The picturesque Tuscan town of Arezzo greeted us with blue sky and sunshine on a recent October afternoon as we pulled into the parking lot next to the medieval wall that still encircled the town. Across the street, I saw a tall, elegant young woman with long dark hair who I guessed was Sandra Giusti, our tour guide. Her company, Arezzo Guide, was born from her great passion and love for her hometown and surrounding villages. We had corresponded previously only by email up until now so this was our first meeting. I was excited to meet her and discover what made Arezzo one of the most popular places in Tuscany to experience.
Sandra called my name and crossed the street with a big smile. Her effusive nature put us at ease. After a warm greeting with friendly chatter, we began our tour. Sandra was enthusiastic and gracious about sharing the intriguing attributes of her hometown.
After passing through one of the old gates in the wall, we went upward toward the church of San Domenico situated in a small piazza by the same name. At the altar inside the church was a large crucifix. Sandra explained that it was painted by the famous 13th-century artist, Cimabue. Old fresco fragments could be seen on the light beige walls throughout the church.
Our next stop was the towering Cathedral of Arezzo. Construction began on the Cathedral in the 13th century but wasn’t completed until the 16th century. It is situated on the town’s highest point and viewable from everywhere. Stunning stained glass windows and ceiling frescos gave elegance to the loftiness of the interior.
We spent some time inside the Basilica of San Francesco, a late medieval church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, where Sandra took us into the Bacci Chapel. The walls were covered by beautifully preserved frescos painted by the famous artist Piero della Francesca. They told the story of The Legend of the True Cross, which Sandra so eloquently explained in engaging detail.
We eventually found our way to the Piazza Grande, the main piazza of Arezzo. She explained that it really is a huge (grande) piazza but that it doesn’t appear to be initially. It was cut in half by a row of buildings built years previously. Beyond them is the continuation of the piazza.
It is here that the Giostra del Saracino is performed twice a year, in June and September. This is an age-old medieval tradition of jousting tournaments in which knights of the four city districts compete against each other. The winner takes the Golden Lance, fashioned in the town by wood carver Francesco Conti, as a prize.
An antique market takes place here on the first Sunday of every month plus the Saturday before. The winding streets around the piazza have many little antique shops that are fun to look through.
Interesting to note, movie director Roberto Benigni used the piazza as the set for his 1997 movie, La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful).
Down a narrow road leading from the Piazza Grande Sandra took us to meet the woodcarver of Arezzo, Francesco Conti. His little shop could be easily missed and if not for Sandra we would never have known to step into his amazing wood-carver’s paradise.
We could have spent hours looking at all the detailed carvings in Francesco’s shop where he has worked for 40 years. He explained that as the carver for the yearly jousting festival, along with other continuous projects, he keeps quite busy.
Below is the Palazzo Pretorio with a stately and harmonious façade adorned with several coats of arms evocative of the governors and captains that held the town since 1434. It now serves as the Biblioteca, the town library.
After our tour, we found ourselves quite hungry. Sandra was quick to point out along the way some of her favorite gelato shops, restaurants, and in this case, pizza by the slice. We followed her around a corner and down a few shops to a little hole in the wall pizzeria. As promised, the pizza was delicious.
Sandra has described Arezzo’s historic center as “a fascinating succession of ancient monuments, beautiful squares, stories of knights, artists, and poets.” After accompanying her on this delightful tour, I couldn’t agree more.
Sandra is guiding tours in Florence as well as Arezzo. I can’t say enough about how much she enlightened us regarding the history and culture of Arezzo. It was a great pleasure and highlight of our trip to spend time with such a sweet and engaging young lady.
For more information about Arezzo Guide tours, contact Sandra at:
+39 334 36 71 868