Perched precariously on rugged hilltops and cliff faces, Italy’s remote medieval towns often sit in splendid isolation, boasting extraordinary views of the pristine surrounding landscape. Generally built for defensive purposes, the stone and masonry walls, sturdy gates and watch towers which typify these towns have survived virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages. The narrow streetscapes mean car access is limited or forbidden, and many villages can still only be visited on foot. Atmospheric, soulful and beautifully preserved, these are historic moments captured in time. Dr Jeni Ryde, with over fifteen years’ experience leading tours to Italy, explores nine of Central Italy’s hill towns, including those off the usual tourist track.
1. Vigoleno: a tiny medieval fortress town
The fortified village of Vigoleno (pictured above and below) with its unusual elliptical layout is just one of many unique medieval borghi to be discovered in the region of Emilia Romagna. Built as a defensive outpost, its massive, undamaged walls are positioned on a strategic ridge with breathtaking views of the valley below. The tiny village within the walls hosts a beautiful 12th-century Romanesque church with outstanding frescoes of St George and the Dragon.
2. Bagno Vignoni: a pedestrian-only medieval spa town
Towns like Bagno Vignoni, in southern Tuscany, are often forsaken by the average tourist, who prefers to tread the well beaten routes of the classic itineraries. Here, tour buses are rare. Under the radar, glossed over in travel guides (or not even mentioned) as well as being difficult to reach, the more curious and adventurous travellers will, most likely, have towns like Bagno Vignoni to themselves.
Here you’ll find, for example, the therapeutic hot springs used since Roman times to cure skin ailments – Lorenzo the Magnificent de’ Medici and St Catherine of Siena both enjoyed the waters here. You’re almost guaranteed to have the tiny village to yourself: one bar and one small hotel set around the hot pool, which here replaces the usual medieval piazza.
3. Fontanellato and the hidden gems of Italian art
Not only scenically gorgeous and free of tourists, these towns also hold marvellous secrets, little gems that delight and surprise. Take for example the small town of Fontanellato. Bang in the centre of the town sits a petite fortress-palace. Its broad water-filled moat is still supplied by the fontana lata, the medieval water source that gives its name to the town.
Called the Rocca Sanvitale after the Sanvitale family who lived there, the palace gave birth to a town in the 15th century, right on the border with the Duchy of Parma. The jewel in the crown is an exceptional series of frescoes in the fortress-palace, the Diana and Actaeon cycle painted by Parmigianino – he of the elongated figures before El Greco – and one of the early masterpieces of the artist.
And there is more! A visit to the palace is not complete without seeking out another hidden gem, the quirky camera oscura (hidden room), which the Duke built so he could spy on the passing parade: an early voyeur!
4. Monteriggioni: a trip back in time
Designed with security in mind, many of Italy’s medieval hill towns have fortified walls, towers and cobbled streets, giving visitors a real sense of what life must have been like in the medieval world. Monteriggioni, a minute hillside town built in the 13th century and once strategically important in defending Siena, still has its entire circuit of medieval walls intact. Dante was so impressed by its crown of massive walls that he mentioned it in his Divine Comedy, using the towers to evoke the sight of the ring of giants encircling the infernal abyss.
The town’s position was not an accident, however. The fortress was built by Siena as a first line of defence in its continuous battles with its rival Florence, and later sheltered pilgrims making their way to Siena along the Via Francigena.
5. Castell’Arquato and regional Italian gastronomy
Hill towns like Castell’Arquato are small, manageable, discrete communities. This means that town centres are compact and easy to visit in a short time, enabling a complete overview in one visit. It’s so easy to combine a visit to extraordinary churches with a wander along beautiful laneways lined with medieval buildings.
And don’t forget lunch in a typical trattoria to taste the local produce! I love to take groups to a simple country restaurant just below Castell’Arquato. It’s surrounded by vineyards and rich farmland, and specialises in making homemade pasta fresca, a specialty of the Emilia Romagna region. And the view of the rolling Colli Piacentini (hills of Piacenza) from the bathroom window needs to be seen to be believed!
6. The charterhouse of Pavia
It’s easy to forget how much significant architecture can still be found in Italy’s regional towns: often when we think of Italy’s contribution to architectural history, we immediately think of Rome’s Colosseum, Florence cathedral or Venice’s Ducal Palace. Yet in regional towns the urban mosaic is often little changed over centuries, and early medieval Italy was a rich intermingling of different cultures and empires.
