The "noble" hills of Florence were already plotted with churches, castles, towers and courtyards in the 14th century which made it look to visitors like it was much bigger than it actually was.
Today the green rolling hills which surround the city offer the tourist the possibility to stay at just a few kilometres from Florence without having to cope with the chaos of the city. The hills preserve beautiful landscapes and architectonic monuments and offer relax and tranquillity. A visit to Florence which doesn't include a stop at the surrounding hills, deprives the visitor of the charming and relaxing atmosphere which is actually worth to try. The inhabitants of the Florentine hills live among parks and gardens, kitchen gardens and villas, restructured cottages, tabernacles and churches, forests and farmed land. A small group of privileged people, with a huge sense of beauty and lots of money, such as magnates, famous artists, sportsmen and fashion designers, have chosen to live here as they can afford to live in an open-air museum, where the delicious details of the landscape and the architecture are worth to be seen without hurrying. The balanced relationship between man and nature, which here goes back to the Middle Ages, the deep sense of respect that the privileged inhabitants show towards the beautiful landscape and historical tradition that surround them, gives the visitor an extraordinary chance to discover one of the most magnificent landscapes of Tuscany.
Apart from the history, the Florentine hills also share with the nearby city the pleasure of eating well. If you travel around along the steep hill roads around Florence, you find restaurants and inns where you can taste the real specialities of the Florentine kitchen. A simple cuisine with dishes prepared with poor ingredients such as bread, olive oil and vegetables, but also a cuisine with exquisite specialities which have been prepared since the Renaissance when the chefs of the Medici court taught all the world how to eat. Hare in "dolceforte", orange duck, crespelle alla fiorentina, the artisan ice-cream are only some of the delicious dishes that the Florentine chefs brought to France when Maria de' Medici got married to the king of France in 1600 and some of these dishes are still served. If you decide not trying these particular dishes you can always choose a more classic cuisine with dishes such as the Florentine T-bone steak, ribollita (thick vegetable soup), pappa al pomodoro (thick tomato and bread soup), toasted bread with liver topping, beans all'uccelletto with sausages. All dishes should be accompanied by the local wine, such as Chianti dei Colli Fiorentini, and the extra virgin olive oil from the Florentine hills which is absolutely excellent.
Absolutely enchanting , Fiesole is the noble town par excellance in the surroundings of Florence. Of ancient origins, the town has divided its history with the neighbouring City of Flower since its funding in 59 b.C.
Even Fiesole suffered a decline due to the Barbarian invasions and was reconquered by Florence in 1125. The town was chosen by the Medici family for the summer holidays and between the 18th and the 19th century it was enriched with villas, gardens and palaces. Important Etruscan centre colonised by the Romans in 80 b.C., Fiesole preserves an extraordinary archaeological and monumental heritage which testify its origins. In the archaeological area there are remains of the boundary wall, going back to the III century b.C., and the marvellous Roman Theatre, finished before the first half of the I century b.C. during the Imperial period.
The theatre, where operas are held still today during the Festival Estate Fiesolana, has more that 3000 seats, and nearby you also find the baths, the calidarium and the holy area with remains of a Roman temple. The Museo Archeologico of Fiesole holds numerous items that go back to the XV century b.C., the Bronze era, Etruscan and Roman materials from the surroundings, such as urns, chalices, bronze sculptures and architectonic findings from the archaeological area. In the main square of the modern town you find the Palazzo Pretorio, built in the 14th century but restructured during the following centuries, and the old Chiesa di Santa Maria a Primerana. On the opposite part of the square you find the Cathedral which used to be the bishop seat when the diocese in Florence was not yet created. The façade is from the 19th century when it was completely modified by the restoration, but the interior of the cathedral preserves the original early-medieval style and numerous religious artworks.
In front of the Cathedral you find the Palazzo Vescovile, which was also built during the 13th century and restructured during the XVII century, when the nearby Seminario was built. In the centre of the town you should visit the Museo Bandini which features the collection of the connoisseur Angelo Maria Bandini, with minor art items, sculptures and paintings from the Tuscan school. The Museo Fondazione Primo Conti, in the marvellous villa of the artist, preserves a huge collection of works by the Florentine painter who was one of the protagonists of the futurism, and a vast archive of documents about the vanguard paintings of the beginning of the 20th century, such as manifests and magazines. Another marvellous villa, the Roseto villa, was the home of Giovanni Michelucci, one of the most important Italian architects and famous for having designed the Central Station Santa Maria Novella in Florence and the church along the highway A1, Autostrada del Sole. The villa, from where you have a superb view over the hills of the Arno valley and Brunelleschi's cupola, was built in the beginning of the 20th century and is surrounded by a beautiful garden and terraces, where olive trees, vines and typical Tuscan flowers grow, such as cypresses, rosemary and fruit trees. Inside the villa there are sketches, models, photos and drawings made by Michelucci during his life.
