Barberino val d’Elsa, an ancient hamlet halfway between Florence and Siena
Perhaps it is not among the most famous hamlets in the area, but Barberino val d’Elsa is a place that certainly deserves to be taken into consideration as a stop on an itinerary in Chianti. We are in the western area of Chianti, between the Val d’Elsa and the Val di Pesa, among rolling hills and endless rows of vineyards alternating with olive groves; a real paradise where small historic villages, castles and ancient churches sprout here and there.
Telling about Barberino we cannot fail to mention the story of another city: Semifonte. Don’t waste time looking for it on the map because you won’t find it or better, you won’t find a city but only some ruins and a solitary chapel that stands where once this town was.
Founded between 1177 and 1178, Semifonte was a castle that thanks to its strategic position experienced a rapid growth up to become an important fortified city. In this regard, it seems that the knights of Semifonte dared to go under the walls of the crude rival Florence to shout in mockery: “Fiorenza, fatti in là che Semifon si fa città” (Florence move! because Semifonte becomes a city). It was this rivalry that led Semifonte towards its tragic end: born to contain the expansion of the Florentines, Semifonte was besieged by them and completely destroyed in 1202. Legend tells that the materials of the buildings destroyed in Semifonte would have been reused by the Florentines to build the city of Barberino Val d’Elsa.
Later Barberino developed both for its military role in defending the territories of Florence, which at the time was at war with Siena, and for its position at the crossroads of important north-south and east-west connecting roads. It is no coincidence that here in medieval times a hospital was built for the reception of pilgrims and travelers.
Things to do in Barberino val d’Elsa
Even today Barberino val d’Elsa has one of its strengths in hospitality, a characteristic that, combined with the beauty of the place and the typical food and wine offer of Chianti, makes this village an excellent choice for those who want to get to know Tuscany at outside the major cities. Let’s look what to visit in Barberino val d’Elsa:
- Medieval walls and city gates
- Piazza Barberini
- Palazzo Pretorio
- Spedale dei Pellegrini
- Chiesa di San Bartolomeo
The historic center of Barberino develops along the main street (via Francesco da Barberino) which can be accessed past two city gates: Porta Senese to the south and Porta Fiorentina to the north. At the halfway point we find the main square of the village, Piazza Barberini, while on a street parallel to the main road overlooks the main church which is named after San Bartolomeo. Barberino val d’Elsa retains many traces of its past, including some remains of the defensive walls and some historic buildings such as the Renaissance Palazzo Pretorio which is easily recognizable by the numerous coats of arms on the façade, the propositura with its loggia, the Spedale dei Pellegrini and the Palazzo del Cardinale.
Chiesa di San Bartolomeo
As we said, the Chiesa di San Bartolomeo is the main church of Barberino val d’Elsa. Even though the church has a more remote origin, the current building is in neo-Gothic style due to a twentieth-century rehash. Inside you can admire fragments of a fourteenth-century fresco depicting the Annunciation and a XIV century panel, Madonna with the Son, made by the so-called Master of Barberino. Don’t miss the view made of rolling hills, vineyards and scattered woods is remarkable, which can be enjoyed from the terrace that precedes the entrance to the church!
Places to visit around Barberino val d’Elsa
The surroundings of Barberino val d’Elsa are dotted with a series of very beautiful places to see. Villages, churches, castles and much more … there is plenty of choice! I will just mention a few to give you an idea of what to expect.
- Pieve di Sant’Appiano
- Castello di Tignano
- Badia a Passignano
Of what was once the powerful fortress of Semifonte today only a few ruins remain that sprout here and there among the vegetation. Among these is the so-called Fonte del Latte, a small building on two levels consisting of source of water on the lower floor and a chapel on the upper floor.
Having said of the few remains of Semifonte, all that remains is to talk about the main attraction of this place: the Cappella di San Michele Arcangelo. Built in 1597 by the architect Santi di Tito, this chapel is characterized by a dome that is the exact reproduction (in scale 1:8) of that of the Duomo of Florence and this is why it is also called “the Duomo of the Val d’Elsa“.
Pieve di Sant’Appiano
Located on top of a small hill in the countryside, the Pieve di Sant’Appiano is a beautiful example of Romanesque architecture and one of the most interesting places to visit in the area. Documented since 990, this is one of the oldest churches in the Chianti area: inside it is possible to note some early Romanesque elements that allow you to move the date of foundation to a more remote era than the first written documentation.
The complex to which thi parish church belongs is composed of a series of structures such as the cloister and the rectory and at one time also a baptistery that stood right in front of the church. Today only four isolated pillars remain of this building, contributing to the particular atmosphere that distinguishes this place.
The rooms annexed to the church house a small archaeological museum (an Antiquarium) where the finds found in the area are collected, documenting how the area was inhabited since the Etruscan era.
Castello di Tignano
The picturesque Castello di Tignano stands on the top of an isolated hillock with a wide view of the Val d’Elsa. Born as a castle in the Middle Ages, Tignano gradually took on the appearance of a hamlet while retaining some structures such as the well, the cistern and the keep’s tower which is located close to the only remaining access gate. The other buildings and the small church dedicated to Sant’Anna (XVI century) are more recent. The best time to visit Tignano Castle is on the occasion of the Tignano Festival, an interesting cultural event that for over 30 years animates the castle with events and concerts.
Badia a Passignano
The Abbazia di San Michele Arcangelo in Passignano can easily be considered the main point of interest in the area. The Badia a Passignano is a huge monastic complex that can be mistaken for a castle because of its towers and battlements that run along its walls. Inside you can admire a great artistic heritage with numerous frescoes, among which stands a Last Supper by Ghirlandaio made for the refectory.
More places to visit near Barberino val d’Elsa
In the countryside around Barberino you can find numerous Romanesque churches that, despite the passage of time and some restorations, still retain a considerable charm. Among these we can mention the church of San Martino in Pàstine, San Filippo in Ponzano and the church of San Lorenzo in Vigliano.
In addition to these churches, it is also worth visiting Tavarnelle, the medieval village of San Donato in Poggio, Olena and the Castello della Paneretta.
How to get to Barberino val d’Elsa
By car: from Florence you must take the Firenze – Siena motorway to the Tavarnelle Val di Pesa exit; from there continue following the signs for Barberino Val d’Elsa. Also from Siena you can reach Barberino with the same highway, in this case you should exit at Poggibonsi nord and then follow the indications.
By bus: from Florence there is the SITA line 131 which goes directly to Barberino. From Siena there is no direct bus but you will need to take line 136 to Poggibonsi and then the 370A to your destination.