One toasty, Tuscan, summer day a few years back, I accompanied Meg on a trek out to the Medici Villa at Castello for some thesis research. Wellllllllllllllll you know how these things go. One villa led to another, and another, and another, and before we knew it we were riding a full-fledged Tuscany high. While the hills outside of Florence are sprinkled with these Medici playgrounds, the group of three Medici Villas near Castello (a short bus ride from Florence) are conveniently situated for you to make your first-ever, bona fide, Villa Crawl.
Free entry, non-existent crowds, and diesel-free air. So what’s the catch? Admittedly, a trip out to the villas is not as convenient as a bop to the city center. However, it’s nothing that a little proper prior planning and a map can’t tackle. Just follow a few FFF bits of advice, and you’ll be crawling in no time.
1. Before zipping out to Castello check opening hours:
January, February, November and December: 8:15 AM – 4:30 PM
March: 8:15 AM – 5:30 PM
April, May and September: 8:15 AM – 6:30 PM
June, July and August: 8:15 AM – 7:30 PM
October: 8:15 AM – 5:30 PM
**But you never can be too sure so call in advance to confirm that the villas will be open 055452691
2. Since you’re making calls anyway, dial up the last stop of the crawl, the Villa Quiete. While Meg and I lucked out and found a friendly guard to sneak us through the gate, the villa is typically open upon request only (still free though!). And unless you are on a lucky streak (or let’s face it, a girl) it’s better to reserve than banking on charming your way through the door. 055454016
3. Slap on a little SPF, grab a bottle of water, and head to the Santa Maria Novella Train station.
4. From here you will take bus number 2 or 28 (click here for schedules). The bus ride takes about 20 minutes. Your stop is Sestese 5.
Head straight toward the traffic light once off the bus. Turn right onto Via Giulio Bechi. Your first stop, the grandiose Villa di Castello awaits where the trees clear.
Villa di Castello
Head to the right side of the villa. Don’t waste a second being disappointed that the privately owned villa denies entry to visitors, because the most magical, perfect, fairy tale garden awaits you out back. Find the guard at the side gate. Exchange ciao’s then go for it! Lemon trees, rose bushes, lavender and over 600 other varieties of vegetation will send you into sensory overload – the good kind!
Yes, we suppose that you could pay 11 euro to share a spot of grass with some teenagers at Boboli (don’t get us wrong, we love Boboli). BUT you could alternatively pay nothing to take the regal garden of Castello completely for yourself. Mmmmm we choose the latter.
So where did this perfectly preened pleasure garden come from? Lorenzo de’ Medici, also known as “the magnificent” purchased the property in the later 15th century. The lotplinkoed down the family line and wound up in the hands of the future Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici’s father. Little Cosimo grew up in this humble abode and ran wild on these grounds as a boy. It’s no surprise then, that when power fell into Cosimo’s lap, he decided to make Castello his villa of choice for relaxation. In 1537 he commissioned Niccolò Tribolo to design the elaborate gardens we bask in today. And naturally, the citrus connoisseurs that the Medici were, he made sure to include excessive lemon trees and insisted upon an over-the-top Lemonaia (where lemons are stored during the winter) in the layout.
Cosimo’s fun had only begun though. While Florence meant business, Castello meant pleasure. The garden was full of nothing but Cosimo’s favorite things: Hercules (his mythological role model), lemons, water works, and an overall tediously ordered design – a metaphor for the perfect order he would bring to chaotic Florence.
To top off the fun, Cosimo decided to throw in a water park. Uhhh mi scusi? At the back of the garden proper you will find a grotto filled with every animal on God’s good earth. Such exotic species drew in curious visitors (children and dignitaries alike). Once inside, the iron gates would close and streams of water shot from every direction. Even the stone animals would get in on the action, spitting directly at their unsuspecting victim! Cosimo, you jokester! The waterworks of the grotto no longer surprise unsuspecting visitors, as the iron gate remains closed preventing visitors from entering the actual grotto. However, from the gate you can still admire the handiwork of Niccolo’ Tribolo, Ammanati, Giambologna, and Vasari’s impressive group project. Want to take a closer look? Check out the collection of bronze foul at the Bargello by Giambologna. These little guys were originally part of the animal menagerie.
