When we arrived at the ancient Italian village of Spello, the streets were paved with flowers. But by the look of the extraordinary fortifications, those same cobbled streets must often have flowed with blood.

The historic towns dotted through Umbria and Tuscany are certainly very picturesque, but clearly there was a reason for them being surrounded with stone walls and built on inaccessible rocky peaks - and it wasn't so they could look cute.

Spello, probably the most beautiful of them all, seems to have been under almost constant siege. According to Isabella Dusi, who guided us through this lovely part of Italy, if the Spellans weren't being attacked by the nice folks from Assisi, just to the north, they were being beaten up by big brother Perugia, out to the west; and if it wasn't Attila and his Huns sweeping down in search of plunder, it was Albion and the Lombards looking for an empire.

No wonder access for foreigners - even friendly foreigners happy to pay for hospitality - is restricted by narrow roads, tough traffic restrictions, lack of parking ... and, in our case, carpets of flowers.

Our bus had to crawl up the winding road to the rear of the town, drop us outside one of the gates, and then make its way back down to a parking area, while we walked a short distance through the cobblestone lanes to our hotel.

Not that we minded, because Spello is an amazing place to stroll through, with its narrow roads, some so steep they have stairs up the middle; spectacular views over the surrounding countryside, including fields golden with wheat and dotted with bright red poppies; aged stone houses, many glowing with boxes of flowers; amazing churches, some hiding masterpieces painted by the great Pinturicchio; and busy cafes, where the locals talk quietly among themselves and keep a wary eye upon visitors.

And that, according to Dusi, is another consequence of the town's turbulent history. "Although they now don't need the high-walled security of their ancestors," she says, "they still appear unsure of your intentions, certainly unsure of why you want to visit their little citta."

More reminders of Spello's weighty past are everywhere. The main gate, down at the bottom of the town, was built by the Romans 2000 years ago.

Several houses have bricked up doors - Porta del Morto or Doors of the Dead - opened only for bodies to be removed for burial.

The town is still circled by walls, perched on the top of stone cliffs, with watch towers sprouting at regular intervals.

And of course the town's history is kept alive through celebrations like Le Infiorate, the flower festival, which was just ending when we turned up.

For the festival the locals gather blooms from the surrounding fields and their own garden boxes, then build the most amazing flower carpets on the stone roads, which provide the focal point for a religious procession. Unfortunately the carpets were being tidied away by the time we got to walk through the town but from what I saw, and the photos on display, they are magnificent.

These days the flowers are an offering to mark the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi but the event apparently dates back to ancient festivals in honor of Aphrodite.

In Spello, as in much of rural Italy, a dark and mysterious past lurks behind everything.

In Perugia, the capital of Umbria, an escalator takes you up to the day before yesterday.

We arrived at the bus station on the outskirts of the city and rode up the escalator into the heart of town ... and 2000 years into the past.

The travelling staircase runs through the foundations of the city, including Etruscan sculptures, a Roman handball court and the gloomy cellars, bread ovens, wells and dungeons of a medieval palace built by the ruling Baglioni family.

Today the city is a friendly place, where the locals drag their chairs into the piazza to sit in the sun and enjoy a coffee, but it has a bloodthirsty history.

Indeed, so much blood was spilled on the steps of the vast, gloomy, spartan Cathedral of San Lorenzo that 500 years ago they were washed with wine and reconsecrated.

The cathedral was planned to be more showy, the Perugians intending to use a consignment of marble captured from nearby Arezzo to decorate its interior. But Arezzo won the next battle and the marble was taken back.

Still, it does have the Virgin Mary's wedding ring, kept in a casket with 15 locks in a heavily protected chapel with a magnificent, and impenetrable, iron fence.

Dusi, our guide, no lover of ancient Perugia, said it was hardly surprising the ring was kept under strict security since the city stole it in the first place.

"The story is told that in 985 the ring was sold by a Jew to a jeweller who made the mistake of entrusting it to the wicked Braccio Baglioni and never got it back."

