Perched high atop a hill and completely surrounded by its ancient walls, the small town of San Gimignano is an incredible, well-preserved holdover from the Middle Ages. It is famous throughout the world for the 14 surviving medieval towers that give its skyline the startling appearance of a miniature Manhattan. There were once more than 70 of these, built around the 12th and 13th centuries both as status symbols and for family defence during those violent times. They also served an important function in the drying of the saffron-dyed cloth for which the town was noted.
The Etruscans probably had a settlement on this site, but there are scant references to San Gimignano prior to the Middle Ages. Its location, overlooking fertile farmland and near the old road linking Rome with the north, brought a measure of prosperity until, unable to defend itself, it fell under the rule of Florence in 1353. A backwater ever since, it has remained practically unchanged to this day.
Located seven miles from the nearest rail station or highway, San Gimignano is not quite as easy to reach as most of the other daytrip destinations, but its allure is so extraordinary that a little extra effort is well worthwhile. Its name, by the way, is pronounced Sahn-Gee-meen-YAHN-oh.
Trains, bound for Siena, depart Florence's main station several times a day. Some of these require a change at Empoli. Get off the train at Poggibonsi, about 70 minutes from Florence, and continue by local TRA-IN bus to San Gimignano's Porta San Giovanni stop, a 20-minute ride. Bus tickets are sold at the newsstand in the Poggibonsi station, and cancelled on board. You may have a little wait as there is no coordination of the train and bus schedules. Return service operates until mid-evening, but check the posted schedules in San Gimignano's Piazza del Duomo to be certain.
Buses depart several times a day from the SITA terminal near the west side of Florence's main train station. Some of these go direct to San Gimignano while most require a change at Poggibonsi, as above. Tickets must be purchased before boarding the bus and canceled when on board. Buy a return ticket at the same time. The average run is a bit over one hour, considerably faster than the train/bus combination above. Check the return schedules as above.
By Car, San Gimignano is 55 km (34 miles) southwest of Florence. Take the Superstrada del Palio in the direction of Siena and get off at the Poggibonsi exit.
San Gimignano may be visited at any time, but avoid coming on a Monday between October and March, when some major sights may be closed. Clear weather is essential for the glorious views. The Tourist Office, T: 0577-940-008, is on Piazza del Duomo. You can confirm return schedules here, and exchange money. A combined ticket for nearly all of the town's sights is available, €€. A somewhat useful website is W: sangimignano.com
FOOD AND DRINK:
Being an important tourist attraction, the town has quite a few restaurants and cafés. Some excellent choices are:
Le Terrazze (Piazza della Cisterna 23) A country-inn atmosphere with a view, in the La Cisterna hotel. Reservations advised, T: 0577-940-328. X: Tues., Wed. lunch. €€€
Bel Soggiorno (Via San Giovanni 91, near Porta San Giovanni) A medieval atmosphere with a view of the town. T: 0577-940-375. X: Wed., Jan. €€€
La Mangiatoia (Via Mainardi 5, 3 blocks southwest of St. Augustine Church) A popular trattoria. T: 0577-941-528. X: Mon. from Oct.-June. €€
Pizzeria Perucà (Via Capassi 16, just off Via San Matteo) Pizzas or hearty Tuscan dishes. T: 0577-943-136. X: Thurs. €
A favorite dessert in these parts is Panforte, a dense concoction of nuts, candied fruits, and honey. The local wine is Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a white. If you prefer reds, order Chianti, preferably the Classico variety.
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
Begin your walk at the Porta San Giovanni (1), a magnificent town gate erected in 1262. It is right next to the bus stop and the parking lot. Before entering, take a look at the impressive guard room perched above the gate.
Via San Giovanni is a colorful old street lined with medieval buildings, a taste of things to come. Follow it past the Becci Arch, an opening in the original 11th-century inner walls that leads to the *Piazza della Cisterna (2). Named for the beautiful 13th-century cistern in its center, this delightful square is paved with bricks in a herringbone pattern. It is said that if you walk around the cistern you will surely return to San Gimignano, a very likely prophecy. The famous *towers rise all around you, a legacy of times when height meant safety. Many Italian towns were once graced with these fascinating structures, but most of them were torn down as the cities developed, a progress that happily bypassed sleepy old San Gimignano. Take a look at the Palazzo Tortoli at number 7, an elegant 14th-century house in the Sienese manner.