These included the Frankish Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire and even Muslim conquerors, and traces of these cultural epochs can still be found in unexpected places. The charterhouse, or certosa, of Pavia, for example, was an elite monastic institution sponsored by the dukes of Milan as their final resting place. Inside, it boasts frescoes and tomb sculptures in a style to rival the work of the best-known artists of the Italian Renaissance, but the façade is unique. A rich work in multi-coloured marble and precious stones, it reveals a staggering range of artistic influences.
7. Gothic Siena
Because modern development passed by many of Italy’s regional centres, it is also still possible to see the beauty of medieval town planning. Villages frequently grew up in a radial development around two main nuclei: the spiritual centre, and secular areas dedicated to government and trade. Close-knit communities flourished under the shadow of the church and the watchful eye of a feudal aristocracy.
Siena is the quintessential example of a perfectly structured medieval town. Its urban design, suite of outstanding medieval buildings, and ensemble of major artworks has earned it a place on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. But while today Siena has a more relaxed feel than its larger neighbour (and rival) Florence, in the Middle Ages it exerted a truly international influence, inspiring artists as far afield as Avignon and handling the majority of the papal banking business in Rome.
This earlier history, which played a significant part in the development of the Italian Renaissance, is well-preserved in Siena precisely because it did not become a significant political or manufacturing centre in the modern era.
8. The Castelli del Ducato
The so-called “Castelli del Ducato” were part of a defensive network built in the Middle Ages and Renaissance by the dukes and aristocrats of Parma and Piacenza. There are 22 just in the area around Parma, for example, and they were used as bulwarks of protection during conflicts between communities.
So if medieval castles are your thing, the number and variety of well-preserved, impressive medieval castles that can be visited in central Italy is astounding. And the stories that are told about them are sometimes the stuff of fairytale. Take Torrechiara, for example: it was built in the 15th century by a military captain in the service of the dukes of Parma. Pier Maria II de’ Rossi wanted a bolthole for his beloved mistress, Bianca Pellegrini. He had the rooms frescoed with great mythological love stories, and even the doors of the castle’s chapel are decorated with the lovers’ interlocking crests. Two hearts are inscribed Digne et in aeternum (worthily and forever) and Nunc et semper (now and forever).
9. San Gimignano
In medieval Europe, towns were often situated either directly on or close to the great superhighways: medieval pilgrim routes leading to religious shrines, such as Rome, that would subsequently become important trade routes. One example is the Via Francigena, documented by Sigerico, Archbishop of Canterbury, during 990 and 994 CE.
The importance of the road for spiritual tourism led to the construction of a wealth of early churches with outstanding paintings: a sensory overload of stark Romanesque beauties, known as pievi, such as those to be found in Lucca and San Gimignano, for example. Some towns, such as Siena, developed into important centres of banking.
Trade along these pilgrim routes and the prosperity that travellers brought meant that the towns became commercial hubs and, ultimately, cradles of the Italian Renaissance. Prized also for their defensive hilltop locations, towns like San Gimignano – known as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages for its many medieval towers – also attracted significant artists, commissioned to decorate the ever-increasing number of buildings in these expanding towns. San Gimignano alone boasts significant works by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, Benozzo Gozzoli and Domenico Ghirlandaio!
Local pride in central Italy
Finally, a trademark of these medieval towns is how they have retained their charm and authenticity, each of them with distinctive personalities. Each town has its own legends, stories and related festivals, and these are a real source of pride to local communities. It’s easy to get a feel for the colour of life in these towns, as you learn about and experience centuries’ old traditions, savour local culinary specialities and taste the local wines.
This medieval feel is most pronounced during the distinctive festivals (or sagre) specific to each town. Pisa celebrates local saint Ranieri in June by placing 70,000 wax candles along the Arno river, for example, while Lucca celebrates its precious volto santo – a crucifix thought to show Christ’s true face – with a historical procession. Pienza boasts the Fiera del Cacio, a celebration of its prestigious pecorino that sees children rolling huge wheels of the cheese down the main street of town in a hilarious race … and Siena naturally has its Palio, the famous horse race run twice a year at breakneck speed around the historic Campo, still fiercely contested by neighbourhood districts. These communities are truly the guardians of the medieval heritage!