A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority.’
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).
San Gimignano is an impossibly beautiful Italian hill town in Tuscany to the South West of Florence and in the district of Siena. It is just over an hour’s drive from the airports at Pisa or Florence, along much quieter roads than you will find at home.
In the summer haze or the early morning mist, the town lords it over the surrounding countryside, being visible from every direction, like the centrepiece on a cake.
Every child would recognise it from fairy tales and every adult from their dreams.
It is that magical.
The rural countryside around the town has rolling hills, studded with vineyards and olive groves in every direction.
Some of the vineyards have open air restaurants, wine tours and tasting.
San Gimignano is completely contained within 13th century city walls and is dominated by stone towers within the city perimeter. The largest of these is the Terra Grossa, a massive stone edifice which dominates the skyline.
I have seen similar towns to this in various parts of Europe, some of which, like Mont St.Michel in France, have been totally ruined by lines of garish shops and stalls selling tourist tat.
There is little evidence of this here. The shops sell genuine local artisan wines, cheese, food and pottery etc. and it is all the better for it.
The Piazza della Cisterna is a triangular paved piazza surrounded by medieval buildings, which acts as the centre of the town. It has restaurants and cafes from which to people watch.
The Duomo di San Gimignano is a 12th century church in the town. The stunning wall frescoes, painted by Ghirlandaio in the Santa Fina Chapel must be seen to appreciate their beauty.
The Italians are famous for ice cream (gelato) and there are a couple of shops selling this product in one of the two main squares. One claims to be ‘the best gelato in the World’, whilst the other has a number of claims to be the winner of the best gelatos in competitions.
Having sampled both, I declared a worthy and honourable draw.
The prices in the cafes, bars and restaurants are still better value than in the UK, despite recent falls in the value of the pound against the Euro.
No one does pizza like the locals.
Sitting in the summer sunshine at outdoor tables whilst we ate helped, of course.
Very few vehicles are allowed inside the city walls, so there are several car parks on the perimeter in order that visitors can enjoy the sights, sounds and tastes on foot, unadulterated by by cars, noise and fumes.
If you wish to take a look at the town without the expense of getting there, the BAFTA award winning film, ‘Tea With Mussolini’, was filmed here and in Florence, for the most part. It stars Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith amongst others.
There are only two or three small hotels in the town. Most people stay on the outskirts in the countryside. A fantastic place to stay is the Relais La Cappucina, about a mile away (see my later review of this hotel).
‘A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority’ ?
Now having been, I can attest to that.