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I didn't dine with Mussolini but I had a wonderful time!
San Gimignano (Italy)
Member Name: Jojoborne
San Gimignano (Italy)
Advantages: Beautiful place to visit.
Disadvantages: Can be crowded in the main calender months
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.
Summary: A cracking little medieval town surrounded by the Tuscan countryside.