Monday, October 11, 2010

Appreciating Arezzo

My first visit to Arezzo was with a colleague of mine at Castello di Casole a few summers ago. The town was only an hour and a half away and neither of us had ever been, so we grabbed a guidebook, jumped in her convertible and headed east. Upon arriving we walked around the city center, poked our heads into a few churches and shops and admired the main piazza. Then we had a nice lunch and left. It was a pleasant enough experience but I wasn’t feeling the urge to return anytime soon.

Fortunately, my dear friend Daniela is from Arezzo and after several trips there with her over the past year I now have a whole new appreciation for it. We always stay at her parents’ house where she grew up which is a real treat for me, especially when I am feeling homesick. Her mother, Giuliana, dotes all over me and she even hems my pants. She is an excellent cook (are there any Italian mothers who aren’t?!), and she looks visibly crestfallen every time Daniela and I go out for lunch or dinner during our visits. As for Daniela’s father, Pietro, you name it, he can fix it. Last time he welded the handle back onto a sterling silver purse a friend got for me in Thailand. Another time he washed my Ford Focus wagon, which is always caked in inches of dust, and buffed it to a sparkling shine with a hand towel.  

Last month, on the first Sunday in September, Daniela invited me to join her for the Giostra del Saracino, a spirited medieval jousting festival that has been entertaining crowds in Arezzo since the mid 1500s.  The Fiera Antiquaria, an antique fair of more than 500 vendors that descend upon the Piazza Grande the first weekend of every month, was happening as well so it was an ideal weekend to visit.

On Sunday morning, in order to be sure we could park, we rode into the city centre on her father’s motorbike. We thought we looked pretty hot in our little dresses and helmets until we saw this photo ...

Daniela has to start and end each day in Arezzo with a stop at Coffee O’Clock (on the main shopping street called Corso Italia), one of the most interesting and inviting cafes in Tuscany. You can plug into its wireless Internet, view the abstract art on exhibit and catch up on the latest news in the International Herald Tribune. The owner Massimo has a booming coffee roasting business and distributes his beans all over Italy and the cafĂ© has an unusually wide and creative selection of coffee drinks. 

My favorite is the Espresso Shakerato- a martini-style espresso, shaken not stirred, and poured into a thick glass made of solid ice. Catering to its international clientele, there is also a nice selection of infused and loose leaf teas which are almost impossible to find in Italy. That morning I opted for the memory-enhancing blend of yerba mate, orange rind, ginseng, cinnamon, cloves, pepper and rose to be extra sure I would remember the exciting events of the day.

After fueling up we did some window-shopping along Corso Italia, which has several stylish high-end boutiques- L’Albero for shoes and handbags and Sugar with the latest apparel from Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and other Italian designers. Along the way we ran into Daniela’s friend Roberto, the owner of Viaggiando, an upscale sporting goods store right out of Boulder, Colorado. Roberto is an avid outdoorsman who leads hiking expeditions all over the world and upstairs his guidebook and map-reading room beckons adventure seekers with an inviting, weathered brown leather chair.

Continuing up Corso Italia, we ventured into Arezzo’s largest and most beautiful church – the 12th-century Santa Maria della Pieve. Inside and definitely worth seeing is the famous gilded Virgin with Child and Saints painted by Pietro Lorenzetti in 1320, and the glimmering gold and silver bejeweled bust of San Donato, patron saint of Arezzo. Above, the wooden beams are adorned with the Stemma- the white horse symbol of Arezzo. Even more stunning is the church’s crumbling exterior with its striking square tower and its exquisite rounded and columned backside that faces the Piazza Grande.

In the Piazza Grande, where the famous antique fair, the Festa Antiquaria, is held the first Sunday of every month, colorful coats of arms decorating the facades of the buildings and the dark wooden balconies set this piazza apart from all others in Tuscany. 

We crossed the piazza and walked under the famous Loggia del Vasari designed by Giorgio Vasari. After the second restaurant on the right there is a hidden staircase that leads up to the Passeggio del Prato, a lovely, English-style park with lots of shady trees and panoramic views of the valleys below. Since on that particular day the Piazza Grande was being set up for the jousting festival, the vendors at the Fiera Antiquaria were sprawled all over the park displaying their wares. We wandered around the fair for awhile and it really is quite impressive, but you can only look at so many armoires and pocket watches... 

At the top of the park is Arezzo’s lurking sandstone Cathedral of San Donato. Inside the Duomo’s famous 16th-century stained glass windows and under its vibrantly-colored ceiling lie two tombs worth taking a look at- one houses the remains of Pope Gregory X, record holder for pope who took the longest to be elected by his fellow cardinals (three years). The other tomb of Bishop Guido Tarlati, which some believe was designed by Giotto, is decorated with reliefs depicting stories of his life and one featuring a miniature theatre. Next to this tomb is a famous fresco by Piero della Francesca of Mary Magdalene holding a crystal pot of ointment.