The Villa I Tatti hosted another famous person, Bernard Berenson, an art historian specialised in the Italian Renaissance. The residence from the 16th century was donated by the owner to the University of Harvard as a centre for the study of the Italian Renaissance. Berenson's will has been fulfilled and today both the villa and the rich library are open for history, literature, art and music scholars who want to study the Italian Renaissance. The surrounding garden is marvellous and was designed by the architect Cecil Pinsent. On the top of the hill which hosted the Etruscan acropolis, you find the Chiesa di San Francesco which was built in the 14th century as an oratory and later on completely modified. From here you have a wonderful view over Florence under the hills of Fiesole.
In the surroundings, it is worth to visit the hamlet of San Domenico, where you find the monastery from the 15th century in which , according to the tradition, Beato Angelico was a monk, and the cloister preserves a precious heritage of artworks, many of them painted by Angelico. Not far from San Domenico you ought to visit the Badia Fiesolana, the cathedral of Fiesole until 1208 and restructured in the 15th century by Cosimo de' Medici. Inside there are several masterpieces of holy art, while just beside you have the marvellous Renaissance cloister of the former monastery of the Badia, today the seat of the Istituto Universitario Europeo.
BAGNO A RIPOLI
On the other side of the river Arno from Fiesole, Bagno a Ripoli was probably an Etruscan village and from the III century b.C it became an important commercial centre.
It was the seat of the Lega di Ripoli in the XII century, one of the 72 federations of communities in which the Florentine countryside was divided into. Bagno a Ripoli preserves the oldest Romanesque parish church in the surroundings of Florence, the Pieve di San Pietro, which dates back to the VIII century. The façade of the church was restructured to its original primitive Romanesque style in 1932. Inside there are several artworks, among which some frescoes from the 14th century attributed to Piero Nelli, also the author of the processional crucifix that you find in the Cappella della Misericordia. The chapel also features some paintings from the 17th century. In the territory of Bagno a Ripoli you can also visit the Pieve di San Donino in Villamagna that dominates the valley of the river Arno. Founded in the VIII century and rebuilt during the Romanesque period, the church features a simple façade with an imposing bell-tower. It preserves many artworks made between the XIV and the XVI century. The Oratorio di Santa Caterina is a real masterpiece of Italian Gothic and was built as a private chapel by the Lords Alberti between 1348 and 1387. The exterior façade is simple and delicious, in Romanesque style, while the interior holds frescoes of rare beauty from the 13th and 14th century.
At Antella, a small hamlet to Bagno a Ripoli, you find the Pieve di Santa Maria, which first plant goes back to year 1000. The church has been restructured several times and finally in 1928 it was restructured to its primitive Romanesque style. The sacristy and the bell-tower evidence the Romanesque style, while the inside features numerous artworks from the 15th and the 17th century.
There are also many castles plotted around Bagno a Ripoli such as Belforte, Monte Acuto and Quarante, and many villas, like the Medicean villas Lappeggi and Mondeggi. Along the river Arno you find the building of Gualchiere di Remole, with powerful towers, which was used for the manufacturing of the fabrics for Florence.
The beauty of the region around Bagno a Ripoli, a marvellous mix of the graze of the landscape and the elegant antique buildings, has contributed to a project to create an open-air museum, without paintings in closed buildings but with streets, bridges, churches, villas and mills integrated in customised itineraries.
Many remains that go back to the Neolithic era, today preserved in the Antiquarium in Bagno a Ripoli, has been found during the excavations around the territory. Tourists who want to experience the atmosphere of the historical palaces of Bagno a Ripoli can stay at the Spedale del Bigallo which, after a recent restorations, has finally returned to its original function as a hostel and a cultural centre. The visitor stay in the antique rooms, eat in the beautiful refectory with caisson ceiling and relax in the marvellous hall with a stone fireplace.
Impruneta, on the top of a ridge from where you have a superb view over the city of Florence, is a happy country town and is famous world wide for the manufacturing of bricks, which were already used by Brunelleschi to build the cupola of the Florentine cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore.
Impruneta, surrounded by rolling hills with olive-trees and vineyards, preserves many art and historical remains from its glorious past, which testify how man has integrated perfectly with the nature. Impruneta, an Etruscan settlement, was part of the feud of Buondelmonte during the Middle Ages until 1135 when it was conquered by the Florentines.
In the 13th century the fame of the holy image of the Virgin, , an icon with a black face giving health and fertility, started to spread and the image is still today preserved in the Basilica di Santa Maria all'Impruneta. The tradition tells that it was the Evangelist Luke who painted the icon. The holy icon was taken from Impruneta to Florence in case of famine, wars or pests. The parish church of Impruneta became so powerful that it soon comprehended 21 churches and the village and its small hamlets developed around these churches. Impruneta followed the destiny of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany until the unification of Italy. Unfortunately, both the town and the Basilica were seriously damaged by the bombs the 27th of July in 1944.