Oh and the unicorn? Florentines had no reason to believe unicorns were fictional (a theory I think we can all get behind). In fact, Cosimo had a lifelong dream of hunting a unicorn. Can you imagine that above your mantle? There was even a kind of dark market for unicorn horns during this time, when sketchy salesmen would pass off narwhal horns as unicorn ones. Which kind of makes me say, hey, if there are such things as narwhals, is it that crazy to believe unicorns are out dancing in the hills of Tuscany?
Dying to know more about the grotto? Just ask our resident expert Meg who wrote her thesis about this world’s first water park. Who said art history was boring?!
Shall we chat about the dark forest that looms beyond the walls of the garden? Well first, it’s actually quite sunny. In comparison to the lemon-lined, perfectly preened garden, the forest does appear a bit more wild and unkempt (also according to Cosimo’s grand plan). A stroll around the grounds, however, is definitely worth it. In particular make sure to find the Appennino statue. This chilly fellow represents the Appenine mountains, the water source for Tuscany. For a bigger, better, more Giambologna version of an Appennino go to Pratolino, well after this villa crawl that is!
While we could easily pass a lazy afternoon in Cosimo’s playground, we have more lifestyles of the rich and Medici to see! Exit the garden through the main gate and head back to the road, Via del Castello. Turn left onto the street and follow it until you reach Via della Petraia. Bet you can spot the next stop on the crawl!
Villa la Petraia
Our next villa is the lovely, elegant, when can I move in?, Villa la Petraia. The villa was originally a medieval castle and was remodeled over and over to finally look like this Renaissance beauty. The tall tower remains an ode to its original medieval design. The in-demand property passed around the hands of almost every prominent Florentine family (Brunelleschi, Strozzi, Salutati, you get it) until it finally landed in the powerful grip of the Medici. Cosimo snatched up this neighboring villa to his favorite Castello and gave it to his son (and future Duke) Ferdinando. Although good enough for run-of-the-mill Florentine nobility, Ferdinando found it not quite fit for a Medici. He took on the “fixer-upper” and created a getaway to rival his dad’s in the process.
Ferdinando recruited only the best, Niccolò Tribolo (the mastermind behind both Castello and Boboli) to design his garden. Ferdinando and Tribolo created a layout more complicated and vegetation even more strategic than Castello’s. We suggest picking up a brochure at the entrance to help you navigate the flora. While the brochure will give you a much better explanation of the garden than I can, I will tell you these two facts. First, the flowers of the garden follow an aromatic scheme – a welcome delight to our noses! Second, Tribolo created an aqueduct, the Acquedotto di Valcenni, just for the garden to ensure that aromatic adventure wouldn’t go bad.
Unlike Castello, the Villa della Petraia welcomes you inside for a peek . The courtyard of the villa houses a lovely sculpture collection and is decorated with frescoes by Volterrano and Cosimo Daddi. The clever Giambologna statue of Venus squeezing out her wet hair into the fountain below is now housed inside the courtyard for posterity.
Once you’ve cooled off in the refuge of the Petraia courtyard, head back down Via della Petraia. Pass Via del Castello and turn left on Via del Boldrone. Follow Via del Boldrone until it ends at Villa Quiete.
Remember, in order to break through the gates of this one, you’ll need to call and make reservations (055454016). OR be a super lucky sweet talker. We recommend the former.
The Quiet Villa is named after the fresco cycle inside, Still Calms the Winds, by Giovanni da San Giovanni. This villa is the bambino of the group as the Medici did not acquire it until 1593. It passed hands among the Medici family members, taking on roles such as a summer convent for the Montalve religious order and residence of the last descendant of the Medici family, Anna Maria Luisa dei Medici (that’s right ladies, don’t go trolling around Florence looking for Medici to marry – the effort is futile, believe me). Anna Maria employed the help of the Boboli gardener at the time to help create her oasis at La Quiete.
The understated villa is a perfect place to close the crawl. La Quiete remains a bit less flashy than its big brothers Castello and Petraia, and is even further off the beaten path of the Tuscan tourist circuit. True to its name, Quiete contains a certain calm. It’s no surprise that this is where the family that made Florence made their final exit.
Stroll back toward Castello, down the tree-lined lane and to bus 2 or 28. On your way don’t forget to take in Tuscany. The olive groves, the rolling hills, the nonni sitting on their porches. They enjoy a pace of life that most of us are completely unfamiliar with. Take a cue from these sigonori and remember to take it slow and crawl through Florence, because there’s no better way to do it.