Florence’s surroundings, the hills of history and good wine

I found a house, at Florence,
On the hill of Bellosguardo.
‘Tis a tower that keeps
A post of double-observation o’er
The valley of Arno (holding as a hand
The outspread city,) straight toward Fiesole…- E. Barrett

Tourists visiting Florence have the opportunity to discover some of the most beautiful places in Italy. Around Florence, stretch out sweet, rolling lands, rich in natural beauty and history. Over the centuries, between 1100 and 1200, in the whole area around Florence, Lords built castles and villas, and villages enriched by the work of artisans and peasants, in a place that, at that time, was already a travel destination for the European nobility.

The surroundings of Florence offer tourists the chance to meet and learn about ancient civilizations, thanks to the presence of finds and archaeological sites of the Etruscan and Roman eras, to visit villages and towns surrounded by medieval walls, to get into the religious and secular culture, which for centuries has marked the existence of these valleys. The most famous area of all is, of course, the Chianti region, an area, never well defined in its boundaries, between Florence and Siena, where vines and the wine are the unchallenged protagonists.

Not to be missed are also the areas of Mugello, the Valdarno and Val d’Elsa near Empoli, dominated by rolling hills and plains along the rivers. In every town and country, there are also lovely museums where the art of painters and sculptors are flanked by rich collections of rural art and modern art.

The Chianti Region, a magical place of unique beauty

Renovating an old farmhouse in a village in the Chianti area and turning it into an Agriturismo is the secret dream of a whole generation, often envious of the many foreigners, first of all Englishmen, who first started all this.

The Chianti hills, between Florence and Siena, are a magical place of unique beauty in any season: flowering landscapes in spring, a warm smell of earth in summer, loaded vineyards in autumn and total silence when the snow falls in winter. The sweetness of the landscape is given by the ups and downs of the hills, roads that follow the curves of an area covered with vines, to be traveled very slowly. From the hilltops, ancient cottages look down over the valleys, they scrutinize the borders, the cattle and crops. The medieval villages, the “Certose” and the monasteries, are gems where history and culture have always gone hand in hand, places where even nowadays thinkers and writers seek inspiration in peace and quiet.

But let’s start from the most famous product: wine. The Black Rooster, which symbolizes the Chianti’s “nectar,” is the protagonist of an ancient legend. It is said that around the year 1200, there were border disputes between Florence and Siena. To determine the exact point, it was decided that one morning, at cockcrow, a horseman should have departed galloping from each of the two cities. The meeting point between the two of them would have determined the boundary line. The Florentines relied on a very hungry black cock to receive the alarm sign, who started to sing as soon as he perceived the bare light of a candle. So the knight of Florence traveled a bit more, thus widening the boundaries of the City.

But the disputes didn’t stop there, because the Chianti region is far from having been precisely defined. Since the days of the De’ Medicis, and over the centuries, each player has had his own thought about the frame of Chianti, up to modern times; indeed, in 1964, the Chianti wine region was limited by law to fifteen areas, which are D.O.C in five provinces: Arezzo, Florence, Pisa, Pistoia and Siena. These are the lands where the red grape varieties Sangiovese and Canaiolo grow, as well as the white Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia del Chianti, and all the several local varieties, including Prugnolo, which give life to Chianti, the most famous D.O.C.G. wine of Tuscany. Where DOCG stands for Guaranteed and Controlled Denomination of Origin.

Anyone wishing to visit the historic towns of the Chianti region, may head towards the province of Siena, in the villages of Castellina, Gaiole and Radda, all strictly “in Chianti”. A few kilometers away from Florence, stands the Certosa di Galluzzo, a Carthusian monastery hosting the Fondazione Ezio Franceschini, with a rich library of medieval books. In San Casciano Val di Pesa, about fifteen km south of Florence, in addition to the many churches and historic mansions, you can visit Niccolò Machiavelli’s house-museum, the Albergaccio, where the politician and philosopher lived in exile after the defeat of the Florentine Republic and the return of the De’Medici family. In Greve in Chianti, a charming medieval village with a beautiful square surrounded by arcades, you will find the Museum of San Francesco, opened in 2002, which hosts pottery and bas-reliefs dating back to the XV century, and two major halls, with religious paintings, furniture and jewels. Another interesting museum is located in Barberino Val d’Elsa, the Antiquarium Sant’Appiano. This is a small museum with archaeological findings recovered from excavations in the area. Among these, Hellenistic alabaster urns, bas-reliefs with representations of Greek mythology, and Florentine Renaissance ceramics. In Tavarnelle in Val di Pesa, instead, the MEF has been recently opened, the Emilio Ferrari Museum of Rural Life, with a rich collection of tools, handicrafts, and tools for carpenters and viticulture.

