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Barberino Val d’Elsa

Medieval walls, Etruscan burial grounds and some of Tuscany’s best rustic food

By: Donald Strachan Writer & Journalist | Specialist in Italy & European travel

Barberino travel guide

The pretty fortified village of Barberino is almost midway between Florence and Siena, on an outcrop overlooking the Elsa and Pesa valleys. Its architecture and layout are typical of the Tuscan Middle Ages, with stone gates at the north and south guarding entrances to a compact centre.



Its position high above the Via Cassia — the ancient road between Florence and Rome — gave it lasting strategic importance. Its walls were built by Florentines, for whom this became a key outpost in their long-running rivalry with Siena, which is 23 miles to the south.

These days, it’s away from the usual tourist trail — making it peaceful to wander, even in high season.

In the Beginning...

Barberino is first mentioned in a document written in 1054. It gained importance, grew rapidly and was fortified by the Florentines after they destroyed nearby Semifonte in 1202 following a long siege.

In 1264, it was the birthplace of poet Francesco da Barberino, a contemporary of Dante and author of Documenti d’Amore. Francesco was (probably) a victim of the Black Death in 1348.

The Barberini family — wealthy power-players in 17th-century Rome, whose members included Pope Urban VIII — came originally from Barberino. The town’s surviving Palazzo Barberini is somewhat less imposing than its namesake in Rome... but is also decorated with a shield and 3 insects, the family coat of arms. Later Barberini placed bees on their shield; this earlier version appears to feature 3 gadflies or horseflies instead.

Visit This

The preserved medieval centre is a delight to explore. The façade of its Palazzo Pretorio is emblazoned with 35 coats of arms of Florentine podestà (leaders) that presided over Barberino from the Middle Ages.

The Church of San Bartolomeo next door — dedicated to Barberino’s holy patron, St. Bartholomew —has fresco fragments from the 1300s and 1400s, plus a bronze by Pietro Tacca.

Of the town’s two 14th-century arched gates, only the Gothic Porta Romana (or Porta Senese) survives in its original form. At the north end of town, the Porta Fiorentina was damaged and later rebuilt. The Ospedale dei Pellegrini beside it welcomed pilgrims walking the Via Francigena to Rome from 1365.

The Pieve di Sant’Appiano was built between the 10th and 12th centuries — in other words, it’s old... even for Tuscany

Eat & Drink This

The hills around Barberino produce some of Tuscany’s finest wine and olive oil. Castello di Monsanto, 7 miles south of Barberino, produces top-class estate Chianti DOCGs and Nemo, a Cabernet Sauvignon “Super-Tuscan”. It’s well worth booking a cellar tour and tasting.

Isole e Olena’s world-famous Super-Tuscan wine, Cepparello, is produced locally using 100% sangiovese red grapes and aged in French and American barriques.

Local rustic restaurants include some of the region’s best. In summer, it is always best to reserve ahead, especially if you want a terrace table where you can eat to a chorus of crickets.

La Sosta di Pio VII has a short menu built around flavours of the Val d’Elsa and Chianti. A typical meal might start with a budino al pomodoro con salsa al basilico (a tomato “blancmange” with basil sauce), then pasta with a rabbit ragù followed by tagliata (sliced grilled beef) topped with radicchio and lardo (refined, thinly sliced pork fat infused with herbs). Flavours are intense, and the value is spectacular. The restaurant’s unusual name comes from a tale that, in 1815, Pope Pius VII lodged for a night at this former farmstead.

They do a mean line in home-made pasta at L’Antica Quercia. Tortelli di patate (potato-filled pasta parcels), tagliatelle, and pappardelle are prepped fresh every morning; pair any of them with a choice of sauces, usually including Tuscan favourites like duck, rabbit and wild boar. The best mains come hot off the grill, including a lombatina di vitello (large veal chop); there is also a real wood pizza oven. And everything tastes so much better with a cooling evening breeze and a front-row seat for the setting sun.

Barberino’s weekly market is on Saturday morning.

Out of Town

In the nearby hamlet of Sant’Appiano, the Romanesque Pieve di Sant’Appiano is an ancient church dedicated to an early saint who preached in the Elsa valley. The church was largely built and renovated between the 10th and 12th centuries — in other words, it’s old... even for Tuscany.

The site is older still, with Etruscan burial grounds dating as far back as the 8th century BC. Archaeological finds from the Etruscan and Roman eras are displayed in a small museum usually open at weekends.

In a small cypress grove beyond Petrognano, about 3 miles west of Barberino, is a small, octagonal replica of Brunelleschi’s famous dome from Florence Cathedral. This glorious Chapel of St. Michael Archangel was built in 1597 by Santi di Tito, as a memorial to Florence’s complete destruction of nearby Semifonte almost 4 centuries earlier.

In Vico d’Elsa, 5 miles south-west of Barberino, the Giardino SottoVico is a small botanical garden designed with an “open to all” ethos to be 100% accessible to disabled visitors. Flowers, grasses and other plantings are themed around the 5 human senses; there’s also a route tailored to blind garden enthusiasts.

Festivals

Barberino’s medieval centre is the venue for a number of colourful festivals through the year, including Barberino in fiore (“Barberino in bloom”) in May; the Festa Medievale in June; and celebrations for St. Bartholomew on August 24.

October’s BarberinoCioc includes a dessert-making contest and of course stalls hawking artisan chocolate.

Buy This

In the centre, Paola Giuntini makes art on silk and cotton at Le Sete di Paola. Francesco Bojola sells bags, belts and other handmade designs in leather at Bojola Country. Ceramicist Andrea Biagini also has a showroom in Barberino.

Three Excursions from Barberino

  • Colle Val d’Elsa: the birthplace of Gothic architect Arnolfo di Cambio has a spectacular medieval old town stretched along a sheer, narrow ridge
  • Siena: a labyrinthine mini-city of red-brick palaces and ethereal art, and home to the famous Palio horserace each July and August
  • San Gimignano: a drive among cypress-topped hills and vineyards ends at a preserved medieval walled town with hidden alleys, Gothic towers and Renaissance frescoes

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