City of arts Salerno – Campania’s best-kept secret

Salerno is one of Southern Italy’s biggest hidden treasures without a doubt. Located near the Amalfi Coast and less than an hour from Naples, the second-largest city of Campania is a genuine gem brimming with cosiness. Comparatively few tourists end up in Salerno due to its proximity to some of the most popular attractions of the entire region, but there are so many amazing things for you to discover here. The coastal city has an abundance of glorious sights, palpable history and Mediterranean flair with its countless cafés, bars and restaurants. And don’t even get us started on the small but definitely nice seafront! Enough talk, let’s explore the city of arts Salerno together.

 

Trade centre, medical school, touristic relaunch

Salerno’s ideal location attracted first populations very early on. There had already been settlements in the area between the 9th and the 6th century BC as confirmed by the discovery of Neolithic mummy remains. Later colonised by the Etruscans and eventually controlled by the Romans, the former military fortification turned into a flourishing trade centre. Salerno reached its heyday during Lombard rule with the famous Medical School of Salerno where an independent occidental medicine was created during the 11th century. The Normans made Salerno their capital when they were conquering the south of Italy.

 

Joining Amalfi, Salerno once again became an important trade centre in the High Middle Ages, this time for Northern Africa and Sicily. The city’s fate was later tied closely to that of the Kingdom of Naples. There was another cultural, economic and medical boom under the rule of the Counts of Sanseverino, but their expropriation and exiling lead to a sharp, steady decline expedited by an outbreak of the plague and by severe earthquakes. The city finally began to grow again at a fairly fast rate from 1830 onward, having been an important part of the Risorgimento and early industrialisation, yet it wasn’t until late into the second half of the 20th century that the renewed focus on tourisms reinvigorated the historic centre.

 

Salerno’s churches

©Bigstock.com/Claudiogiovanni

©Bigstock.com/Claudiogiovanni

During the 1990s, when the initial touristic construction boom had begun to subside a bit, there was a focus on renovating and restoring classic sights, and there are plenty of them in Salerno. Let’s check out the churches first:

  • Cattedrale di Salerno: Construction of the Cathedral of San Matteo began in 1080, three years after the Normans had seized power from the Lombards. It is the oldest big church of Arabic-Norman architecture from a time before the introduction of pointed arches. 28 ancient pillars and various Roman sarcophagi grace the portico. The crypta supposedly harbours the remains of Matthew the Apostle.
  • Sant’Andrea de Lavina: The small river Lavina used to act as a drainage channel of sorts and stills runs below a road near this 9th century church. The fascinating thing about Sant’Andrea de Lavina is how ongoing excavations have made the former use of this site as a cemetery palpable in a very vivid manner.
  • Chiesa San Pietro a Corte: The term “church” might be a bit deceptive in this context as San Pietro a Corte actually houses a large archaeological complex with (presumed) ruins of Roman baths, an early Christian burial site, a potential hall of the Medical School of Salerno, and a 12th century chapel. There are, however, small churches, chapels and other buildings on and around this site.
  • Santa Maria de Lama: We have one more church for you and – what a surprise! – it actually is one. Santa Maria de Lama was built during the Lombard heyday between the 10th and the 11th There are some fresco fragments – the only evidence of Lombard painting – inside the church.

 

The palaces of the city

We’re only getting started now and are taking a step back from the city’s diverse religious architecture. Salerno’s palazzi are incredibly colourful and spectacular:

  • Palazzo di Città di Salerno: Built in 1936 in the characteristic fascistic style of its time, it served as the meeting room for the first Government of the Kingdom of Italy only eight years later. Aside from housing the mayor’s office, the large cinema theatre on the ground floor is one of the most popular event sites of the city.
  • Palazzo Fruscione: This palace in the oldest part of the historic centre doesn’t just look pretty amazing, it harbours many a treasure below the ground. It might have been the site of the palace of the Lombard Duke Arechis II who ruled over the region from 758 to 787. Mosaics and frescoes from the 2nd century and the ruins of a thermal bath complex were found here, too.
  • Palazzo Pinto: The former palace of the eponymous noble family saw many a conversion throughout the years – the current design likely dates back to the mid-17th century – but you might still discover some rather exciting medieval traces here and there. The cornices and arches are of Norman origin. Palazzo Pinto currently houses a small but lovely art gallery.
  • Palazzo Santoro: Florentine architect Gino Coppedè imaginatively designed an area of more than 30,000 m² in the Roman district Trieste in the style of Italian Art Nouveau between 1915 and 1926. Palazzo Santoro is one of his very rare works in Campania. The seven-storey building on the waterfront is an eclectic, bizarre masterpiece; like a fairy-tale from a different time.

 

Even more sights in Salerno

©Bigstock.com/tanialerro

©Bigstock.com/tanialerro

You’re probably like us and just can’t get enough of Salerno. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with another ace up our sleeve. Well, four aces, to be precise:

  • Museo Archeologico Provinciale: Experience the historical and cultural transformations of the Salerno region when visiting the archaeological museum. Finds from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages exhibit Samnite, Etruscan and Roman pieces. The head of the Apollo by Pasiteles was actually discovered in a fishing net and is among the most beautiful exhibits of this vast collection.
  • Castello di Arechi: One of the city’s oldest monuments is located on a hill some 300 m above sea level. Arechis II extended an old Roman-Byzantine fortification to create this imposing fortress. There’s a museum exhibiting various finds from the castle’s storied history. The amazing observation decks will wow you with their clear views of the Gulf of Salerno.
  • Forte La Carnale: Regional entrepreneur Andrea Di Gaeta had this fort built in 1569 as part of the defensive structure to protect Salerno from repeated Saracen raids. It has since been incorporated into a large sports complex with an enchanting garden. On clear days you can even see the Amalfi Coast and the Coast of Cliento.
  • Giardino della Minerva: Talking about gardens – what was originally established as a didactic facility for Salerno’s Medical School has since become one of Italy’s most beautiful botanical gardens. See more than 300 different plant species including rarities used in medieval medicine in thematically grouped areas.

 

The city of arts Salerno might not be the biggest touristic hotspot, most certainly due to its proximity to Naples and the Amalfi Coast. However, that’s exactly what makes this beauty in Campania fascinating. Whether you’re interested in the city’s truly spectacular history or just want to stroll up and down the historic centre – there’s always a ravishing archaeological discovery to be made and a cup of coffee with your name on it, sea view included.

Padua’s fourteenth-century fresco cycles

©Bigstock.com/vvoevale

©Bigstock.com/vvoevale

Padua is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, and with good reason. The oldest botanical garden in the world alone, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been attracting guests from all around the world for decades, and the historic centre with its churches, chapels and palaces is always worth a stroll. More than a stroll, come to think of it, as Padua was given a second World Heritage Site in 2021 leading you directly to the old city centre. The name “Padua’s fourteenth-century fresco cycles” stands for invaluable ceiling and wall frescoes across eight different buildings. Read on to find out which buildings and which artists we’re talking about, and what makes the fresco art of the so-called Trecento special.

 

Art revolution during the Trecento

The 14th century revolutionised Italian arts. Literature and music aside, the Proto-Renaissance era had a palpable effect on painters on sculptors, the so-called “Trecento” (short for “milletrecento”, the Italian word for “1300”) had begun. Siena, Pisa and Padua developed their own schools of art with techniques and innovations that quickly spread across the entire country and beyond. Two major developments soon dominated Italian studios: sinopia and giornata.

 

The so-called “pontata” dominated matters even into the 13th century. This approach focused on finishing pre-defined areas of plastering along a line of scaffolding regardless of the motif. However, the giornata aimed at completing full or partial motifs in a day’s work in order to achieve a more consistent look. Sinopia drawings were used to create this effect of structural uniformity. The masters usually took care of the big fresco picture by means of the drawing and their assistants received smaller areas for detail and precision work. This more precise composition of the painting design allows the Trecento artists to achieve more complex spatial depth and compositional structure. And that’s exactly what you get to look forward to inside Padua’s fresco buildings.

