Tuscany’s medieval towns: San Gimignano
Tuscany is known for its medieval hill towns, perched strategically on top of the hills, dominating the valley with open views that enhance their safety. These towns were often surrounded with protective stone walls, some of which survived intact to this day.
San Gimignano, one of the best preserved and popular towns, is situated south west of Florence and a short drive from the coast where we were staying. For the Tuscany portion of our epic adventure we had a car and drove everywhere with our trusted GPS visiting the hill towns and exploring the province.
San Gimignano is a Unesco Heritage Site also known as San Gimignano delle Belle Torri (San Gimignano of the beautiful towers). It is also known as the New York City of the middle ages because of the high medieval “skyscrapers” that still dominate the city’s skyline. The towers were built by wealthy patrician families who tried to outdo each other by the height of the towers over their home. The towers symbolized their wealth, glory and power. From over 70 original towers only about a dozen remain today.
The city is composed of narrow streets and stone buildings surrounded by 13th century walls. There is a 2km path along the walls that one can access from different points and affords beautiful views of the Elsa Valley below. Walking in town through the narrow streets, side alleys and the piazzas, visiting palazzi and cathedrals and viewing art where is was originally created takes you back in time and gives you a sense of what life may have been like in a medieval village.
The town is surrounded by a wall and four gates, the main one being Porta San Giovani on the south end, leading via a cobble stone street to the main square, Piazza della Cisterna. The piazza is named after a well built in its center in the 13th century, still standing today. Looming over the pizza is Torre del Diavolo (the devil’s tower) named so because the owner came back after a long absence, only to find the tower higher than it was when he left it and attributing the magic to the devil.
And now to food. There is nothing like food to take you back to a time and a place so experiencing local food is one way to keep the memories alive long after you return home. For food with a view go to Le Vecchio Mura restaurant and get a table on the terrace with the Tuscan hills and valleys cascading below. Ristorante Bel Soggiorno also offers views with floor to ceiling windows that open onto the valley below. In the center of town try Ristorante la Terazze at the Cisterna Hotel or La Stella on Via San Mateo. Both are large and caters to tourists (the whole town does) but still a good place to stop for home made local dishes.
For a glass of wine you must try the Vernaccia, a local specialty wine made from its namesake grapes grown locally and served at all the enotecas in town. It’s a golden, dry and fruity wine that “kisses and stings” according to Michelangelo. For a leisurely glass of wine and a bite to eat try Enotecca Gustavo Mescita on the main street or Cantina del Convento on Via Quercecchio.
San Gimignano is also famous for its olive oil, scented with artichokes and an underlying spicy palate, so don’t forget to pick up a bottle or two to bring home the San Gimignano flavours.
Cinta sense, a special breed of pig with a white strip wrapped around it is also unique to this region and you see cinta sense on menus all over Italy. The pigs are raised on natural diet foraged in the open fields and forest, a diet that includes a high percentage of acorn. Many cinta sense products are available throughout Italy.
One thing I didn’t know is that San Gimignano is known for saffron farming. Saffron, made from the Crocus Sativus flower, has played a major role in local economy and continues to this days with organic farms cultivating the flowers without any chemical intervention. Farming for saffron is a delicate balance as the flowers bloom only once a year in the fall and harvest must be done early morning before the flowers have opened. The fragile stigma we know as saffron must be immediately dried to be preserved. It takes 125K flowers to produce a single kg of saffron and its price can be more expensive than gold. It is fortune from the saffron trade that built the medieval “highrises” in San Gimignano. Saffron of San Gimignano is known as one of the best in the world and has a DOP designation. Osteria la Catene serves a delicious golden saffron scented soup.
San Gimignano is a touristy town but still a must visit if you are in the area.