Mugello, Engines and Medieval Villages

The Magelli, ancient Ligurian tribe, and not Etruscans, were the first inhabitants of this land, which indeed takes its name from them. Nowadays, for motor fans, Mugello is synonym with Mugello International Autodrome, but those who love the Tuscan countryside, will find out that this is a lovely area, boasting the presence of small villages and medieval towns. This whole area north of Florence is full of different types of sport facilities, including golf, hiking, horseback riding, water sports, which can be practiced in the area of Bilancino Lake.

The landscape of the Mugello can be enjoyed from several perspectives: from the mountains, lower from the hills, but also the flat area along the river Sieve. The quite few towns in the area, are all very small size and well preserved. Over the last twenty years, the area has begun to invest and develop tourism, as its many features make it an ideal destination for those visiting Florence and also willing to enjoy the magnificent Tuscan countryside. In Mugello, there are several villages to explore, including Borgo San Lorenzo – with the Museum of Rural Life, Firenzuola – which hosts a very interesting museum about the Historical Landscape of the Apennines, San Piero a Sieve – with the Convent of St. Bonaventura al Bosco, Vicchio – with Giotto’s house-museum and the Museum of Sacred Art and Popular Religion.

Valdarno, a huge expanse of Vineyards and Olive Trees

The Upper Valdarno is the province of Florence. It is a plain and hilly area running along River Arno, boasting a rich vegetation and beautiful landscapes. The whole area is covered with olive groves and vineyards, forests of beech, chestnut and oak trees, but mostly, this is a vast land where historical and archaeological evidence are treasured. For example, in Figline Valdarno, a citadel still surrounded by its ancient Medieval walls, you will find the Church of Santa Maria with the Museum of Sacred Art and the beautiful Romanesque church Pieve di San Romolo, in the hamlet Gaville. In Incisa Val d’Arno, landmarks include the Church of Saints Cosma and Damiano al Vivaio, a monastery dating back to 1300, taken up by the Franciscans in 1500, and the oratory of the Holy Cross, which holds a wonderful wooden crucifix and is a pilgrimage destination. In Rignano sull’Arno, in addition to the magnificent view over the valley, you shouldn’t miss the eighteenth-century villa Torre a Cona, built over an earlier medieval castle. In Valdarno there is evidence of human settlement from the Stone Age, as well as ancient Etruscan, Ligurian and Roman settlements, and during the Middle Ages, this area was considered one of the most wealthy in Europe, due to the presence of castles and villas.

Empoli and Val d’Elsa, the Lands of Ancient Museums

The whole area around Empoli (i.e. “Empolese”) and Val d’Elsa, are ideal for those seeking for the typical Tuscan countryside. This area is enclosed between the rivers Arno and Elsa, and is characterized by rolling hills and a wide wetland, named Padule di Fucecchio. The whole region is rich in historical and archaeological sites, and tourist attractions, and is also an excellent starting point for visiting other Tuscan cities, such as Siena, Lucca, Pisa, Volterra and San Gimignano.

The Empolese Val d’Elsa area boasts the presence of several museums:
– The Museum of Sacred Art Santa Verdiana, in Castelfiorentino, with works of art and artifacts from the churches and convents of the area;
– The Historical Museum of Hunting and Territory, in Cerreto Guidi, with a collection of hunting and target shooting weapons, found in the deposits of the Police;
Boccaccio’s house-museum, in Certaldo, where through the works depicting the poet and his habits, visitors can recreate the house he lived in in 1300;
– The Museum of Paleontology, Empoli, with fossils and rocks dating back to the Mesozoic era and Cenozoic era, all revealed in Tuscany;
– The Museo della Collegiata di Sant’Andrea, in Empoli too, one of the oldest Italian Ecclesiastical Museums, opened as far as before the unification of Italy;
– The permanent exhibition on glass, in Gambassi Terme, where about 3 000 archaeological finds are displayed, dating back to the period between the XIII and XVI centuries, and where visitors can learn about the history of glass processing in Valdelsa through historical and archaeological testimonies;
– The Museum of Archaeology and Ceramics, in Montelupo, housed in the ancient building complex that was once dedicated to St. Quirico and St. Lucia all’Ambrogiana.