 

Padua’s most important fresco protagonists

Numerous artists played key roles in creating the World Heritage fresco cycles. Listing all of them would be a bit excessive, though, which is why we introduce you to three particularly important masters:

  • Giotto: The trailblazer of the Italian Renaissance grew up the son of a blacksmith in Florence and, as such, has a close connection to the Tuscan city. However, he created his magnum opus in Padua. Giotto is regarded as the originator of Trecento fresco painting. His preparation of the perspective as well as the naturalness and liveliness of his characters revolutionised the art world moving away from the then prevalent two-dimensional presentation.
  • Giusto de’ Menabuoi: Whether Giusto was a first-generation or second-generation student of Giotto remains unclear. Originally from Florence, too, he created countless invaluable frescoes during the second half of the 14th century working in Milan among other places. Spatial effects and a preference for a rich tapestry of bright colours characterise Giusto’s body of work.
  • Guariento di Arpo: Unlike his prominent Trecento contemporaries Guariento di Arpo was actually born in Padua. His first big assignment was a cycle of angel depictions for the chapel of the Carrara residence. Guariento learned and applied his art in Padua with several World Heritage Site fresco cycles, but he also played a very important role as a propagator of Giotto’s innovations. His paradise painting in the Doge’s Palace advanced the end of an era of the mostly Byzantine art in Venice.

 

Eight buildings and their fresco cycles

©Bigstock.com/e.della

©Bigstock.com/e.della

Now you’re familiar with the innovations during the Trecento and some of the artists responsible for the fresco cycles. Time for the main event – a look at the eight buildings that constitute the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Padua’s fourteenth-century fresco cycles”:

  • Cappella degli Scrovegni: The former site of the ancient amphitheatre is now the first address for fresco art in Padua. Giotto painted the chapel during its construction from 1302 to 1306. The master’s influential magnus opus focuses on scenes depicting Mary’s parents, Mary herself and Jesus, and on depictions of the Last Judgement. The tunnel vault with its deep blue sky covered in golden stars watches over the breathtaking frescoes. Please note that you can only visit the chapel on advance registration for a maximum of 15 minutes.
  • Chiesa degli Eremitani: Bomb raids during the Second World War severely damaged this church next to the Scrovegni Chapel before it was extensively renovated. Find the frescoes in the presbytery, where Guariento di Arpo and his students worked, and the Ovetari chapel. Here only two frescoes by Andrea Mantegna, Niccolò Pizzolo and two other painters are still well-preserved, the others were restored in pieces.
  • Palazzo della Ragione: Padua’s former commercial centre with the court room on the upper floor unfortunately lost originals by Giotto and his students to a fire. Nicolò Miretto manged to restore them with slight modification from 1425 onward. The giant hall depicts month and planet allegories, signs of the zodiac, the corresponding saints, and characteristic professions and occupations.
  • Loggia dei Carraresi: Only parts survived of the former stately residence of the Carrara family where Guariento di Arpo made his first fresco steps. This loggia with Old Testament scenes likely dates back to the mid-14th Sadly, opening this room led to damages and even the loss of some frescoes, but the biblical depictions still in existence are certainly more than worth seeing.
  • Battistero del Duomo: There’s a Romanesque baptistery, finished in 1281 and painted with frescoes by Giusto de’ Menabuoi about one century later, next to the rather plain looking cathedral. This excellently preserved cycle is dedicated to the lives of Jesus and John the Baptist depicted on the walls and inside the cupola.
  • Complesso della Basilica di Sant’Antonio di Padova: The Basilica of Saint Anthony is likely Padua’s most important, most glorious, and most versatile sight. Another deep-blue sky with golden stars and extensive embellishment leads your way through this monumental building. The side chapels are equipped with comprehensive fresco cycles. Look out for the chapel of Saint Jacob in the right transept. Altichiero da Zevio’s magnum opus features a crucifixion group and the story of Saint Jacob the Apostle among other things.
  • Oratorio di San Giorgio: There’s another masterpiece by Altichiero da Zevio hidden near the basilica. The Oratorio di San Giorgio is also endowed with glorious frescoes focusing of the life of Jesus and various saints. Several martyrdom depictions impress with unrivalled poignancy. Another spectacular scene sees the noble knight George save a princess from a dragon.
  • Oratorio di San Michele: Finally, we take a look at a fairly small, pretty much non-descript chapel built as some sort of makeshift structure in a destroyed church in 1397. Giacomo da Verona dedicated this fresco cycle to the life of the Virgin Mary with all the scenes you’d expect ranging from the Annunciation to the birth of Christ to her death. Looking closer at the extensive depictions that even extend into the insides of archways, you can discover a hidden Petrarca.

 

The legacy of the Trecento spread across all of Italy and most of Europe in no time. Padua’s fourteenth-century fresco cycles demonstrate the unique effect of its most important masterpieces in a more than impressive manner. All masters in one place, eight astonishing buildings and magical fresco cycles, and a plurality of fascinating depictions inside equally fascinating architecture – most certainly a set more than worth of being named “World Heritage”. By the way, there are even more – lots more! – frescoes waiting to be discovered in Padua. How about going on a city holiday soon?

The porticoes of Bologna

Bologna’s abundance of old, mostly excellently-preserved structures makes the city in the Emilia Romagna one of the most popular destinations for art and culture trips. Aside from the imposing medieval towers the porticoes are among the most important means of expressing Bologna’s urban identity. The historic centre alone is covered by more than 38 kilometres of them. Taking the arcades outside the medieval city walls into account, that number climbs to a whopping 53 kilometres. Due to their cultural and artistic significance, twelve representative porticoes of Bologna were given World Heritage status by the UNESCO in 2021. And we invite you to take a closer look at these particularly important porticoes right now.

 

How the porticoes came about

©Bigstock.com/Boris Stroujko

©Bigstock.com/Boris Stroujko

Porticoes or arcades describe walkways open to one side between one or several buildings in a loggia-like style. A succession of adjoining arcades creates this open side. Porticoes usually grace representative building façades and can even cover entire streets of houses. They were most likely modelled after the cloisters of medieval monasteries. Bologna’s porticoes appeared almost spontaneously in the cityscape of, presumably, the early Middle Ages and were first documented in the year 1041.

 

The original portico purpose was the creation of additional living space for private buildings. Arcades managed to both facilitate unhindered passage for everyone on public land and create more room for private houses. These structures grew over time successfully braving new architectural challenges. Originally wooden extensions were replaced by support columns over time to prevent the collapse of private structures. A decree issued by the pontifical governor Giovanni Battista Doria and the so-called gonfaloniere (standard bearer, an influential role during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance) Camillo Paleotti on 26 March 1568 demanded the rebuilding of all arcades using brick or stone. This created the world-famous porticoes. However, there are still a few wooden arcades in existence today.