The town of Buonconvento is a little unusual in Tuscany in being built on the flat, at the confluence of the Ombrone and Arbia Rivers, rather than on top of a hill.

Instead it was protected by huge walls, built in 1371, which still surround most of the town.

You can even see one of the huge old wooden gates which until as recently as a century ago were still locked every night.

The narrow streets have some fine cafes, great places to sit in the evening and enjoy the town's food and wine. But such has not always been the case.

Legend has it, in 1313 the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII spent a night in the town and was poisoned by the local clergy who objected to his plans to restore imperial power.

This has given rise to the saying: "Buon convento. Cattivi preti" or "Good convent. Bad priests".

Of all the glittering treasures, magnificent artworks and extraordinary religious relics I saw during several weeks in Italy none was more moving than the tattered old robe and worn leather sandals displayed in the crypt of a fairly nondescript church.

They are said to be the robe and sandals worn by St Francis of Assisi, probably the most loved of all the Catholic saints (even by non-Catholics), and patron saint of Italy, who died in 1226.

Surprisingly to me, given the message of peace, charity and love that Francis preached, his home town of Assisi is as shaped by war as any in Umbria.

It sits high on a hilltop, surrounded by fortifications and dominated by a massive castle, a reminder of a history filled with vendettas and wars.

Indeed, it is apparently thanks to the constant attacks, particularly from those dastardly Perugians, that visitors are today able to see the saint's robe. To prevent his remains being stolen and taken to Perugia they were hidden in a secret sepulchre in the town's old Roman ramparts and forgotten.

Some 400 years later the Franciscans of Assisi rediscovered the tomb and found the stone cask containing his body plus a tattered robe and sandals.

Inevitably, over the years, the tomb of this saint who preached and practiced poverty has become the focal point of an ornate edifice, made up of not one but two basilicas.

The ornate upper church has some magnificent frescoes portraying the life of Francis; the lower church, built by friars who followed his teachings more closely, is much simpler though still impressive; but the crypt in which his remains lie today is a plain stone room lit only by flickering candles and you can't help feeling he would feel at home there.

Poor old Romeo has definitely lost out in the publicity battle with his co-star Juliet as far as their home town of Verona is concerned.

Juliet's part in the tragic love story is commemorated in a beautiful 14th century villa, called the Palace of Juliet, built around a pleasant courtyard, complete with a dainty - and rather modern - balcony ... on which you can stand for a small fee.

The day I visited the whole place was jammed with visitors: sweaty men who fought to have their photos taken with a dainty statue of Juliet, and shrieking young women who climbed on each others' shoulders to find a blank spot on the wall of the entrance tunnel to inscribe a message of love.

The House of Romeo, by contrast, is a severe building protected by high crenellated walls and tall locked gates, marked only by a simple plaque bearing his name. Tourists are few.

Of course there's more to Verona than the traditional story made famous by William Shakespeare. Other attractions include a 2000-year-old accoustically perfect Roman coliseum still used for opera performances; the majestic Castelvecchio, a medieval stronghold of the brutal Scaligeri family, which today houses paintings by masters such as Tintoretto and Tiepolo; and the bizarrely ornate tombs of the Scaligeris.

But it's clearly the mementoes of Juliet the world flocks to see.

Way back when New York was a swamp and Dubai a desert there were skyscrapers soaring over San Gimignano.

San Gimignano's towers were not, however, built to provide prestigious addresses for wealthy people but as secure bases for feuding medieval lords.

At one stage there were 80 of them crammed onto the narrow ridgetop where the town sits. "This was," explained Isabella, "an era of bloodthirsty vendettas when the fighting families used the towers to store grain during long sieges and also to dump boiling oil on passing family members."

Today only 13 towers remain, all reduced in height from those dangerous times, but they still look impressive and give the town a unique appearance. Some can still be climbed, notably the 60m Torre Grossa, the tallest survivor, providing a marvellous view over a countryside which looks to have hardly changed since it was built in 1311.

