Visiting charming Arezzo

Arezzos Duomo, dedicated to San Donato
Arezzo's Duomo, dedicated to San Donato

We just got back from a short trip to Arezzo, a charming town in southern Tuscany, that we took to celebrate my recent birthday. Not as popular to tourists as the nearby Cortona, we were pleasantly surprised with what Arezzo has to offer.

We got to Arezzo in under an hour by train from Florence. We quickly dropped off our bag at the elegant four star Vogue Hotel just 2 blocks from the train station and set off to explore the city. Set on a hill, all of the main sights are set on the slope while the cathedral is at the very top. So be prepared to do a bit of climbing, although most of it is gradual.

We soon discovered that the things to see in Arezzo can be organized around the figure of Piero della Francesca and his frescoes. The Gothic Basilica of San Francesco houses his fresco cycle “Legend of the True Cross” and is considered one of the highlights. With the sun shining (weather forecast was for rain), we decided to bypass it at first and came back later when the rain started.
Housed in the main Bacci chapel at the back of the altar, the frescoes are a bit difficult to see but a photographic display by the door explains each section in more detail. Narrating the “Legend of the True Cross“, the frescoes show the tree of life, how it was buried and then found again and used to build the cross Christ is sacrificed on. Some areas are missing, but overall we found the frescoes and large, open Gothic church, with its round stained glass window on the facade an interesting experience.

Piazza Grande
Piazza Grande: from left, Pieve di S. Maria, Palazzo del Tribunale & Palazzo della Fraternità dei Laici

The Piazza Grande in Arezzo is the heart of the town. Some might recognize the setting from the Oscar-winning movie “Life is Beautiful” by Roberto Benigni, posters around the square reminded us of the main scenes shot throughout the city. Unfortunately, the characteristic red bricks of the piazza were being replaced and the piazza was closed off. We could walk around its perimeter, enjoying the elegant Loggia Vasari along one side of the square and its cafes and restaurants, definitely a perfect location for a light lunch.

Loggia Vasari
Loggia Vasari

We visited the Gothic church of Santa Maria, the round back which can be seen in Piazza Grande. It has a unique facade and tower, with many columns and windows. We particularly enjoyed studying the ceramic figures on the outside of the facade, right above the main door – they go back to Medieval times and each one portrays a month of the year.

We then headed further uphill to the Cathedral of San Donato, or Duomo, which shows off splendid stained glass windows. Our study of Piero della Francesca continued with the Mary of Magdalene fresco from around 1460 at the front of the left nave. It has such vibrant colors it is hard to believe it is over 500 years old!

Most of the buildings and churches in Arezzo are yellowish – we soon discover that much of the town is constructed with local “arenaria”, a rock made of sedimentary granules not bigger than sand. No wonder the city is characterized by this sandy, yellow tone.

After a good evening meal and a good night’s sleep, we woke up refreshed to tackle the main event in town at the moment, the grand exhibit dedicated to the Della Robbia at the Museum of Medieval and Modern Art. Famous for inventing the new technique of glazed terracotta sculpture back in the 15th century, the Della Robbia family specialized in creating art which even today still decorates many churches and buildings in Tuscany and Italy, including the Spedale degli Innocenti in Florence. The exhibition “I Della Robbia, the dialogue between the Arts in the Renaissace” runs until June 7, 2009 – if you will be in the area, we highly recommend a visit. To learn more, visit

In the early afternoon we had to leave without yet seeing Cimabue’s Cross at the Basilica di San Domenico or Vasari’s home (he was born here), but since we really liked what we saw in Arezzo, we’ll soon be back for more! Piazza Grande is also the setting of the Giostra del Saracino, a joust tournament held in June and September every year and of the popular Antiques Fair held the first weekend of every month – one of these occasions can also be your excuse (if you need one) to come by and discover this charming Tuscan town :).

About Lourdes Flores

An American living in Florence for over 10 years, Lourdes continues to explore and discover new places in Tuscany with the eyes of a tourist but with the experience of living in Italy. She shares her experiences on this blog and website, particularly offering lots of travel planning help on the Forum!