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San Gimignano - Tuscany, Italy
What can I say about San Gimignano apart from the very fact that it is a unique place, steeped in history and nostalgia and one that I will always remember visiting with some fond memories. I visited San Gimignano with my girlfriend in 2011 on a red hot, bone roasting, week in August.
Set high up in the Tuscan hills, only a stone's throw from one of my favourite cities, Siena and roughly thirty-five miles from Florence, San Gimignano is a sight to behold on approach. It is known to people all around the world, namely tourists, as 'Medieval Manhattan'. The reason for this is the thirteen towers (actually thirteen and a bit) that rise up from its base at random points across the town, like some long forgotten skyscrapers that once belonged to a thriving hub of business and invention.
The town nestles in the Elsa Valley in the hilly region of Chianti, famous for its wine of course and is one of many neighbouring towns and villages that dot the Tuscan countryside. I would suggest to anyone visiting that they leave the car or get off the coach about a mile away from the town and walk the rest of the way because it is simply stunning. The surrounding countryside is filled with olive and grape vines and trees bearing oranges and lemons. Just the smell alone is a beautiful experience. I would say that you make sure you take some bottles of water with you as even a mile in the summer heat can be really draining on the hydration levels. Another good reason for not taking the car is that San Gimignano is surrounded by medieval walls that date back to thirteenth century and no vehicles are allowed past this point; so you basically have to walk up to the entrance of the town anyway, so you might as well stop a little further out and take in the view of the town's skyline and the beautiful scenery. The surrounding hills are a sight to behold and you feel like you are riding on a sea of green that is lit up every few feet by yellows, oranges and golden suggestions of nature that take your breath away.
The town takes its name from a Parisian Bishop who was said to have saved the town, or city as it was viewed by its people, from the Barbarian rebels, who would rape and pillage with frequent ruthlessness. Medina St Gimignano gained control of the town and had walls built around it to protect it from the Barbarians and it became a safe haven for many Parisians, who set up home and business there. There were originally seventy-two towers built by the wealthiest people in the town and the wealthier you were, the higher you would build your tower. Some of the standing towers today are still quite high, one reaching one hundred and ninety feet. It's a shame that you can't scale the towers as this would be an amazing part of your visit to the town, but the good news is that you can still go to the top of one of the tallest towers. The Torre Grossa at the Piazza del Duomo is situated in the Palazzo del Popolo (the People's Palace) in the middle of town. Again, take a rest and water before you climb the stairs as it is quite a climb. The entrance cost is minimal at around three euros. Once you get to the top however, all thoughts of exhaustion or sweatiness are forgotten as the view of the town and the surrounding countryside is absolutely breath-taking.
Having walked up to the town's entrance at Port San Giovanni, you are confronted with the fact that the bishop really did a good job of protecting his people as you notice that the town not only has one wall protecting it but a sort of intersecting layer of three walls. You can almost feel the history seeping out of the ancient rocks, covering your skin and filling your head with thoughts of battles and men fighting to protect their families from barbarians and those that wished to gain entrance to the city, including the Scottish centuries later; and here you are merely walking through the cut out entrance in the wall.
As I enter the town I can't fail to utilise my subconscious to locate a memory for the character of Luca, the would-be artist from the movie 'Tea with Mussolini', who walked these very streets. Being an artist myself gave me a feeling of content to flow alongside the nostalgic thoughts I already had as I walked along the ancient architecture.
The town itself really is postcard-pretty but not in the sense that it has been dipped into a bowl of Hollywood glitz. The feel of age resonates through the streets and alleyways and the smell of the stones gives it that almost, hidden from the world feel. As with Siena, Florence and most of the surrounding cities and towns, San Gimignano's streets are cleaned every morning and evening. If you happen to be there of a morning, it gives you a different view of the town as the streets glisten in the early morning sun. It is in fact better to visit this town in the early morning or late evening as it is easier to get around. In the day time it can become very crowded, mostly with tourists of course and it can be a tad tiresome to navigate as people jostle for position with their cameras.
There are many places to visit in the town regarding art galleries, monasteries and churches.
The Duomo is known to the town's people as the Collegiate Church and was built in 1148. The outside of the building is adorned with frescoes and alabaster trimmings which were created by the Sienese school of art. Inside there are many stone, wooden and plastered statues and frescoes and many pieces of artwork both from Sienese and Florentine backgrounds. It is a beautiful building and worth a visit. It is known as both a temple and a place of art as well as worship. While there I worked out that along the left side of the church all the art work referred to the Old Testament, while the new artwork related to the New Testament. You may find this a strange thing for a non-religious person to work out, but at school I got ninety-four per cent in a Religious Education exam (still a record when I last heard) and I said I was an atheist not an ignoramus.
