The good thing about Italian medieval cities is that once you’ve visited a few you get to know their history and layout and therefore you don’t really need a map or a tour guide. To me, this makes them really homely and welcoming.
So, here’s my step by step guide to visiting these little gems (and a crash course in Italian history)!
Get off the train and find the city walls. The train station is almost always outside them.
a) Can you walk them? If yes, celebrate! If no, cry.
Walking the walls in Lucca
b) Do they have either a nice old etching of the town or a modern map? If yes, get bearings. (More points if you don’t use the modern one!)
Old town walls in Pistoia
c) Did the first wall trick you? Did you enter the city only to be horribly confused and find MORE WALLS?! You get a sticker! You’ve found ever older walls. Most cities had to expand their boundaries as their population expanded.
Now you’re inside the city safe, sound and protected. See, these cities have your best interests at heart.
Look for Towers
Venice – St Mark’s Campanile
If there is only one, then congratulations! You’ve found the Campanile and one of the main piazzas. You won’t get lost now – just use this tower as your lighthouse. It has stood strong and steady for hundreds of years so you know you can trust it.
Also, commiserations. The more towers the better! Towers were often symbols of dominant families. Who wouldn’t want to build a tower if they were rich and powerful? A lot have been knocked down now unfortunately but the ones that are still left often have a museum or casa to explore.
Medieval Manhattan – San Gimignano
Bologna Two Towers
Campanile (aka Bell Tower) and Religious Section
If you’ve found the Campanile, then you’ve also found the Duomo and Baptistry. They form a nice little trinity. Or Holy Trinity … Back in the day, the religious section was one of the thriving centres of the city. Medieval and Renaissance life was centred around the Church. These days these areas are still buzzing largely due to tourists and who can blame them? They are so pretty (the church … not the tourists).
a) Duomo (no the famous one from Florence is not in every Tuscan city. Vocab lesson #1: Duomo = church). Allora, the Duomo is the main church in every city. Usually when you go inside it has a long central nave and chapels to the side are common.
Duomo Florence (picture taken from top of Campanile)
Duomo and Campanile in Lucca
The place where people were baptised. It is octagonal and has a pit in the centre for the person to be dunked.
As I said previously, life often centred on prayer so the bells would mark mass times and other important times of the day (LUNCHTIME!). Vocab lesson # 2: My favourite word in Italian is campanilismo which means love for one’s city or literally translated love for one’s bell tower. I have transformed this word to mean to mean the love of climbing bell towers. (If there is a bell tower I will climb it! The picture of the Duomo above was taken when I climbed the 414 stairs of the campanile in Florence).
Leaning Tower of Pizza (Pisa!) It’s actually a bell tower.
What’s that you see? Another giant tower? I hear you say, I know this, it’s got to be a prominent families house. Is it attached to a large, towering, intimidating building and a huge piazza? If yes, unfortunately you’re wrong and it’s probably the town hall. Welcome to the civic centre. Religious and civic centre were the places were things happened. Their piazzas were where people gathered, festivals, parades and celebrations were held, often where people sold their goods. Today the goods tend to be tacky, cheap, poor quality, overpriced souvenirs or food that you can get better quality and cheaper a few streets away.
Palazzo Pubblico Siena I have much better pictures that show the liveliness of this square but I NAILED this jumping picture!
Is that a palace? Yes. Maybe. No. Yes it might be if the city wasn’t a republic and instead was ruled by a wealthy family. Maybe it’s not an actual palace but considering an important, rich family lived here then technically it is. No, unfortunately, whatever it was, it probably isn’t anymore and instead of Disney Princesses and pretty dresses you will find a museum or gallery instead.
Palazzo Pitti Florence Republic .. whatever you say Medici…
Is it on the outskirts of the city? Away from the Duomo? Is it not as elaborate? Roof not as high? More like a barn? No, the city didn’t run out of money or give it all to the Duomo. This is a mendicant church and probably either a Franciscan or Dominican one. Mendicant orders (Franciscans or Dominicans) were orders who focussed on living a poor life of the good will of others. Most people have heard of St Francis of Assisi who gave up everything to beg and preach. These churches are simple and reflect Francis’ aims – you just need faith and not money to be close to God. They are big and barnlike to fit all the people in. St Francis or St Clare’s church in Assisi are not good examples (they are far too elaborate and I think the decorations and embellishments added after their deaths would probably have the, turning in their grave).
Famous People’s Houses
You may be allowed in or there may just be a plaque or sign. They may have been born here, died here, written or painted something notable here, lived here for a week or their whole life. House seems to have a broad meaning.
Right near Dante’s house in Florence
If you’re in Florence, obviously David.
Other popular choices are prominent families eg) Medici in Florence. Particularily in Tuscany but all over Italy you can find statues of Dante, Petrarch, Boccacio.
Cosimo di Medici you are a babe!
Of all Italian artwork 70% is in Italy and of this 40% is in Tuscany. So many talented people.
These heavenly shops pay tribute to the ancient medieval art of ice-cream …
I ate so much ice-cream in Italy I turned into one!
There you have it! The dummies guide to Italian (mainly Tuscan) medieval cities!