When you consider how strong a sense of place Italy retains after all these many centuries, it’s no wonder that protection, in the purest sense of the word, has played a prime role in this. In some ways the “boot” of Italy is like an island, with the Alps sealing the country off from the Teutonic hordes up north and the Mediterranean everywhere else serving as an aquatic barrier to other sorts of onslaughts. And these natural fences are echoed in the ancient, manmade walls that historically defined and defended city boundaries in a country where independent city-states long figured prominently.
From Tuscan hilltops to Umbrian glades, these are Italy’s wonder walls. Consider the fortifications you’ll still find in Lucca, Viterbo, Perugia, Verona, San Gimignano, Montagnana and – yes – even Venice, to get a clearer picture of the power of protected places.
It’s one of the most enchanting towns in all of Italy, a jewel of Tuscany with Etruscan roots and a place that grew rich from the silk trade. Sights include the circular Piazza Anfiteatro, the Basilica di San Frediano and the gorgeous Palazzo Pfanner. Perhaps most impressive, though, are Lucca’s Renaissance walls, which have withstood the test of time. Also remarkable is the red brick Torre Guinigi which, rather unusually, has oak trees on its top.
Tiny Montagnana (population 9,530) is located in Padova province. It is completely encircled by thick, crenellated medieval walls that are some of the most intact surviving medieval walls in Europe. Within the walls there are two castles and a notable Gothic cathedral.
Viterbo is a treasure of town in the lush recesses of the Lazio region some 50 miles north of Rome. Its central district is surrounded by medieval walls dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. Legend has it that Viterbo was founded by Hercules, who is represented by a lion in the town’s coat of arms.
This Tuscan hill town, in the province of Siena, is world famous on account of its marvelously intact medieval walls and towers. Like Lucca, San Gimignano was founded by the Etruscans. In the 10th century its fortifications helped keep the Huns at bay. Independent early on from nearby Volterra, the town got caught up in the feud between Guelphs and Ghibellines, but remained prosperous for much of the early Middle Ages. Today its 14 medieval towers, one as high as 177 feet, still stand sturdy and proud.
The northern Italian city of Romeo and Juliet fame has many medieval walls that are still intact. It also has an ancient Roman arena where a famous opera festival now takes place every summer. Its aggregate of ancient Roman, medieval and Renaissance architecture has earned Verona UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
The capital of Umbria, Perugia is a place with a rich past. Historical sources say that between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC, the city was fortified by massive town walls in travertine blocks that followed the hilly ground around the city – and are still largely visible today, particularly to the west and north. Six of seven gates, partly modified by the Romans and once again in the Middle Ages, allowed access into town. Built to last, they exist to this day.
Venice’s lagoon has served as the best set of “wonder walls” any city could ever ask for.
But there’s more: the Castello sestiere in Venice is home to the vast Arsenale, which dates back to 1104 and is where the ships that enabled Venice to create her maritime empire were built. Galileo himself helped out with the design. Admire the Arsenale’s scope from the 15th-century Porta Magna lion gate and peer at the impressive two-mile long ramparts that surround it. Don’t count on getting inside, though – unless you’ve got a friend in the Italian Navy!
Which of these wonder walls you would like to attack? Let us know!