If you're religious then the Museum of Sacred Art is a must visit. I am an atheist but I still appreciate the history and as an artist there was much for me to take in as well. The building is full of artwork, tablets of stone, frescoes, incredibly old bibles and psalm books and the history can almost be heard singing its way out of the walls. A very peaceful place to visit, so if you're travelling with young children you may want to sellotape their mouths or at least tell them to be quiet.
The church of St Augostino is another holy place that is steeped in history and is full of canvasses displaying art from a number of prestigious artists from the Tuscan region. You can also visit the many other churches in San Gimignano, including St. Bartolo, St. Piero, St. Lorenzo, St Jacobi and the remains of one of the oldest churches St. Francesco. St Augostino is obviously old but the one thing that struck me about it was the wooden roof inside. You look up and you can see the infra-structure of beams intertwining across the roof.
The Archeological museum contains medieval artefacts and items from a time long past. One of the centre pieces is the ancient pharmacy collection of medicinal bottles and vials in both ceramic and glass varieties.
Another benefit of visiting these buildings is the coolness of the walls and an escape from the cloying heat if you are visiting in the summer months. One of the best places to visit for this is the ancient wash houses, which, although not in use anymore still give the impression of being wet and cooling. They are very Roman in their look, with their stone arches looming over the entrance. The wash houses were used by the women to wash their linen and also as a port of call for horses to take a drink and a much needed bath.
As for places to eat, let us say that you would never go hungry in San Gimignano. There are seventeen established restaurants and twenty to thirty cafés and eateries. Some of the local delicacies are delicious and some have an acquired taste. It really is up to the individual, but as you would expect from a small Italian town in the Tuscan hills, the pasta and pizza dishes are wondrous.
Talking of food of a sort, you must try the delicious ice-cream as it comes in any number of exotic flavours and is simply scrumptious. There are a couple of geleteries in San Gimignano and some of them boast awards as champion ice cream makers. Try them and you will believe!
Running from April until October is the 'Degusta Con Noi', which is a wine festival that invites visitors to taste the local wine and of course purchase some if to their liking. This comes in the form of visits, along with a guide, to various wineries and cellars across the town. I would suggest you do this as late as possible, as if you do it early then the afternoon heat may leave you finding the nearest bench for a sit down instead of sight-seeing.
There are many shops in San Gimignano and some of them are unique and quaint. These are mainly found in the little side streets and alleyways, so it is always good to keep track of where you've been. The main town has a lot of souvenir shops, as you would expect, but even some of those sell some good quality items along with the gumph. When we were in San Gimignano there was a trade fair on selling olive oil, saffron, wine, cheeses and a number of organic and biological products. It was a nice experience and the traders are very talkative and helpful.
You can always barter on a price in an Italian shop and I would say you do so. The prices are cheaper than the UK anyway but you can always get something for a price that is cheaper than the price on the label or price tag, so it is well worth doing so.
The accommodation in San Gimignano is quite varied as is the price. I can't speak from experience on any specific hotel or place of stay as I was only visiting and my hotel was in Florence. I can say that the hotels that I did see were all clean looking and looked of a good standard.
So would I recommend San Gimignano? The answer is a resounding yes! Maybe it wouldn't fill up two weeks of a holiday but it is definitely worth a whole day or two to visit if you are in Tuscany. It is a strange little town when you approach it, with its little sky scrapers poking up on the skyline but it is very unique and a lovely little place. I would definitely go back again and intend to one day but for now I will enjoy the memories I have of this gorgeous little Tuscan town.
It had been raining for as long as I could remember and then they forecasted snow and along it came. This got me wondering how long I had to wait for some guaranteed sunshine. I checked my calendar and my Greek holiday in June is nearly 20 weeks away. I decided to look at my photo albums when out fell a rough review I had written and forgotten about in 2006. The review was of a day in San Gimignano during a holiday in Tuscany. I read it to cheer myself up and here it is.
I visited all the major cities during my Tuscan holiday, Florence, Siena, Pisa and Luca. However one of the days I enjoyed most was my visit to San Gimignano (San Gim), Tuscany's historic hill and walled town. Approaching the town but still a few miles away, some of the fourteen remaining towers come into view. Surrounded by sunflowers on both sides of the road, this is a great place to shop for a photo shoot. The views are awesome.