 

Nine porticoes in Bologna’s historic centre

©Bigstock.com/cge2010

©Bigstock.com/cge2010

Despite the plethora of porticoes in Bologna the World Heritage commission eventually picked twelve that were – and still are – of special significance. A whopping nine porticoes of Bologna are inside the medieval city walls, and we will introduce you to those now:

  • Portici residenziali di Santa Caterina: Some structures saw significant changes during the 19th and 20th century, close to gentrification. The arcades of Santa Caterina and Saragozza, however, didn’t. Installed along several smaller residential houses, they can easily be traced back to their medieval origins even displaying some Gothic characteristics in their narrow composition.
  • Piazza porticata di Santo Stefano: Being a part of the Basilica di Santo Stefano and the surrounding structures of the eponymous square, these porticoes pretty much add cohesion to the entire visual constitution extending as far as Palazzo della Mercanzia. Late medieval and Renaissance palaces encounter major religious buildings virtually stitched together by the arcades.
  • Strada porticata di Galliera: The porticoes of Via Galliera try to maintain the classic patterns of equally classic buildings where the major infrastructure of the old Roman town used to be. The archetypically old structuring of Palazzo dal Monte and the special reinforcement in the entasis of Palazzo Bonasoni’s support columns represent the erstwhile prestigious endeavours of senatorial families.
  • Portico del Baraccano: The connection to the Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Baraccano unites a wealth of 16th and 17th century porticoes in varying heights. The arcades between the sanctuary and Via Santo Stefano are linked together via the so-called Voltone del Baraccano. This vault was supposed to create a visual and spatial connection between the Santuario and the home for poor and orphaned girls.
  • Portici commerciali del Pavaglione e dei Banchi: The collision of excellently developed medieval squares and Renaissance remodelling in later times is similarly exquisitely highlighted by particularly long porticoes. Pavaglione, the longest continuous arcade of Bologna, might be the main highlight. The way the arcades of the old university are connected to later structures is impressive as well.
  • Portici accademici di Via Zamboni: The collection of porticoes unites several important academic structures such as Palazzo Poggi, Accademia di Belle Arti and Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna. Via Zamboni has been representing the city’s student life for over 200 years. The arcades are of equally high symbolic value acting as a dazzling display of the distribution of knowledge on an international level.
  • Portici di Piazza Cavour e Via Farini: Two squares, one road, potent structures – a plurality of key arcade buildings comes together along this amalgamation. These porticoes show off particularly well how the redesign efforts of the historic centre during the 19th century turned established basic architectural ideas on their proverbial heads. You get to experience the archetype of the modern arcade design school between Piazza Cavour, Piazza Minghetti and Via Farini.
  • Portici trionfali di Strada Maggiore: Already a crucial organisational and transportation axis in Roman times, the Strada Maggiore became a particularly noble “triumphal road” during the Middle Ages. Bologna grew around Strada Maggiore, and its porticoes bear witness to this rapid development. You can still see the medieval origins particularly clearly – perfect to time travel during your city tour.
  • Edificio porticato del MAMbo: The ancient bakery only became the MAMbo, Bologna’s museum of modern art, in the 20th Retaining and modernising the old arcade structures was of great importance. This portico represents both the industrialisation and the tentative restoration of former glory while also connecting the most important buildings of the city’s creative and cultural scene.

 

Three more World Heritage porticoes

©Bigstock.com/Photocritical

©Bigstock.com/Photocritical

However, we’re far from done with our World Heritage round trip. The UNESCO site features another three porticoes situated outside the city walls that most definitely need to be experienced:

  • Portico devozionale di San Luca: Bologna is home to several sanctuaries. The one dedicated to the Madonna di San Luca most certainly is of particular beauty. The last part of the pilgrimage road was “upgraded” with this portico, the longest in the world. Several smaller chapels dedicated to the Mysteries of the Rosary punctuate the arcades along the ascending road to the sanctuary. This mostly straight portico is also particularly popular with joggers and walkers, especially in bad weather.
  • Portico della Certosa: Another long, straight portico branches off from the one to San Luca near the Certosa cemetery. The portico of Certosa is widely regarded as a unique example of modern arcades with a sepulchral character. It was built after a Napoleonic edict trying to recapture the essence of Roman sepulchral roads. Certosa’s internal arcade structures, however, live and breathe the spirit of the Renaissance.
  • Edificio porticato del quartiere Barca: The meeting of classic architectural concepts and modern reinterpretations doesn’t stop at the porticoes of Bologna. An incredibly long piece of evolution of the classic Bolognese arcade extends along the very functional buildings of Treno della Barca. Constant maintenance, more often than not carried out by its residents, keeps the post-modern freshness alive to this day.

 

Classic and rugged or colourful and modern – the porticoes of Bologna bear witness to eventful centuries and can be neatly explored during extended city tours. They open up some of the most important buildings and sights, and neatly lead to fascinating spots beyond the historic centre. There are many more arcades to discover beyond these twelve World Heritage arcades – just one of many highlights for your next holiday in Bologna.

Montecatini Terme: Great Spa Towns of Europe

Staying at a health spa resort brings wonderful relaxation and inner balance with it. Such a health trip to regain strength in a quiet, salubrious environment has become mandatory after many bigger surgeries and in case of certain health issues. The actual cure phenomenon, however, is much older. A new UNESCO World Heritage Site groups together eleven spa towns steeped in great tradition that remain important to this very day. Named “Great Spa Towns of Europe”, the cultural scope of these institutions lends itself to be discovered and explored throughout Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom. There’s even an Italian spa town on this list: Montecatini Terme.

 

The cure phenomenon during the Habsburg rule

©Bigstock.com/Viliam.M

©Bigstock.com/Viliam.M

Spa tourism is or has actually been a surprisingly complex phenomenon far beyond health aspects – actually a comparatively minute reason for many health resort tourists for embarking on long journeys – encompassing and stimulating urban, social, and cultural evolutions and revolutions. Even though the cure concept itself can be traced back to the ancient world it blossomed between 1700 and the 1930s heavily influencing the routes of travel parties of the time. The House of Habsburg played a key role during this era, which is also true for Montecatini Terme, this charming town with around 21,000 inhabitants in the Tuscan province of Pistoia.

 

After the Medici family had died out in 1737, Tuscany was given to the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. The region experienced a decisive boost during the reign of Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo (who would later become Emperor Leopold II). He visited Montecatini several times to understand the region’s issues and hardships. Having had them investigated thoroughly, the Grand Duke ordered the demolition of various castles and fortifications, and had the thermo-mineral waters channelled. This created the complex of baths of the restored Montecatini, now the epitome of a modern spa town, that saw several extensive renovations over the following decades. Many a spring was only discovered in later periods adding to the town’s thermal spa variety. Montecatini Terme remains one of the country’s most important health resorts to this day.

 

The thermal spa facilities of Montecatini Terme

©Bigstock.com/mazzzur

©Bigstock.com/mazzzur

There isn’t just one single thermal spa in Montecatini Terme but an entire network of spa houses and facilities – as it should be for a world-renowned spa town. We have compiled a list of the ten most important thermal spas of the town for you:

  • Terme Excelsior: Originally opened as part of a casino building in 1907, the old structure was demolished in 1968 to give way for a new spa modelled after a Florentine Renaissance loggia.
  • Terme La Fortuna: This thermal spa building in the centre of large gardens was built around 60 years after the eponymous spring had been discovered in 1853.
  • Terme La Salute: A travertine quarry revealed the thermal water around 1860. This institution grew to an impressive 7,250 m² during the interwar period.
  • Terme Nuove Redi: Only built in 1920, Nuove Redi was reinterpreted and renovated several times, most recently by the architect Oreste Ruggiero in 2009.
  • Terme Regina: This part of the Tettuccio park was founded in 1773 and is among the town’s oldest thermal spas. Extensive conversions added a Neo-Renaissance look.
  • Terme Rinfresco: This facility built in 1795 has unfortunately been closed. However, you most certainly shouldn’t miss out on the forecourt mosaic.
  • Terme Tamerici: Four striking buildings grace this complex in the middle of the spa park. They were constructed around a spring discovered in 1843.
  • Terme Tettuccio: The healthy water flows from a conchiform granite spring at the heart of the thermal spa. Restructured in 1929, this facility wows with its Late Renaissance architecture.
  • Terme Leopoldine: Named after the then Grand Duke of Tuscany Peter Leopold, this currently closed thermal spa shows clear signs of interwar period restorations.
  • Terme Torretta: The eponymous river runs through this thermal spa supplying it with precious water. Terme Torretta, too, was extensively renovated before the Second World War.

