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13-20 May 2022

Arezzo is quintessential Italy. We sit before dinner in a square sipping Aperol Spritze, watching hordes of elegant Italians doing much the same with great jollity outside the various restaurants and cafés. At the other end of the square is a church with a very unfinished, boring, even ugly, exterior, housing some of the most famous fresco paintings in the world. See below!

We are in Italy to stay for a few days with our kind and generous friends, Martin and Tessa, in their house in Umbria. But Mary thought that we couldn’t come to Italy for such a short time, so we added on a few days in Arezzo.

Arrival drama

On arrival at Perugia airport, we had a self-inflicted drama when picking up our rented car – a drama with a lesson to all reasonably senior citizens like us. My driving licence had expired. I had foolishly got used to the fact that, during youth and middle age, driving licences don’t expire. (They now do, every three years.) I had also failed to take account of the fact that nowadays no one reminds you of these things. (With everyone working from home, how could they!) Luckily Mary’s hadn’t expired (but will in September – a note for the diary). So all was well – sort of. I will not disclose how much of the driving Mary actually did.


Our hotel in Arezzo, the Continentale, showed certain aspects of Italia profonda (if that expression exists). It awards itself four stars, but is fairly basic. Our room was dark and gloomy. Air-conditioning and internet connection provided the usual challenges. And breakfast was the usual Italian minimum. However, I must be fair: we soon discovered its magnificent roof terrace with a panoramic view of the whole city of Arezzo; and also a comfortable, suitably old-fashioned sitting room – where I was able to write my journal.

On to the main reason for choosing to come to Arezzo. The church with the unprepossessing exterior that I’ve mentioned is the Church of San Francesco. In its chancel it has the recently restored fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross by the great Piero della Francesca.

Piero’s frescos

My interest goes back to school. My history tutor, Mr CRN Routh, gave us extra-curricular talks. His chosen subjects were the painters of the Italian Renaissance and he inspired in me an interest in all the painters he covered, certainly including Piero della Francesca.

Some years ago, Mary and I did what some have called the Piero Trail, going to all the small towns and villages where his paintings still exist. For details of the Trail, go to John Pope-Hennessy’s little book on the subject and, perhaps more amusingly, John Mortimer’s mystery story Summer’s Lease.

Anyway, a major stop on the Trail is Arezzo for the frescos in the San Francesco. They depict about a dozen elements of the extraordinary legend that people seemed to have believed in the late middle ages: how the cross on which Christ was crucified was made from wood from a tree planted in the Garden of Eden; how the Queen of Sheba came across it; and how, after the crucifixion, St Helena (the Emperor Constantine’s mother) found it in Jerusalem. See a note I’m attaching to this journal if you’re interested in the bizarre details. Most of them are illustrated in the frescos.

Is it all worth seeing? The downside is that they are on the walls of the very tall chancel in the church, some so high up that you can hardly see them. The green Michelin guide says “Binoculars are recommended”. Good advice – which I took, even to the extent of buying a new pair.

The frescos are on three levels. Unfortunately, the ones on the lowest level are the battle scenes, very viewable and wonderful though they are. (One is of the battle when they had to fight to recover the cross from the Persians.) The best, and certainly the most famous and most reproduced (see the reproduction above), are the scenes of the Queen of Sheba worshipping the wood (!) and then telling King Solomon about it. They are on the next level up and are just viewable, particularly with the binoculars. The death of Adam and the planting of the tree in his mouth (yes really, no misprint!) are right at the top and frankly represent a challenge even with the binos.

But the answer to my question is: yes, definitely. Many of the images, particularly of the protagonists, are powerful and beautiful. They also represent some of the first steps ever, away from the medieval, two-dimensional style of early Christian art, towards the more realistic, humanist painting that was the great achievement of the Italian Renaissance, leading to Leonardo and Michelangelo only a few years later. I am of course reciting and recalling – inadequately, after all these years – the words of my old history tutor.

Casa Vasari

Arezzo has the house of the great Giorgio Vasari, for the good reason that he was born there. Do people know about Vasari these days?

His main claim to fame is his Lives of the Artists, with its potted biographies of all the major painters of the Italian Renaissance – in some cases, not so potted, such as that of his friend and mentor Michelangelo (Vasari was also a painter). It’s because of Vasari that we know so much about them, including Piero, who he talks about as a mathematician almost more than as a painter – partly perhaps because he went blind for the last decades of his long life.

The house is delightful, as is the garden, not that the house contains much about, or indeed by, Vasari. It has a series of rooms in Renaissance style with splendid ceiling frescos and wall paintings (see below). He didn’t apparently spend much time there, but it stayed in his family for some 100 years.


I, a lover of Italian food, have always had a problem about Italian restaurants. They face you with three courses, not including dessert – Antipasto; then Primo, which is essentially pasta; and after that Secondo, the main course. I don’t know how Italians retain their elegant physiques – and of course some don’t.

We Brits, me included, normally go for an Antipasto and then straight onto a Secondo. But how sad! Often the pastas represent Italian cooking at its best and, of course, at its most Italian. On this trip I tried to crack the problem. We tended to stop for lunch at one of the smaller eateries – and I would have a pasta. I then felt better about skipping the Primo in the evening.