Just off the piazza, at Via del Castello 1, is a truly horrifying sight celebrating some of the grimmer aspects of the Middle Ages. This is the Museum of Torture (Museo della Tortura), which displays all manner of perverted devices of pain and death used from medieval until fairly recent times. Enter if you dare. Open mid-July to mid-Sept., daily 10 a.m.- midnight; April to mid-July and mid-Sept. to Oct., daily 10-8; Nov.-March, daily 10-6. €€.
Now stroll into the adjacent Piazza del Duomo. The Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta (Collegiata) (3), dominating the west side, is often referred to as the Cathedral (Duomo). Begun in the 13th century, the church has been enlarged and greatly modified over the years. The Romanesque interior is noted for its outstanding frescoes, especially the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (image, left) by Benozzo Gozzoli, a mid-15th-century work on the inside of the entrance hall flanked by two wooden statues of the Annunciation. Above this there is a fine Last Judgement by Taddeo di Bartolo. Covering the length of the right aisle are frescoes depicting scenes from the New Testament, while the left aisle tells stories from the Old Testament. Be sure to visit the Chapel of Saint Fina at the end of the right aisle. Dedicated to San Gimignano's patron saint, it is widely regarded as a high point of Renaissance art. Open April-Oct., Mon.-Sat. 9:30-7:30, Sun. 10-5; Nov. to mid-Jan. and March, Mon.-Sat. 9:30-5, Sun. 1-5. €.
To the left of the church stands the People's Palace (Palazzo del Popolo) (4), which has been the Town Hall since the 13th century. It has the highest tower in town, the *Torre Grossa (Big Tower), which you can climb for a truly enchanting panorama. On the way up stop at the Dante Chamber, where Dante argued the case for a Tuscan alliance in 1300. In the same room there is a vast fresco of the Maestà by Lippo Memmi, painted in 1317. Continue up to the Municipal Museum (Museo Civico) on the second floor, where you will see a fine collection of Sienese and Florentine paintings from the 13th to the 15th centuries.
Now the climb really begins, all 177 feet of it. A medieval ordinance forbade any other structures from reaching this height, and as this is the only tower open to the public, you can put all of your energy into it. The *view from the top is really worth it. Complex open March-Oct., daily 9:30-7:20; Nov.-Feb., daily 10-5:50. €.
Returning to Earth, stroll over to the Museum of Sacred Art (5) in the lovely Piazza Pecori, featuring religious art from the Middle Ages taken from local churches. Open April-Oct., Mon.-Fri. 9:30-7, Sat. 9:30-5, Sun. 12:30-5; Nov.-March, Mon.-Sat. 9:30-4:30, Sun. 12:30-4:30. €.
Now follow the map to the ruined Fortress of La Rocca (6), built by the Florentines in 1353 but later demolished. It is now a public park, the perfect spot for a picnic, and offers the most unforgettable view of San Gimignano's skyline.
Via Diacceto leads, down steps, from the north side of the church to the Porta San Matteo, another main gateway into the town, erected in 1262. Just beyond this is the Church of Saint Augustine (Sant' Agostino) (7), a rather plain 13th-century structure containing some remarkable art. Among the most noted works here are the frescoes in the choir depicting the Life of Saint Augustine, a lively cycle of 15th-century masterpieces by Benozzo Gozzoli. While there, don't miss the lovely cloisters to the left of the church, which closes between noon and 3 p.m.
Nearby, at Via Fologore da San Gimignano 11, stands the new Archaeological Museum (Museo Archeologico), a small collection of local artifacts along with a herb garden and a 16th-century pharmacy, T: 0577-940-348. Open April-Oct., daily 11-6; Nov.-Dec., Sat.-Thurs. 11-6. €.
Return on Via San Matteo to the Piazza della Cisterna, where you can sit down at an outdoor café for some well-earned refreshment before heading back to Florence.
Copyright © 2005 Earl Steinbicker
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