We went to Volterra to see the wonderful Museo Etrusco Guarnacci, with its collection of artefacts left by Etruscans, who dominated Italy in the centuries before the rise of Rome. But we ended up as spectators at a medieval crossbow tournament.

The museum is certainly an extraordinary place to visit, the highlight being the sculpture of an elderly couple known as Urna degli Sposi, an early example of the alabaster work for which the city is still famous. But it was even more extraordinary to walk outside and find ourselves sharing the narrow cobblestoned streets with a party of nobles from 500 years ago.

We followed the party, taking care to stay clear of their ugly-looking man-at-arms, to the town square which was packed with excited spectators, many also in costume.

Isabella, our guide, discovered that we had turned up on the day of the annual crossbow competition between the quartiere - or sections of the city - of Volterra. Before the contest the gaudily costumed leaders of each quartiere paraded, preceded by their banner-bearers and followed by their crossbowmen (or in one case woman), to much shouting, rattling of drums and blowing of trumpets.

When the shooting started I was astounded at the power and accuracy of these ancient weapons. The short, thick arrows rocketed across the width of the square, hitting their targets smack in the middle with a powerful thump. They looked well capable of piercing even heavy armour.

One more reason for making your home on top of a hill and protecting it with lofty stone walls.

I'd like to think it was because we looked like a group of suave, sophisticated Florentines - though it may have had more to do with the guidebooks we were holding - but it was somehow flattering that the confused looking American backpacker chose us to approach in search of directions.

"Excuse me," he said, "but can you tell me where I can find the statue of David. The one by Michelangelo."

This was his lucky day, and ours, because we had just seen three statues of David.

First, there was the 17m high statue that Michelangelo carved from a battered block of marble back in 1504. Since 1837 it has been on display in the Galleria dell'Accademia where its presence, plus Michelangelo's unfinished series of sculptures known as the Prisoners, and a vast collection of religious art, means there are usually long queues outside.

Then there is the marble replica which since 1910 has stood in the Piazza della Signoria on the spot where the David was originally placed. Seeing that is free and, if you look carefully, you can see a mark on the wall behind, supposedly carved by Michelangelo to mark the placement of his sculpture. It's just round the corner from the Uffizi Gallery which has an even more magnificent collection of art than the Accademia.

Finally there is a bronze replica of David at the heart of the Piazzale Michelangelo, an open space created in 1869 on a hill above Florence, which has superb views over the city, copies of many of Michelangelo's best-known works and a remarkable collection of tatty souvenir stalls.

The young American made his decision in an instant. "I'll take the free one."

The choice wasn't a surprise but it was his loss. Admission to the Uffizi and the Accademia isn't cheap and sometimes you have to wait but it's well worth the effort. Not just for the magnificent art, but also to gain a sense of the incredible outpouring of creativity which resulted from the Rennaissance, starting here in Florence and spreading across Europe, leading to the world we live in today.

Touring those galleries under the guidance of Dusi, who used the paintings and sculptures on display to illustrate the development of techniques and styles, was a revelation.

It was also a reminder that, once freed from the constant threat of attack by some warlord, humans are capable of wonderful things ... of which Michelangelo's David is among the most wonderful.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to London via Hong Kong or Los Angeles with connections to Milan and Rome with partner airline Alitalia.

Getting around: Dunedin foodie Judith Cullen organises regular tours of Italy with Isabella and Luigi Dusi. See judith-cullen.com.

The Dusis lead several tours of Italy and the Mediterranean. Their longest-running, now in its eighth year, is the 15-day Italy in Depth, which is mainly filled with New Zealanders. You'll see an opera and a medieval pageant and visit enchanting hill towns and villages. See montalcino-tuscany.com.

Jim Eagles got to Europe with help from Air New Zealand but paid his own way around Italy.