A visit of Impruneta starts at the splendid Basilica Santa Maria with the portico facing the main square of the town, called Buondelmonti. The Basilica, built on an Etruscan-Roman sanctuary, was first a small Romanesque parish church, consecrated in 1060. During the 14th century the church was enlarged due to the growing fame of the miraculous image of the Virgin, and completely restructured in the middle of the 15th century and further on rearranged during the following centuries.
Inside, after the damage caused by the bombarding during the second world war, the church has been restructured according to the Renaissance style, and you are here able to see two beautiful shrines attributed to Michelozzo and decorated with glazed earthenware of Luca della Robbia. The shrine to on the left-hand side holds preciously the image of the Madonna dell'Impruneta, which still today in special occasions is taken to the Cathedral of Santa maria del Fiore in Florence, with a solemn procession. From the inside of the church you reach the beautiful cloister in Michelozzo style and the crypt. Beside the Basilica you find the Loggia del Pellegrino, built to give shelter to the pilgrims who got here to venerate the icon of the Virgin, and the Museum di Arte Sacra which features silver items, jewels and other items from the history of the Sanctuary. Especially interesting is the marble bas-relief which represents the Finding of the Image of the Madonna, attributed to Michelozzo or Luca della Robbia.
The peak of the Monte delle Sante Marie is worth a visit thanks to the splendid view. You reach the top by taken the road that was built for the processions and features 15 small tabernacles. The surroundings of Impruneta should be seen without hurrying in order to discover villas, parish churches and historical sites located in a magnificent landscape. Mezzomonte, Pozzolatico, San Gerosolè, Bagnolo, Quintole and Le Rose preserve palaces from the 15th century, Romanesque churches and tabernacles surrounded by the green hills with olive trees and vineyards. Montebuoni preserves its medieval town built by Buondelmonti and the houses are today sold to private buyers. The Chiesa della Vallombrosina, a nice building from the 14th century on the top of a mountain with the same name, and the remains of the old Spedale di San Giuliano, built by the monks of Vallombrosa are still preserved in the surroundings.
The most typical product of Impruneta is the terracotta. Brick-works and precious floors, vases, conchs, oil jars, statues and other adornments are exported all over the world. The antique tradition to work the mud and cook it in order to manufacture everyday items goes back to 1098. Still today the manufacturing of artworks and decorations for villas and gardens is lively. The tradition goes from father to son. But Impruneta also have excellent farm products thanks to the fertile land and the mild climate. Among the wines it is worth to mention the Chianti dei Colli Fiorentini and Prunellino, a young wine recently made by the local wine-producers. The quality of the extra virgin olive oil is excellent, among the best oil in Italy.
Worth to mention among the festival is the Festa dell'Uva (the grape festival) which is celebrated every year the last Sunday in September. The four quarters of the town compete in making allegoric carts dedicated to the wine and the grapes. The Fiera di San Luca has antique origins and is held during the week of the 18th October, the patron's day and also features a cattle market, dinners, the selling of local products, the Palio (Race) with horses and donkeys between the four quarters.
LA CERTOSA DEL GALLUZZO
Between Impruneta and Florence on the top of the hill Monte Acuto, you find the beautiful complex of Certosa del Galluzzo from the 14th century, also called Certosa di Firenze, which absolutely is worth a visit.
It was founded in 1342 by Niccolò Acciaiuoli and further on enlarged and filled with holy artworks. The main building, finished in the 16th century, hosts an art museum with works among others, five lunettes with Passion scenes painted by Pontormo. The Church of San Lorenzo, founded in the 14th century, faces a magnificent square, while the fascinating crypts of Tobia and Santa Maria feature several funeral monuments. In the Convent there are works by Bendetto di Maiano and Gerolamo della Robbia, while you find 66 busts in glazed earthenware by the workshop of Giovanni della Robbia in the Renaissance Cloister. From the beautiful cloister you get to the monks' cells, all with a small anteroom, a small room which was used as dining room, a room, a room on the upper floor, a small kitchen garden and a storing room. The Certosian monks used to live in Certosa, but the Cistercian Benedectine monks took it over in 1958.
Montespertoli is a big town perched on a hill between the valleys of Elsa and Pesa. Visit the Chiesa di Sant'Andrea with a beautiful Romanesque font and the Pieve di San Pietro in Mercato from the year 1000 which hosts the Museo d'Arte Sacra, featuring artworks from the surrounding churches.
Not far from the town, at Montegufoni, you find the Castello degli Acciaioli, with a beautiful tower from 1386. Do not miss a stop at perhaps the most ancient Pieve in Tuscany. At Lucardo, a village with Etruscan origins, you find the Pieve di San Lazzaro built by the Longobards in the VII century which preserves a precious sarcofaghus from the same period.