There’s a place in Tuscany, halfway between Florence and Siena, that offers an enchanting medieval atmosphere and provides a refreshing escape from the tourist crowds filling the most popular attractions nearby. This is Certaldo, the birthplace of one of the most significant figures in Italian literature and home to a centuries-old onion.
On a recent trip to Pisa I decided to make a little detour to explore Certaldo, a little town close to San Gimignano, surrounded by splendid rolling hills, vineyards and olive groves of Valdelsa. This place is mostly famous for being the birthplace of the XIV-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio and producing a special variety of red onion that the Slow Food Foundation has decided to preserve with a presidium.
Travelling in low season means having few tourists around, but in Certaldo this means having the entire place to yourself. No joking. The tiny (like really tiny) historic center, Certaldo Alto, is perched on a hill above the more modern part of the town, Certaldo Basso, and can be reached by catching the funicular near the train station.
The perfectly preserved old town is surrounded by thick defensive walls and, unlike most Italian villages, it has no main square due to the shape of the hill where it was built. There’s instead a long street, named Via Boccaccio, which serves as public meeting place and hosts all the key sights.
You won’t need much time to get around Certaldo Alto, but I’m sure that its many pretty corners and alleys will literally make you stand in awe.
Here’s what you’ll see:
This is the house where Boccaccio spent the last years of his life. The building was completely destroyed during the Second World War, but was faithfully restored and turned into a museum, with beautiful furnishing and interesting panels retracing the life and works of the poet. The heart of the house is the library on the first floor, that contains about 3,500 books about Boccaccio, including some precious editions of his masterpiece, the Decameron. Also on the first floor is a large fresco of Boccaccio realized by Pietro Benvenuti in the XIX century. Not to be missed is the terrace at the top of the tower, from which you can enjoy some spectacular views over the town and the surrounding countryside.
Church of San Michele and San Jacopo
The church was built in the XIII century and overlooks a tiny piazza that was used as a cemetery until 1633. It’s the resting place of Boccaccio (the marble tombstone is right at the center of the church) and Giulia Della Rena, one of the patron saints of Certaldo. The cloister of the church hosts a museum of sacred art with an interesting collection of paintings, sculpture and sacred vestiges.
The most iconic sight in Certaldo is this palace located at the top of via Boccaccio. Built in the XII century, Palazzo Pretorio was the seat of the local political authority and its facade and arcaded courtyard are covered in colorful coats of arm representing all the families that lived here and ruled Certaldo. The first floor usually hosts interesting temporary art exhibitions, while the inner courtyard hides a nice, yet unexpected Japanese tearoom. From the palace it is also possible to access the deconsecrated Church of San Tommaso e Prospero, the oldest church of Certaldo Alto, containing the Tabernacle of the Condemned, a beautiful fresco by the Renaissance artist Benozzo Gozzoli.
Palazzo Stiozzi Ridolfi
This is a splendid complex consisting of a palace and two towers, with an inner courtyard that is thought to host the local market.
The Nail Museum
Hidden inside the ancient Palazzo Giannozzi, there’s a tiny museum hosting an unusual collection of nails of all shapes and eras, as well as a series of old tools collected throughout the years by the local carpenter Giancarlo Masini. Surely a unique place!
The historic archery headquarter
The basement of the restaurant “Da Messer Boccaccio”, located on the main street, serves as the headquarter of the historical archery of Certaldo. Lovers of medieval history will be able to admire the incredible collection of bows, axes, shields and medieval weapons that decorate the walls of this space. And if you are lucky you can even listen to the stories of some local archers.
- Certaldo can be used as a base to explore major Tuscan attractions like Florence, San Gimignano, Siena and Chianti. Alternatively, you can easily reached Certaldo either by car or by train and then reach the old town with the funicular from Piazza Boccaccio in Certaldo Basso (the return ticket costs €1.50). The funicular is close to the train station and if you arrive by car it is better to park here
- There’s a tourist information point next to Palazzo Pretorio where you can buy tickets to visit the main sights I listed above; the choice is between a 5 euro ticket that includes Palazzo Pretorio, Boccacio’s House and the Nails Museum and a 7 euro ticket that allows access also to the Museum of Sacred Art
- If you are in Certaldo around dinner time, I recommend stopping by Osteria di Casa Chianti for a wonderful meal served by a friendly and genuine staff
- The usually sleepy Certaldo Alto comes to life with some special events that attract hundreds of visitors: Mercantia, one of the biggest festivals of street artists in Europe taking place in July, and Boccacesca, a tempting celebration of Tuscan gastronomy in October