The town is built on the site of an Etruscan settlement along the main road from Rome to the north of Italy. San Gim takes its name from the Bishop of Modeno who died in 387 and was a free commune from the 12th century. The "city of towers" as it is known locally is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Tuscany. Originally there were 76 towers but the remaining 14 give the town a stunning skyline. The towers are without windows and were built to serve both as private fortresses and symbols of their owners' wealth. San Gim lay on the main pilgrim route from northern Europe to Rome. This gave rise to great prosperity when its population was twice what it is today. The plague in 1348 and later the diversion of the pilgrim route led to its economic decline. Since World War II it has made a rapid recovery thanks to tourism and local wine production
Once inside the town, it had a magical atmosphere. Surrounded by three walls and rising on a hill of 324 metres overlooking Val D'Elsa, with its pretty alleyways and interconnecting piazzas, I found the whole place enchanting.
For such a small place, there is a lot to see. The town hall or Palazzo del Popolo is home of the Civic Museum and is accompanied by the town's tallest tower, the Torre Grossal. This is 54 metres in height and if fit enough, I recommend the climb to the top, as the views are spectacular. Also in the town hall is the sala di Dante, a room with frescos by Lippo Memmi. The town hall itself is an impressive building. From here you can buy a ticket for all the places of interest. Unfortunately I can't remember what I paid but I remember that it was reasonable.
The Duomo features frescos of the Old and New Testament by the 14th century Sienese School while the Museum of Sacred Art houses sculptures, corals and sacred vestments from the 14th and 15th centuries. Access to the Etruscan Museum is through here and displays finds from local excavations such as amphoras, urns, coins, medals and bronze from as far back as the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Perhaps the most interesting for me was the Chapel of Santa Fina. Here you can find frescos by Domenico Ghirlandaio who was apprenticed to non other than Michaelangelo. These depict the life of Christ with a tenderness and simplicity.
Running along these historic treasures are some very interesting shops, galleries and jewellers. I'm happy to say that you won't find tacky souvenir shops. Walking through the central piazza leads you to Via San Matteo. Here you will find products carved from the local olive wood. San Gim is famous for its white wine, Veracia from the indigenous grape of the same name. After drinking a few free samples, we bought a box of six bottles to take back to our villa. Biscotti are another speciality of the town and can be bought in bags or individually. They are very similar to Cantucci biscuits, traditionally dipped in Vin Santo wine although I preferred them with coffee. As we were self-catering we bought some of the delicious local cheese, ham and sausages. Bag a bargain too with excellent quality leather goods and some very unusual jewellery.
Time for lunch and with an abundance of cafes and restaurants it was hard to choose where. As we wanted to eat al fresco we decided on a restaurant in Piazza della Cisterna, an interesting place to dine while enjoying a little people watching and admiring the Gucci clad Italians. Fans of Judy Dench and Maggie Smith will have seen this town and indeed this square in the film "Tea with Mussolini" directed by Franco Zefferrelli. Happy again to say that the town doesn't capitalise on this. There are no signs saying "Judy Dench" ate here and such.
A day in San Gimignano was not enough. We have talked about a short break there and have looked at flights to Florence or Pisa although we would have a much longer drive with the latter. Most of the accommodation is outside the town in the peaceful countryside surrounded by sunflowers and pine trees. There are a few small hotels in the centre. These are full of character, low key but first class. I think I would compromise a quiet night's sleep for the buzz of San Gim by night. I would love to dine there of an evening and enjoy a glass of wine or two.
For such a small town, San Gimignano is rich in works of art and places of interest and is great for shops and restaurants. June was an ideal time to visit, the place was buzzing but not overcrowded. We had easy access to the historical sites and had plenty of tables to choose from for lunch. And that medieval feel while shopping was something else. I can't wait to go back!
San Gimignano has been often been referred to as the Manhattan of Tuscany. No, not because the taxi drivers don't know their way around and can hardly speak a word of English, but because of the resemblance of their respective skylines due to the many soaring towers. Personally, on approaching the town, I was reminded more of Cumbernauld (without the grey concrete and the grey weather).
Actually, thinking about it, San Jimmy has more of a fairy-tale-like appearance with its tower-bedecked hilltop setting. Whatever, it's an impressive vista and is visible for a good few miles distant.
Parking isn't much of a problem (not when we visited at least). There are several, inexpensive car parks on the edge of town and a free shuttle bus will whisk you all the way to the centre of town. It's not all that far, but it is pretty steep so a bus enables someone with limited mobility to get right into the heart of things.
