Destination - San Gimignano

Medieval, picturesque, fascinating, charming, quaint, skyline… these words come to mind when describing the little Tuscan town of San Gimignano... Rising up on a hill in central Tuscany, some forty kilometres north-west of Siena, San Gimignano, also known as ‘the town of the fair towers’, is a stunning medieval town rich in historical events offering fascinating architecture together with a maze of beautifully entwined cobbled streets that lead to quaint squares hosting several charming cafés.

Among the main attractions of San Gimignano are the high house-towers built around the 12th century, during the wealthiest and most powerful period of its historical timeline. In this period the city boasted over seventy towers, some as high as fifty meters, built by the patrician families that controlled the city as symbols and testimonies of their wealth and power as well as serving as private fortresses. Fourteen of these windowless towers have withstood wars and catastrophies and still stand today, giving the city its unique ‘Manhattan’ skyline feature. It is, in fact, known as the ‘Manhattan of Italy’.

San Gimignano, originally founded as a small village by the Etruscans in the 3rd century BC, became a town in 998 AD adopting its name from the Holy Bishop of Modena, San Geminianus, who was said to have saved the village from Attila’s Huns in the 4th century. The city thrived in wealth in the Middles ages in view of the fact that it was located along the ‘Via Francigena’, an important trading and pilgrim’s route which connected Rome to Canterbury. It became a reference point for many merchants, travellers and those who set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. The town became a free Tuscan municipality in 1199 AD while fighting against the Bishops of Volterra and the surrounding municipalities. However, around 1239 AD the town eventually divided into two factions, one headed by the Guelphs, the other by the Ghibellines. The reason was mainly due to its central position between the two great rivals at the time, Florence and Siena. Florence had taken the Guelph’s side and Siena that of the Ghibelline’s. Despite these turmoils, San Gimignano continued in its economic development. In fact the 12th and 13th centuries turned out to be its period of greatest wealth being notably richer, commissioning several public works. The Ghibellines governed until 1252 AD, the year in which the Guelphs took over, tearing down the city walls, but shortly after the Ghibellines returned to power, rebuilding and enlarging the city walls namely the Montestaffoli, with its two main gates on the ‘Via Francigena’, the San Giovanni and San Matteo. The latter two still stand until today.

An important date in the history of San Gimignano is that of the 8th May 1300, when Dante Alighieri visited the town in his role as Ambassador for Tuscan’s Guelph league. Sadly the town was hit by the Plague, known as the ‘Black Death’ and its population was drastically reduced throwing the city into a political and economic crisis leading to its submission to Florence. However it continued to flourish both artistically and culturally in the centuries that followed. A recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990, San Gimignano has, over the centuries, managed to preserve its medieval architecture and is no doubt Tuscany’s greatest small treasure.

Walking around the tiny village is a must. One can indulge in a feast of medievality. San Gimignano is also known for its tiny shops lining its narrow streets, namely Via San Matteo, which, in contrast with the more commercial Via San Giovanni, sell food and wine, clothes, leatherwear and other typical Tuscan products. Via San Matteo leads to the Piazza del Duomo, where the three most important medieval buildings of the city are located : the Collegiata Cathedral, the old Palace of the Podestà, whose tower is probably the oldest in the city, and the Palace of the Commune.

The Collegiata, built in the 12th century and consecrated in 1148, was once the ‘Duomo’ , but since San Gimignano no longer has a bishop it has reverted to the status of a collegiate church. Its bare façade belies its remarkable interior, which is famous for the extraordinarily magnificent frescos which cover almost all of the inner walls of the church. Romanesque in character, the centre of the church is dominated by a large fresco of St Sebastian by Benozzo Gozzoli, which was commissioned after the plague hit the town in 1464 while frescos on the aisle walls depict stories from the Old Testament including The Creation of Adam and Eve, Noah and his Ark and those of the New Testament including the Annunciation, the nativity, the last Supper.. Two chapels, the Chapel of San Gimignano, and that of St. Fina are located within this church. The latter is dedicated to St. Fina, who was born in San Gimignano in 1238. When only ten years of age she contracted an incurable disease and spent the five years until her death lying on a board to increase her suffering before God. The chapel is adorned with naïve and touching frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio depicting events in the life of the young saint, and a superb alabaster marble altar.

The old Palace of the Podestà, located in front of the Collegiata, was once the seat of the Council. It used to be the residence of the Podestà family. It is one of the oldest buildings in town and has a 51 meter high tower, known as the Torre Rognosa. In 1255 a law was passed that no other tower should be higher than the Rognosa, the only exception being the Torre Grossa, that of the Palace of the Commune, also known as the Palazzo del Popolo (town hall), situated on the left side of the Collegiata. The Palace of the Commune houses the Museo Civico. The Pinacoteca, features a number of paintings from the Florentine and Sienese schools of the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries as well as several other works of art by Niccolò Tegliacci, Taddeo di Bartolo, and Pinturicchio. Several worn but interesting frescoes can be viewed on the walls in various parts of palace including the courtyard. This is open to the public and once there, one can climb up a staircase that leads to the top of the Torre Grossa, certainly worth visiting in order to take in the stunning sweeping views of the town and its surroundings.

Just a few metres away from the Piazza del Duomo is a small hilltop park which houses the remains of the Rocca, or fortress. From here one can get a spectacular view (and photograph) of the town's many towers and surrounding countryside. The Rocca was built in 1353 when the Florentines took complete control of the city, but demolished in 1555 on the orders of Cosimo I. In fact only a tower and fragments of the walls survive.

One cannot miss out on an ice-cream from one of the two gelaterias located in the Piazza della Cisterna, most famously the Gelateria di Piazza. Various newspaper clippings in German, English and Italian, pictures of visiting celebrities posing proudly with their ice-cream as well as letters from all over Europe adorn the walls of the little shop serving over thirty five different flavours and is testimony to his popularity. Its ice-cream has repeatedly won the title of the world's "best ice-cream of the year".

We dined at the Osteria di Sant’ Agostino located within the Piazza that bears the same name. The food was excellent, and certainly good value for money. We had bruschetta and plate of pasta served with a mouth-watering tomato sauce, all washed down with a fresh house wine, of course.

The drive to San Gimignano involves a lot of winding roads but the scenery on the way is that of pure Tuscan beauty. Just make sure that you type in San Gimignano and not San Gemignano if you are using a Navigator. The reason being that there is a location called San Gemignano further up north and if you take the wrong direction you are in for a long trip away from the actual San Gimignano. Cars are not allowed in the town centre, but there are a number of parking spaces just outside the walls of the town. Furthermore there are buses to/from Florence and Siena. Some of these are direct, but some may require a change at Poggibonsi. There are several services everyday, and arrive/depart just in front of Porta San Giovanni in San Gimignano. Being one of the most popular Tuscan towns, it is advisable to visit San Gimignano during the evening hours or off-season in order to avoid parking problems and masses of tour buses arriving from Florence and Siena.

San Gimignano : as good as Tuscany gets !!!