Exploring the Green Heart of ITALY

Tuscany is an irresistible lure to everyone who loves art, architecture and landscape, but the famous cities—Florence, Siena, Pisa and Lucca—are becoming uncomfortably crowded. There, the best strategy is to select a few hidden treasures, rise early before the tour groups arrive, make reservations at the hour of opening, and then head out to less-frequented locations.

Florence Baptistery | Photo: Michael Webb

In September, my friend Amanda I and went to stay with a Florentine architect who showed us some of his favorites and drove us around with calm assurance. Highlights of Florence included the golden mosaics in the roof vault of the Baptistery, the Laurentian Library of Michelangelo with its richly patterned floor accessed from stairs that swell to the width of the room, and the Rucellai sepulcher, a marvel of inlaid marble, in the desanctified chapel of San Pancrazio.

Florence Magi | Photo: Michael Webb

San Miniato is my favorite church in Florence and commands the best view over the city. It’s a thousand years old but the abstract patterns of its façade, echoed in the nave floor and the screen around the sanctuary, are timeless. The family chapel in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi is frescoed with Benozzo Gozzi’s Procession of the Magi, a fairytale scene that idealizes the legend as a parade of gilded youth riding through the Tuscan countryside. Nothing better exemplifies the hedonistic spirit of the early Renaissance.

San Quirico | Photo: Michael Webb

There’s an easy excursion to Pistoia, where the cathedral and still more the church of San Giovanni are boldly striped in black and white stone and the enormous piazza dwarfs everyone who walks across it. Close by is Montecatini Terme, a spa town with lots of Art Nouveau and a stunning 1930s railway station that is impeccably maintained. Further afield, we stayed in the Capanelle Wine Resort in the heart of the Chianti country, an idyllic retreat that commands sweeping vistas of gently rolling hills and makes its own wine from Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. You can tour the winery, taste a selection of recent vintages, and have your purchases shipped home.

Drive south through Tuscany, and you’ll find that little has changed in the past six centuries. Fortified villages crown the hilltops, and the slopes are still carpeted with vineyards and olive groves. Cypresses punctuate the skyline. Life is ebbing from these remote settlements as a younger generation moves to the cities in search of bright lights and job opportunities. The narrow streets of Magliano in Toscana were deserted as we arrived for dinner, and afterwards we climbed to the promenade atop the medieval walls and strolled around on a still, moonlit night.

Each of these communities has its own distinct personality. In San Quercia d’Orca, the Collegiata church once doubled as a hostelry for pilgrims and its stone walls are richly carved. Nearby, in Bagno Vignoli, a huge pool of hot mineral water replaces the piazza. Lucignano has four concentric circles of streets ascending to the church at the summit.

Urbino study | Photo: Michael Webb

We headed west to the provinces of Umbria and Marche to visit three unique cities. Urbino seems almost an adjunct to the vast Ducal Palace, which rears up from a steep hill like a castle keep with a ramp rising to the entry courtyard. Like the pernicious buffoon in the White House, Duke Federico emblazoned his name and title on windows, over doors and on ceilings: FE DUX. Happily, he had far superior taste and employed the finest artists of his day. The piano nobile is superbly proportioned and richly decorated, with sculptured chimney pieces, stuccoed ceilings, traces of wall fresco and a large collection of pictures including Piero’s haunting Flagellation. In contrast to the soaring state rooms, the Duke’s study has the character of a marquetry cabinet with trompe l’oeil wood designs by Bramante and Botticelli.

Ascoli Piceno piazza | Photo: Michael Webb

Ascoli Piceno is the southern anchor of the Marche, proudly independent and self-governed for much of its long history. The star attraction is the Piazza del Popolo, a linear square of polished travertine, low brick arcades, an imposing palace and a medieval church. It’s the social hub of the city, a traffic-free playground for children and a place for friends to gather in one of the two outdoor cafés. At night, it becomes a brightly lit stage with every resident playing a role. Over the border in Umbria, the bustling university town of Perugia exploits its steep slopes to offer multi-level circulation for traffic and pedestrians. To the rear of the cathedral a flight of steps curves down to a bridge that spans a ravine, while cars speed by on an upper-level roadway.

Perugia from Sina Brufani | Photo: Michael Webb

Where to stay and eat:

Gaiole in Chianti: The Capannelle Wine Resort offers alfresco breakfasts. For dinner, drive a few miles to Badia a Coltibuono, for inventive cuisine in a brightly-lit room

Urbino: Albergo Italia, a comfortable hotel located across the street from the Ducal Palace. Vecchia Urbino is a wonderful restaurant at the bottom of a steep cobbled street.

Ascoli Piceno: Palazzo Guiderochi offers simple rooms in a well-located palace. The Lorenzo Cafe in the Piazza del Popolo is a good choice for a simple lunch or dinner.

Perugia: Sina Brufani, a century-old five-star hotel, is very grand with old-fashioned décor and an exceptional restaurant, Collins. Both are surprisingly affordable.

Michael Webb

Michael Webb

Michael grew up in London and now lives in a classic modern apartment in Los Angeles. His twin passions are architecture and travel, and he indulges both as often as he can, exploring every continent in search of material and inspiration. His travel memoir, Moving Around: a Lifetime of Wandering (ORO Books, October) recalls memorable experiences of people and places over seven decades. Michael is the author of 28 other books, most recently Architects' Houses. He has written on travel and design for The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Virtuoso Life, Monocle, Architectural Digest and other publications
around the world.
Michael Webb

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