Map of a typical Italian City

What Does a Medieval City Look Like Today?

The map below is a simplified, schematic map of a typical Italian city. It's not a small village, because it has an airport and a train station. It's not a huge city like Rome, because it does not have multiple train stations and airports. It is like Lucca or Pistoia.

Map showing a typical medieval city in modern times.
Map of a typical Italian City

If you're never visited an Italian city, this excercise is to show you how a typical city, one that's been around in medieval times, might have evolved to become a city in modern Italy.

The Train Station, Stazione

On the left of the map (west) is the town's train station. Train stations are usually at the edge of the historic center of a city. No always though; hill towns like Siena and Perugia have train stations on the flat below the hill. In this case there is a bus that meets the train, so you'll need to buy a ticket for these kinds of situations. You can usually buy them on the bus or go inside the station and purchase a bus ticket at the edicola, or newsstand.

Train stations usually have bar service, and generally you can get a sandwich, a panino, in a bar. If the city is large enough, you can usually find a place to stash your luggage in case you want to have a quick look around before heading to your main destaination.

There is often parking near the station, although you'll likely have to pay for it in larger cities. You can't drive in the pedestrian zones looking for parking. These are called ZTL, zona traffico limitato, where only limited traffic, taxis and delivery trucks, are allowed. To learn more about the ZTL and other differences between driving in the US and driving in Italy, see: Driving in Italy.

The dashed line that indicates the historic center, the centro storico on signs, may run along the ancient walls of the city, even if they've been torn down. Often, parts remain.

The Historic Center

The white area inside the gray dashed lines is the core of the medieval city, the centro storico, as the Italians call it. The core of the core is the piazza that contains the town's Duomo or Cathedral, usually called the Piazza del Duomo or the shortened Piazzo Duomo. Also in the piazza you will probably find a bar or two and here, perhaps a taxi stand, and nearby will likely be the Tourist Office, where you can get a map of the city and ask any questions you might have about it.

The Duomo will likely have a Dome and a Bell Tower. If you are up to it, it may be that one or both of these is climable for a drone's eye view of the city from above. Cremona is famous for its Climb of the Torrazzo, Europe's oldest surviving tower over 100 meters in height--where you can trudge up over 500 stairs to get a great view of the city all the way to the Po river.

Lucca has famous medieval towers you can climb as well. The Torre Guinigi or Guinigi Tower is famous for its views of the city from above and even more famous for the oak trees that grow on the top of the tower so you don't have to suffer in the sun. As you can see below, the streets are narrow and the city of Lucca sits in an amazing setting.

lucca view from the guinigi tower
Lucca from the Torre Guinigi

The Pedestrian Zone

All those narrow streets in a medieval village become a problem when you move from donkey carts to cars. There's not enough room for the gas guzzling beasts. So Italy is increasingly creating pedestrian zones, zone pedonali, so that folks can shop, go to restaurants and drink without being accosted by cars.

This works well in theory, but often taxis have the run of the pedestrian center to service hotels because that's where tourists like to be. Bikes and often motorcycles will also make you pay attention to your surroundings.

You'll notice that the houses are built smack against one another in Lucca, pictured above. This strengthens them, and effieiently equalizes the interior heat in winter because there's no exposure to cold air on either side of the buildings. But sometimes you'll notice that the houses are set apart from each other by a couple of inches (there are a few in San Gimignano that I'm aware of). Why? Permission is required to build on another person's wall, and if you don't like the guy who bought the lot next door, maybe you don't give that permission...

A River Runs Through It

A river runs through our imaginary town, as it did most medieval towns. It is likely to have some bridges built over it. The medieval ones are often recognized by their humpback configuration. Some cities still use ancient Roman Bridges to get modern vehicles from one side of the river to the other, like the Ponte di Tiberio in Rimini.

If you're the kind of tourist who wonders what, if anything, is better today than in medieval times, rivers in Europe have to be a thing you obsess over. During the Roman period human excrement, dead bodies, wash-water and other major polutants were found in the river water. In the medieval period through the industrial revolution toxic chemicals used in processes like leather tanning were added to the mix. Drinking water is one thing that invaders lacked, and the ancient Romans carried wine with them on their campagnes across Europe, preventing the sickness that came from drinking native water around cities.

By the way, if you look on a map you'll notice that Siena hasn't a river anywhere near it. Yet its fountains, a symbol of Sienese power and cleverness, run day and night. It turns out that Siena has a system of tunnels which have been in existance since the time of the Etruscans that supply water to those historic fountains, and you can find out about them at the Museo dell'Acqua, the Museun of Water on the edge of town.