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Timelessness of Fiesole

January 26, 1986|AL GOLDFARB | Goldfarb is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

FIESOLE, Italy — This ancient Etruscan and Roman town, tucked away in the lovely green hills overlooking Florence, is the place to visit when you want a breather from the whirlwind pace of sightseeing.

Florence, with its extraordinary wealth of art treasures, was a delight, but on the heels of three straight days of hoofing it through Rome, we were ready for a pause.

During dinner at the Ristorante Baldini near the Piazza Santa Maria Novelle Church in Florence we learned of Fiesole.

A Short Trip Away

Our waiter pointed out that many Florentines go to Fiesole on weekends because it's only 20 minutes away.

The next day we caught a No. 7 bus (adjacent to the central terminal) for our excursion into the suburbs.

En route we passed luxurious white villas lined with moss-grown garden walls, olive trees, rows of bright green cypresses and beds of red geraniums and irises.

Fiesole rises on the hills five miles northeast of Florence. Between the valleys of the Arno and Mugnone rivers, it sits in a key position in the heavily wooded countryside. Many regard it as one of the most charming areas in the entire Tuscany region.

It soon became apparent why so many great writers and poets have been attracted to this delightful town. Obviously, the literati must have been inspired to set pen to paper to describe the tranquillity and beauty of this verdant countryside.

Anatole France in "The Red Lily," which he wrote in 1893 while living in Fiesole, described the view of Florence from the hillside this way: "The god who made the hills of Florence was an artist. Ah! he was a jeweler, a cutter of metals, a sculptor, a caster of bronze and painter; he was a Florentine."

Many Writers Visited

Other writers who have been attracted to Fiesole include Giovanni Boccaccio, John Milton, Percy Shelley, Alexandre Dumas, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Gertrude Stein. Fiesole was also a favorite place of Leonardo da Vinci who, reportedly, experimented with attempts at flight off its hills.

After reaching the main square in Fiesole we caught up with Paola Martini, the charming manager of the Fiesole Tourist Office.

"Etruscan tombs and artifacts are being excavated all over the countryside," Martini said, while giving us a thumbnail history of the area.

"During the Middle Ages," she continued, "Fiesole dominated the region before it fell to the Florentines. Then, in 39 BC, to punish Fiesole for opposing Rome in one of its battles, the Roman ruler sent a colony to found Florence.

"As a result, Florence got its start with a mixed population of Fiesolans and Romans."

Not far from the tourist office is the Piazza Mino, the vital center of Fiesole. At the far end of the rectangular square is the 14th-Century beige Town Hall, which features antique coats of arms on the facade of the two-story structure.

Across from the Town Hall in the center of the square is an equestrian monument of the meeting at Teano between Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi and Italy's King Victor Emanuel.

A Massive Tower

Dominating the piazza is the Cathedral of Santa Romolo with its distinctive red-brick clock and bell tower and battlements. Built in 1028, the massive tower overlooks the city and can be seen for miles.

We strolled past two other structures of note. One is the lovely, sprawling Archbishop's Palace, built in the 11th Century; the other is the Bandini Museum that contains the works of many 15th-Century masters, including terra cottas by Della Robia.

The draw that brings most tourists to town is the archeological zone, whose entrance is just to the right of the clock tower.

A Roman amphitheater (Teatro Romano), dating to the 2nd Century, is, by far, the most impressive of the ruins. Carved into a hill, the ancient theater, which seats 2,500, was not excavated until 1809. The theater has been restored several times, and noteworthy musical events are held in summer: concerts, opera and plays.

We found other relics, including a segment of ancient Etruscan walls, arches of old Roman baths and the remains of an Etruscan temple. Excavations started in 1792 when the temple was discovered.

One should not leave Fiesole without climbing the steep cobblestone road leading to the hill overlooking the countryside. This winding road leads to the Basilica of Santa Alessandro and the Monastery of Santa Francesco at the top.

A Grand Panorama

The observation area affords a sweeping panorama of the area. Immediately below us we saw lush, rolling hills and sparkling white farmhouses with blazing red rooftops. The slopes extending toward Florence were covered with rows of cypress and olive trees.

Nearby, on the steps of the 13th-Century Santa Francesca Church, young artists were painting the ancient monastery.

Returning to the Piazza Mino, we stopped at the Bar Falli Fiesole to snack under the shade of a huge tree and to learn how Fiesole thrives on tourists.

Fiesole is also the "European campus" of U.S. universities--Stanford, Harvard and Georgetown, with magnificent villas for students abroad.

After spending a few delightful hours in Fiesole we came to the conclusion that it's worth the trip from Florence.

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Reaching Fiesole is easy from Florence: Take the No. 7 bus at the Central Station, rent a car, or hail a taxi for the 20-minute ride.

For information, write to the Italian Government Travel Office, 360 Post St., Suite 801, San Francisco 94108.

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