falling into a gradual decline.
A short walk away from the Palazzo dei Priori is another, equally dashing palace, the Palazzo Pretorio. This palace is actually a grouping of historic noble houses, but it is still palatial nonetheless. It’s hard to walk past its front facade and not be taken in by all the plaques and coat-of-arms scattered across it. Today it serves various purposes but one is the city library where you’ll find plenty of the local students.
On a slightly bigger scale, yet equally medieval, is the vast Medici Fortress that has pride of place at the city’s hilltop. Surrounded by gardens and viewpoints over its outer fortifications, the 16th century fortress sits atop past military defences. It may not offer much more beyond great views of the countryside but its a nice spot to take a break as you explore the city.
It wouldn’t be Italy without churches now would it? Of course it has some stiff competition from the likes of Florence and Lucca though. What makes Arezzo interesting is that its cathedral is quite different to the style of those Duomos. Whereas they are built in the characteristic white and black marble, the Arezzo Cathedral is a much more humble-looking building.
Besides the cathedral, there are plenty of other churches found in the city centre. One such a short walk away is the Church of San Domenico. Inside you’ll find plenty of fragments of frescos that have yet to be restored. It also has quite an intricate altar, despite its dim interior. The other notable church in the centre of the old town is the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pieve in the main square. Oddly enough, it backs onto the square rather than facing it. Its architecture and ornamental banners are different yet again and worth a quick look.
Given Arezzo’s sloping cityscape, it only makes sense that its main square is on an angle too. Piazza Grande isn’t one of those open, spacious squares you find throughout Italy. No, instead you feel surrounded on all sides and confined. It’s only when you look at what surrounds you that you realise you don’t mind considering what there is to look at. On two sides you’re treated to pretty much textbook medieval buildings that look in good shape despite their age.
On the far side, the square sinks down towards the Santa Maria della Pieve Church, next to which is the Palazzo della Fraternità dei Laici. This blend of architectural styles presents quite a sight and, as I understand it, hosts a small museum as well. The side that really intrigued me was the long arcade that runs along the upper side of the square. This arcade actually sits below a local music high school, so often music pleasantly echoes out as you are walking nearby.
One thing that Tuscany does well is thrilling and boisterous traditional sporting festivals. Siena has the Palio, the horse race held in its centre square. Florence has the Calico Storico, an amalgam of rugby, soccer and wrestling that is held in the Piazza Santa Croce. And Arezzo? It has, with much colourful fanfare, the Saracen Joust.
The Saracen Joust is an event held twice a year in June and September and takes up the Piazza Grande. The competition takes place between the four quarters of the city, each represented by two riders. After all the procession and fanfare, the riders each charge at a jousting target in the form of a Saracen. The rider with the best score is declared the winner of the “Golden Lance”.
For those unable to attend the festival, there’s a small museum to the “Colours” of the Joust in the Palazzo dei Priori. You get to see the traditional outfits worn as well as footage from the day. I’d dearly love to revisit Arezzo during this festive season and witness all the spectacle that seems to take over the city.
- Arezzo has a surprising amount of accomodation options, although my hotel was ordinary and not really worth recommending;
- The city is directly connected to three large cities by train, Perugia, Florence and Rome. Florence is probably the most useful however;
- I’m afraid I can’t really give good restaurant recommendations for the very centre of the city. Just inside the city walls though is Ristorante Ciò che Piace which I thought was pleasant and good value;
Have you heard of or visited the city of Arezzo before? Where’s your favourite place in Tuscany if you’ve visited? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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