A small Medieval town perched on a hill is one of the sights that define the Tuscan landscape. You’ll have heard of San Gimignano and Cortona, but there’s another smaller and equally characterful town out there amongst the olive groves that deserves a visit.
A place that clings to the past and treasures its heritage. A place so full of Medieval atmosphere that entering its gates feels like you’re stepping back into the 13th century. That place is Certaldo Alto, just 35 kilometres from Florence.
The first thing that makes this place feel authentic is the way you reach it. Cars, being the noisy children of the 21st century, have no place here. So your choice is to walk up the hill from the newer part of Certaldo, or take the funicular to the top. I choose to walk up along the winding tree-lined road, eventually arriving right outside the walls. Walls so dominating they seem to protect the city like an ancient secret.
Once inside the visitor is immersed in a sea of red terracotta bricks and picturesque avenues that gently guide you towards Via Boccaccio. In the absence of a main square this street has been the heart and soul of Certaldo Alto for centuries. And it’s here on its time-worn cobbles that you feel the town’s uniquely Medieval atmosphere.
From the biforate windows and stone arches to the details on the door knobs, everything has a Gothic touch. Some of these details were apparently added later on in the process of restoration. But it’s all been done sensitively so that the effect is quite mesmerising. And of course very photogenic.
Along via Boccaccio you glimpse enclosed gardens and tranquil courtyards. There are small eateries and art studios; roses climb up the ancient walls and the famous Boccaccio tower stands guard above it all. But the real gem is Palazzo Pretorio. An visually striking building that was once the seat of government. Covered in stone and glazed terracotta coats of arms by the Della Robbia workshop, it’s a facade that makes you want to stand and stare.
Inside there’s a shady courtyard and stone staircases that lead to rooms now used for contemporary art installations. The courtyard is a peaceful place with slender columns that give it a light etherial feel. So much so, it’s hard to imagine the building had also been used as a prison in the 13th century.
Of course a visit to Certaldo wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Museum Casa Boccaccio. Writer of the Decameron and contemporary of Petrarch, Boccaccio was an extremely influential figure in Italian literature, and this house-tower in Certaldo was the place he chose to live out his last days. Tired of all the political scheming, he retired to this town that was the home of his father’s family, and found peace here amongst its quiet streets.
The museum is an important centre of learning about Boccaccio. Aside from its cultural value, a visit here gives you the chance to climb the tower and see the town from above. The view over the terracotta roofs and the soft hues of the rolling Tuscan countryside beyond are breathtaking. If you only do one thing when you visit the town it should be this, just don’t forget to take a camera.
Boccaccio is buried in the Church of SS. Jacopo e Filippo, a thirteenth century church just up the road from the tower, and next door to the Museum of Sacred Art. Though it sounds like heavy going, this museum houses a small but beautiful exhibition and makes a nice way to round off a visit.
Walking out of the city and back down the hill into the modern world, one has the sense that Certaldo Alto is not just a town, but a piece of living history. And personally, I can’t wait to have an excuse to pay it another visit. To find out more about the Medieval wonders Tuscany has to offer, visit lovefromtuscany.com
Ben Carson and Sabrina Nesi are both travel writers based in Florence, and co-founders of the website lovefromtuscany.com, an insider’s travel guide to Tuscany. Here they share their knowledge, and pour out all their passion for the art, culture, lifestyle and food of the region. They’re always looking for new stories to tell and hidden corners to explore. You can connect with them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and read their blog at lovefromtuscany.com/blog