The Tuscan scenery has a spare and minimal beauty. The buildings along the way, though few and far between, are very dramatic. This is where hermit millionaires come to reside and you can spot the wealthy mansions. Elegantly perched on a rolling hill with views to die for. The number of cypress trees lining your driveway gives a good indication of your bank balance. And there are some long driveways between Volterra and San Germignano.
On route, a little detour to look at a distant hillside church. Around the base a small open air coffee shop with locals chatting and kids playing. A real traditional feel about it. As we walk towards the huge wooden church doors they begin to close. We sigh and look at each other. Then a welcoming face peers from behind the door. An old lady beckons us inside. A proud member of the church she shows us around pointing out all the key features, in Italian, of course. The words “non parlare italiano” are ignored. Good job a lot of Italian words are the same as ours with ‘o’ on the end.
Some ten miles along the back road to San Germignano, the walls of prison rear up along a prominent hillside. Prisoners haven’t lived here for 20 years or so, but the evidence of power and constraint with barb wire still circles the jail. Originally, built as a convent in 14th century until converted to a place of punishment in 1787. From a distance it the pale stone build blends neatly with the surrounding wheat and corn fields.
There are two places to park San Germignano. A sosta a few kilometres out of the village at €11 per day with no services. The Santa Chiara campsite is a bit closer for €24 for 24 hours. As we arrived just before mid day, so we choose the campsite, as price wise it works out pretty much the same. We set up our stall, have a bite to eat then shoot in to the village.
San Gimignano sits on top of a hill 334m above sea level. Clearly visible in the distance with its unique and prominent skyline of towers. Today, only 13 of the original 72 towers remain but they certainly give the village its unique look. Every year the UNESCO’s historical centre, attract millions of tourists from all over the world, who come to admire the intact medieval atmosphere preserved by centuries and decay (click to enlarge photo’s).
For us the history of San Gimignano is as interesting as the village, it also helps understand its uniqueness. It is said that two young Roman brothers Muzio and Silvio, set up base here in around 63 AD. The fugitives built two castles Mucchio and Silvia, the last one being the first name of San Gimignano. It stayed as Silvia until around 10th century when the saint saved the village from the barbarians. Since that day the inhabitants of Silvia decided to change the name to San Gimignano, as a sign of gratitude and to ingratiate with the eternal protection of the Saint.
The town flourished in to a major city and it became a magnet for wealthy folk. The well too families built towers as a sign of their wealth and power. Block looking towers shot up all over the city. In 1348, the city declined and it lost its political autonomy. For several centuries the place went to rack and ruins and decay set in. The abandoned city remained unchanged and escaped the influences time. After the plague of 1631, San Gimignano became one of the poorest centres in the Grand Duke of Tuscany, with a population reduced to 3.000 inhabitants. Today the Commune of San Gimignano numbers 8.000 inhabitants.
The first towers rose wide apart in a sort of industrial feel. Towers were used in a different way. Rooms were very narrow, generally 1x2m; there were a few openings, and the walls, about 2m thick, assured cool temperature in summer and hot in winter. In medieval times the tower was the symbol of power, mainly because the building process was not cheap. The ‘home’ occupied just part of the tower. The ground floor consisted of workshops, the first floor of bedrooms, and the higher level of the kitchen.
Entering Piazza del Duomo from Piazza della Cisterna, on the left you can see the Palazzo Comunale, which stands next to the staircase leading to the entrance of the Duomo. Opposite you can see the Palazzo that belonged to the Ghibelline Salvucci family, bitter enemies of the Guelph Ardinghellis, whose houses stood in the adjoining square with the “twin” towers.
The duomo fresco’s are good but not the best in the region, like the literature portrays. Its only a small church in the scheme of things and with an entrance fee of €4 pp, its rather steep. However, the fresco near the exit is rather bazaar. Behind the duomo the fortress ruins offer one of the best views of the village and surrounding countryside. If you are lucky, you will hear a budding actor passionately recite a play or two.
The town has a number of monuments, very well preserved, enticingly rural and with a cobbled street perfect for retail therapy. However, its manically busy with day trippers, so we opted for a triple take with an evening visit followed by another morning visit (tip…avoid cheese shops at midday, pong). Oh, I forgot to mention that the campsite offer free shuttle service to and from the village.
We planned on visiting La Vialla (hetty hymer) but its full for the next week or so. Sigh. Never mind we will have to entertain ourselves instead. Craig trundles off and sets too gathering wood for tonights activities. The days are stifling hot but the evenings are cool, so after sunset a warming camp fire. Followed by toasted marshmallows and a few beers. Perfect ingredients to end a perfect day.