Traveling along the rising curves, hills and vineyards of the via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim route, San Gimignano’s towers rise up clearly out of their magical surroundings. The Etruscans were the first to discover that hill that dominates the Val D’Elsa and, after a period of decline, the city flowered again and became independent and famous for a peculiarity that would distinguish forever—its towers!
Those spectacular 12th century structures were symbols of the noble families that built them to show off their wealth, supremacy and to celebrate victories over other families: the higher the tower, the more powerful its owners were considered, while the losers stood by as their towers had their tops irreparably chopped off! So, thanks to a history of power struggles, the city became a sort of medieval Manhattan and became known as “San Gimignano of the fine towers” and, for some years now, enjoys the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site.
During the Middle Ages, there were more than 70 towers but only 14 survive today. With the medieval battles now simply echoes in the wind, today San Gimignano is an elegant little town full of a particular sort of fascination that has always attracted writers and artists.
1. Planning your travel in San Gimignano
San Gimignano is in the Tuscan countryside not too far from the sea and its mild climate benefits from its location. Pretty much any time is a good time to visit but June is when the Middle Ages come back to life. In the middle of June, during the “Ferie delle Messi”, San Gimignano dresses up in flags and banners in a whirlwind of shimmering colors.
The local people celebrate the harvests with songs, dances, games and jousts—fights on horseback among champions armed with wooden clubs. Still today, the horses, the costumes, the public that cheers them on, all make this one of the most exciting events of the year.
2. Arriving in San Gimignano
San Gimignano is centrally located with respect to the main cities of Tuscany: an hour from Florence, a little more than half an hour from Siena and a bit more than an hour from Pisa. So, if you’re staying anywhere near here, you can make it a day trip, maybe together with Volterra that’s about 29 km away.
The fastest and easiest way to get here is by car. Keep in mind that traffic within the city is strictly limited and all the parking structures are outside the city walls, at the base of the hill. If you’re planning a summer trip, particularly in August, don’t be surprised if it’s extremely difficult to find parking, even with all the parking lots around the town!
ARRIVING BY TRAIN
The train station closest to San Gimignano is Poggibonsi; from here you can continue by bus or taxi. Train schedules are available on the official website of the national railroad, www.trenitalia.com
ARRIVING BY BUS
One of the simplest ways to get to the city is to use the bus that connects San Gimignano with Siena and Florence, but don’t forget that in many cases you’re going to have to change buses in Poggibonsi.
ARRIVING BY AIR
The nearest airports are in Pisa and Florence. From there, you can rent a car or take one of the bus lines.
3. Sleeping in San Gimignano
There are innumerable ways to make your visit to San Gimignano a relaxing and art-filled vacation. There are classic Hotels, agritourisms immersed in the countryside where you can try and buy organic produce; rooms for rent, usually rooms inside private apartments, often with shared bathrooms; vacation homes and rental apartments where you’ll get a taste of daily life in an amazingly picturesque locale.
4. Dining in San Gimignano
Whatever the reason for your visit, you can’t leave San Gimignano without trying at least two of its most famous and flavorful products: the first is a prize-winning wine, Vernaccia, one of the most ancient wines in Italy. It’s as old as the city itself and was one of the first to obtain the label “Denomination of Controlled Origin “ (DOC).
It’s been made since medieval times and declined along with San Gimignano until after WWII when it was revived and became famous again. Its name is possibly derived from Vernaculum which means “local” in Latin. How much more typical can you get? Even Dante speaks of it in his Divine Comedy, when he refers to seeing among those being punished for gluttony Pope Martin IV, who couldn’t get enough of Bolsena eels drenched in Vernaccia. One of the most unusual documents that testify to the fame this wine enjoyed is that of Pope Paul III’s bottler who, in 1541, when ordering 80 flasks of the precious wine from the city, complained of the fact that San Gimignano paid far too much attention to art and science and not enough to Vernaccia. Today, it produces about 5 million bottles a year!
The second product that can’t be missed is rare, tasty and...colorful! It’s saffron, the “Zafferano Purissimo di San Gimignano”. Since ancient times it’s been a prized and costly spice, and in the Middle Ages it became fundamental to the city’s economy because of its value and price: it may seem incredible but, in the year 1220, the town paid part of its debts in saffron! But what does saffron have that’s so special? It’s unequaled purity comes from the fact that it has forever been cultivated by absolutely natural methods, with not a trace of chemicals; moreover, the “stimmi”, the red heart of the intense violet saffron flower, are packaged whole to preserve their powerful aroma. Only the original product is allowed to carry the label “Zafferano Purissimo di San Gimignano”. When all the climbing has worked up your appetite, that’s the moment to take a break made up of cheese, cured meats, toast covered with a variety of sauces, all going down smoothly with exceptional wines, and maybe topping it all off with a gelato in one of the city’s famous historic “caffès”.
5. Exploring San Gimignano
San Gimignano, despite the fact that it’s really very small, is chock full of artistic beauty hidden around every corner, secrets waiting to be explored--and all on foot. Protected by 12th century walls, its heart is the intersection of the two main streets between two marvelous squares crowned by towers and tower-houses built to show off the power of the aristocratic merchants and bankers. You cannot miss the Loggia del Battistero, the Museum of Sacred Art and, on the same ticket, the Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta; then there’s the piazza del Duomo, the Palazzo del Podestà and the 51-meter tall Rognosa Tower.
From Palazzo del Popolo that faces onto the Piazza del Duomo, you can reach the city museum. The ticket is valid for all the other museums and gives you the chance to admire frescoes, sinopias (preliminary drawings for frescoes) and royal apartments such as that in which Dante gave a speech in the year 1300 or the one containing surprisingly detailed illustrations of the private lives of a young couple. But the most important part and also the most challenging is the climb up Torre Grossa: 200 stairs between the first and second floors to finally catch your breath and enjoy the view of a forest of towers and rooftops that overlook the countryside.
If your strength hasn’t totally abandoned you, with one final exertion you’ll make it a little north of the center of town to see the Romanic church of Saint Augustine. If you have the possibility of spending sometime outside the city, San Gimignano’s surroundings offer some unexpected surprises: enjoy the peace and quiet of the church of San Vivaldo about 15 km away. It was founded in the middle of a forest by a disciple of Saint Francis. There’s also Sacro Monte, where, in the 16th century, Franciscan brothers created miniatures of all the sacred sites of Jerusalem.
And for gastronomical enthusiasts, there’s the area of Chianti, with its hills and unforgettable wines—it’s not that far away!