Arguably the most memorable skyline of any city in Italy can’t be claimed by Rome, Milan, Venice or Florence. It belongs to the “Town of Fine Towers,” San Gimignano.
San Gimignano is located approximately halfway between Florence and Siena.
Occupying a prominent hilltop along a major trade and pilgrimage route to Rome, San Gimignano escaped destruction in the 5th Century by Attila the Hun (purportedly thanks to its patron saint and namesake, Saint Germinianus) and prospered through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The town, with narrow, serpentine streets, is a trove of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
San Gimignano is most famous for the fortified towers that arose in the 13th and 14th Centuries as warring families took steps to defend themselves during the long conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. The same thing happened in innumerable Italian towns and cities, and at one time there were 72 towers in San Gimignano. While most of the towers have been destroyed or pulled down, everywhere, 14 of the original towers still stand in San Gimignano, giving the town its distinctive skyline.
There are several days’ worth of architectural and cultural interests to explore inside the small walled enclave, including several museums and churches in addition to the towers. Like destinations everywhere, a visit to San Gimignano bears some research in advance to make certain you don’t walk down one street and miss a worthwhile site one block away.
There are several memorable public spaces, including the centerpiece of the town, the triangular Piazza della Cisterna. In its center is the communal well that give the Piazza its name.
The Collegiate Church of the Assumption of Mary, begun in the 10th Century, faces another square, Piazza del Duomo. Once a cathedral, the church is full of frescoes, including work by Ghirlandaio, Gozzoli and others.
Seeing San Gimignano requires walking, and some of the cobblestone streets are rather steep. Locals are permitted to drive into the town and park their vehicles, but visitors must park outside the walls. There is local transportation, and at least one hotel, La Cisterna, offers a shuttle between the car parks and the hotel. When we visited, many years ago, we were permitted to drive into town, unload our luggage at the hotel entrance in Piazza della Cisterna before parking outside the walls, but that rule may no longer apply.
The town is well worth allowing time to visit at some length. The two long main streets, San Matteo and Giovanni are ready for you, lined with shops and restaurants.
You’ll almost certainly have plenty of company. Even 20 years ago, the town became crowded in mid-day with visitors arriving on tour buses, a situation that certainly hasn’t lessened in the interim. Take a few steps to the left or right, though, and you’ll be exploring the town where life continues in streets that (except for the automobiles) look much as they did in 1200 (although the styles of laundry hanging on lines has probably changed).
If you can, spend a night, and you’ll be able to enjoy the lovely old place after the buses have left in the evening, and before they arrive in the morning.
We stayed at the Hotel la Cisterna, in a structure dating from 1100, and its website indicates it still has its charming character. We ate a memorable dinner there of local dishes, too.
By chance, our room had a balcony with an unforgettable view of the countryside just outside the town.
A few years after our visit, we saw the 1999 film, “Tea With Mussolini,” some of which was filmed in San Gimignano. In one scene, we were startled to see Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright sitting on “our” balcony, enjoying the same view. We were there first, ladies.
If you’re in Tuscany, Florence or Siena, San Gimignano is worth a visit. Say buon giorno for me.
Have you been to San Gimignano recently? What was your experience? Leave a comment.
© Brad Nixon 2016. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2016, used by kind permission.
For parking directions and other local information, CLICK HERE for the official San Gimignano website.
N.B. All photos here are scans of 35mm film prints shot in a day prior to digital cameras, and reflect some loss of color and resolution. The photo of me in the side street shows me holding my trusty Pentax Spotmatic, which traveled with me to three continents, and was even then almost 30 years old.