This was what we’d joined for. This was one of the many reasons we moved to Italy: discovering the myriad gorgeous places oozing charm, history and culture that are practically on our doorstep. And all without the compulsion that you feel on holiday to do and see everything at one go, or the disappointment of finding that your destination’s not-to-be-missed defining event takes place just before or just after your visit – but with the luxury of now being able to say ‘never mind, we can always come back another time’. Which is precisely how we recently came to enjoy a second long weekend in Arezzo.
This small city of not quite 100,000 souls, which was, incidentally, the setting in 1997 for Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning ‘Life is Beautiful’, is little more than a couple of hours away from us in Tuscany’s south-eastern corner. When we were planning our first visit late last summer, we were nearly put off by the opening line of Arezzo’s entry in our aged Lonely Planet guide: “heavily bombed in World War II”, but despite this unpromising comment, it did concede that the city’s ‘medieval centre packs some inspiring highlights’.
Those highlights, which are all located within the ancient fortified walls that still almost completely encircle the historical centre, include a medieval fort, a cathedral and sundry other vast and tiny churches, all dripping with Renaissance artwork, an assortment of grand palazzi, a range of galleries and museums, and a Roman amphitheatre still in use as a performance space. The wow-inducing star of the show, however, is the magnificent Piazza Grande with its arresting jumble of architectural periods and styles. This broad, sloping square was originally a market place, and the tall, narrow merchants’ palaces built along the eastern and southern sides in the 14th century still stand as testament to its ancient commercial roots. Then during the Renaissance, the square also became a civic and judicial centre when the imposing Palazetto della Fraternità dei Laici and the elegant Logge Vasari were built alongside the 12th century church of Santa Maria della Pieve and the sombre episcopal palace on the northern and western sides.
While we were there, we discovered not only that every June and September the city holds a spectacular Saracen Joust that dates back to the Middle Ages and now involves a huge cast of costumed characters, but that for over 50 years it has also hosted a major antiques fair (fiera antiquaria) that spills out from the Piazza Grande on the first weekend of every month. However, the timing of that first visit meant that we were going to miss both these events, so we spent the rest of our time in the city happily strolling around the enticing maze of narrow, cobbled streets surrounding the Piazza Grande, poking around in their many antique shops and quirky boutiques, and deciding which of the dozens of long-established, family-run ristorante and trattorie serving Tuscan specialities we would dine in – while also resolving to return for these impressive-sounding events at the earliest opportunity. Hence our second visit last weekend for two nights in a cosy B&B, a good mooch around the antiques fair and a couple of nicer-than-usual meals out.
We know practically nothing about antiques, but we were keen to enjoy all the sights and sounds of what claims to be the biggest antiques fair in Italy – with some justification, as became apparent the moment we emerged from the system of escalators that carried us up from the parking area outside the city walls and spat us out into the bright spring sunshine in the heart of the centro storico (historical centre). Well before we got as far as the Piazza Grande, row upon row of stalls stretched out in all directions, filling every street and alleyway radiating out from the main square, and although many traders had not yet even finished setting up their stalls, bargain-hunters were already poring over the wares, checking the quality and asking about prices.
The first fair took place in 1968 to mark the national Festa della Republicca on 2nd June and was the brainchild of Ivan Bruschi, a local art scholar and antiques collector. After the war, he established a small exhibition of objets d’art in his family home just off the Piazza Grande – once he had restored it to its original condition after it had been partially destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943. This grand palazzo dating from the 14th century is now a museum that houses Bruschi’s personal collection of artifacts and whose dramatic arched windows look and down onto the stalls that run the length of the Corso Italia every month.
Here the stalls specialised in artworks, books and magazines as well as vintage toys, some of which Mr Blue-shirt was dismayed to find he recognised from his own childhood. With so much life bustling around us and all the luxury shops and busy cafés that line this central thoroughfare, it was difficult to imagine that much of this part of the centro storico had been abandoned after the war and lain in ruins for more than two decades. But it was in the early ‘60s when the city’s main fruit and vegetable decided to abandon its ancient home in the Piazza Grande that Bruschi felt compelled to step in and help revive what had once been the most beautiful part of the city he loved and where he now ran his own successful antiques business a couple of hundred metres away in Piazza San Francesco – the streets around which last weekend were filled with stalls selling records, pop art posters and retro costume jewellery. And it was following Bruschi’s buying trips to the flea markets of Paris and London’s Portobello Road market that the idea of an open-air antiques market was born.
Despite the near-cloudless skies, the brisk breeze made the shadier streets and alleys distinctly chilly, so after a warming cappuccino in a cosy café on Piazza San Francesco, we wandered back towards the sunny Corso along Via Cavour, browsing around the stalls selling crisp white table linen, richly coloured Persian rugs and high-quality vintage clothing. Then it was briefly back into the shade as we turned into Via Seteria, which was too narrow for any stalls but was instead lined with opulent-looking antiques emporia and several inviting botteghe crammed to the vaulted ceiling with a dizzying selection of cured meats, local cheeses, artisan bread, olive oil, pasta and Tuscan wines, before we finally re-emerged into the brilliant sunshine that flooded across the magnificent Piazza Grande itself.
Squinting against the sudden brightness, we could see that the square was filled with a selection of stalls selling furniture of every era, shape and size, ranging from the simplest of milking stools to the grandest of dining tables. We wandered among the stalls, trying to imagine the grandeur of the palazzi that had originally housed these imposing pieces – and wondering who might have a home large enough to accommodate them today. In amongst all the furniture were more modest stalls specialising in vintage hand tools, military memorabilia and different types of lighting, the classical crystal chandeliers casting showers of sunbeams across the cobblestones, although it was actually a stunning art deco chandelier made of interlocking bars of solid glass that really stopped me in my tracks. Meanwhile, beneath the graceful porticoes along the front of the Logge Vasari on the northern side of the square were all the stalls selling smaller items such as jewellery and vintage luxury handbags (which I have to confess, rather caught my eye) as well as pastel-hued porcelain, highly polished silverware and delicate glassware, all sparkling in the sunshine.
In the end, although we picked up and put down lots of items over the weekend, opened and closed lots of drawers and doors, and tested lots of zips and straps (OK, that was only me), we didn’t buy a single thing. Which was absolutely fine as with all its sights and sounds, bustle, hub-bub and life the fair had given us just the post-Covid boost we needed and so delivered everything we had hoped for. And in fact, probably much more than Ivan Bruschi had ever dreamed of, for since that first fair 54 years ago, his vision has grown into an internationally recognised event that now attracts some 400 exhibitors every month and 200,000 visitor per year. Better still, the Piazza Grande, long since restored to its pre-war glory, is once again the beating heart of this Tuscan gem that we find utterly captivating. And perhaps on our next visit I will find that perfect vintage Louis Vuitton handbag going for a song…