Weekend Wanderlust: Walking in Michelangelo’s footsteps in the Little Valley of God

Famous for truffles and incredible history, Caprese Michelangelo is the perfect town for an autumn day trip in eastern Tuscany.

Weekend Wanderlust: Walking in Michelangelo's footsteps in the Little Valley of God
The house where Michelangelo was born and parts of Caprese castle. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

In the hills of eastern Tuscany you’ll find the small town of Caprese Michaelangelo draped over a hillside in a thickly-forested valley.

There are countless pretty medieval hilltop towns in this famously scenic region, but this one’s very special.

That’s mainly because it’s the birthplace of Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. His former family home still stands here, along with the Church of St. John, where he was baptised, and the Michelangelo Museum.

Formerly known just as Caprese, the ‘Michelangelo’ was added in 1913 by royal decree to honour the town’s most famous son.

To make it even more enticing, the town is known across Tuscany as being the best-value place in the region to eat any sort of dish containing the prized local black truffles. Surrounded by thick forested hillsides, tiny Caprese Michelangelo has a surprising number of excellent restaurants specialising in truffle-loaded dishes at very reasonable prices.

Caprese Michelangelo. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

We reached the town on a windy November day after a scenic and hair-raising drive up steeply zigzagging country roads, past vineyards and valleys, the road plunging us into thick forests before opening up onto an expansive view over the Upper Tiber Valley.

This whole area is known as La Piccola Valle di Dio, or “the little valley of God”. Its many sites connected with the travels of St Francis, the famous nature-loving saint, make it a particularly holy place.

And it’s incredibly beautiful; the dream Tuscan picture-postcard landscape stretched out as far as we could see as we arrived in Caprese Michaelangelo.

Still and serene, the town looks down upon the forests below and with the vivid turquoise of Lake Montedoglio visible in the distance. At this time of year the valley’s hillsides are a palette of red, orange and gold, filled with chestnut trees, while its forest floors are a treasure trove of truffles and mushrooms.

Palazzo Clusini, the house where Michelangelo was born in 1475, was built within the walls of the ruined Caprese Castle.

As you can guess from the size of their house and its location, Michelangelo’s father Lodovico was an important figure in the town, a magistrate sent here from Florence.

By the time the house was built, the once-grand castle had already been partly destroyed in fighting between the regions of Arezzo and Florence. Today, there’s not a lot left of the castle walls, but the house itself is perfectly preserved.

As the birthplace of the great Renaissance master, this is obviously a site of pilgrimage for art lovers from around the world. But there’s no mass tourism here, and not a tacky gift shop or giant tour bus to be seen. At the castle, instead, there was almost no one around.

I was the only tourist posing outside Michelangelo's house that day. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

It was threatening to rain, and the ominous grey skies and silence made everything a bit eerie.

Especially when we explored the castle grounds further and stumbled on the silent sculpture park, featuring plaster-casts of Michelangelo’s and other artists’ sculptures, which now mostly reside in Florence.

The sculpture park. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

By then we’d worked up enough appetite to try this incredible food we’d heard so much about from friends in Arezzo, who’d sworn the truffles there were some of the best in Italy.

The town has several highly-rated restaurants specialising in truffles and mushrooms, and I don’t think you can really go wrong. But the one most people recommended to me was Il Cerro.

We knew it was the right choice as soon as our primo arrived; a plate of bite-sized pillows of homemade mushroom agnolotti doused in light, truffle-infused cream. Then came buttery fillets of veal, topped with intensely earthy mushrooms that the waiter said had been on the forest floor that morning.

Grilled veal with mushrooms at Il Cerro. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

The place might have looked rustic with its simple, wood-panelled dining room and relaxed atmosphere, but the food and service put  some of Florence’s most upscale restaurants to shame.

I love the fact that dipping biscuits into a glass of wine is not only socially acceptable but encouraged in Tuscany, and here the cantucci and vin santo here was nearly as good as the family’s homemade rosolio di ciliege, a cherry liqueur.

Cantucci with vin santo. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

We set off back to Arezzo as the sky grew dark and the rain started, but if you wanted to spend a few days exploring this incredible region Caprese Michelangelo, which has a couple of small hotels, makes an ideal base for visiting sites like the Church of San Polo, Zenzano Chapel and the Casella Hermitage, set in the valley below.