Vineyard in Arezzo

The two Italian men looked at us with a mixture of befuddlement and amusement.

My friends and I must have looked quite a sight as we mimicked the act of blowing out candles on a birthday cake.

Since I couldn’t speak Italian, I decided to try Spanish, hoping the two languages had enough in common.

“Para celebrar cumpleano de mi amigo (to celebrate the birthday of my friend)”, I said slowly and carefully.

To our relief, light dawned in one of the guy’s eyes. “Compleanno, torta! (birthday, cake)” he replied. We grinned and nodded enthusiastically.

The man quickly led us down a small path leading out of Arezzo’s medieval-looking Piazza Grande and pointed us in the direction of the cake shop where we were to purchase a birthday cake for our friend.

Piazza Grande

Arezzo, situated in the heart of the rolling green hills of the Tuscany countryside, is not an obvious destination for foreign tourists.

After all, there are other more famous cities in Tuscany, like Florence and Siena.

But while those cities are famous for a good reason, that also means you’ll be sharing them with hundreds, if not thousands of other tourists, when you visit.

Steep street in Arezzo

In Arezzo, however, we hardly saw any other foreigners around.

But that’s not to say that Arezzo is far off the beaten track.

Like most other towns in Tuscany, it receives its fair share of tourists.

But they are not obtrusive. Yet.

Which makes this town of less than 100,000 inhabitants a wonderful place to wander around away from the madding crowd, particularly if you have just arrived from Rome or Florence.

Piazza Sant’Agostino

The historic part of the town, lying within the old city walls, dates from medieval times and is unspoilt enough to catch the eye of filmmaker, writer and actor Roberto Benigni who filmed many key scenes of his 1997 Oscar-winning film ‘Life Is Beautiful’ in Arezzo.

Even today, the old town feels like a throwback to a bygone era, with its steep and narrow cobblestone streets, the buildings and the many churches within a compact area.

Buildings around Piazza Grande

On the west side of the Piazza Grande (town square), lies the Pieve di Santa Maria, one of the largest and most important Romanesque churches in Tuscany.

Though the church is not jaw-droppingly stunning like many other churches in Italy, it has a certain charm of its own, with its craggy eroded facade of stacked arcades in luminous beige stone.

Countryside around Arezzo

My personal favourite, however, is the Church of San Francesco.

From the outside, the church might look rather plain, but the interior with its unique, great nave is considered one of the most majestic examples of gothic monastic architecture in Tuscany.

And drawn on the interior walls are magnificent frescoes depicting the Legend of the Holy Cross which recounts the miraculous story of the wood of Christ’s Cross.

Church of San Francesco

Tuscany, however, is perhaps most synonymous with its vineyards and Arezzo is no exception.

Just outside town, past the cemetery and towards the Accademia Dell’arte college are several vineyards as well as olive groves which look like they came straight out of a postcard.

Vineyard

Arezzo is also a good base to explore nearby towns like Cortona, which is one of Italy’s oldest cities.

Built on the side of a hill, and located about 600 metres above sea level, Cortona offers sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.

As we had visited on a clear day, we could even see the glittering waters of Lake Trasimeno which reside in the adjoining province of Umbria.

Cortona

Like Arezzo, Cortona has also been captured on film.

The 2003 Hollywood flick ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ which was partly filmed in Cortona, had highlighted the charm and appeal of the town’s glorious views, cobbled streets and medieval buildings.

As a result, more tourists have started flocking to the town, though it’s easy to lose them as you wander further away from the town square.

Cortona

As we ventured deeper into the town, and continued climbing up Cortona’s tangle of old streets, we chanced upon many near-empty churches, each with its own charm.

And despite the many wrong turns we took, we finally managed to end up at the foot of a long and steep but stunningly panoramic path lined with marvellous murals of the Stations of the Cross.

Stations of the Cross, along Via Santa Margherita, Cortona

The path led up to the Church of Santa Margherita which shelters the mummified body of Saint Margherita who died in 1297.

Just beyond the church is the Medici Fortress which is located right at the top of Cortona.

The huge fortress contains four large bastions and is considered a good example of military architecture in the 1500s.

But while it’s not the most stunning fortress around, the hike to the Medici Fortress is worthwhile for its stupendous views over Cortona and the surrounding region.

Medici Fortress, Cortona

Towards the end of our stay in Arezzo, my friends and I decided to pop over to Civitella Badia al Pino, a comune in the province of Arezzo, as we had a few hours to spare.

The place itself had nothing much of interest – some vineyards, a few abandoned houses and a nearby autostrada (highway).

Civitella Badia al Pino

But as we wandered through the strangely empty streets, we suddenly heard some murmurs in the distance and decided to head towards it.

There was an evening church service going on.

As we peered in through the doorway, the priest saw us and beckoned to us to enter.

When we hesitated, he decided to come out and speak to us instead.

Abandoned building in Civitella Badia al Pino

Though he was speaking in Italian and I was using what little Spanish I recalled from my classes, he got to know that we were from Asia, and he told us proudly that he was in the Pope’s entourage when La Padre visited the Philippines in 1981.

Over the course of the next ten minutes, we talked about stuff that I absolutely do not recall now.

And looking back, the encounter seemed funny, almost farcical, given that we do not speak the same language.

But this encounter, along with the experience of searching for the birthday cake, is almost like the icing on the, ahem, cake which is Italy.

Great food, wonderful architecture, friendly people.

Little wonder Italy is one of the most popular destinations in the world.

Arezzo train station