Colle di Val d'Elsa
Submitted by HedonisticHiking on 7 Aug 2023
Explore Colle di Val d’Elsa - Italy's Crystal City
About Colle di Val d’Elsa
Colle di Val d’Elsa is a town which sits right in the centre of the region of Tuscany, a little to the north west of Siena. Unusually for a Tuscan medieval town it has an industrial history and today the town is split into two very distinct parts - the lower modern area and the medieval heart above, known as Colle Alta. It is famous across Italy for its manufacture of fine glass and crystal and accounts for 95% of Italian crystal production and 15% of production worldwide. We stay here for the second half of our Tuscan Harvest tour, after we have explored the vineyards of the Chianti Classico region on foot.
Where is Colle di Val d’Elsa?
Situated between Siena and Florence, Colle sits in the valley of the Elsa River which flows from the Montagnola hills towards the River Arno. The water source was important over the centuries to power the town's flour and paper mills. The surrounding countryside is a patchwork of vineyards, olive groves and wheat fields, studded with Romanesque churches, ruined castles and medieval villages.
History of Colle di Val d’Elsa
Archaeological finds nearby attest to Etruscans having lived in the area, and we know that neighbouring Volterra was a key Etruscan stronghold. Colle often found itself in the middle of ongoing struggles between Florence and Siena and 1269 was the year of the important Battle of Colle when the Florentines defeated the Sienese. In 1333 Colle voluntarily put itself under the protection of Florence which led to a period of stability and prosperity. The town also sat on the famous Via Francigena pilgrim route to Rome and so became an important stopping point for travellers on their way to the holy city. By diverting the water from the Elsa River to an efficient canal system, the residents of Colle became successful in developing paper and wool industries, before the production of glass really took off in the 17th century. The most famous son of Colle di Val d’Elsa is the architect of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Arnolfo di Cambio, who was born here around 1232 and after whom many features of the town are named.
Things to do in Colle di Val d’Elsa
Piazza del Duomo
The Via del Castello is the central thoroughfare of 3 parallel streets in Colle Alta, and midway along this is the Piazza del Duomo. Here you can visit the cathedral, the Archaeological Museum and the City & Sacred Art Museum. Look out for the curious tunnelled alleyways which connect the 3 streets.
Torre di Arnolfo
Also along the Via del Castello are many well-preserved 16th century mansions, home at one time to the ruling families. Amongst these is the tower house where Arnolfo di Cambio is believed to have been born, today known as the Torre di Arnolfo. There are many shops to look out for selling examples of the local glass. At the end of the main road is the impressive Porta Nuova, attributed to Giuliano da Sangallo, which was the original gateway and fortification of the town, coming from the direction of Volterra.
Crystal Glass Museum
The Crystal Glass Museum, situated in the lower town not far from the central Piazza Arnolfo, displays a collection of handmade crystal glass from medieval times to the 20th-century, and also explains manufacturing techniques. At the time of writing, the museum is undergoing extensive renovation and a large part of the collection has been set up inside the Palazzo dei Priori on the Via del Castello 33 in the old town, mentioned above.
The Elsa River Trail
This well marked walking trail is approx 4 km long and passes two historic hydraulic engineering works which helped to power the town. There is an attractive waterfall along the way and several crossing points and places to swim in the turquoise waters. Find out more.
What to eat and drink in Colle di Val d’Elsa
You cannot mention dining in Colle without reference to the Arnolfo restaurant. It is one of very few restaurants in Italy to hold 2 Michelin stars and has been in Colle for over 40 years. The Chef is Gaetano Trovato and his brother Giovanni is Restaurant Manager and Head Sommelier. The brothers have been working together for decades and, in 2022 which marked their 40th anniversary of running the restaurant, a brand-new purpose-built location was opened which is both beautiful and spectacular. They created the space to reflect their love of the territory and their philosophy of hospitality, with huge glass windows giving magnificent views of the medieval town. We eat here on the final night of our tour.
In this part of central Tuscany typical dishes include crostini, ribollita soups made with local beans, pecorino sheep cheeses from the hills around Siena, rich Panforte cakes and fennel-flavoured salamis. For wines you are really spoilt for choice in Tuscany with the great vineyards of Chianti, Bolgheri, Brunello di Montalcino, Nobile di Montepulciano and Vernaccia di San Gimignano just a stone's throw away. Colle has an excellent weekly food market every Friday.
Getting to Colle di Val d’Elsa
The nearest railway station is at Poggibonsi and there are regular bus services between the two, and between Colle and Florence, Siena and San Gimignano. The closest airports are at Pisa and Florence. If arriving by car, Colle has exits (nord and sud) off the Superstrada which connects Florence to Siena. The best place to leave your car is the free car park situated in Strada della Fornacina, close to the Porta Nuova city gate.