An exception to all this was our first dinner. We went to the quite fancy Chiave d’Oro (Golden Keys) in the square not far from Piero’s frescos. I thought I’d go mad and have all three courses, asking for a modest half portion of the Primo. But when the minimalist Antipasto showed up, I bravely told the waitress that I thought I could manage a full-size Primo – wisely, as it turned out. All courses were delicious, justifying whatever Michelin awards the restaurant apparently has, and also demonstrating that cuisine minceur isn’t limited to France.

Otherwise we patronized trattorias of more modest pretentions. In one, where we were sitting outside, we were amazed to see a long queue building up. Whatever were they all queuing for? Answer: the next door restaurant, much recommended in TripAdvisor. Ours was excellent. I hope theirs was worth the wait.

It was in ours that we were able to do some wine tasting. They served wine by the glass. The super-Tuscan wine Brunello di Montalcino was 10 euro a glass – in contrast to the hundreds of euro that you can spend on a bottle. We also had some of the more modest Rosso di Montepulciano at 4 euro a glass. In both our opinions, the bog standard was nicer.

We tended to have an aperitif before supper in our favourite piazza, the very same one with the San Francesco at the end of it. We people watch. Mary concluded that the young girls are subject to a very strict dress code. All have long dark hair. Most have very short skirts displaying large amounts of bare leg. They then have to wear white (always white) trainers or their equivalent.


Masks are more in evidence in Italy than in England. They seem to require masks in all sorts of public places, including apparently churches. Allegedly the requirement has been jacked up to the FFP variety (the white pointy ones), presumably because people are now beginning to realise that at least the disposable ones don’t do any good at all. However, I’m able to report that, on no occasion, did anyone tell me that I had to wear one. And I certainly didn’t. The Italians are, after all, famous for their flexible attitude to observing rules of any kind.


Leaving Arezzo for the next part of our trip, we decided to stop off at Cortona, which is very much on the way.

Cortona is the archetypal Tuscan hill-top town. You definitely can’t drive into it as a tourist – and wouldn’t want to.

You park outside the massive (originally Etruscan) walls and climb up one of the long steep cobbled streets to the central squares at the top. Thronging with tourists – many American tour groups, doubtless rejoicing in their recent freedom from Dr Fauci’s mandates.

Apart from the tall ancient buildings and the narrow steeply sloping streets, one of the main things to see is the Museo Diocesano to be found, not without difficulty, in one of the former churches. It has a beautiful Annunciation by Fra Angelico, plus various works by Luca Signorelli. Born in Cortona, he specialized in nude muscular figures of both sexes, much in evidence in Orvieto cathedral. In Cortona they have an impressive Deposition with Christ in spectacular muscular condition.

Cortona also has two churches just outside the walls that I wanted to see – but failed to. Churches of this kind have been a mystery to me. Various towns in central Italy (Todi in particular) have a small, perfectly formed, High Renaissance church, with its michelangelo-style dome, all on its own, just outside the town. Why? An excellent book, 101 Places in Italy, by one Francis Russell, suggests an answer. He says that towns competed with each other in building churches to commemorate miraculous visions of the Virgin Mary. Cortona has two. Not easy to see. One we sailed past as we drove up to the car park. The other we never located – it was designed by our friend Giorgio Vasari in his alternative capacity as an architect.

Driving in Italy

I have to make a comment on driving in Italy, as experienced between Perugia and Arezzo – and indeed back again. We survived.

The authorities are keen on imposing multiple and ever-changing speed limits, almost none of which have any discernible effect on the speeds at which people drive. At the moment, there is much road-repairing, involving contra-flow systems and ludicrously ambitious 40 kph speed limits.

I tend to drive slower than the average Italian, perhaps slower than any living Italian. So I have the happy experience normally of seeing ahead of me a clear open road. In the rear-view mirror I see a long line of (presumably irate and impatient) Italians. On those occasions when I made a rare attempt to observe one of the more absurd speed limits, the situation behind me got emotional and potentially dangerous. I normally tended to adopt a more Italian approach, largely for reasons of safety.


We arrived safely and unscathed at our friends’ house in Canalicchio a few miles south of Perugia and had a lovely relaxing stay there. Less relaxing for them, as they were expecting large numbers of guests after we left.

I made a quick visit into Perugia, partly because it’s a lovely place to wander around and partly for the curious reason that I wanted to buy some shirts to replace those that I’d bought there some years ago, wondering of course whether the shops concerned had survived the two years of restrictions. They had to some extent, though frankly not to the extent of being able to satisfy my shirt requirements. Stocks seemed low.

However, the town was humming. Plenty of tourists and the restaurants open for business as usual.

I squeezed in a visit to the delightful Collegio del Cambio where the merchants of Perugia once used to do their business surrounded by Perugino’s wall paintings. Only two small rooms – mercifully not on the general tourist trail.

Access to Perugia is unusual. Although Perugia is a much bigger city than the likes of Cortona, you wouldn’t want to drive into it, even if you can. The best way to enter (as recommended by our friends) is to drive to a car park outside the city, called Partigiani. You then go up to the city via four or five long escalators through enormous cavernous structures that one feels must have been constructed originally by Etruscans and/or Romans. It is all very impressive and lands you up in the centre of town.

22 May 2022

Tony Herbert

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John Fisher
John Fisher
Jun 29, 2022


I very much enjoyed your account


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