 

Other sights in Montecatini Terme

A curative stay in Montecatini Terme can be perfectly combined with a pinch of sightseeing. The thermal spas themselves are gripping sights in their own rights, but we certainly have to introduce you to the following highlights:

  • Santa Maria Assunta: Seeing as numerous old buildings fell victim to Montecatini’s spa town expansions, this church is fairly new only reaching its final form in 1962. The octagonal building with four lateral chapels unites old and new stylistic influences.
  • Villa Forini Lippi: This complex predates the spa boom and existed at least as early as the 17th Created by aggregating several rural buildings, this monumental facility is surrounded by an equally tremendous park. Don’t sleep on the stunning staircase on the façade with its double stone ramp and elegant loggia.
  • Grotta Maona: Finally, we send you north just a bit outside the town where this stalactite cave was discovered during quarry operations in 1860. Grotta Maona is the only cave in all of Italy with two underground lakes and likely the country’s only commercial cave with a different entrance and exit. You can visit it as part of approx. 20-minute-long guided morning and afternoon tours between April 1st and October 15th.

 

The other spa towns of the UNESCO World Heritage Site

©Bigstock.com/mazzzur

©Bigstock.com/mazzzur

We mentioned it in the beginning: there are a whopping eleven cure destinations as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Great Spa Towns of Europe”. Now that you know quite a bit about one of them, let’s just sneak a peek at the other ten institutions:

  • Spa (Belgium): Healing powers have been attributed to the mineral water springs in the Ardennes for centuries. Beyond the thermal spa facilities there’s a neat hiking trail connecting the most important springs.
  • Baden-Baden (Germany): 13 healing springs, their respective thermal spa buildings, and the expansive spa town infrastructure are all part of this massive UNESCO site.
  • Bad Kissingen (Germany): King Otto of Greece, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Richard Strauss and Gioachino Rossini used to take their curative leaves here in charming, leisurely Lower Franconia.
  • Bad Ems (Germany): The healing springs for drinking and bathing cures reach water temperatures of up to 57 °C. They are used to manufacture the throat lozenges “Emser Pastillen”.
  • Vichy (France): The springs of Vichy rose to fame during the second half of the 17th century when the Marquise de Sevigné supposedly had the rheumatic paralysis in her hands successfully cured.
  • Baden (Austria): The Biedermeier town and imperial town became an important spa resort for Emperor Franz Joseph I who, beginning in the 19th century, spent his summers here for almost 40 years and eventually brought the empire’s upper class to Lower Austria.
  • Františkovy Lázně (Czech Republic): A 19th century ensemble of buildings in the colours Schönbrunn yellow and stucco white adorns the spa district with its magical healing spring and classic bathhouses.
  • Karlovy Vary (Czech Republic): Numerous well-preserved historical thermal spa facilities make the twelve springs of Karlovy Vary accessible to the public. The heavily mineralised water can reach up to 72 °C.
  • Mariánské Lázně (Czech Republic): 40 healing springs in town and another 100 in the close proximity draw the water with high levels of mineral salts and carbon dioxide to the surface. It is used for drinking cures, mud baths and treatments against respiratory ailments.
  • Bath (United Kingdom): A visit of Queen Elizabeth I in 1574 gave Bath its heyday during a period dominated by healing water and bathing cures. The spa town eventually reinvented itself in 2005 with the “Thermae Bath Spa” complex of baths.

 

Fascinating cultural scenery, gripping architecture and infrastructure, and some health, well-being and spa indulgence on top of it: Montecatini Terme is one of Europe’s most significant spa towns for a reason. The UNESCO site is always worth a visit and best combined with a bit of a round trip of Tuscany or a city holiday in and around Florence or Lucca. Have fun and to your health!

City of arts Teramo with vast Roman history

Teramo takes a special role among Italy’s diverse cities of arts in more than one way. For starters, how about the rather unique location in Northern Abruzzo between the tallest summit of the Apennines and the Adriatic Coast? Moreover, agriculture is one of the key factors here, especially the vineyards and olive groves. And then there’s the particularly extensive, highly interesting history of the city; palpable at every corner with buildings and ruins even dating back to pre-Roman times. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? We most definitely agree and invite you to join us on a tour of the city of arts Teramo, a hidden gem in Abruzzo.

 

The city of arts with fascinatingly ancient history

We’ve already talked a bit about Teramo’s notable location between mountains and the coast with numerous hills and groves. This very location originally made the region a popular settlement area, even before the Romans decided to make their presence felt. Various ancient Italic tribes came here in the 1st millennium BC. Eventually, the Praetutii made it their principial town. The Romans conquered the city around 290 BC. They named it Interamna (“between two rivers” due to the rivers Vezzola and Tordino) reaching municipium status later on before fall of the Western Roman Empire led to deterioration.

 

Teramo saw fierce conflicts between influential families in the Middle Ages and was destroyed more than once. Later centuries brought the sale of the city including a failed rebellion, a devastating earthquake, and a disastrous outbreak of the plague. Teramo eventually became a centre of intellectual life during the Age of Enlightenment … until French and Napoleonic troops put a brutal stop to this brief glimmer of hope. The city only experienced some measure of stability after it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy.

 

Cathedral of Teramo

©Bigstock.com/DinoPh

©Bigstock.com/DinoPh

Even though only playing a minor role during the Middle Ages and in later centuries, this period led to the conception and creation of numerous exciting buildings still exuding a fascinating energy. Santa Maria Assunta, the Cathedral of Teramo, will wow you. The roots of this church are way older. A glass floor inside the cathedral displays the ruins of the 6th century Santa Maria Aprutiensis, itself built on a Roman foundation and later destroyed by the Normans. Bishop Guido II had the new cathedral constructed in 1158 as a repository for the relics of Saint Berardo. Masonry rocks of the Roman theatre and the amphitheatre were used – one of the reasons why these structures only survived as ruins.

 

It goes without saying that Santa Maria Assunta saw a number of conversions over the centuries before eventually being reverted to its medieval look. The art treasures of the cathedral are invaluable, particularly the antependium by Nicola da Guardiagrele. 35 embossed and chiselled silver sheets adorn the piece. Jacobello del Fiore’s polyptych depicts the coronation of the Virgin Mary by Christ. There are even more breathtaking miracles of grand architecture and even grander art for you to see, such as the monumental chapel of Saint Berardo or the equally impressive campanile.

 

Other churches

Santa Maria Assunta itself would be more than enough reason for visiting Teramo, but you might want to see a few other interesting spots. How about checking out more churches? No worries, we’ve got you covered:

  • Santuario della Madonna delle Grazie: This building is best-known for its wooden statue of the Virgin Mary on the main altar. Quite miraculous powers are attributed to it. Numerous paintings and old, somewhat deteriorated frescoes adorn the interior.
  • Chiesa di Sant’Anna dei Pompetti: This small church used to be part of the Santa Maria Aprutiensis complex. History becomes palpable in this ancient 6th century structure with modern frescoes and a statue of the eponymous saint.
  • Sant’Agostino: Unfortunately, severe earthquakes in more recent years heavily damaged this Neo-Renaissance church. You should try to check out the spectacularly decorated portal in all its detailed glory while the building itself is supposed to be turned into a diocesan museum.
  • Chiesa dei Cappuccini: Despite having been built during the 12th century, the Capuchin church plus convent only received its name when the friars moved in around 1596. A truly special baroque altar with a wooden tabernacle is hidden behind the non-descript façade.

 

Even more sights in Teramo

Teramo actually unearths gem after gem and we’re far from done. Ready for the next round of highlights? (Pre-)Roman structures, a magnificent castle and an abandoned psychiatric hospital are on our itinerary. Yes, really!

