When E.M. Forster wrote his sun-dappled Florentine novel "A Room With a View," this is the view he was writing about.
Perched some 1,000 feet above the Arno Valley, this small, sleepy hill town holds many treasures, from its ancient Etruscan walls to its intimate archeological and art museums, but none is so celebrated as the spectacular, soul-soothing view it commands of the city of Florence and the timeless Tuscan countryside.Forster, writing in the early 20th century, was hardly the first to fall under the spell of Fiesole (pronounced fee-EZ-o-lay). From the Romans, who conquered it in the 3rd century B.C.; to the Medici rulers, who made it their country retreat in the 15th century; to the English Romantic poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, who doted on it in the 19th century, the town long has exerted the tranquil charm of a place apart.
The same still holds. When the modern visitor to Florence, weary of business, footsore from shopping or bleary-eyed from gallery gazing, needs a respite from the city's noise and bustle, Fiesole, with its fresh air and panoramic views, is the place to go.
For less than $1.50 round-trip and a 20-minute ride on a city bus from Florence's Piazza del Duomo, Fiesole offers a fast and delightful getaway for a day or just a few hours.
Getting there offers its own pleasures. Within minutes of boarding the bus, Florence melts away. The road begins a slow and steady climb, first past suburban-style villas with brimming flower boxes and leafy gardens then through villages clinging to hillsides spiked with cypresses and criss-crossed with vineyards.
Narrow, and often bordered with stone walls, the road coils higher and higher, rising through silvery olive groves to offer glimpses of the Arno Valley before trundling into Fiesole's central square, Piazza Mino.
Named for the 15th-century sculptor Mino da Fiesole, the piazza is a large, rambling space rimmed by the town's medieval cathedral, 14th-century town hall and cafes and restaurants fringed with tree-shaded terraces. From here, everything worth seeing in Fiesole can easily be reached by foot by anyone wearing even slightly sensible shoes.
The Piazza Mino, which was a forum in Roman times, forms the heart of a town founded by the Etruscans in (it is believed) about the 4th century B.C. As such, it is often called the "mother" of Florence, which was settled by Etruscans from Fiesole in about 200 B.C.
Its remote location protected it through much of its history, but in 1125 Fiesole found itself nearly destroyed and then conquered by Florence, an event immortalized in Dante's "Inferno." Today, Fiesole is a bedroom community of about 15,000 residents.
Evidence of Fiesole's Etruscan roots can be seen in excavated stretches of thick walls, built from large blocks of sandstone, which were built to enclose the city in about the 3rd century B.C.
Some of these walls abut the town's extensive archeological museum and excavation site, about half a block away from the central square. Offering a mixture of Etruscan and Roman ruins, the excavation area is dominated by a Roman amphitheater built during the reign of the emperor Augustus to seat some 3,000 spectators and still is in use.
Carved into the natural slope of the hillside, the amphitheater's 23 semicircular rows of stone seats command a sweeping view of the valley below. Nearby are the remains of a Roman bath and an Etruscan temple that was built over by the Romans after they occupied the town.
Adjacent to the excavation site, the archeological museum presents artifacts dating to the area's Neolithic period. Among the most rare, however, are the Etruscan bronze, ceramic and stone pieces.
The museum offers a large number of tiny bronze statuettes that have an almost Balinese air with their elongated, E.T.-like bodies, gracefully outstretched arms with palms turned down and heads sporting conical caps. Believed to be votive figures, they date to the 5th century B.C.
The museum also has an extensive collection of Etruscan and Roman tomb artifacts and funerary monuments, principally the highly decorated and inscribed rectangular slabs, or stele, used for the wealthy and the aristocracy.
Just outside the archeological complex is the Bandini Museum, which holds a collection of 15th and 16th century enameled terra cotta works by Florence's Della Robbia family of artisans and Florentine paintings from about the same period.
The most strenuous part of a visit to Fiesole is the trek to its fabled view. To reach it, one must climb the Hill of St. Francis, up a long, narrow and steep stone paved path that starts just off the central square. There isn't much to shop for in Fiesole, but the path is lined with small stores selling artworks, straw and leather goods.
At the end of this path is a small plaza with benches from which to look out over a breathtaking view of Florence. A composition in green and gold, on a clear day the countryside rolls out in a mosaic of farm fields, red-tiled roofs and groves of olive trees until it meets the city, with its burnished cathedral dome and its bridges over the Arno River.
But that's still not the top of the hill. From this point, wide stone steps lead further upward, past the whitewashed 9th century Church of St. Alexander to the summit and the 14th century church and monastery of St. Francis.
The church, built on the ruins of an Etruscan fortress, has a number of 15th and 16th century paintings and opens out onto a small cloister with a garden centered around a goldfish pond.
The monastery also houses a small and somewhat eccentric museum in six small rooms in the basement. It has a collection of Etruscan artifacts collected on its grounds, a Chinese section and a selection of ancient Egyptian pieces, including the mummies of a woman and her cat.
Florence's No. 7 bus makes frequent round trips to Fiesole's central Piazza Mino. In Florence, it can be boarded at several locations; two of the most convenient are the Santa Maria Novella train station and the Via Martelli, just steps away from the rear of the Duomo, or cathedral. Tickets for the bus, which cost 1,100 lire (about 75 cents) each way, may be bought at any tobacco shop or bar.
Museums and historical sites in Fiesole, as in the rest of Italy, generally are closed on Mondays and from 12:30 to 3 p.m.