Exploring the small hilltop Italian town of San Gimignano


San Gimignano is renowned for the 72 towers that rise above the hilltop town. — Photos: DAVID BOWDEN

The rolling hills of Tuscany in Italy, dotted with olive groves, orchards, and vineyards, have lured global travellers and artists who have immortalised the compelling scenery on their canvases.

Tuscany’s agricultural lands are punctuated by hilltop fortresses and walled settlements that are a reminder of the power struggles that occurred throughout the Middle Ages and the influence these city-states once exerted.

Of all the Tuscan hilltop towns that I visited, I admired San Gimignano the most as it stood tall because of its unique stone towers, which rise above the cobblestone streets of the walled medieval town.

During medieval times, influential families erected stone towers in San Gimignano as a sign of their power and wealth, but of the 72 original structures, only 14 remain today.

These towers and the feudal atmosphere of the town now attract visitors, with the mid-year summer being especially popular and leading to crowded alleyways within the stone-walled town.

Proving once again that size is important, these symbols of wealth stand up to 50m tall, but apart from their impressive height, they lack architectural brilliance.

The towers and the historic town captured the attention of Unesco, and in 1990, the “Historic Centre of San Gimignano” was gazetted as a World Heritage Site.

During the Middle Ages, San Gimignano’s strategic location in the Elsa Valley ensured it became a powerful regional power and an essential stop for Catholic pilgrims travelling from or to Rome and the Vatican along the Via Francigena.

San Gimignano became independent in 1199, and between the 11th and 13th centuries, the wealthy and influential families in the town erected their fortified tower houses to show how rich and powerful they were.

The town radiates from two main piazzas or squares: Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Cisterna, with a well in the latter, being located in the middle of the open cobblestone expanse.

In the middle of the 14th century, the town became less important due to the plague and famine, which resulted in a dramatic drop in population numbers.

As a result, regional power shifted to the more influential city of Florence to the north, and San Gimignano became somewhat of a backwater until recent decades, when tourists began travelling to the town to admire its unique towers.

One of the things that fascinated me was the interplay of light and shadows cast across the old stone facades and how this presented photographic challenges as the sun moved during the course of the day.

My tip to dedicated photographers is to spend at least two days here in order to capture the best images, bearing in mind that some of these are best taken beyond the town walls.

Apart from its historical background, the town is also a good place to try some delicious local cheese, like this Montepulciano Pecorino cheese.Apart from its historical background, the town is also a good place to try some delicious local cheese, like this Montepulciano Pecorino cheese.

A walking tour

After parking my car outside the town walls, I set off through the main gate of Porta San Giovanni (there are two other gates: Porta San Matteo and Porta S. Jacopo).

The main streets are Via San Matteo and Via San Giovanni, which cross the town from north to south. At the heart of the town are four squares: Piazza del Duomo (on which stands the Collegiate Church), Piazza della Cisterna, Piazza Pecori, and Piazza delle Erbe.

The town also has several masterpieces of Italian art – dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries – located in the cathedral, other religious sanctuaries, and public buildings.

It was impossible to take them all in, but I was very impressed with the elaborate frescoes painted by artist Cenni di Francesco di ser Cenni in the Church of San Lorenzo al Ponte.

These portray evocative details of Il Paradiso (Paradise), the L’Inferno (Hell), and Il Purgatorio (Purgatory). The church, located 100m east of Piazza della Cisterna, is open from 10am to 1pm and 3pm to 6pm, and there is an entry fee.

Another essential venue to visit is the compact San Gimignano Archaeological Museum, which features the Etruscan bronze statue known as Hinthial or Ombra di San Gimignano (Shadow Of San Gimignano).

Dating back some 2,300 years, the 64.5cm-tall figure is exemplary of early Hellenism and is representative of a religious tradition with the phial in his right hand being an offering.

A white pearl

Few people will travel to San Gimignano just to admire its amazing architecture and art, but there are many food and beverage distractions to further justify the journey here.

Tuscany is famous for wines that have been produced here for thousands of years, but most of these are made from red grape varieties such as Sangiovese, which contribute to classic wines such as Chianti, Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino.

However, the much-loved wine of the district is Vernaccia di San Gimignano, known as the “white pearl in a sea of red wine”.

While not overly aromatic, Vernaccia is a crisp white wine that is well balanced between acidity and citrus fruit to ensure it complements regional dishes such as Parmigiana ravioli, vitello tonnato (tuna with veal), and risotto with artichokes, saffron, and mascarpone cheese.

In addition to the wine, some of the regional produce from the Elsa Valley that is used by the chefs of San Gimignano includes olive oil, saffron, cured meats, beef, artichokes, eggplant, and pecorino cheese.

A pre-dinner aperitivo drink in San Gimignano bars like Gustavo Mescita Vini Enoteca or Bar La Cisterne would mostly likely include a chilled glass of Vernaccia and cold cuts of cheese and meats like prosciutto and salami.

Gelato is the other good reason for travelling to the town, as it is home to the ice cream master, Sergio Dondoli, whose Gelateria Dondoli has been awarded the best gelato in the world. This is where you can find unique flavours such as champelmo (pink grapefruit and sparkling wine), crema di Santa Fina (cream with saffron and pine nuts), and Vernaccia sorbet (sorbet made from the famous Vernaccia wine).

Exceptional cultural value

This Unesco site is celebrated for its exceptional cultural value, including its architectural homogeneity and its original u rban layout. Many buildings within the town’s protective double wall provide a valued example of medieval architecture with influences of Florentine, Pisan, and Sienese styles from the 12th to the 14th centuries.

While only 14 of the original tower houses have survived, little has changed over time in San Gimignano. Its narrow streets and alleyways also make the town unique and worthy of heritage protection.


Travel notes

Getting there: There are no direct flights from Malaysia to Italy, which means transitting or stopping over somewhere on the way to Europe. Florence, 56km to the north, is the nearest international airport to San Gimignano, with several European carriers flying into the city. Pisa Airport is another option.

The easiest way to travel to San Gimignano and to explore Tuscany is by car, although it’s possible to travel to San Gimignano on buses or a combination of bus and train (the nearest station is Poggibonsi/San Gimignano).

San Gimignano itself is perfect for exploring on foot.

Where to stay: Hotel Relais La Cappuccina is located a short distance from the walled town of San Gimignano and offers a tranquil countryside setting overlooking vineyards and olive groves. There is an outdoor pool for the warmer months, a spa, a restaurant, and a rooftop bar.

Accommodation within the town walls is mostly in smaller properties with heritage assets. For those who want to be in the thick of it, properties like Le Fonti offer apartment accommodation in a garden setting close to the town centre.

The town can get very crowded in the summer, but many of these tourists will be day visitors who will move elsewhere in the late afternoon.


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