  • Casa dei Melatino: We start, however, with one of the few medieval buildings that managed to survive rather flatteringly. Take a closer look at the façade to see different materials representing various phases of renovation. Casa dei Melatino houses majolica and porcelain exhibitions among other things.
  • Borgo Mediavale: This small, medieval village, also known as Castello della Monica, was only built in the 19th The replicas with a neo-Gothic focus and numerous frescoes take a fresh spin on the city’s former glory.
  • Necropoli di Ponte Messato: We couldn’t be any further away from glory now. Teramo’s probably oldest surviving structure was discovered by pure coincidence while building a coach garage in 1961. Established in pre-Roman times and expanded during Roman rule, the area of the necropolises also includes various mausoleums and temples.
  • Torre Bruciata: This 2nd century BC tower near the former Santa Maria Aprutiensis, however, is fully Roman. The fortified Torre Bruciata used to overlook a mighty defensive wall in pre-Christian times. It might have been used as a bell tower in later years.
  • Ospedale psichiatrico: Calling a psychiatric hospital a sight might sound strange, but the facility built in 1323 is among the most famous structures in Teramo’s historic centre. There have been a lot of discussions and debates about the future of this remarkable site ever since it permanently closed its doors in 1998. The only thing certain now is that it will be preserved for future generations in one way or another.

 

Sure, Teramo might not be the prime destination among Italy’s cities of arts, but that’s exactly what makes it the perfect place for your next holiday. Wide open squares and narrow alleys in Northern Abruzzo are steeped in history. Palpable Roman presence collides with the remains of feudal conflicts and rather monumental architecture – sometimes a bit older, sometimes new yet still historicised. Let this hidden gem blow you away!

City of arts Perugia in the heart of Umbria

The heart of Umbria harbours a very special city. Perugia, both capital of the region and of the eponymous province, can look back on a long history that goes back as far as the Early Iron Age. And this very history becomes palpable between the hilly historic centre and the newer, flat buildings. It is filled with ups and downs, like the landscape surrounding it, and leads to monumental churches and spectacular museums through narrow alleyways. Furthermore, the city of arts Perugia is home to massive festivals and events known far beyond Umbria. Find out what you absolutely have to see and experience in Perugia!

 

Perugia from the Iron Age to the Papal States

In order to find Perugia’s roots we need to travel back in time rather substantially; to the 9th and 8th century BC, to be precise, when the Villanova culture established their first settlements on the city grounds during the Early Iron Age. Contrary to legend, Perugia does not have Greek roots. It was likely founded by the Umbri before becoming Etruscan. Perusna, as it was known then, was one of the twelve confederate cities of Etruria. It became Roman in the Third Samnite War in 295 BC, gained civil liberties after the Social War of 91 to 88 BC, and was burnt to the ground after the Perusine War. Even though Augustus had the city, now called Augustus Perusia, rebuilt, it never managed to retain its former glory.

 

The end of the Western Roman Empire saw many rulers, including Ostrogoths, Lombards and Byzantine. Perugia eventually received its modern name during the Middle Ages. It finally managed to cut ties with the Roman emperor in 1198, was protected by Pope Innocence III and ruled by Guelf merchants. Perugia was the only Umbrian trade centre that, at the time, managed to gain a level of power and influence similar to that of the era’s large city states in Tuscany. All of this ended in 1540 when Pope Paul III put the Papal States into power after the so-called “Salt War” (the Perugini refused to accept a new salt tax). A massive fortress on Colle Landone reflected the new dominance, old districts on the foothill were buried, academia almost came to a standstill. Things stayed like that despite brief interludes and several uprisings until its incorporation into the newly founded Republic of Italy in 1860.

 

Perugia’s churches

San Domenico

©Bigstock.com/Lenor

Perugia’s highly eventful history left its mark on the cityscape. You will find most of the sights in the mountainous historic centre including a mass of churches. And they saw quite a few changes over the course of the centuries:

  • Cathedral: Cattedrale di San Lorenzo is a latecomer. It was only completed in 1490 showcasing an unusually Gothic character during the Renaissance period. The raw external walls might have remained unfinished, yet the Cathedral gained a number of portals, annexes and even a campanile over the following centuries. The inside of the hall church, however, is caught somewhere between Late Renaissance and early baroque, highlights being Federico Barocci’s astonishing “Deposition from the Cross”, and the Holy Ring in a gilded tabernacle.
  • Tempio di San Michele Arcangelo: Very few buildings survived the times as well as this early Christian church from the 5th or 6th Partially demolished and used as a military fortress, a number of restoration attempts in more recent times unearthed the old pillar structure and several frescoes.
  • San Domenico: The Dominicans turned the bestowal of a small parish church into a colossal, three-nave hall church. However, it had to be fully rebuilt other than the Gothic exterior walls and the Renaissance cloister due to a structural collapse of the central nave in 1614. You will discover one of the largest Gothic windows ever in the slightly elevated choir.
  • San Pietro: The first structures on this site might date back to the 10th century, but the current building was only established around 1600 as part of a Benedictine monastery. The longhouse structure carries early Christian features, the pillars evoke the memory of a pagan temple, while the choir with its Gothic and Late Renaissance endowment pulls off a stunning Venetian style.
  • Oratory of San Bernardino: You’re probably wondering why we’re introducing you to a small chapel when there are so many churches to discover. Well, the Franciscan oratory outright wows with its incredibly ornamental, elaborate façade relief. The bright depictions on the temple-like marble façade simply need to be seen. Inside, the early Christian sarcophagus of the beatified Giles of Assisi, a companion of Saint Francis, serves as an altar.

 

Museums and secular buildings

Fontana Maggiore

©Bigstock.com/Artem Bolshakov

Sure, Perugia’s churches alone are genuinely spectacular, but the city of arts has so much more to offer. Time to take a look at a few more sights dedicated to the city’s fascinating history.

  • Galleria Nazionale: Umbria’s national gallery is on the upper floors of Palazzo dei Priori. 40 rooms introduce you to noteworthy Umbrian painters and sculptors from the 13th to 19th
  • Palazzo dei Priori: This very palace made predominantly of travertine, white and red stone has so much more to offer. The external staircase alone is a sight to behold. Various halls and colleges surprise with unusual shapes, wood panelling, painted walls and ceilings.
  • National Museum of Umbrian Archaeology: The former convent near San Domenico now houses this astonishing archaeological collection. Eight sections invite you on a chronological journey through the region’s history from prehistoric exhibits that are up to 500,000 years old to exciting Roman pieces.
  • Fontana Maggiore: The Perugini call it the most beautiful fountain in the world. Its spectacular reliefs certainly make Fontana Maggiore one of the most influential structures of its kind. The fields and tiles of this medieval masterpiece depict the life on earth divided into three themed cycles as well as personifications of important biblical and earthly figures.
  • Arco Etrusco: One of the most important remnants of the ancient city walls is now flanked by imposing watchtowers. The Etruscan Arch was likely built in the 3rd century BC and incorporated into old Etruscan structures during the expansion of Via Amerina. Inscriptions on the archway point to Emperor Augustus and Emperor Gaius Vibius Trebonianus Gallus.

 

From jazz to chocolate

However, the city of arts Perugia isn’t “just” worth a visit as the site of breathtaking architecture. There’s also a lot happening throughout the year. We’ve picked two rather amazing event suggestions for you:

  • Umbria Jazz: Perugia turns into the heart of the jazz world on ten days in July. Umbria Jazz is one of the most important European jazz festivals with legends of the genre and greats from different musical worlds visiting the city. Miles Davis, Alicia Keys, Carlos Santana, Dizzy Gillespie and Sting have all been part of Umbria Jazz.
  • Eurochocolate: Umbria’s capital has been sweet like chocolate since 1993. Nearly one million Italians and tourists visit one of Europe’s largest chocolate festivals every year. There are a lot of delicacies to taste as well as concerts, exhibitions and activities. One of the highlights in previous years was a massive climbing wall that looked like a bar of chocolate.

