Travel: Legs Florentine: Walkers won't tire of Florence, where inspiring countryside and Renaissance architecture are only a stroll apart

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IN FLORENCE the countryside is never far away; you can be walking down quiet, rural lanes within a few minutes of leaving the Ponte Vecchio. Our first walk is popular with the Florentines, who like to stroll on a Sunday beneath the city walls and take in the panoramic views that can be enjoyed from San Miniato al Monte and the Piazzale Michelangelo. Fiesole, the setting for our second walk, is 8km (5 miles) north of Florence. Once a powerful Etruscan city, it was later eclipsed by Florence and is now merely a village. Archaeological remains hint at its previous glory. On a clear day, there are wonderful views across the red-

tiled rooftops of Florence and the cypress-dotted hills of the Mugello.

SAN MINIATO AL MONTE

A TWO-HOUR WALK

THIS WALK takes you from the centre of Florence to the exquisitely decorated church of San Miniato al Monte, high on a hill in the south of the city. The route follows quiet lanes along the city walls, and then takes in the bustling Piazzale Michelangelo before returning to the town centre. From the Ponte Vecchio 1 walk down the Via de' Guicciardini and take the second turning left into the square fronting Santa Felicita 2. On the left of the church, take the steep road at the right, Costa di San Giorgio. No 19 3 was once the home of Galileo. The Porta San Giorgio (St George's Gate) 4 is straight ahead at the end of the lane.

Built in 1260, this is the oldest city gate to survive in Florence. The weathered fresco within the arch is The Virgin with St George and St Leonard by Bicci di Lorenzo (1460). On the outer face of the arch is a carving of St George fighting the dragon, a copy of the original 1284 work which has been removed and is currently being restored. The Forte di Belvedere 5 is to the right through the gate, and was designed by Leonardo Buontalenti in 1590. Originally the fortress was built to guard the city against attack from its political rivals, but it soon became a private refuge for the Medici Grand Dukes. From here there are extensive views over the Boboli Gardens 6 below, and across to the olive groves and cypress trees in the countryside south of the city. Head downhill along Via di Belvedere, which runs along a stretch of city wall (to the left) dating from 1258. Porta San Miniato 7, a small arch in the wall, is situated at the bottom of the hill.

San Miniato al Monte: Turn right into Via del Monte alle Croci and walk uphill for 500m (550 yards) to the Viale Galileo Galilei. Bear right and cross the road to the vast stone steps leading to the terrace in front of San Miniato al Monte 8. Catch your breath and admire the Forte di Belvedere.

San Miniato al Monte is one of the most unspoilt of all the Romanesque churches in Tuscany. It was built in 1018 over the shrine of the early Christian martyr San Miniato (St Minias). He was a rich Armenian merchant beheaded for his beliefs by Emperor Decius in the third century. The facade was begun around 1090 and has geometric patterning in green-grey and white marble. Typical of the Romanesque style. The statue on the gable shows an eagle carrying a bale of cloth, the symbol of the powerful Arte di Calimala guild of wool importers who financed the church in the Middle Ages. The restored 13th-century mosaic below the gable shows Christ, the Virgin and St Minias. Inside the church, the high altar is raised above the nave and there is a Byzantine-style mosaic in the apse, again of St Minias with Christ and the Virgin. Below this is the crypt, built using columns salvaged from Roman buildings. The floor of the nave is covered with seven marble mosaic panels of lions, doves and the signs of the Zodiac (1207); similar intarsia work panels can be seen on the raised marble choir and pulpit. In the north wall is the funeral chapel of the 25-year-old Cardinal of Portugal, Iacopo di Lusitania, who died in Florence in 1439. Antonio Rossellino carved the figure of the cardinal guarded by angels on the elaborate marble tomb (1466). The terracotta roundels on the ceiling, showing the Holy Spirit and Virtues were painted by Lucca della Robbia (1461). Outside, the massive bell tower was begun in 1523 by Baccio d'Agnolo, but was never finished. Cannons were installed here to shoot at the Medici troops during the Siege of Florence. The cemetery 9 surrounding the church opened in 1854 and this contains tombs the size of miniature houses, built to show off family wealth. Leave San Miniato by an arch in the buildings to the west and follow the path that threads down to the church of San Salvatore al Monte 10. Here steps lead down to the Viale Galileo Galilei: take a right turn to reach Piazzale Michelangelo 11. The piazzale was laid out in the 1860s by Giuseppe Poggi and is dotted with copies of Michelangelo's famous statues. It is lined with souvenir stalls and has views over the rooftops of central Florence.

Either take the No 13 bus back to the city centre, or the stone steps on the west side of the piazza down to Porta San Niccolo 12, a 14th-century gateway in the city wall. Go left along Via di San Niccolo and Via de' Bardi, which are lined with medieval buildings. These include the 13th-century Palazzo de Mozzi 13 on Via de' Bardi; the Museo Bardini 14 is situated opposite. From here you can return along the River Arno to the Ponte Vecchio 1.

FIESOLE

A TWO-HOUR WALK

TIPS FOR WALKERS

Starting point: Piazza Mino da Fiesole.

Length: 1.5 km (1 mile). Allow at least 2 hours for the walk to include time to visit the various museums. Note that Via di San Francesco is steep.

Badia Fiesolana: Open Sunday morning for services.

Getting there: No 7 bus from Santa Maria Novella bus station, Piazza del Duomo or Piazza di San Marco in Florence.

Stopping-off points: There are several cafes around Piazza Mino da Fiesole.

