It had been a long day. We had started in Umbria and had visited Cortona and Montepulciano, enjoying these small hill villages, and looking at options for staying the night. But we kept going, driving past Siena because we were not in the mood to navigate our way through a city to find accommodation, and I had set my heart on staying in a hill town. San Gimignano didn’t seem too far on the map, and so on impulse we headed there. Hidden away in the Tuscan countryside in November, we drove through green fields, golden autumn colours, and the ubiquitous dark spruce trees curving up the rolling hills. We rounded a bend, and suddenly there it was. Impossible to miss, and impossible to mistake for any other village in Italy, or the world. Reading about it hadn’t prepared me for its towers. I’d expected one or two small towers, but not this!
We found a car park under the town wall, and walked up into the town, through the wall gates and, so it felt, through time. The streets were narrow and cobbled and wound their way up the hill towards the church and the square. It was late in the season too, and so we easily found a room in a hotel just inside the walls. The next morning, we descended the stairs and said to the proprietors, can we stay another night? We ended up staying four nights, using it as a base for our explorations of western Tuscany. We found it hard to tear ourselves away. After all, this was the view from our room. This is where we sat and read, and looked out as we were resting before or after a busy day of sightseeing. If I could have a flat with this view, I think I could retire there forever.
The towers were constructed from the 11th century, controlling families competing with each other to build more impressive towers to showcase their wealth and power. In all, 72 towers once stood, but only 14 remain. It is possible to climb to the top of the tower (the Torre Grossa) in the Palazzo del Popolo (People’s Palace), and I was looking forward to the views from the top. So we set off, tramping up the old, worn, stone steps eagerly. But then they disappeared, replaced by modern wooden steps, each stair treacherously open like a ladder, and I was hit with my fear of heights and the irrational sense that my feet would rebel and somehow slip through the stairs, pulling my body through (as if it would fit) and plummeting to the stone floor below. So the photographs of the spectacular views from the top are courtesy of my husband, not his embarrassed and disappointed wife, who lives in hope that one day she’ll conquer her fear of heights.
San Gimignano was a great place to stay. At the end of the day, when the tour buses from Siena and Florence had left, the streets were reclaimed by the locals, promenading arm in arm, children running, friends and family meeting and chatting. Even in the chilly November air, there was a sense of peace and happiness on these medieval stone streets. During the day was another matter, as hordes of tourists descended on the town. So that’s when we left to explore Tuscany.
On our first day out, we visited Poggibonsi, a tiny and enchanting walled village just off the motorway from Siena, and a lot of fun to say. We then drove on to the traffic chaos of Siena which shall remain as another S for another run through the alphabet.
Another day we drove south through golden autumn colours, a real treat to New Zealanders who are more accustomed to evergreen forests. We stopped at the San Galgano ruined abbey, now inhabited by many stray cats, before finishing at Montalcino, a medieval stone village perched on a hill surrounded by miles and miles of vines. Montalcino is of course, the home of the famous Brunello wines. We had already realised that we couldn’t afford them on most restaurant wine lists, as they were four times the price of what we had been drinking. So we decided to taste them more affordably by glass in the Enoteca La Fortezza – the wine shop set in the fortress – accompanied by some olives, salami, cheese and bruschetta. Montalcino’s setting and wine still call to me, and I hope one day to return, to explore the region and its wines on a more leisurely timetable.
In November, as a cold snap passed through Europe, we spent our nights eating hearty meals in cosy restaurants, although the wild boar my husband was keen to try was out of season, much to his disgust. We couldn’t linger in the squares or outdoor cafes, and even the gelato stand in the main square was closed, to my disappointment. (It’s never too cold for gelato!) A quiet, warm summer evening in the square with a gelato (or enjoying a local wine) sounds like a very good reason to revisit to San Gimignano.