 

The city of arts Perugia is very multifaceted, even spectacular with its astonishing features ranging from sweet treats to architectural highlights. You can feel the long, eventful history in the old alleyways going along very neatly with the newer districts and Umbria’s glorious nature. When will you visit magical Perugia?

Ascoli Piceno – the travertine city of arts

There’s a hidden yet monumental treasure surrounded by three mountains and the confluence of two rivers waiting to be discovered at the heart of the breathtakingly stunning nature of the southern Marche. Ascoli Piceno, capital of the eponymous province, is home to a rather compact 47,000 inhabitants. Still, it is one of Italy’s best-known cities of arts. That’s mostly due to the impressive architecture, the medieval charm and the striking travertine aesthetic giving the historic centre its distinctive look with its warm colours. You’d like to know exactly what there is to expect? Well, let’s get things started!

 

Italics or woodpeckers?

We won’t say too much about Ascoli Piceno’s history for a change, simply because there isn’t a whole lot out there. It was likely the capital of the Piceni, an Italic population during the Iron Age. The city’s name came either from them or from a woodpecker ritual performed by the Sabines (“woodpecker” approximately translates to “picchio” in Italian). The region was later conquered by the Romans and eventually hotly contested by the Ostrogoths, the Lombards and the Franks. Galeotto I Malatesta and Francesco I Sforza used the unstable Middle Ages to establish brutal dictatorships. Eventually, Ascoli Piceno fell under Papal control in 1482 where it remained until the Kingdom of Italy was founded.

 

Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Arringo

©Bigstock.com/trotalo

©Bigstock.com/trotalo

While there isn’t much to tell on a historical level, Ascoli Piceno actually has a lot to offer as a city of arts. This is in part due to the abundantly used travertine, a bright limestone from sweet water springs that dominates the historic centre. The two main squares Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Arringo are home to the city life. And there’s a lot to see for you:

  • Dom Sant’Emidio: Even though hardly anything of the original Romanesque building survived – we highly recommend checking out the crypt – Ascoli Piceno’s cathedral remains the city’s most important church. Extensive travertine works join the baroque conversions to form a harmonious overall look. Don’t miss out on the polyptych altarpiece on the right side of the altar.
  • San Francesco: This enormous Gothic hall church was built between 1258 and 1371. San Francesco is flanked by an enormous market hall and a Renaissance cloister housing a morning market. Explore the large lateral entrance to Piazza del Popolo to discover a monument for Pope Julius II.
  • Palazzo dell’Arengo: Piazza Arringo is also known as Piazza dell’Arengo and this palace is one of its most important buildings. Formed by the fusion of two older palaces, the travertine façade with its five porticos certainly knows to impress. Find the art gallery Pinacoteca Civica behind them.
  • Baptistery: The cathedral was dedicated to Saint Emygdius, the city’s patron saint, but the baptistery is all about Saint John. This ideal of Ascoli’s Romanesque architecture is a national monument of Italy. The travertine façade might look plain at first, but take a closer peek to discover several fascinating details.
  • Diocesan museum: Part of Piazza Arringo’s palace complex, this huge museum preserves the diocese’s art treasures. Among the focal points are a collection of Florentine 16th century art and an entire area dedicated to the city’s various art schools and movements from the 13th century to today.

 

Other sights in Ascoli Piceno

By the way, there’s much more to Ascoli Piceno beyond the travertine masterpieces known far beyond the Marche. Here are some lovely sights that are certainly worth a second or even a third look:

  • Ponte di Cecco: Experience Ascoli Piceno’s Roman heritage outside the city. The arch bridge Ponte di Cecco was built in 25 BC during Emperor Augustus’ reign and formed part of a supply road between Rome and the coast of the Adriatic Sea. According to lore, the devil built this bridge in just one single night.
  • Ponte Romano di Solestà: A second arch bridge, dating back to Augustus’ reign as well, spans the river Tronto and connects to the San Giacomo district. Sadly, the old city wall is mostly gone.
  • San Pietro Martire: The church of the Dominican Order gets lost in the shuffle being located on a small square at an intersection. San Pietro Martire’s façade exhibits a rather low-key look, but don’t miss out on the gloriously bright apse. The marble statues at the main altar and the frescoes on the side walls are genuine eye-catchers.
  • San Vittore: Romanesque meets Gothic architecture for a neat little church made of travertine marble blocks. The window rose is clearly Gothic, the belfry has a curiously square shape and likely used to house the baptistery until a lightning strike decimated the old tower. Various anonymous frescoes, some of which have since been transferred to the diocesan museum, line San Vittore’s walls.

 

The Quintana

©Bigstock.com/DinoPh

©Bigstock.com/DinoPh

Finally, we have a neat event for you. The first Sunday in August is Ascoli Piceno’s main festivity. A large parade with about 1,500 participants in Renaissance costumes honours patron saint Emygdius. The equestrian tournament Quintana takes place afterward. It sees six knights, each representing one of the city’s six neighbourhoods, compete on a course. Holding lance and shield, they try to hit the effigy of a Saracen warrior. The big city feast in the evening packs all tables to maximum capacity. You absolutely have to try the local speciality Olive all’Ascolana, giant fried olives stuffed with meat.

 

Ascoli Piceno is small but nice without a doubt. Being a city of arts, it carries a unique travertine flair giving the historic centre a noble, historic charm. Look forward to a hidden treasure full of Roman heritage, enormous Romanesque and Gothic churches, and a truly amazing festivity in the south of the Marche, surrounded by equally glorious nature and countless hiking trails. Ascoli Piceno is definitely worth a trip!

City of arts Gradara with world-renowned fortress

Gradara pulls off something amazing. The municipality in the Province of Pesaro and Urbino in northern Marche is both a scenic city of arts that exudes extraordinary allure and one of Italy’s most beautiful villages. Gradara managed to retrain most of its original, medieval look, most certainly due to the more than dominant fortress. It is one of the best-known castles in the entire country, definitely at least in part because of its very prominent mention in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Walking around the small town history becomes palpable, accompanied by unique views of wide hilly countryside and coastal regions. Gradara is a city of arts of extraordinary beauty, very compact yet still absolutely worth seeing.

 

The fortress as a central historical site

While the region around Gradara had already been a major transport nodal point in ancient times, its actual history only really kicked off during the Middle Ages. The powerful De Grifo family had a tall tower built at an altitude of 142 m in 1150. After they had fallen out of favour with the pope, Malatesta da Verucchio conquered the giant and turned it into the keep of his fortress. Galeazzo Malatesta sold Gradara to Francesco Sforza in 1445, but Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, the “Wolf of Rimini”, refused to hand over the village. And he didn’t give the money back either. How rude. Sforza’s subsequent siege failed.

 

The village Gradara had become anchored between the first two wall rings in the meantime and was gradually extended. However, once the pope had excommunicated Sigismondo Malatesta, the fortress was soon lost as well. Federico da Montefeltro captured it in the name of church and gave it to the Sforza family who had finally achieved its goal. Gradara became hotly contested henceforth and saw many different rulers including the Della Rovere, the Borgia and the Medici. The Rocca started to deteriorate under the rule of the Papal States until it came to the Zanvettori family in 1920 who decided to restore it. It is thanks to them and the Italian state who would assume ownership later on that the city of arts Gradara managed to retain its original beauty and got to both blossom during the following decades.

 

Fortress and fortifications

©Bigstock.com/marcociannarel

©Bigstock.com/marcociannarel

Are you ready for a colossal surprise? We’ll take a look at the fortress now. Yeah, totally unexpected! As you’ve already seen, Gradara’s history is inseparable from that of its fortress. Dante Alighieri immortalised the city of arts by mentioning it in his “Divine Comedy”. Gradara Castle is the site of the doomed love of Francesca and Paolo Malatesta who were actually discovered and killed here by Francesca’s husband Granciotto on a September day in 1289. Dante’s very emotional fifth canto dedicated to this story is among the most famous parts of his magnum opus.