GETTING THERE

Campus Travel (071-730 3402, 061- 273 1721, 031-668 3303) has return flights to Pisa in May for pounds 200 and pounds 171 by Eurotrain. British Airways (081-897 4000) offers Heathrow-Pisa return flights for pounds 173 midweek and pounds 184 at weekends. Italy Sky Shuttle (081-748 1333) has return flights to Pisa from Glasgow, Manchester, Edinburgh and Gatwick starting from pounds 165. At Pisa airport a train shuttle service takes 1 hour to Florence, tickets at airport approximately pounds 3.

TOUR OPERATORS: Magic of Italy (081-748 7575) has a 7-night stay, including flights, transfers and bed and breakfast in 3-star accommodation for pounds 449, departing from Gatwick. Italian Escapades (081-748 2661) provides a 3-night weekend package for pounds 284, departing Gatwick. (The company also offers flexible holidays from 1 night to several weeks.) Italia Tour (071-371 1114) has a 3-night package for pounds 279 departing midweek from Heathrow.

INFORMATION: Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY, tel: 071-408 1254.

Extracted from the 'Eyewitness Travel Guide: Florence & Tuscany', published by Dorling Kindersley on 12 May at pounds 12.99. Available from all good bookshops - or, to order your copy postage- free, telephone Tiptree Books on 0621 816362 and ask for cash sales.

The village of Fiesole stands in the foothills of the Mugello region 8km (5 miles) north of Florence, and has substantial Roman and Etruscan remains. The area has been a popular summer retreat since the 15th century, thanks to its fresh breezes and hilltop position.

Piazza Mino da Fiesole: The No 7 bus arrives in Fiesole's main square 1 after a 30-minute journey from Florence through countryside dotted with villas. Settled in the 7th century BC, Fiesole was a powerful force in central Italy by the 5th century BC. It began to decline after the Romans founded Florence in the 1st century BC, but kept its independence until 1125, when Florentine troops razed most of the city. The Duomo of San Romolo 2 in the piazza was begun in 1028 and has a massive bell tower. From here walk up the square to the front of the 14th-century Palazzo Communale 3. Here there is a bronze statue of King Vittorio Emmanuele II and Garibaldi, called Incontro di Teano (Meeting at Teano) 4. Returning to the church, take the first turning right down Via Dupre, to the Roman theatre 5 and into the archaeological park.

After its defeat by Florence in 1125, Fiesole went into a decline, and many Etruscan and Roman remains went undisturbed until excavation in the 1870s. The Teatro, built in the 1st century BC, is used for the annual Estate Fiesolana festival. Its tiers of stone seats can hold 3,000 spectators. Next to the theatre is the Museo Faesulanum 6, built in 1912- 14. Inside are finds from the Bronze Age onwards. The building is a copy of the 1st-century Roman temple whose remains are in the northern part of the complex. It is built on Etruscan foundations and part of the Roman frieze dating from the 1st century BC is still intact. There are some partly restored Roman baths close by 7 and, at the northern edge of the park, 4th-century BC Etruscan walls 8. From the theatre, turn into Via Dupre to the Museo Bandini 9 on the right. This houses a collection of medieval religious paintings built up by local aristocrat Angelo Bandini in the 19th century.

Back in Piazza Mino da Fiesole, turn right down Via di San Francesco to the left of the Palazzo Vescovile 10. There are views over Florence and back to Fiesole 11, on the road up to Sant'Alessandro church 12, which has a Neo-Classical facade combined with a 9th-century Romanesque interior. Original Roman columns used in the nave are made out of cipollino (onion ring) marble. From here carry on up to San Francesco 13, a Franciscan friary founded in 1399 and restored in 1907. It has a pretty cloister and a museum of artefacts collected by the monks.

From Fiesole to San Domenico: Retrace your steps or walk through the car park back to the town centre. Continue down Via Vecchia Fiesolana. On the left is the Villa Medici 14, built in 1461 by Michelozzo for Cosimo de' Medici. Walk down Via Bandini and Via Vecchia Fiesolana to San Domenico. In this little hamlet is the 15th-century church of San Domenico 15 with two good works by Fra Angelico, Dominican prior here until 1437. The Madonna with Angels and The Crucifixion are in the chapter house and were both painted around 1430.

Opposite, Via della Badia dei Roccettini leads to the Badia Fiesolana 16, a pretty church with a Romanesque facade of inlaid marble. The interior is decorated with local grey sandstone, pietra serena. The No 7 bus back to Florence can be caught from the village square in San Domenico.

GETTING THERE: Campus Travel (London 071-730 3402, Manchester 061-273 1721, , Edinburgh 031 668 3303) has return flights to Pisa in May for pounds 200 and pounds 171 by Eurotrain. British Airways (081-897 4000) offers Heathrow-Pisa return flights for pounds 173 midweek and pounds 184 at weekends. Italy Sky Shuttle (081-748 1333) has return flights to Pisa departing from Glasgow, Manchester, Edinburgh and Gatwick starting from pounds 165. At Pisa airport there is a train shuttle service which takes 1 hour to Florence, tickets are bought at the airport for approximately pounds 3.

TOUR OPERATORS: Magic of Italy (081-748 7575) has a 7-night stay, including flights, transfers, and bed and breakfast in 3-star accommodation for pounds 449, departing from Gatwick. Italian Escapades (081-748 2661) provides a 3- night weekend package for pounds 284, departing Gatwick. (The company also offers flexible holidays from 1 night to several weeks.) Italia Tour (071-371 1114) has a 3-night package for pounds 279 departing midweek from Heathrow.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London, W1R 8AY, tel: 071-408 1254.

TIPS FOR WALKERS

Starting point: Ponte Vecchio.

Length: 3km (2 miles).

San Miniato al Monte: Open 8am-noon and 2-7pm summer; 8am-noon and 2.30-6pm winter.

Stopping-off points: There are several cafes along the route.

(Photograph omitted)

(Map omitted)

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