It was a middle winter evening and I was driving in the sunset, deep in the green heart of Tuscany, looking for a tiny village called San Gimignano. I was almost the only one on the road and I was feeling lonely, so I turned the radio on. Don Hanley started to sing Hotel California right when up ahead in the distance, I saw some shimmering lights, and I had to laugh at the coincidence. I was also glad that my destination was in sight, so I could finally stop for the night.
lights of the small town stood out at the top of the hill like a
crown on the head of the King of Giants, guiding travellers like a
swarm of shooting stars. I still took the wrong turn and ended up
driving inside the city walls. It was forbidden, of course, but it
was an honest mistake, one that happened often enough to tourists who
trusted the GPS too much.
Or so I’ve been told.
I still had that song in my head when a kind guy welcomed me. He’d waited long enough in the cold, right outside San Gimignano’s medieval walls, to lead me to my hotel. He laughed indulgently, though, when he knew why I was late.
This is how my trip began, at the end of a quiet January day, when the fuss of the Christmas holidays had calmed down and there were only a few tourists around.
I’d planned to have dinner and bury myself under a pile of blankets, so I could wake up early in the morning, but the excitement of finally being there again, together with the burst of energy that only fresh air can give me, brushed away any trace of sleep and tiredness.
I went out again, I’d missed that place and I didn’t even know it. The first and only time I was there I was still a little girl who wasn’t even allowed to cross the road without holding her parents’ hand. I remembered only narrow uphill roads and the tall stone towers for which San Gimignano is famous. It’s strange to see how everything seems to shrink when you grow up, it always catches me off guard. The climbs of course were still there, but they didn’t seem so steep any more and the towers were still imposing, but they didn’t seem so high. It was a bitter-sweet feeling that made me vaguely nostalgic, so I did what I usually do when I need to clear my mind and lift my mood: I walked. I went all around the village, simply strolling without a destination, curious to discover the most remote corners and the most unusual views, and planning to leave the main attractions for the following day.
San Gimignano’s night was silent and peaceful, almost mysterious and therefore, perhaps, even more fascinating. The light from the street lamps gave the illusion that the walls of the buildings were made of amber instead of simple stone, and only rarely did I meet other passers-by. We greeted each other with a nod and kept going with our noses buried in our scarves.
I wandered like that until I reached the walk on the walls where, according to the map, there was supposed to be an amazing viewpoint. It was there, obviously, but it just hadn’t occurred to me that nothing would be seen after sunset, except the great ocean of darkness in which I had travelled until a couple of hours before. At least the starry sky of that cloudless night was a sight to behold. I stood looking at it for a long while despite the cold that turned my breath into thick clouds of smoke, in the company of a stray who refused to be petted, but stood there with me the whole time.
I salute you, my surly companion, I hope life is treating you well.
The next day started with a crispy air and a sparkling sun, courtesy of a particularly mild winter. With one cappuccino too many in my stomach I went back more or less the same way of the previous night. Under the daylight San Gimignano looked different, not better or worse, but certainly different. There were more people, of course, and the shops were open, but it was still low season so I was able to enjoy the walk through the narrow streets of the 13th century in perfect tranquillity. Even the shopkeepers were less stressed and more inclined to chat, an occupation, this one, always held in the highest regard in Italy, especially in small towns. I love it, some of the best stories I’ve ever heard came from perfect strangers, and they were probably invented, but that’s never been an issue for me.
Tuscany in particular seems made for this, enjoying the sun which makes the green hills of Chianti shine, and stop from time to time to talk to the locals. All of it without any hurry, as if time were meaningless.
I wasn’t asking for anything better, by the way. I had fled the big city, whose chaos amuses and entertains me most of the time because I needed a break, I needed human contact and in addition I love craftsmanship and I love food. From this point of view, but also from many others, San Gimignano was basically the promised land. One can very well imagine how long it took me to go the short distance from the main gate in the walls to the main square. It was a line-up of pretty, small shops; some of them were the classic tourist traps, I’m sorry to say, but others were true Italian artisan shops, where I filled my eyes with wonder and tasted the thousand flavours of the incomparable Tuscan cuisine.
I’m a big fan of the red wine of Chianti, of the typical cured meats, and of the sweet panforte as well. This time, however, my shopping was of a completely different nature, thus gave my trip a completely different meaning, but I’ll be back on this topic in a while.
There is so much to see in San Gimignano, especially considering how small a village it is. I started with Piazza del Duomo, one of the most important squares, which hosts the Cathedral with its outstanding cycle of frescoes by Ghirlandaio. Right in front of it stood Torre Rognosa, the clock tower and one of the highest in town. Between the two of them there was the Town Hall with the sacred art museum and a large loggia where some not so charming plastic chairs had been made available for those who want to stop for a sandwich, or simply to contemplate the beauty of the place. I preferred to keep on walking, so I headed to Piazza della Cisterna, a bigger square with an octagonal stone well in the middle, and a few Christmas decorations still in place. Those two squares are considered the main attractions of San Gimignano, but in my opinion the intricate network of stone-paved alleys is absolutely not to be missed. They go up and down the hill and eventually lead to another awesome church, Sant’Agostino, famous for the sculptures of Andrea della Robbia, among the other things.
That day I was finally able to enjoy the fantastic panoramic view too. When the air is clear and there’s no fog on the horizon the view extends for miles and miles, along the green velvet hills and the tall cypresses. Most definitely another must see.
As it turned out, my favourite place in San Gimignano, although not far from the centre, was actually outside the walls.
It’s called Fonti Medievali, Mediaeval Fountains, and the previous night I’d completely missed it because the public lighting didn’t reach so far. I stopped at the top of a very dark and very steep road and it almost felt like being on the edge of a precipice, so basically I cowardly turned my tail and went back on the main street. During the day the feeling wasn’t very different, though. I’m telling you, the way down is really steep. Luckily it didn’t snow and the ground wasn’t icy, otherwise it’d have been quite the task to go back up again. Provided that one had managed to get down in one piece.
The Fonti were made of big rectangular stone basins dugged into the side of the hill, almost completely covered with soft moss. They were separated by arches and columns which reflected in the still, clear water. Everything was perfectly proportioned, everything conveyed a sense of balance that wasn’t meant to surprise but to enchant with its grace. In the icy water a few large carps swam, apparently very hungry. In a place like that I wouldn’t have been surprised to spot a few fairies too.
Sadly, that was my last stop, my trip had to continue to Volterra, which wasn’t bad at all and totally worth my time, also thanx to the dear friends I met, but San Gimignano conquered a special place into my heart. I’ve been told that people stay there for half a day, mostly, but in my opinion it deserves so much more. One whole day and a night weren’t enough for me. The art masterpieces just need to be enjoyed regardless of the clock, and it’s nice to stop here and there to take pictures of the umpteenth stone door, or of the tiny balconies, or even of the wrought iron lampposts. I, for once, also had fun daydreaming in front of some amazing abandoned houses. There are things that just can’t be rushed.
I mentioned before one thing that made my trip a little more special, so here it is. When I first came to San Gimignano with my family my mum bought me a small marble owl. In those days, for some reason, marble owls, together with marble eggs, were extremely popular in all the souvenir shops of Tuscany. As it turns out, they still are. Too many things changed since then, but decades later I still have the owl my mum bought me, so now I wanted another one. Why, exactly, I don’t know. In a hurry, just a few minutes before the time scheduled for my check-out, I entered the very fist souvenir shop I came across. So much for not rushing things, I know, but when I left with my acid green, funky little owl, I felt happy, and somehow accomplished.
After all it’s always the little things, right?