 

You’ve always wanted to take a closer look at this unique historical site or go on a little walk atop the old castle walls? Well, you’ll be pleased to learn that you can do exactly that in Gradara. Inspect the various rooms at your heart’s content for only a small admission fee. We recommend taking part in a guided tour offering numerous facts and details from behind the scenes of this impressive facility. The panoramic round walk on the fortress walls opens up breathtaking views of the rolling Marche hills and even to the Romagna’s coastal regions.

 

Other sights

One fortress visit and that’s it? Honestly, that wouldn’t really do justice to the friendly city of arts Gradara by a long shot. Many small streets and dreamy alleys lead onto little squares, to various churches and even a few hidden gems here and there. Don’t miss out on the following three sights:

  • Museo storico: The fortress isn’t the only place to marvel at Gradara’s exceedingly fascinating history. This privately owned history museum is the home of various historic documents and exhibits from days long gone depicting life in Gradara and its surroundings over the course of many centuries. Various armours, torture devices, copied weapons, and items from everyday rural life accompany your visit. There’s a trip to the tuff caves below the fortress waiting for you at the end.
  • Air theatre: More than 70 birds of prey dominate the skies over Gradara. They are the stars of the air theatre (Teatro dell’Aria) performing breathtaking manoeuvres on command during shows – a captivating experience with a unique view in more ways than one.
  • Cimitero di Guerra: The cemetery of the Allied Forces expands across several terraces in close proximity to the motorway. More than a thousand Commonwealth soldiers of the Eight British Army and one Belgian soldier were laid to rest here. A walk through this stunningly cultivated facility impressively shows how important peace is. Or would be.

 

More things you should know about Gradara

Jolly celebrations are a popular pastime in the city of arts Gradara. Several events are dedicated to its rich historic heritage celebrating the uniqueness of the fortress, sometimes even taking a gander at the cuisine of the Marche. We have picked three favourites for you:

  • Il Medioevo a Tavola: Gradara’s multifaceted medieval history is celebrated throughout the year in many different ways and is most definitely palpable at every corner of the town. This festival takes its name literally and brings the Middle Ages to the table. Local restaurants become 14th century taverns serving traditional dishes like the popular Tagliolini con la Bomba.
  • Assedio al Castello: There’s even an entire event dedicated to Francesco Sforza’s siege of the fortress. Re-enactments with actors, horses and special effects take place every last weekend of July. It probably goes without saying that the special medieval atmosphere can be felt throughout Gradara.
  • The Magic Castle: A former Celtic festival turned into a hotspot for magic and emotions over the last couple of years. The Magic Castle is dedicated to gripping magic performances, dance theatre and artistic highlights with artists from all over the world attracting tens of thousands of visitors every year across multiple evenings.

 

Yes, Gradara is everything but your run-of-the-mill city of arts and mostly focuses on one of the most impressive fortresses in all of Italy. However, there are many historical treasures, jolly festivals, and a delicious rural cuisine hidden behind its walls, all accompanied by astonishing views. Discover this hidden gem in the Marche, one of Italy’s most beautiful villages, and a special, invaluable city of arts.

City of arts Livorno – ideal town of many fortresses

Tuscany’s cities of arts are widely known for their wealth, their astonishing abundance of sights and secret treasures as well as for their eventful, exciting history full of ups and downs. Livorno, however, slightly breaks what seems to be the regional precedent. The capital of the eponymous province served as a sort of suburb and defensive fortification for several centuries, blossomed only very late as a free port and centre of trade, only to be destroyed and at least mostly rebuilt with a lot of effort. Nowadays, the city of arts Livorno invites you to go on extended tours with numerous hidden gems, with wide and open squares, and with a hint of Venice – very unusual, very attractive. And most definitely the perfect destination for your next city holiday.

 

The ideal town and its free port

The area around Livorno attracted settlers from very early on thanks to its ideal coastal location. Neolithic discoveries attest to it. The Romans settled near today’s port during the construction of Via Aurelia and likely named the settlement after “liburna”, a type of warship. However, it took until the year 1017 for the first documented mention of Livorno (as Livorna). The small coastal village later fell to the maritime Republic of Pisa, served as an important fishing village and defensive site, and eventually expanded its maritime position when Pisa’s port sanded up. Destroyed several times during battles, Livorno ultimately became part of Florence in 1421.

 

The city blossomed during the Medici reign. Livorno was seen as a key access point to the sea leading to several extensions of the port with fortifications following soon after. It took until 1571 when the Grand Dukes Cosimo I and Francesco I decided to have Livorno made into an “ideal town”. Rectangular roads still run through the historic centre. The Leggi Livornine decree that assured religious freedom and various privileges to all merchants regardless of origin slowly turned Livorno into a multicultural and multireligious town. It blossomed after the free port declaration in 1657 lasting until the incorporation into the Kingdom of Italy. Brutally devastated by air raids during the Second World War and not fully rebuilt to this day, the restructured modern Livorno has since become a city of tourism. The port is still among the most important ones in all of Italy.

 

Venezia Nuova and the defensive fortifications

©Bigstock.com/Madrabothair

©Bigstock.com/Madrabothair

Livorno lost a lot of its original building fabrics due to the massive destruction in the Second World War. However, you can still easily spot the old Medici city layout. It consists of several large military defensive fortifications and an entire district that cleverly enhanced Bernardo Buontalenti’s concept of a pentagonal ideal town (the so-called “Pentagono del Buontalenti”) and took it to a new level. Here are some cornerstones:

  • Venezia Nuova: Grand Duke Ferdinano II de’ Medici seized the opportunity to expand the city northward in 1629. Venezia Nuova was established to grant more space to the port area and the flourishing trade. As the name suggests the construction of the new rione was inspired by Venice creating a network of houses and canals for which Venetian experts were imported. The narrow roads, numerous bridges and many canals lend themselves to delightful explorations.
  • Fortezza Vecchia: Venezia Nuova was supposed to be connected to the city’s old defensive fortifications and Fortezza Vecchia is the oldest of them all. Built around a massive tower from the year 1077, the Pisans initially created a large fortress that was later expanded by the Medici who even had a palace added to it. The extensively renovated facility now mainly serves as an event centre.
  • Fortezza Nuova: Grand Duke Cosimo I had two old bastions converted into the new fortress. It was modified considerably starting in 1590 and expanded to form the grand Fortezza Nuova made to protect the new district Venezia Nuova. The facility currently houses a large park.

 

Squares and palaces

Being an ideal town, Livorno isn’t just home to many old buildings – partially heavily modernised out of necessity – but also to many squares with great historic significance and magical palaces as gripping eye-catcher. And you certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on any of them.

  • Piazza della Repubblica: There came a time when the old Pentagono del Buontalenti simply wasn’t enough anymore. Livorno had to grow and gained new districts in the east. A new square established in 1844 connected old and new structures even spanning the canal structure. There’s something genuinely magical to Piazza della Repubblica with its 52 marble benches, 92 pillars and various statues.
  • Terrazza Mascagni: The first structure along the shore belvedere Viale Italia were built as early as during the Medici reign and saw several reconstructions that eventually turned it into a seaside terrace. As such, you’ll certainly be wowed by the view of the sea and the hills of Livorno during your walk – perfect to kick back and get away from it all.
  • Palazzo Comunale: One of the oldest palaces of the city still in existence dates back to, you guessed it, the Medici, but construction only began in 1720 with multiple expansions in later years. The neo-Renaissance palace on Piazza d’Arme served as a meeting place for the city’s various representatives and “absorbed” additional buildings in later years including an old fire station.

 

Even more sights in Livorno

©Bigstock.com/milosk50

©Bigstock.com/milosk50

Wait, that’s already it? Heck to the no! We still have a few more select beauties you definitely should check out.

