Discover the south of Florence

South of Florence holiday guide

The Valdarno is also part of Tuscany's spiritual landscape. Renaissance painter Masaccio was born in San Giovanni Valdarno; 14th-century poet Petrarch spent his early years close to Incisa. The empty wilderness is dotted with castles and monasteries. Lofty Vallombrosa was founded in the 11th century, and became an essential stop on the Grand Tour in the 1800s. Italy's patron saint, Francis, supposedly received the stigmata at lonely La Verna in 1224.

If you crave some solitude of your own, pack your walking boots and a good map of the Casentino National Park.

Written by Donald Strachan, Italy specialist and Travel Writer for The Guardian.

Art & architecture

Piero della Francesca is an oddity in Italian Renaissance art. Although he made his name working for the princely courts and noble families of Florence, Urbino, and Rimini, he never really left his homeland, in the hills of eastern Tuscany. And it is here that he did his best work, none greater than his Legend of the True Cross frescoes at San Francesco, in Arezzo. Nine panels trace the apocryphal history of Christ’s cross from the death of Adam to Byzantine Emperor Heraclius’s victory over the Persian Empire in the 7th century. No painter before or since captured the geometry of a frozen moment so perfectly.

There is a real ‘frontier’ feel to the uplands that climb from the eastern banks of the Arno River. The wilds of the Casentino National Park are dotted with stern Medieval castles, including at Poppi. This pretty Medieval town’s Castello di Conti Guidi was built in the 1100s (or maybe earlier) and played a key role in the Battle of Campaldino in 1289, when Florentine Guelphs faced Ghibelline armies from Arezzo. The poet Dante fought on the side of the victorious Florentines.

Behind its massive (and massively elaborate) Gothic façade, Siena's Duomo (cathedral) is also stuffed with art treasures. Umbrian painter Pinturicchio frescoed the Libreria Piccolomini in the early 1500s. Its scenes tell the life story of Pius II, a Sienese humanist scholar who became pope.

  • Don't miss

    Hiking the hills and forest trails of the Casentino National Park

    Bargains galore on the finest haute couture fashions from Florence and Milan at The Mall

    One of Italy's great fresco cycles, painted on the walls of Arezzo's San Francesco basilica by Piero della Francesca

    Basilica di San Francesco, Piazza San Francesco, Arezzo, tel. 0575/352727, www.pierodellafrancesca.it; closed Sunday mornings

    Castello di Conti Guidi, Piazza della Repubblica 1, Poppi, tel. 0575/520516, www.castellodipoppi.it; closed Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays from November to mid-March

Eating and drinking

Arezzo has a handful of traditional, rustic restaurants—L'Agania is the best for old-time Aretine atmosphere, and great-value food. Paperi e Civette is a little different. The menu does not stick rigidly to Tuscan classics, though local influence is strong in dishes like agnello all'Etrusca (lamb with olives and pine nuts). In fact, the menu isn't even exclusively Italian—they do a mean crème brûlee.

At Loro Ciuffena, the roadside Cassia Vetus uses ingredients from the Valdarno and Casentino hills alongside home-made pasta and simple Tuscan classics like pork stuffed with rabbit or duck.

For a native taste of the Casentino, hunt down a bottle of Nocino, a liqueur made with green walnuts.

  • Don't miss

    L'Agania, Via Mazzini 10, tel. 0575/295381, www.agania.com; closed Mondays

    Paperi e Civette, Piazza San Gemignano 1, tel. 0575/300801, www.paperiecivette.it; closed Monday evenings

    Cassia Vetus, Via Setteponte Levanti 18C, Loro Ciuffena, tel. 055/9172116, www.osteriacassiavetus.com; closed Wednesdays

Local towns and villages

Arezzo is the main city on the eastern Tuscan plains, with a history that stretches back to the Etruscan era. So powerful was Arezzo that it became a free city-state to rival Florence, until being annexed in 1384. Historic riches have left a legacy in many fine central churches: San Domenico has frescoes by Spinello Aretino and a 13th-century Crucifix by Cimabue; the Pieve di Santa Maria has a façade decorated with intricate pillars and arcades, and an altarpiece by Pietro Lorenzetti inside; San Francesco has Tuscany's greatest fresco cycle, Piero della Francesca's Legend of the True Cross.