Once at the top of the hill and entering one of the town gates, there's no way you'd confuse it with the aforementioned Scottish new town. Apart from the fact that very few gangs of Buckie-fuelled neds block your entrance, SG practically screams 'medieval' from the (very high) rooftops. Although the town in its present form is unmistakenly 13-14th century, its roots date back well over 2000 years when it was an Etruscan settlement. It started to take its present form in the 10th century when it was named after the Bishop of Modena who saved the village from the barbarian hordes...
...speaking of tourists, SG is probably one of Tuscany's, if not Italy's most famous small towns and as such massive numbers of visitors. We were there in early June - in fact it was an Italian holiday, but although it was most definitely crowded, it wasn't overwhelming and there was enough space to move around fairly freely.
Most of the town consists of a long street connecting the north and south gates (or east and west - I was compass-less that day) sprinkled with a few piazzas. As you can imagine, this narrow street is lined with all manner of shops selling all manner of goods. This is the Chianti region, so finding a bottle of plonk to buy isn't the most taxing experience. Local foodstuffs were in plentiful supply too, as were art galleries. Apart from that, there's a large number and variety of 'stuff', most of it good quality and not too tatty at all.
It's a strange place. Being a native of Edinburgh, I'm no stranger to soaring structures and narrow alleys, but the impression the remaining towers of SG give is of scaled-down skyscrapers rather than ricketty old buildings. It's quite disconcerting. I say remaining. There are, I think, some 14 towers still standing from a previous total of over 70. It must have been a sight to behold then.
The towers were constructed because of the fierce rivalry between the Guelph and Ghibelline factions in the town during its prosperous years lying on a pilgrimage route. 1348 and the Black Death soon put paid to that and SG was in terminal decline until tourism came to the rescue. Ironic really, because mass tourism, with the emphasis on 'mass', probably does more harm than good these days. Unless, of course, you're the proprietor of a tourist-related business.
There's not an awful lot to do in the town. Being an authentic medieval town, there's the ubiquitous Torture Museum. There's also The Duomo and The People's Palace which is home to the town council and the Civic Museum. You can also climb the Great Tower from here.
There are a couple of other museums, but the real attraction here are the towers. Don't worry though, you don't have to climb them - they're impressive from ground level too!
Eating and drinking here couldn't be easier. There are numerous bars, cafes and restaurants catering for all tastes and wallets liberally sprinkled around. Fast food and snacks are widely available too.
Visiting San Gimignano can be done quite comfortably in a long morning with a spot of lunch, or a short day with an evening meal (or don't bother eating). I think you'd be hard pushed to spend more than a day or two there although I would imagine it's a pleasant place to stay over and stroll through the atmospheric streets, under the moonlight and free from the hordes.
It's a weird and wonderful little town and no visit to Tuscany would be complete without stopping by this little gem.
Would I visit again?
Funny you should ask.
We stopped there on our way to Sienna. We liked it so much that we stopped for a couple of hours on our way back. However, I don't think I'll go back. After two visits in three days, to tell you the truth, I'm sick and towered of San Gimagnano.
~ ~ As any off you who have read my recent opinions are aware, the ‘mad cabbie’ and family spent this year’s summer holiday in the land of my birth, Scotland. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Scotland, but for a summer break our first choice would still have to be Italy, and more specifically, the Tuscany region, which we visited in both 1999 and 2000. And one of our favourite small towns in this region is the one I’m going to review here, San Gimignano. ~ ~ San Gimignano is a small medieval hill town surrounded by high stone walls not too far from the major Tuscan city of Siena. In Italy, they call it ‘San Gimignano della Belle Torre’. (the beautiful towers). ~ ~ It was immortalised in the old Zefferelli film ‘Tea With Mussolini’, and in olden times there were over 70 towers standing inside its ancient walls, of which only 14 remain today. Only one of the fourteen is still open to the public, the ‘Torre Grossa’, which you can climb at a coast of 5000 Lira. (sounds a fortune but it’s just over a quid) The view from the top will simply take your breath away and is totally stunning, particularly during the summer months, when the fields of the surrounding countryside are a mass of colour, with the yellow of sunflowers( for which the region is famous) dominating the scene. Inside the town there are several small museums, and as always in Italy a number of churches. One museum that’s definitely worth a look is the ‘Museum of Medieval Criminology’ that contains an extensive collection of instruments of torture. (my wee lass loved this one; aren’t kids bloodthirsty!) One of the most notable monuments is the 13th century Palazzo del Popolo that contains the civic museum and a picture gallery. The Collegiata is the former Cathedral, and was consecrated in 1148, and is decorated with numerous frescoes, as is the church of S. Agostino, tha