  • Duomo di Livorno: This cathedral dedicated to Francis of Assisi and other sains was built in the heart of the old city, on Piazza Grande, between 1594 and 1606. Originally conceived as a church, it was expanded into a Duomo with a tall tower during the early 19th Most original plans were used for the reconstruction after the Second World War.
  • Chiesa della Madonna: According to a legend this church between the old city and Venezia Nuova was built for a Carmelite statue. The various altars are genuine eye-catcher hidden behind a fairy plain façade that was covered with marble in 1972.
  • Monumento dei quattro mori: The “Monument of the Four Moors” is one of Livorno’s most popular features. It consists of a stone statue of Grand Duke Ferdinand I surrounded by four chained-up pirates. Created after several naval battles against Barbary pirates, this monument was transported to a safe place during the Second World War.
  • Cisternoni di Livorno: Three neoclassical building complexes constructed between 1829 to 1848 were established to ensure Livorno’s water supply (“cisternoni” means “great cisterns”). Cisternino di città near Fortezza Nuova looks like an antipole to the elegance of its time. However, it was never used as an actual cistern and is currently the home of a cultural centre.

 

Livorno is a special city in many respects. While the ancient roots have pretty much disappeared, you get to look forward to an unusual mix of Renaissance and neoclassical architecture with modern elements, to wide squares and fascinating canal structures. Livorno lends itself to long walks with great discoveries and many hidden treasures – a slightly different city of arts with a unique charm.

City of arts Pisa – more than just a (leaning) tower

When it comes to Italian cities of arts, Pisa’s usually right up there. The stunning city in northern Tuscany, divided by the river Arno, is known around the world for its Leaning Tower. However, that’s certainly not everything this once powerful, influential maritime republic has in store for you. It is home to one of the oldest UNESCO World Heritage Sites on Italian soil, respected colleges, and lavish celebrations. From tourism hub to university city to metropolis on the waterfront – we show you why Pisa’s always worth a visit.

 

From naval power to little power

The exact origin of the name Pisa and the identity of its founders has been lost to history. Ancient sources identify Ligurians, Etruscans and Greeks as potential first settlers. We at least know about an Etruscan conquest that seems to be archaeologically documented. Pisae, to use its erstwhile name, used to be well-disposed towards the Romans during the Ligurian Wars and eventually became a colony in 180 BC later reaching municipium status. Pisa had some relevance as a port yet very little is known about its history during Roman times and the Migration Period. It finally managed to gain significance during the Middle Ages eventually even taking centre stage.

 

Having become a republic, Pisa reached peak influence from the 11th century onwards turning into an economic powerhouse in no time. Merchants conducted very active trading here for centuries causing an intensive rivalry, even several conflicts with the Republic of Genoa. A defeat in the naval Battle of Meloria in 1284 set Pisa’s decline in motion. The republic lost more and more of its territories and even its independence to Florence in 1406. The city progressively suffered the loss of its former glory but remained an important university seat and finally merged completely into its new role as an awe-inspiring Tuscan city of arts.

 

World Heritage Site Piazza del Duomo

©Bigstock.com/Alexander Nikiforov

©Bigstock.com/Alexander Nikiforov

Pisa’s Cathedral Square, Piazza del Duomo, was the sixth Italian site to gain UNESCO World Heritage status in 1987. Piazza dei Miracoli (“Square of Miracles”), as this spot is also known among the public, unites some of the city’s major sights in once place. We have compiled a brief overview of its main attractions for you – you can read more about the square in our World Heritage blog about Piazza del Duomo.

  • Santa Maria Assunta: Expressive Carrara marble glows from afar. Despite a massive construction period of 200 years, the cathedral has a monumental, homogenous look to it. There’s an exciting, eventful history with shadowy roots hidden behind the enthralling frescoes and mosaics.
  • Leaning Tower: Santa Maria Assunta was given a detached belltower that couldn’t really cope with the poor sand and mire soil – or was it the other way around? Either way, the campanile is currently tilted around four degrees and gained international renown as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
  • Baptistery: The cathedral’s small baptistery is actually everything but small as the circular building happens to be an abundant masterpiece. If you have a head for heights, we recommend climbing the stairs all the way to right below the roof of the cupola.
  • Camposanto Monumentale: According to lore, soil brought from the holy land by crusaders was spread somewhere on the vast cemetery on the north side of Cathedral Square. A walk through the cloister leads you to sensational frescoes and awe-inspiring sarcophagi.
  • Palazzo dell’Opera: The opera palace actually consists of several buildings constructed between the 14th and 19th They used to serve as accommodation to cathedral personnel and are currently partially open to the public.
  • Ospedale Nuovo di Santo Spirito: Instead of a hospital the Gothic façade now enfolds the Museo delle Sinopie with fresco sinopias from Camposanto Monumentale.

 

Pisa’s churches and basilicas

Well then, that’s a start, but we actually wanted to introduce you to a few places you might not know yet, that aren’t quite as famous. Pisa has an abundance of churches and basilicas like many other Italian cities. Among them are:

  • Santa Maria della Spina: The thorn church got its name due to a thorn from the crown of thorns that was kept here for a long time before it had to be given to the church Santa Chiara. Santa Maria della Spina is directly on the shore of the Arno seemingly floating above the river. The opulent Gothic façade with its spires and statues is a genuine masterpiece.
  • San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno: A Romanesque building had to give way for this church that is also right next to the Arno. San Paolo was heavily influenced by Santa Maria Assunta, thus receiving the sobriquet “Duomo vecchio” (“Old Cathedral”). The church was heavily damaged during the Second World War and had to be rebuilt with the interior having suffered in particular.
  • Santo Sepolcro: The medieval crusades left their mark on Pisa even beyond the supposedly holy sand on Camposanto Monumentale cemetery. This Romanesque church was modelled after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. However, there definitely are certain parallels to the Dome of the Rock, too.
  • Basilica San Piero a Grado: When travelling to Rome, Saint Peter supposedly landed in Italy on this very spot. The main branch of river Arno in a lagoon that eventually sanded up and gave way to this basilica with origins in the 4th century and multiple extensions in later times. The frescoes inside the basilica are dedicated to the saint’s life.

 

Even more astonishing sights in Pisa

©Bigstock.com/goga18128

©Bigstock.com/goga18128

And now for more of the same as we have a few additional cultural treats in store for you. They show many different aspects of Pisa ranging from grand splendour to fascinating nature to a hunger for knowledge:

  • Piazza dei Cavalieri: Once an important place of power for the Medici family, Pisa’s former profane main square is now known for its enormous prestigious Renaissance buildings. Several palaces and towers, even an ostentatiously adorned church rise along Piazza dei Cavalieri. The decorated double-ramp staircase of the eponymous palace is an attraction in its own right.
  • Botanical garden: Founded in 1543 thanks to efforts by doctor and botanist Luca Ghini and financially supported by Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, Pisa’s botanical garden changed locations multiple times and eventually landed near Piazza dei Miracoli around 1595. Orto botanico is closely connected to the biology faculty of the city’s university, thus serving as educational facility, collection and oasis of tranquillity at the same time.
  • Università Normale: Pisa’s university, one of the oldest and most renowned in the entire country, was founded in 1343. Galileo Galilei used to study and teach here, other famous students include Pope Clement XII, prime minister and president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, and the world-famous tenor Andrea Bocelli. Add the elite institute for higher education Scuola Normale Superiore and the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna to the mix and you see why Pisa is among Italy’s most important university and higher education sites.

 

Come here for the Leaning Tower and stay for the cultural and scientific diversity – the city of arts Pisa impresses with its many grand surprises hidden behind the magnificent façade of Cathedral Square that unearths countless treasures. You will certainly get your money’s worth among the many treats, such as breathtaking architectural achievements, majestic frescoes and spectacular nature from water to garden. See you soon in Tuscany!