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Tuscan itineraries trekked by wayfarers and medieval pilgrims

Via Romea di Stade: 5 days walking through history

Mentioned for the first time in 1256 by Alberto di Stade, a Benedictine monk, the via Romea Germanica was one of the most important pilgrimage and trading routes leading from northern Europe.

The description that Alberto wrote in his Annals is detailed and precise, a sort of practical guide for medieval pilgrimage. Road conditions, distances between each stop, the dangers travellers could meet along the way, places to rest and relax: nothing is left to chance.

Today, Alberto’s journey has become the via Romea Germanica di Stade: 2,200 kilometres long, crossing through three countries for a total of 94 stops (44 in Germany, 4 in Austria and 46 in Italy). In our country, once past the Brenner Alps, the walk continues to the Trentino and Valsugana, passing by the Po Valley, Ferrara, Tuscany, Umbria and, finally, Rome.

In the Tuscan stretch, cities of art, parish churches and monasteries stand as testaments to the history and activities of pilgrims and medieval merchants.

first day

Bibbiena, the Casentino and the Tuscan Renaissance

Our journey begins in Bibbiena, an ancient town in the Casentino with origins dating to the Etruscan era. An important crossroads between Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, there’s no way the town couldn’t be a fundamental stop on the Via Romea di Stade. Still today, you can stroll the streets of this historic city nestled on the side of a hill and walk around the medieval and Renaissance piazzas.

You can’t miss a visit to the church dedicated to Saints Ippolito and Donato, which conserves a 15th-century polyptych by Bicci di Lorenzo, a Madonna and Child by Cola da Camerino, and a painted crucifix from the 14th century. Close to the church is Porta dei Fabbri. Bibbiena can be the base for the excursion to the La Verna Sanctuary, one of the most important places for the Franciscan order, immersed in the silence of the Casentino forest, where, according to tradition, Assisi’s saint received the stigmata.

After visiting the sanctuary of Santa Maria del Sasso, one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in Tuscany about one kilometre outside the town centre, head toward Chitignano.

second day

From Chitignano to Subbiano, amidst castles, thermal baths and medieval parish churches

Chitignano is particularly famous: it’s home to thermal baths that have been beloved since the Middle Ages thanks to its sulphuric-ferruginous waters, which were said to ease pilgrims’ fatigue, but it’s also famous for being a haven for tobacco and gunpowder smugglers in the 1800s. Fortunately, this type of activity fell out of fashion long ago, but in honour of the history, the town opened the Living Museum of Gunpowder and Smuggling.

Continuing in the direction of Rassina, you’ll come across the Ubertini Castle, which in 1261 was passed to the bishops of Arezzo, who were members of its namesake family. More castles and parish churches can be seen in the nearby village of Subbiano: the Valenzano fortress, now a period residence and which was once part of the defensive strongholds for the village’s lords, and the Parish Church of Santa Maria Maddalena di Sietina in Capolana, a village on the bank of the river Arno. Pop inside the small Romanesque church, designed with three naves, and travel back in time as you explore this key stop for medieval pilgrims and observe the frescoes from the Arezzo school, dated between the end of the 1300s and the early 1400s.

third day

From Subbiano to Arezzo 

Walk to Arezzo in the morning and explore the streets of this historic centre. Truthfully, one day is enough to admire the city’s various artistic and monumental treasures. Between looking at the little workshops and the medieval walls and buildings, make sure you sneak in some time to visit the Gothic cathedral, home to Piero della Francesca’s fresco of Mary Magdalen and stained glass works by Guillame de Marcillat, as well as the Church of San Domenico, with its wooden crucifix by Cimabue, the bell tower of Santa Maria della Pieve, nicknamed “with 100 holes,” and the Church of Santissima Annunziata, home to works by Vasari.

A little outside the city, you can visit another important religious centre on the via Romea, the sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which welcomes you with its Renaissance porch by Benedetto da Maiano. Have a restorative dinner and a rest before leaving.

fourth day

The Val di Chiana, from Arezzo to Castiglion Fiorentino

Head back onto the road, this time in the direction of Castiglion Fiorentino, crossing through the Chiana plain, which was once swampland. The Etruscans were probably the first to reclaim the Val di Chiana, at a time when the river Clanis passed through here, running in the opposite direction of the today’s Canale Maestro and which was a communication channel between the Arno and the Tiber. In more recent times, it was the Grand Dukes of Lorraine that completed renovation to the territory. When you’ve reached Castiglione, take a brief evening stroll through the historic centre, admiring the 15th-century town hall, the fortress’s tower and the Vasari loggias dating to 1513.  

fifth day

From Castiglion Fiorentino to Cortona, walking through history

Next is Cortona. Before you get there, make time to visit the Etruscan altar in the Sodo archeological area. Explore Cortona’s historic centre, an ancient Etruscan and Roman city and a necessary stop for medieval pilgrims. The Etruscan walls, the Tumulo in Camucia, the villa in Ossaia, the cathedral and the Church of San Francesco: still today, you can see what wayfarers heading to Rome found along the route. Visit the Museum of the Etruscan Academy Museum and the City of Cortona (MAEC), which will bring you back in time as you explore the city’s many eras.

Just outside Cortona, you’ll want to take the time to see the Renaissance sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio. You should also taste some of the local specialities: “black” crostini, pici with meat sauce, fagioli all’uccelletto and the unforgettable biscotti, also known as cantucci.

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