t has frescoes of the life of Saint Augustine by the artist Benozzo Gozzoli. ~ ~ The little town is simply bursting with people in the summer season, and this makes it a bit touristy. All the main tourist coaches call here, so the best time to visit is either very early morning, or else in the evening, when the buses have departed. A lot of the local traders cater for this tourist trade, with a huge amount of tacky souvenir shops, all selling the same sort of cheap junk that they seem to stock the world over. Search around though, because in the small side streets there are a few wonderful pottery and arts and crafts shops with some real bargains. The art galleries and artists selling their work in the open air near the Rocca (fortress) are also worth a look. If you’re into wine, then this place will appeal to you immensely. Wine shops abound, and are well stocked with the cheap and cheerful Chianti, as well as the local white wine of the region, Vernaccia. One other shop I simply must mention sells leather goods. For the life of me, I can’t remember the name, but it’s at the top of the hill straight up from the main gate. I purchased a cracking Italian leather jacket here, as well as a couple of good quality belts, and my wife bought two exquisite leather handbags, all at a fraction of the prices you would expect to pay in a typical high street store at home. I was also tempted to buy a hand made leather golf bag, but I couldn’t shift the owner far enough from the asking price of just over £1,000! (Imagine what it would cost here) I begged my wife to allow me to stick it on the credit card, but she said she quite fancied eating for the remainder of the holiday. (I would have happily starved myself!) The trick here is to haggle, as you will nearly always manage to strike a far better bargain than the price on the label. ~ ~ Off course, I have to mention the fine restaurants and coffee and wine b
ars. Many offer the local speciality, wild boar sausage, but I think this must be an acquired taste, as it was way too rich and spicy for my liking. I’ll stick to the fine pasta and pizza dishes, and the WONDERFUL Italian ice cream. I don’t know how or why it tastes so different to the stuff we buy at home, but believe me, it does, and there are any number of ‘gelateries’ here in San Gimignano with a selection of ice cream that would tempt a saint. ~ ~ If you ever make it out to the Tuscany region of Italy, then be certain to include this wonderful town on your itinerary. It’s a place of true romance, and one you will remember forever.
San Gimignano is Italy's best preserved Medieval City - full of towers dating from before the 13th century. It really is like stepping into a time machine! Outside the ancient city walls it is pandemonium, with cars and people every where but once you leave your car in one of the many cheap and nearby carparks and walk through the ancient gates, you step back in time. The city is amazing - made up of little narrow winding streets surrounded by ancient medieval buildings. It is full of tourists but you can't blame them as it is such a lovely place. It's also a shopper's paradise with every third shop selling leather goods and the other two shops selling either cakes or wild boar! I am very fond of wild boar so I was in my element. I couldn't believe that they displayed entire legs of smoked boar in the butchers windows complete with hoof and hide! Needless to say I bought quite a bit of wild boar salami that was absolutely gorgeous - a bit richer than pork salami! I'm also extremely fond of Panforte and my eyes almost popped out of my head when I saw the size of the Panforte cakes that they were displaying. Panforte is a rich sticky cake made almost entirely from crystallised fruit and nuts. It's covered with a good sprinkling of icing sugar to give it a sweet kick as if it didn't have enough calories already! There were several varieties on sale and I must admit that I tried a few of them! Apart from shopping what else does this fascinating town have to offer? Well mainly some of the most amazing Medieval buildings that you will ever see. In the centre of the town is the Piazza del Duomo where there is a misleading plain looking Collegiata. Don't be deceived - go inside and you will be amazed at the interior that dates from the 15th century. It has striped vaults and arches decorated with golden stars and large frescoes adorn the walls painted in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The Piazza del Duomo also contains two of the tallest towers in San Gimignano standing at heights of 51 metres and 54 metres. Certainly impressive when you think that they were built in the 13th century. The Museo Civico is also situated here and has a good collection of works by Florentine and Sienese masters. The main highlight of this Medieval city is the city itself. The winding narrow streets offer shade from the sun and the almost complete absence of cars makes a very pleasant change from the hustle and bustle of other Italian cities. Come to San Gimignano to eat wild boar and cake and sample the wine from the local vineyards. Most importantly just wander round and soak up the atmosphere and the wonderful views of the Tuscan countryside.
San Gimignano is a small walled medieval hilltop town in Tuscany, Italy, about a 35-minute drive northwest of Siena or southwest of Florence. It is mainly famous for its medieval architecture, especially its towers, which can be seen several miles outside the town. San Gimignano. The town is also known for the white wine grown in the area, Vernaccia di San Gimignano.