The Valdarno (Arno valley) upstream from Florence is a heavily industrialized tract, with no compelling stop before you reach the provincial capital, Arezzo, which is visited by foreigners in their thousands for its Piero della Francesca frescoes, and by Italians in even greater numbers for its antiques trade. South of Arezzo is the ancient hill-town of Cortona, whose picturesquely steep streets and sense of hilltop isolation make it an irresistible place for a stopover.
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Piero della Francesca’s frescoes – which belong in the same company as Masaccio’s cycle in Florence and Michelangelo’s in Rome – are what makes AREZZO a tourist destination, but in Italy the city is equally well known for its jewellers, its goldsmiths, and its trade in antiques: in the vicinity of the Piazza Grande there are shops filled with museum-quality furniture, and once a month the Fiera Antiquaria turns the piazza into a vast showroom.
Arezzo has been one of Tuscany’s most prosperous towns for a very long time. Occupying a site that controls the major passes of the central Apennines, it was a key settlement of the Etruscan federation, and grew to be an independent republic in the Middle Ages. In 1289, however, its Ghibelline allegiances led to a catastrophic clash with the Guelph Florentines at Campaldino; though Arezzo temporarily recovered under the leadership of the bellicose Bishop Guido Tarlati, it finally came under the control of Florence in 1384. Nowadays, while Florence’s economy has become over-reliant on tourist traffic, well-heeled Arezzo goes its own way, though in recent years it has started to market itself more seriously as a place to visit.
There are two distinct parts to Arezzo: the older quarter, at the top of the hill, and the businesslike lower town, much of which remains hidden from day-trippers, as it spreads behind the train station and the adjacent bus terminal. From the station forecourt, go straight ahead for Via Guido Monaco, the traffic axis between the upper and lower town. The parallel Corso Italia, now pedestrianized, is the route to walk up the hill.
Travelling south from Arezzo you enter the Valdichiana, reclaimed swampland that is now prosperous farming country. From the valley floor, a 5km road winds up through terraces of vines and olives to the ancient hill-town of CORTONA, whose heights survey a vast domain: the Valdichiana stretching westwards, with Lago Trasimeno visible over the low hills to the south. The steep streets of Cortona are more or less untouched by modern building: limitations of space have confined almost all later development to the lower suburb of Camucia, which is where the approach road begins.
Even without its monuments and art treasures, this would be a good place to rest up, with decent hotels and excellent restaurants. In recent years, though, Cortona’s tourist traffic has increased markedly, in the wake of Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany, books that continue to entice coachloads of her readers to the town. And in late July/early August the town is filled to capacity by audiences for the Festival del Sole/Tuscan Sun Festival, an arts jamboree (mainly classical music) that was founded in 2002, partly at Mayes’ instigation; for its tenth anniversary the festival relocated to Florence, but it should return to its original home in future years.