It’s easy to spot visitors in search of designer fashion bargains at Space, the Prada outlet in Montevarchi, about 45 minutes south of Florence. Invariably dressed in black, they’re the ones sprinting for the parking lot or train after their shopping spree.
Taking in the local sights isn’t on their agenda, but I think they’re missing out. I won’t argue that Montevarchi can compete with tourist magnets like Siena or the Chianti. But long stays at Il Poggiolo, down a nearby country road, have given me a chance to know and appreciate this place. Like so many Italian towns that seem to be nothing special, it has a history and a way of life.
The stone garrison, now home to a modern art museum, was built in 1289 to defend the town. In battles between Florence and Arezzo, Montevarchi and other towns in the Arno Valley fell into Florence’s sphere, and even now residents feel a closer affinity to that city than to Arezzo–even though the latter is closer.
Montevarchi’s medieval wool and silk industries were the foundation of hand-crafted shoe, hat and clothing businesses that continue to this day.
As an important market town,
Montevarchi once boasted its own unit for measuring weight. True to that heritage, the town hosts a Thursday market that’s one of the region’s largest–there you can buy inexpensive clothing, a porchetta sandwich, fresh vegetables. Even better is the Mercato Coperto (Covered
Market). Open every day, it sells goods from 70 local farmers and producers of olive oil, cheese and wine.
On a side street is Bonci, a family-owned bakery that makes panbriacone, a “drunken sweet bread” with an international following. An all-natural panettone is injected with liqueurs and sweet wine that keep it moist and delicious for up to a year. (I plan to write more about Bonci, so that’s all I’m saying for now!)
My favorite destination is through ancient alleys into the heart of the old city. If you’re a local (or, like me, a temporary local), you might start with a cappuccino or espresso at a bar. I frequent any of them except the one with a dozen old guys sitting on benches.
The Collegiata of San Lorenzo church is open, so I slip into its Baroque interior to see the Relic of the Holy Milk and a few paintings of minor 16th-century artists.
I’m afraid the salumeria has closed, but it’s only moved around the corner to a larger space. There are still several fine bread and pastry shops, two butchers, a merceria selling sewing supplies and a pharmacy where customers line up to confide their health problems. In short, life goes on despite Italy’s economic crisis.
Talking to shop owners and a loquacious barber, we ask how things are going. Nationally, unemployment stands at nearly 12 percent and, for young people, approaches 40 percent. But, from what we hear, Montevarchi is doing better than average. Some businesses have closed—notably, those that make cheaper clothing—but customers of Prada and other high-end clothing makers insist on Montevarchi’s “made in Italy” tags.
Most shops shut down for the pausa, 12:30-ish until 4. Montevarchi is hardly a restaurant mecca, but there are a few good options. Daniele e Riccardo, run by two brothers, has risen to the top on consumer sites. No tourists when I lunched there, just a few locals and business people passing through. Daniele laid on complimentary panzanella in addition to spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and zucchini flowers, steamed baccala with mashed potatoes, a glass of red wine and an espresso, all for 20 euros.
Plenty of time for a visit to Mariani, the best gelateria in town. For less than two euros, I linger over a cup with one scoop of creamy orange and another of pistachio gelato, its army fatigue color testifying to naturalness.
Then back to the center, where apartment dwellers open their shutters to the late-afternoon light and shoppers start to make their rounds.