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.
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.
In Arezzo, however, we hardly saw any other foreigners around, so locals were generally curious about us. And in this friendly town of less than 100,000 inhabitants, we felt we had a glimpse of how Italy used to be before hordes of tourists descended.
The historic part of the town, lying within the old city walls, dates back to 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.
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.
My personal favourite, however, is the Church of San Francesco. From the outside, it 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.
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.
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).
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.
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 is on the Florence–Rome train line with frequent services to Rome (€20.50, two hours) and Florence (€10.10, 1½ hours).
Time your visit for the Antiques Fair which takes place on the first Sunday of every month, and the Saturday before. The market stretches all over the heart of town and is a must-see for art lovers, collectors and connoisseurs.
Arezzo’s cuisine is based on dishes made of fresh and natural foods – pastas and meats always served with fine vegetables and legumes served with olive oil. Pappardelle all’aretina (ribbon-shaped pasta served with a thin hare sauce), Zuppa di Cavolo (a cabbage soup) and the Pappa al Pomodoro (a tomato soup) are famous Arezzo dishes.