San Giovanni Valdarno's history is intertwined with Florence—it was founded as an outpost of Florentine power in the 1200s. The town was the birthplace of Renaissance painter Masaccio, and is stuffed with palaces and public buildings dating to the Gothic and Renaissance periods. Arnolfo di Cambio, builder of Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, probably designed its centrepiece Palazzo Pretorio.

The outdoors

Wedged between the River Arno and the Apennine mountain range, the Casentino National Park is a wild upland forest of chestnut and oak. It is criss-crossed with 600km of trails that straddle the border between Tuscany and the neighbouring region of Emilia-Romagna. Much of it is blissfully untouched by time or tourism; come as the leaves turn to autumnal shades of yellow, russet, and brown and you'll have only the local foragers for company.

The Casentino is also a key part of central Italy's spiritual landscape: it was at La Verna that St. Francis supposedly received the stigmata. The site is still a monastery.

  • Don't miss

    Casentino National Park, www.parcoforestecasentinesi.it; visitor centres at: Piazza Tanucci, Stia; and Camaldoli (tel. 0575/556130)

Shopping

The Valdarno is a hotspot for bagging a bargain on haute couture labels like Gucci, Prada, Armani, Ferragamo, and even Stella McCartney. At The Mall, outlet stores represent over 20 of the biggest names in European fashion. Prices are still high—these are top-name threads, after all. But the discounts on one-offs and last season's stock are huge.

Arezzo hosts one of Italy's best antiques fairs. The Fiera Antiquaria fills Piazza Grande on the first Sunday of each month, and the previous Saturday.

  • Don't miss

    The Mall, Via Europa 8, Leccio Reggello, tel. 055/8657775, www.themall.it

    Fiera Antiquaria di Arezzo, www.fieraantiquaria.org

Museums

The (so-so) painter, (talented) architect, and (genius) art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–74) lived and worked in Arezzo. His former home is preserved as a museum, the Casa Vasari. The collection is modest, but the Room of the Triumph of Virtue that he painted (with the help of assistants) gives an insight to the humanist interests of his Renaissance mind. Vasari's Lives of the Artists is still the best source of critique and scurrilous rumour (much of it unproven) about the great names of Italian art.

Fans of painter Piero della Francesca should make the pilgrimage to Sansepolcro, on the Umbrian border. The town's Museo Civico displays Piero's Resurrection of Christ (1460), a work full of allegory—and featuring the most famous sleeping soldiers in the history of painting. The work is so important to the town that anyone can see it (for free) through a window facing the street.

  • Don't miss

    Casa Vasari, Via XX Settembre 55, Arezzo, tel. 0575/409040; closed Tuesdays

    Museo Civico, Via Aggiunti 65, Sansepolcro, tel. 0575/732218, www.museocivicosansepolcro.it

Arezzo map South of Florence CSouth of Florence

Key contacts

The region's main tourist office is in Arezzo, at Piazza della Libertà 1, tel. 0575/401945, www.turismo.provincia.arezzo.it.

Airports

Pisa (PSA - Galileo Galilei) is Tuscany´s international airport, located about 40 minutes´drive west of Florence. Florence (FRL - Peretola), north-west of the city, is a smaller airport receiving domestic and European flights.

If your villa is in southern or eastern Tuscany, one of Rome´s two airports may be a more practical option: Fiumicino (FCO) is the larger, for international flights; Ciampino (CIA) has a fewer facilities and caters to the discounters and smaller European airlines. Both are just off Rome´s ring road, the GRA, and convenient to all the motorways.

The little airport at Perugia (PEG - Sant´Egidio), in Umbria, is convenient fr eastern Tuscany and receives domestic italian flights and discout airlines from UK.

Insider tip

Figline Valdarno has been a market town for centuries, and still has one of the area's best general and produce markets. It is staged each Tuesday morning in and around Piazza Ficino.

Best & Finds

  • For the appetite.Vecchia Osteria La Pergola, Anghiari: 'The best truffle and mushroom pasta in THE WORLD .' 2010
  • For the occasion. Palio della Balestra, crossbow tournament, Sansepolcro
  • For the kids. The dinosaur museum in Montevarchi (Museo Paleontologico)
  • For the eyes. La Verna abbey 'Absolutely wonderful.' 2010
  • For the wardrobe. The designer factory outlets near Reggello