Each morning, a rooster issues a raucous wake-up call; an invitation to begin another picture postcard day. I take a deep breath - the air is fresh in Tuscany and in the distance, the Apennine’s snow capped peaks provide an impressive backdrop for northern Italy’s cypress trees and chestnut forests. Sheep rest in the shade of Umbrella pines and nets stretch languorously between gray-green olive trees waiting to catch their fruit. Lemon and orange trees—bittersweet and perfect for marmalade—add golden highlights to the lush greenery. Perfect days to walk the walls of one of Tuscany’s medieval hill towns and step into Etruscan and Roman history. A perfect time to visit small wineries nestled in the Tuscan hills and join in heated discussions over which community produces the finest wine or olive oil.
I study guidebooks and maps, listen to our local guides and learn something about the region. Its Italian name—Toscana—is as lilting as the countryside and pays homage to an ancient people the Romans called Etrusci or Tusci. Thought to have settled the northwest coast of the Italian peninsula as early as 1000 BC, Etruscans were at their peak of power
between the 7th and 5th century when they controlled Italy from the Alps to the Tiber River. Even Rome, in its infancy from 616 to 509 BC, was ruled by the Etruscans. Governed by three leagues of twelve politically independent, quarrelsome city-states bound together by a shared history of religion and language; Etruscans were led by aristocratic, warrior-kings. Their cities were constructed in the shape of a quadrangle and protected by walls enforced by double gates and forbidding towers—a response to alliances formed by Romans, Greeks and Carthaginians. After the 5th century, when the Greeks and Carthaginians defeated Etruria, power began to shift. By the 4th century, the swelling Roman state, ruled by kings inspired by Greek culture, absorbed Etruscan cities and uprisings led to defeat. Defeat made more palatable when the Etruscans accepted Roman citizenship in the 1st century BC.
Forty-five miles west of Florence and thirteen miles northeast of Pisa is the fine olive-oil producing town of Lucca. It was here in 56 BC that Caesar, Crassus and Pompey met and agreed to rule Rome as a Triumvirate. It is here that I walk on the Passieggieta delle Mura, a walk of about 2 ½ miles that gives an overview of the town. The Passieggieta is one of the three walls built by Flemish engineers between 1500 and 1645. The walls were built to stem flooding by the Serchio River. As I walk, I can see flowering plants growing on top of a tower—an imposing medieval vase.
A visit to Lucca’s past includes a look at the Piazza Amfiteatro where the Roman Amphitheater once stood, the Duomo, with its green and white marble façade and San Michele in Foro topped by the statue of the Archangel Michael accompanied by two angels. The Carrera marble that once adorned the Amphitheater now adorns many of Lucca’s churches including the Duomo and San Michele. The unofficial capital of Tuscany during the rule of the Franks and Lombards, Lucca still enjoys an on-going rivalry with Pisa and Florence—Tuscan towns persevere in centuries-old squabbles. Lucca was a Roman town, then a free commune from the 12th century until 1369 when it became a republic. At the turn of the 19th century, Tuscany became part of the French Empire and Lucca a principality, ruled by Elisa Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister. Her villa is now an up-scale hotel—opposite another said to have once been owned by her lover, an army officer. Marie Louise de Bourbon, Napoleon’s widow, succeeded Elisa and Lucca became a duchy. The Lucchesi were so fond of her, they erected as statue which stands in Piazza Napoleone. The town rejoined Tuscany in 1847.
A gate cut into 13th century walls, via Porta San Giovanni, allows entry into San Gimignano. No cars are permitted inside the walls that protect one of the most charming towns in Tuscany. Because of the town’s 13 preserved towers—originally there were 72—San Gimignano is affectionately known as “Medieval Manhattan.” The towers were erected as symbols of wealth and power by patrician families who controlled this free commune as it reached its zenith during the 12th and 13th centuries. The height and number of towers grew along with the competition between the families.
Located in the hills of Chianti, 34 miles southwest of Florence, the town bears the name of St. Gimignano, the Bishop of Modena, said to have saved the town from barbarian hordes. Pilgrims resting their weary bodies in San Gimignano as they traveled to and from Rome on the via Francigena, led to the town’s growth in the Middle Ages. Today, after a walk through San Gimignano’s narrow, cobbled streets I can rest my body at an outdoor café in the Piazza della Cisterna, named for a well constructed in 1273, and sip Vernaccia—a light, white wine famous in the region. A welcome respite after viewing the town’s 14th and 15th century masterpieces in the museums and Duomo and experiencing a few shivers of horror at the Museum of Medieval Criminology housed in the Torre del Diavolo Devil’s Tower.
San Gimignano was often at war with Volterra, another walled medieval town, and fought against other municipalities. The hostilities plus the mutually destructive clashes between political factions—the Guelphs who supported the papacy and the Ghibellines supporters of the imperial authority—divided the town and led to its decline. Devastated by the black plague of 1348, San Gimignano came under the protection of Florence; now a powerful and influential, medieval republic that dominated Tuscany.
Called the “Town of Wind and Rock,” by D’Annuzio, and described by D.H. Lawrence as a city “that gets all the wind and sees all the world,” the views from Volterra are impressive. Located in the central part of Tuscany, Volterra, at diverse times in history, was called home by Umbrians, Etruscans and Florentines and, in the 3rd century BC, controlled large expanses of territory. An important Etruscan hub, the Iron Age contributed to its affluence in the 6th century when its merchants traded with Gaul but by the 16th century, devastated by plague and malaria, Volterra’s power waned.
Volterra is known for its fine Etruscan Museum—Etrusco Guarnacci, medieval squares, Etruscan walls, built of huge rocks, that stand on the edge of a precipice and Roman ruins. Its massive stone walls include the Roman-Etruscan Gate of the Arch where three Etruscan heads, inserted during the Roman era, keep a wary eye on visitors.
Legend tells us, the medieval city of Siena was founded by Senius—son of Remus of Romulus and Remus—the legendary forefathers of Rome who were suckled by a wolf with extreme maternal instincts. Siena, another walled city, abounds with statues paying tribute to the wolf. Built on three lion-colored hills, Siena suggests a meander through the middle ages with its Gothic Palaces, steep, narrow streets and medieval gates plus its justly famous Chianti wine and delectably sweet, and for me, impossible to resist, panforte. Siena is known throughout the world for the Palio delle Contra held since the 13th century in honor of the Madonna. Every July and August, preceded by a flag throwing ceremony and accompanied by costumes and banners that whisk us back to a 15th century pageant, the Palio draws thousands to a celebration and tournament where jockeys ride bareback on the Piazza del Campo and anything goes—even a horse without a rider can win.