Back outside, we headed left out of the church and down via Cesalpino, stopping at Galleria Cesalpino, a cooperative featuring local products from the province of Arezzo, including the extra-warm, nubbed wool jackets, ponchos, handbags and hats from the Casentino (a mountainous region between Florence and Siena) in bold, cheerful colors.
Just up ahead in its own piazza on the right we entered the most important church in Arezzo- the Basilica of San Francesco. It was inside this simple Franciscan edifice in the 1450s in honor of a treasured wooden crucifix by Cimabue that early Renaissance master Piero della Francesca was commissioned to paint The Legend of the True Cross (based on stories of how the timber relics of the cross on which Jesus was crucified came to exist and how the cross helped the Christians win battles after his death).

Happily, it was lunchtime, which is always a highlight for Daniela and me. After briefly contemplating trying something new, once again we ended up at our favorite spot for a mid-day meal, La Formagierra, which specializes in gourmet cheeses from Italy and France. I happen to love cheese more than any other food on the planet so this place, tucked in an alley between Corso Italia and Via Cesalpino, is pure heaven for me. Depending on how decadent I feel, I either go with the mixed greens with fresh and aged sheep and goat’s milk cheeses, or I forgo the greens entirely and sink into the heaping platter of hard and soft cheeses served with a basket of fresh-baked bread. The last time I was there Daniela, who sadly for me does not eat cheese, ordered what looked like pulled pork with white beans and relished every bite.

Now it was time for the procession of the Giostra del Saracino, the famous contest which reenacts the jousts between the Crusaders and the Moors from Africa in the Middle Ages. Throngs of Aretines were lined up and down the streets cheering on representatives from their four neighborhoods proudly marching in medieval garb and leading the knights on horseback up to the Piazza Grande for the big competition. 
I happen to have a bit of a problem with crowds and long parades are a form of torture for me. However I must say that the flag-bearers of Arezzo, which are among the most famous in the world, were incredible.
Daniela and I didn’t have tickets to watch the tournament in the stands, thank god, so we gathered around a television outside a bar to watch the spectacle in the piazza. You would think that the knights would be racing towards one other trying to knock each other off their horses, right?   

Not so. Basically there is a dirt path of a few hundred yards and on the far end is an oversized Moorish man made of black metal holding a sort of bulls-eye. There are two knights for each neighborhood, and one at a time the knights race at high speed with their long, smudge-tipped lance pointed directly at the bulls-eye. Depending on where the lance hits they are awarded points, and if the lance breaks they get double points. This year the neighborhood from the city centre, which none of the other neighborhoods particularly like, beat the underdog when the knight broke his lance. 

After the rather raucous crowd in front of the television eventually dispersed, Daniela and I decided it was time for an apperitivo at Terra di Peiro in Piazza San Francesco.  This quaint little enoteca has an impressive list of wines by the glass and delicious snacks. We sat at a little table outside watching (depending on which neighborhood they were from) the gleeful or dejected faces of the passers-by.

With a bit of time to kill before dinner and knowing how much I love to shop, especially when a good deal is involved, Daniela brought me to a fabulous women's clothing boutique close to the train station on Via Niccolo Arentino called G-Loft. The owner, Giulio, has an eye for elegant, fashionable, one-of-a-kind pieces. He carries only Italian designers and the prices range from moderate to high. I was pleasantly surprised to find several special pieces still on the sale rack from July.

For dinner that night, Daniela chose Saffron, a Japanese trattoria serving sushi, sashimi and “international creative” cuisine.  Opened in 2004 by a young woman from Arezzo who was attracted to the Japanese mentality and worked at a sushi restaurant in Florence, Saffron is a welcome break from the bruschetta, pasta, and wild boar dominating the menus in Tuscany. As I eagerly blended my soy sauce and wasabi, preparing for my first bite of raw tuna in six months and taking occasional sips from my glass of cold sake, Daniela whipped up her own concoction of olive oil and Balsamic vinegar into which she dipped each piece of raw fish followed by a taste of Chardonnay. I winced at the travesty but let it pass. Arguing over what constitutes “good food” with an Italian is one battle that will never be won.

Daniela, who happens to love the desserts at Saffron, was visibly dismayed when I told her I wasn’t in the mood for “dolce.” But I didn’t need any more sugar. Our day in Arezzo had already been filled with plenty of sweetness.


  1. Love, love that dress JY! I hope you bought it!

  2. Yep. couldn't resist! It was on the sale rack after all...



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